The Galapagos Short-eared Owl is endemic to the archipelago, and is considered a subspecies of the short-eared owl which can be found in all continents. On Genovesa Island, this iconic species has developed a unique hunting behavior: they are diurnal hunters that feed mainly from the big colony of storm petrels that inhabit this island.
Genovesa Island is one of the most remote islands, located in the northern part of the archipelago. This place is well-known for the amazing variety of different seabirds that nest on it. Some species that frequent the island for nesting are the red-footed and Nazca booby, great and magnificent frigatebirds, tropicbirds, swallow-tailed gulls, storm petrels and Galapagos short-eared owls. Even though Genovesa Island is the best place to find the Galapagos short-eared owl, spotting it can be a real challenge. With their dark brown coloration (almost identical to the surrounding lava fields), it takes the combined effort and eyes of the whole excursion group to find this amazing animal. During this trip in particular, our entire group of guests from our ship became a team in search of this elusive owl and constantly communicated with one another in case we spotted one.
It is not clear how many Galapagos short-eared owls live on the island of Genovesa, given the last survey of their population size was made back in 1980. It is believed that their population has remained in healthy numbers since then because of the large availability of food. The most interesting aspect about the Galapagos short-eared owl, however? They’ve learned how to feed on storm petrels, which are abundant in the lava fields over on the northern part of the island.
As soon as we entered the owls’ territory, we all focused on just one thing: finding an owl. This task can be difficult, especially because the owl evolved in this area to have a great camouflage and blend in with the surrounding environment. It took around 20 minutes until the first guide informed the other groups that he had spotted our first owl. The owl was far away, so it was really hard to spot for some of our guests. After a few moments, someone else said they had found another one that was actually closer this time, setting behind the nesting territory that belonged to the Nazca boobies nesting territory. It wasn’t long before 3 other guests spotted owls themselves. In total, we were able to see at least 5 different owls that morning.
Most of the owls we found were hanging out in the open lava fields, just standing and watching the entire area while studying every detail. They do this because they have adapted their hunting behavior to feed on storm petrels, which are faster and more agile birds, particularly during flight. The Galapagos short-eared owl has excellent vision, which they use to examine the entire area while trying to locate where the petrels are nesting (typically inside tunnels of lava rock). After the owl spots a petrel entering their tunnel, they will get closer and wait for the bird to come out of their hiding spot, where it will then be surprised by a set of sharp claws. These they use to attack the neck of the petrels, killing them almost instantly. The Galapagos short-eared owls are excellent hunters that have learned this more efficient technique only in this island.
Genovesa Island can be visited on our Northern Islands itinerary for the Santa Cruz II Galapagos cruise.