The day of the trek to the summit of Sierra Negra…Up early for breakfast and then into the van with Julio and our driver Solitario Pinzon (Lonesome Finch – because he has had 5 wives – Ecuadorian logic!). Eagle (hawk) eyed though, as about a mile into our traverse of the arid lava fields Lonesome Finch spotted a (rare) Galapagos hawk riding on the thermals.

We ascended up through the zones of vegetation, getting more dense and verdant as we moved up into the clouds. Julio told us to look out for a red bird and within minutes Amy S had spotted a Vermillion Flycatcher. An absolutely beautiful small, bright red bird with a black Zorro like mask that is unfortunately getting to be rare in the Galapagos. Julio said that some twitchers (enthusiastic bird watchers) often spend hours trekking through this zone and often fail to see one. Within 2 minutes we saw another, this time with his mate (much less brightly coloured). I find it amazing that in most bird species it is the male that invests so much in personal decoration, whereas in humans…

We arrived at the end of the road and it was time to walk. We checked our packs for the 1.5 litres of water that we would sweat off and set off. The volcanic rock, though very fertile forms a very fine dusty soil when subjected to the forces of erosion by human feet and horses’ hooves. We were soon covered with a fine layer of brown dust that also stuck to the inside of our throats.

Fairly soon we were out of the cloud layer and the temperature began to rise. Within an hour we reached the rim of the caldera (the second largest on the planet – 10km diameter). It was like a lunar landscape – the flat top within the crater was formed when the molten lava solidified. It was impossible not to imagine what it must have looked like when it was molten and bubbling away during the last eruption. The crust was about 100m below us with very little vegetation yet growing on it.

After trekking another kilometre or so we stopped at a viewing point where the cliff was particularly vertical and were lucky enough to see a pair of Galapagos Hawks circling on the thermals above the crust, but below us. One of the pair came in to land about 15m beyond us and a little bit lower – with its head just visible.

We then saw that a pair of juveniles were circling on the thermals below us. They were incredibly difficult to film and photograph due to the heat haze and their feathers matching the colours of the lava beneath them. We managed a few shots and a precious few seconds of video footage as they flew into what must have been their nest site near us. I am looking forward to playing the footage back in slow motion to really appreciate these magnificent raptors (now slowed down at the end of the video below). It was a great sign to see that they had successfully bred this season. Julio said that it was the first time that he had seen juvenile hawks in the wild.

We saw many plants such as the endemic Darwin’s Daisy, as well as the invasive Guava that is proving a problem, pushing out native species, despite being a favourite food of the tortoises.

Darwin's Daisy

Darwin's Daisy

Guava fruit

Guava fruit

We moved further round the caldera and then dropped down to visit Volcan Chico – a “parasitic” volcano formed from a later, minor eruption of Sierra Negra – the crust formed within the caldera was too thick for the molten lava to penetrate so secondary, or parasitic craters formed on the slopes of Sierra Negra. The lava flows were immense and stretched from the summit to the ocean in the distance. Julio suggested we sit for 5 minutes in silence to contemplate our surroundings and life in general. It was wonderful looking out on a landscape and seeing no evidence of human habitation as far as the eye could see – food for thought.

A long, hot and dusty trek back, with lunch underneath a tree surrounded by very tame finches, one of which perched on my elbow for an instant. We were very glad to see Lonesome Pinzon and his van to take us to a shower and evening meal. Just time before dinner and sunset to film some of the flamingoes we had seen yesterday:

The only bird that articulates its upper beak, rather than the lower one, to comb out the tiny invertebrates that they feed on and also gain their wonderful colour from.

Another wonderful day in the Galapagos Islands, another early night due to exhaustion!