Saturday, May 29, 2010

Finally!: Española

April 17, 2010

After our orientation, which took place the previous night, I had some trepidation where Española was concerned. Yes, it was the single most important island to me since it offered the Waved Albatross on its breeding territory. But we were told it was also one of the most difficult islands to traverse, often involving our hiking over very uneven surfaces, including boulders.

My Mickey Mouse Club friend Joan was also a bit concerned. In the end, we convinced each other we should go, though I think I was convinced without her encouragement. How could I not go to the one island that had drawn me there in the first place?

I also knew the Waved Albatrosses had definitely arrived for their breeding season. I saw a couple in the distance flying over the island while we breakfasted.

A bit of background:
Española, at approximately 3.4 million years old is, supposedly, the oldest of the existing Galapagos Islands. There were other, older islands, that have eroded and disappeared over time. When speaking of Española, Kricher uses the term “magnificent” in conjunction with “generally dry and hot”. Better truth was never spoken.

As we were preparing to board the pangas we discovered a couple of pelicans had the same idea. But they were easily convinced to cede the space by our driver.


The panga dropped us off by some manmade concrete steps which were a bit wet and slippery, but afforded an easy entrance to Española. Our dry landing belied what was to come.

Our welcoming committee included young, cryptically colored Sally Lightfoot Crabs, Galapagos Sea Lions on the steps and nearby rocks, and our first Hood Mockingbird, perched on the lighthouse at the top of the landing.

We also came across another new subspecies, Española’s particular group of Marine Iguanas nicknamed “Christmas Iguanas”, for their red and green coloration which becomes more intense during the months of December and January.


Obviously, the one in this photo is not on the lighthouse. But it seemed like a good place to insert it.


From the start the paths were rough going. At first it was an even slope. But it was filled with rocks and boulders. You had to pay close attention where you were stepping or you could easily trip and/or turn an ankle.


You also had to keep an eye out for the wildlife. In fact, many of the holes by the rocks on the trail were active Marine Iguana nests. If you look carefully, you can see the tail of the iguana in the photo below.


The Lava Lizards on Española are very different from the ones we had seen on the other islands we visited. Once again, adaptive radiation was evident.



The large numbers of Galapagos Doves were also different, seeming much richer in color than ones we had seen previously. When we questioned Ivan about it he explained breeding seasons are different on each island and the Doves on Española were in breeding plumage while, on the other islands, the doves were not.

This next photo does, indeed, have a Galapagos Dove in it. But I also love the unexpected juxtaposition with the Galapagos Sea Lion. It’s a perfect example of what the Galapagos are like – continuous unexpected moments like this one.


Fortunately (or unfortunately for our group, since Avie and I moved more slowly while trying to identify them) there were large numbers of finches as well. We had Large Ground Finches and Small Ground Finches. But we were on the lookout for the Large Cactus Finch, a specialty of this particular island.

We started to ascend and found ourselve surrounded by rocks and the ocean off to our right. We also found ourselves surrounded by a huge population of Nazca Boobies preening, displaying, nesting, and raising chicks of varying ages. The proximity of this number of birds was astounding. We had been close to birds before – but not a single species colony, and certainly not one this large.


In spite of the heat, there were even some Boobies sunning. My assumption is it wasn’t as much to warm up as to bake out the parasites.


And, for good measure, here’s a pair preening:


So, one wonders, with colonies this large and the pairs in such close proximity, how do birds recognize their nests? Ivan told us they make guano (bird poop for those who don’t know) patterns around their nest which they recognize from the air.

It was shortly after this a Nazca Booby mistook me for its nesting site. I now possess what might be the best souvenir from the Galapagos Islands: a Nazca Booby guano stain on my favorite birding shirt.


As we climbed away from the Nazca Booby breeding site, a young booby chick had commandeered the steps. As we each passed it gave a sharp peck at our ankles, letting us know this was his or her territory and we were not welcome.


At the top we came to an open field with easy trails. I realized we had also come upon the nesting grounds for the Waved Albatross, the key species on this island. We had also come upon luck, since the males had arrived during the past week. According to Ivan they had not been there on his last visit.

Are they as magnificent as I expected? A resounding “yes” would have to be my answer. Their coloration is stunning and their size imposing. Because of their proximity, we were even able to see their namesake markings, small grey and white wave patterns made by the feathers on their lower necks and upper chests.


Unfortunately, the females had not yet arrived. But the islands had been so cooperative we were unable to feel cheated by this single omission.

Why have the Waved Albatrosses chosen Española over any of the other islands in the Galapagos for their breeding grounds? It’s because of their awkwardness on land. As magnificent a flyer as it is, and in spite of its ability to “take off” from the water, the Waved Albatross cannot run and, therefore, cannot become airborne from the ground.

Española has a large open field (prime nesting and walking terrain) by an open cliff. The albatrosses are able to walk over the field, to the cliff, and jump off. Then, by spreading their wings, they can continue in the air, where they belong. Ivan referred to this cliff as the “Albatross Airport”.


We watched the birds “take off” and “land” for a while. We also watched one bird walking (well, more like “waddling”) to the edge. The awkwardness of its gait demoted this otherwise elegant bird to the status of clown, until it began to fly. They are magnificent flyers. Avie was able to capture the humor in the walk with this photo. During its walk on land, the bird has an exaggerated sway from side to side:


There were also large, distant rafts of the albatrosses on the water. We tried to imagine such numbers in these fields and realized we were just seeing the very beginnings of their season on land.

As we walked on we came to Española’s famous “blowhole”, a great stopping point for a short rest.


The island also had a colony of breeding Blue-footed Boobies. At one point I came across a lone Blue-footed Booby and tried to communicate by dancing, which we had seen earlier in our trip and during this particular walk. S/he didn’t seem enthralled my my effort.


As we continued our walk the heat continued to intensify. With our water dwindling and no shade anywhere, we started looking more for the end of the trail and our panga and much less at the finches around us. But we had seen the Waved Albatrosses and had no regrets about exiting Española.

In fact, I think I’ll throw in a couple of extra photos for good measure. Here’s one sunning, much the same way as a Frigatebird in an earlier post and the Nazca Booby earlier in this one.


And here’s a photo of the Albatross’s wonderful face:


Did we see the Large Cactus Ground Finch? We think so. But we didn’t get a photo of it on Española. In fact, we think we got at least 10 of the 13 species over the week we spent traveling the islands. But I’ll be discussing that in a future “Ponderances” post, along with videos that we took. But, for now, I diverge…….

We boarded our panga and rode back to the Flamingo I. There was an afternoon trip to the beach on Española, but the long walk had opened my blister and I didn’t want to get sand in it (I’m such a wuss!).

Avie decided to stay with me on board the yacht so the Mickey Mouse Club lived on.

Our time on deck was bittersweet. We knew we’d be packing up for our departure from the yacht in the morning.


Friday, May 21, 2010

P.M. on North Seymour

April 15, 2010 p.m.

North Seymour was a dry landing and a short climb up rock/concrete steps. There are two parts to the trail here. Some parts are flat but rocky and others are sandy.

Our first “new species” encounter was with a Land Iguana. These cousins of the Marine Iguanas have wonderful yellow coloring. The one we saw had made itself quite comfortable on a rock, where it appeared to be warming itself up in the sun.


Land Iguanas feed on Opuntia cactus. As a result of this relationship, the Opuntia on North Seymour have developed sharper, harder spines than the ones we had seen on San Cristobal, where far fewer creatures insist on eating them.

Our trail was full of courtship and breeding activity in all its stages. Both Great and Magnificent Frigatebirds were displaying, incubating eggs, or tending to young. There were also large numbers of Blue-footed Boobies doing the same.



Yep, that’s a very young chick under Mama with another nest just behind.

Among all the new life, we were still reminded of how harsh conditions on these islands can be. While hiking we came across the carcass of a dead Booby. Ivan (one of our naturalists) thought the body had been there about three months.

Amazingly, it had hardly decomposed. The Galapagos lack most scavengers as well as the bacteria that aid in the process. As a result, bodies are slow to break down. I guess the measures that are taken on the plane and at the airport to prevent contamination has been working, in spite of the numbers that come to visit the Galapagos every year.


This was also the first island where we saw any snakes. In fact, we saw about four of them, all of the same species. They are Western Galapagos Racers, slim reddish-brown creatures with a greenish tail. They’re related to our familiar Garter Snakes and the mainstay of their diet are the small Lava Lizards on the islands.


On our way back to the pangas, there were quite a few mother/child pairs of Galapagos Sea Lions, several actively nursing. We passed so close you could actually hear the suckling sounds.


One of the young (but not as young as the one in the photo above) Sea Lions decided to play with Grant, the 15 year-old in our group. It chased him; Grant ran from it; it stopped and looked a few seconds; then the sequence repeated. The “game” went on about 5 minutes before we had gone enough of a distance the young Sea Lion gave up.

North Seymour was also the first island where we saw Blue-footed Boobies “dancing”. We stopped for a while and watched while two males competed for a female’s attention. She attended to one, then the other, finally flying off without choosing either of them.

I’ll post a great video of the “dance” from Espanola – something for y’all to look forward to. But, for now, I’ll just post a photo of what I think is one nice looking Blue-footed Booby.


Though I’m not sure why it’s illustrating the expression, “open mouth, insert foot”.

The list of birds (in no particular order):

Magificent Frigatebird

Great Frigatebird

Blue-footed Booby

American Oystercatcher


Galapagos Dove

Small Ground Finch

Avie Climbs Bartolome

April 15, 2010 a.m.

I decided to remain in the “Mickey Mouse Club” (reading and birding on the upper deck of the yacht) while Avie took the panga out to climb the approximately 360 steps to the top of Barltolome Island. So, I will leave this posting to him.

We had a dry landing, followed by (actually) 370 steps interspersed with long, comfortable and gently sloped new wood walkways.


The main attraction of this trip was the ability to explore this volcano along the walk, with primary vegetation dotting the sides of the mountain – small twelve inch wide plants, Tiquilia being predominant and Chamaesyce less evident. We also saw scattered Lava Cacti.


The volcanic landscape offered up many different colors of lava rock, ash, and silica deposits. We also saw plenty of lava tubes as well as secondary eruptive cones (tuff cones).


I only had one quick look at a single finch, most likely a Small Ground Finch. I also noted a few lizards.
At the top we had spectacular views including a sunken crater, another reminder we were on a volcano, and a landmark called Pinnacle Rock, where we were to take the pangas for some snorkeling when we reached the bottom.


Ok – this is April again. I’m back because I DID take the panga out to join them on the beach by Pinnacle Rock. In spite of all the lava and rock around the Galapagos, when there’s a beach it’s a wonderful stretch of brown or black sand and, at least in April, wonderfully refreshing water after the heat of the hike.

But I get ahead of myself. While I was on the upper deck of the yacht, I was entertained by a flock of Band-rumped Storm Petrels “dancing” on the surface of the water. When I describe it as dancing, that’s really what it looks like.

They fly low over the water and dip their toes through the surface, creating the impression to the fish below that there are insects (or some other such small prey) on the surface. It seemed to be a successful behavior since I saw them catching and eating whatever they drew up to the surface.

I also spent some time chatting with Captain Victor, an extremely approachable and amiable man who, in spite of looking quite young, had spent 18 years in the Merchant Marine before joining Ecoventura.

The landing by Pinnacle Rock’s beach was a wet landing. I came without shoes and without binoculars so, in spite of seeing a few darting finches, was unable to identify any of them.

At first Avie and I just went into the water. Then we got a bit more adventurous and put on our snorkeling gear. We didn’t see much different than our previous ventures with one exception. We saw two Black-tipped Sharks.


I’ve adjusted the contrast on this next photo of one of them for a better look:


And, by the way, if anyone can identify this fish, I’d greatly appreciate it:


There would have been more to see had we ventured further out and more along the rocks. But, what can I say? We’re a bit cowardly in the tide against the rocks department.

We brought Off in case there were any biting flies, but encountered nothing like the beach on our first day.

The bird list (in no particular order):
Finch (sp?)
Lava Heron
Brown Pelican
Band-rumped Storm Petrel
Galapagos Shearwater
Frigatebird (sp?)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Taking a Break at Sombrero Chino

April 14, 2010, p.m.

The afternoon options gave us a choice between deep sea snorkeling by Sombrero Chino (Chinese Hat) or “glass bottom” kayaking around the same area (though the glass was really acrylic). Avi and I opted for a third option: staying on board the yacht and birding/relaxing on the upper deck. Another passenger, Joan, thought that was a fine idea and joined us.

Our time was divided among watching sea birds, checking out the nearby lava field that was only about 100 years old, and doing some reading.

Of most photographic interest, the lava field was extensive and impressive. Looking at it helped you picture how hot magma must have hit the ocean, congealed, and then hardened. Behind the field were Candelabra Cacti, a reminder that life can prosper under the harshest conditions.


Once people returned to the yacht from their activities, the usual afternoon cocktail hour began, with people having drinks on the upper deck. This particular afternoon we had several Frigatebirds following the yacht, even landing on it. Avi and I began to ponder why this might be.

Our most reasonable conclusion was fishing boats must throw them scraps. They’ve probably learned boats of a certain size are their friend and come by for easy handouts whenever they can. Unfortunately for them, no scraps were forthcoming from this crew.

The range in maturity among the birds that visited our yacht that afternoon gave us a great opportunity to study the development of the pouch the males use to woo their ladies, since we had an immature male, a young male, and a mature one.




During cocktails, we were promised a possible surprise during our early evening sailing to the next island. We were fortunate – our “surprise” was exactly where it was supposed to be.

It was a group of Greater Flamingos swimming in a caldera (extinct crater). We pulled up as close as we , could to the island so we could get a decent view of them. Interestingly, they were swimming in the water. We had never seen Flamingos swim and they seemed more graceful without their long gawky legs in view.


The crew was watching large fish in the ocean coming to the surface with their enormous mouths open to catch food. The fishes’ English name is Milkfish. For the duration of our time in that spot our attention was well-divided between the Flamingos and the Milkfish.

During our early evening sail, we decided to take a photo of all of us. Unfortunately, Ivan had to act as photographer, so is absent from our photograph.


Then we stayed up on deck and watched yet another beautiful sunset by the equator.


We went downstairs for our evening orientation about the following day, then dinner, then……

We were treated to some evening entertainment by the crew. They performed a few songs with “I-lo” (Ivan) as emcee and star performer. The evening concluded with everyone dancing in the dining area’s aisle.

One thing I love about Ecoventura: the crew is small enough that they are included during social evenings. We not only hobnobbed with the Captain, but with the panga drivers, the kitchen/cleaning crew, and the engineers as well.

The bird list for April 14 (in no particular order):

Small Ground Finch

Medium Ground Finch

Woodpecker Finch

Galapagos Mockingbird

Ruddy Turnstone

Wandering Tattler

American Oystercatcher

Blue-footed Booby

Galapagos Shearwater

Band-rumped Storm Petrel

Brown Pelican

Frigatebird (sp?)

Swallow-tailed Gull

Brown Noddy

Lava Heron

Great Blue Heron

Greater Flamingo

Semipalmated Plover

Galapagos Dove

Galapagos Flycatcher

Smooth-billed Ani

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Full Morning at Puerto Egas, Santiago

April 14, 2010 A.M.
This morning was a “wet” morning, meaning we put on our swimsuits, our wet landing shoes, grabbed our snorkeling gear (everyone chose fins and masks/snorkels at the beginning of the trip and had their own, numbered mesh bag on the middle deck), and rode the pangas out to Puerto Egas on Santiago Island.

After landing, consisting of swinging your legs around to the outside of the panga and jumping into shallow water, we walked up a volcanic beach and then along intricate lava formations following the shoreline.


Our first wildlife encounter involved watching a Galapagos Sea Lion eating a large fish while a Pelican stole pieces of it. Then a Frigatebird would harass the Pelican, trying to steal the stolen bounty.
Santiago gave me my first encounter with the important, but confounding Darwin’s Finches. As excellent as Fitter, Fitter and Hosking’s guide Wildlife of Galapagos is, I think one needs something much more detailed when trying to differentiate these closely related species. I have yet to find it.

Fatima would help us, though I don’t think she was an expert in the field. Our naturalists, though excellent generalists full of information, admitted the Finches were difficult, even for them. Nevertheless, we worked out most of them as Medium Ground Finches (even though they were in trees) with one, though possibly more, Small Ground Finch.

The Finches were a lot more skittish than I had expected so, even though we were able to see them well through binoculars, we weren’t able to approach them the way we’d been approaching birds such as the Galapagos Hawk.

This was another opportunity to see Lava Herons and appreciate how they’ve developed incredible cryptic coloration on their way to becoming a full-fledged endemic species. The Islands have both Lava and Striated Herons. If you are lucky enough to see both you can begin to appreciate the concept of adaptive radiation.


Some of the lava formations during this walk were spectacular, as was the trail.

P1080588 P1080606
P1080612 P1080614

To see more (and there is much more), visit our online Galapagos photo album.

After finishing the trail we were given time to snorkel. As usual, Avie and I simply walked along the shallows near rocks with our camera in its underwater case. We didn’t see the variety of life others saw, though we wouldn’t have anyway since we can’t see without our glasses, we got a few good photos.

This is a Bulleseye Puffer:


And this is a species of Hogfish, note the shovel-shaped nose:


After an extremely full morning we rode the pangas back to the Flamingo I, more than ready for lunch. Upon arriving I realized my newish water shoes, which had been great on dry land, had given me a few blisters. Unfortunately, these would be there for the rest of the trip. So always be sure to bring your first aid kit along!