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.


1 comment:

  1. You're making me jealous with all these beautiful pictures! Rarrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. So lucky :)