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February 2, 2014

Galapagos – Frigates, land iguanas, swallow tailed gulls and penguins

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Beautiful St Batholome

So in the last few days in the Galapagos we were to visit some of the smaller islands and remote habitats. The chance to see land iguanas (as opposed to a lot of marine iguanas we had seen), frigate birds with their amazing red sacs, and the amazing little blue penguins. Combined with the beautiful vistas of islands like St Bartolome which rose up front he volcanic activity millions of years ago.

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Frigate males showing off..

Along with the giant tortoises the frigate birds are probably the next most photographed animal in the Galapagos. There are five species in the world and 2 of those are exclusive to the Galapagos – the great and the magnificent. Yes, what amazingly descriptive name. These birds truly live up to their names. We landed on South Seymour and walked around the island, looking at the young frigate chicks, determining which were magnificent and which were great. You can tell by their feathers on the back of their head.

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If they are slightly green the frigate is great. That is the only way of telling.
We also observed the behaviour of the male trying to attract the female.
It is this behaviour that they are famous for…During the courtship display, the male forces air into the red sac, causing it to inflate over a period of 20 – 30 minutes into a startling red balloon. As males tend to display in groups, the effect is magnified.

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Then the males sit quietly in the low shrubs watching for a female to fly overhead. The males also waggle their heads from side to side, shake their wings and call. If the display is attractive enough, then the female will land and sit beside her new suitor.

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The land iguana and colourful sesuvium

From there we visited South Plazas island where we would see our first land iguanas in the wild. These were fascinating creatures and so was the habitat on the island. Nothing but cacti and sesuvium, a red carpet plant that looks very colourful next to the yellow land iguanas. Now these land iguanas lives are very simple.

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Land iguanas…sitting…watching…waiting

They sit under the cactus plant waiting…and waiting and waiting… until either a yellow flower or a leaf falls from the plant. Then the fun starts. Iguanas come in from all directions to either grab or wrestle with another iguana for the prize. Something they may have been waiting a whole day for. It is a remarkable existence.

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Iguana WWF smackdown….

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And to the winner goes the spoils and contentment..

The big bad ass iguanas stake claim to their own cactus and then fight others for the right to hang out under them.
We saw several fighting for them while we were there.

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Flowers are much more easier…apparently

Bright yellow colour, regal crowns running along their necks and heads…these iguanas are far more impressive then their marine iguana cousins..

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Their less impressive marine cousins

We also saw shearing birds, flying at ridiculous speeds and swallow tailed gulls. Very defined red circles around their eyes and they also fish at night, something unique to the galapagos.

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Shearings..

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Swallow tailed gulls

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And their chick..

Then there was the species that started it all off, the Galapagos finches. They were one of the key species Darwin studied when he visited the Galapagos and have been the guiding species of how animals and plants can evolve to their environment. Fifteen finches have been identified here and in one case a couple called Rosemary and Peter Grant have studied them for over 40 years (yes 40 years!!). They have come to these islands for 6 months every year…true dedication..

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Galapagos Cactus Finch

We also saw Galapagos penguins, oyster catchers and many other animals in our last few days as well as the most amazing views from on top of St Batholome Island. Having the penguins swim around you was a rare treat.

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One of the Little Blue Penguins

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Oystercatchers..

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Pelican

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Sally Lightfoot Crab..

At one point I had a seal lion, penguin, black tip shark and an eagle ray all swimming within 10 metres of me…of course they wouldn’t line up for a photo but something I will remember till my dying day…

A truly unique and remarkable place…

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Ad finally St Bartholome with some of our fellow travellers…

January 31, 2014

Galapagos – giant tortoises, the iconic symbol of the islands

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One of the highlights of any trip to the Galapagos Islands is to see the giant tortoises. Along with the famous frigate birds they are probably the most photographed animals in the islands. We anchored at Santa Cruz island to visit the giant tortoise center both in the highlands and at the Darwin center where they are breeding large numbers of tortoises to reintroduce to the islands. The exact number of subspecies of the giant tortoise that have existed is still under debate among scientists, but some recognise up to 15. Only ten subspecies now exist in the wild, interestingly there are different subspecies on different islands. Another amazing fact about the evolution and diversity of the Galapagos and how species can vary just from island to island that are less than 50 miles away from each other.. An eleventh subspecies, from Pinta Island, is now considered extinct and was represented by a single living specimen, named Lonesome George, until his death on 24 June 2012.

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There was some controversy about the way he died as many people think he was neglected and his illness should have been discovered before his condition worsened.

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Anyway enough of the politics. The highlands center we visited was amazing. We were expecting to see tortoises but not very close up. We basically arrived at the visitors center and then set out on a walk with the guides. About 2 minutes later there was the first giant tortoise, about 70 to 80 years old with an enormous shell just tramping through the grass. He proceeded to get very irate at 20 or so tourists standing by him trying to get a picture. He kept hissing and ducking his head back into his shell.

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Then would set off again through the grass and try and make a run for it. The rest of the walk was as rewarding as seeing the first tortoise. We saw at least a dozen more tortoises including three that were having a spa day in a mud pool. They looked so relaxed and prehistoric just resting there watching all the strange tourists gawping at them.

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We then made our way to the Darwin Center where they are conducting a breeding program to repopulate the islands that used to have tortoises on. Unfortunately when man arrived they devastated the population by taking tortoises for food, introducing non native species such as dogs, goats and cats as well as the usual survivors such as rats.

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Some marine iguanas greet us at the Darwin center..

So the breeding program is introducing the same subspecies as are on the island already. We went around the breeding centres and watched the little tortoises racing around with there little white numbers on their backs that identified them. They stay at the center for seven years and then are transported and released on the islands that their subspecies are based.

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Ickle tortoises…

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It is wonderful that the Ecuadorian government and foreign governments and institutions are helping to preserve this unique species. To see them survive and grow is so important, especially after things like the death of Lonesome George happened. It would be a tragedy if they died off completely.

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Sunset in Santa Cruz

January 30, 2014

Galapagos – christmas tree iguanas, albatross and nasca booby’s

Galapagos – christmas tree iguanas, albatross and nasca booby’s

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We were raring to go this morning as we had already arrived at one of th best islands in the Galapgos – Espanola . Here we were going to hike around the island which should take around 3 hours.
A dry landing this time – meaning you pull up to a jetty, which after yesterday afternoons drenching, I was very pleased about.
Espanola is one of the islands where the wildlife is just fantastic.
We arrived and were greeted by the now ever present sea lions, and we saw the first batch of red crabs that are abundant on the rocks. There are little hundreds of marine iguanas here, also called Christmas iguanas because if their red and green markings.

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Yuletide iguana…

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You could get pretty close and thy didn’t even blink. Amazing, and some so close to the sea lions and crabs, almost living in perfect harmony. As we walked round we saw the Nasca booby’s. Similar to the red foot and green foot, but these have green feet ( some people have wanted their name to be changed to the ‘green footed booby’ which would make sense.

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This male was picking up stones to make the female a nest…sort of building a new patio…

We watched them for a while them were surprised to see some still sitting on eggs waiting for hem to hatch, and even saw a couple of small birds, a few weeks old and one still under the  mother that looked a few days old.

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Again, they have no fear of people and don’t see us as a predator. We also saw some beautiful Galapagos Hawks which are only on certain islands and prey on young iguanas and some of the other birds chicks.

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The big thing to look for here was the Galapagos Albatross. It should really have already left these parts but because the rainy season has been a few weeks late, Ivan, our guide was hoping to see a couple of late leavers. At the blowhole we rested and were thinking our luck was out as we were nearly at the end if the hike, and then we saw a small albatross on its own, probably waiting for its parents to come back with some food. It was in the bushes and just sitting quietly.

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We watched for a while then gradually the group moved on. I was trying to get a photo of an abandoned egg, and thought I would wait a few more  minutes. And luckily for me I did as once the group had gone the baby albatross got up and walked out of the bushes.

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It came out and then ran along the path  probably looking for its parents, but allowing me to get a great shot.
National geographic ? Maybe not but I love this photo with the baby looking all fluffy and cute.

January 29, 2014

Galapagos – strange Austrian Baroness, Sally Lightfoot crabs and turtles..

Galapagos – strange Austrian Baroness, Sally Lightfoot crabs and turtles..

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Greater Pink Flamingo

We headed to Commerant point in the panga (small dinghy) and walked along to a bay where the turtles come up to lay their eggs. There were some fresh tracks that looked like bicycle tracks in the sand, but it think they were turtles. (Unless they were turtles on bicycles…?)

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We saw a lot of turtles just swimming around in the water, they were probably exhausted after hauling themselves up on the sand. It reminded us of Turtle Island in Borneo where we saw the turtles laying their eggs and them some of the hatchlings being released into the sea. They make a big nest by moving the sand away so they can settle in. Unfortunately the success rate of the hatchlings is the same as the green pacific turtles at only about 1 percent so they are also under threat. Here the National park closes all the uninhibited islands at sunset so there is no chance to see the turtles either laying eggs or see the hatchlings.

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Sally Lightfoot..

Yet more Sally Lightfoot crabs were on the rocks their vibrant colors a stark contrast against the black rocks. So called after a famous dancer. One was eating some stuff off the rocks and we saw him use his claws to grab his lunch.  When they discover a new breed they have promised to call it Kathy Leigh Lightfoot after my inimitable dance style…

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An Austrian baroness island, came to set up on Floreana, and lived in a house on the island. She would go to the top of the lookout every day so she would watch for the ships. She tried to charge the ships for using the source of fresh water that was near her house. She allegedly had three lovers, all who disappeared, and she also disappeared leaving the locals to believe that the island itself was cursed.
In the afternoon we went to Post Office bay.

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When this lands were first inhabited people needed a way to communicate with each other so they set up their version of a post office. I you needed to get in touch with someone you would leave a note in the agreed wine barrel, and anyone visiting that island would check the ‘postbox ‘ to see if there was a message going to anywhere close to them. If there was they would take it to them. The practice is still done today and we left two postcard in the mailbox and picked up two that are addressed to people in Dallas you aren’t allowed to just mail them but have to take them to the address like in the old days, so we will be doing that once we get back to the US.

The day ended with a panga tour of mystery bay, where we saw more birdlife close up. The wildlife here is just incredible. So many creatures love in complete harmony and have a trust that we can only dream about. It’s brilliant to see, and get within a few feet of things we have never seen before. Wonderful !

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January 27, 2014

Galapagos – our trip starts to evolve…

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After leaving behind Peru it was time for the last but one big trip. And we had saved one of the best until now – the Galapagos. Flying to Quito we were quite sad as we knew that our time away was now finite, and it wouldn’t be long until we were headed back to the US and back to normal life. Whatever that is.
So we were determined to make the very best of our last few weeks.

We had arrived  and were quickly transferred to our home for the next 8 days. A beautiful boat called Eric. Part of a trio owned by Ecoventura the trip would include sailing to different islands, nature walks and hikes, snorkelling, swimming and kayaking and our favourite activity of all – eating!

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Pepe…

The first day we were welcomed and found our cabin, then set about getting back to shore for a hike around the San Christobel park. We were with the two naturalists on board, not naturists, but naturalists- essentially they are guides that are employed by the National Park of Galapagaos and are assigned to each tourist group. Only a certain number of  permits are issued per year, but this is in reading in a direct response to how many people want to come, so they are trying to keep the islands intact. It is a precarious position, with the short term gain of money from tourists, being pitted against the long term damage that all is tourists will do, as well as stretching the resources even more. Today there are many stop points and checks to try to eliminate contamination between the 140 or so islands, but this is a ever difficult task when even one piece of contaminated fruit could pollute and even destroy some of the endemic species. And of course there is the threat of the wildlife being captured and smuggled out for sale aboard. A couple of years ago a German was stopped with bagfuls of the iguanas that he was hoping to sell. He is now in prison but with the demand for these exotic creatures comes people willing to break the law to capture them and made a quick buck.

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Yellow Warbler

Our walk was a couple of kms, along a trail that would take us from the first tortoise we saw Pepe, who at 63 years old was busy resting as he clearly was exhausted. We saw yellow warblers, finches, lava lizards, the cotton plant which has a beautiful yellow flower, and then I managed to amuse Darin while trying to take a photo of the only pollinating bee – the carpenter bee- who managed to fly too fast for me even though he was laden down with his tool belt…

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Galapagos Fly Catcher

Down by the water we saw the first booby of the trip – no not a flasher but a blue footed booby. They are just normal looking birds with amazingly bright feet – almost like they have stepped in paint. They were hanging out in the rocks above the water and Darin went for a swim while I watched the boobies.  On the rocks were red crabs that don’t have pincers. I was taking my national geographic photo and almost got washed off the rocks, so beat a hasty retreat. Dang it, we were only on day one and I have been outsmarted by a bee and a crab. What does that make me?
You guessed it – crabbee!!!

Back on the boat we showered and got dressed for dinner. 
No Captains table for us tonight, but delicious food and good wine, and pleasant company .

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Cerro Brujo

After a good nights sleep and delicious breakfast day two was all about the beach at Cerro Brujo. We got in the dinghy and had what us called a wet landing, where you pull up as close to the shore as possible and jump out. Walking along the beach you get incredibly close to the sea lions who are laying about on the beach.

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Sandy the sea lion..

Some had small cubs who were trying to feed from Mum, and we witnessed a couple of fights between large bulls who were challenging each other to be king if the group. A group of sea lion females have one large male in charge who mates  with all the females.  Where the small sea lions play in the water almost in a nursery environment there is a male in charge who is considered the beach master, and he will supervise the young while they play in the shallow water.

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While Darin was swimming in the sea I was watching the ghost crabs. I was waiting for the perfect shot of the crab coming out of his hole and dumping the sand where he had been doing some refurbishments but unfortunately sat for ages and watched and he never came out again with sand. It was like the Great Escape and building the tunnel when the workers come out with dirt and release it from their trousers.

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Ghost crab…

In the afternoon we had another wet landing on Pitt point. We had a hike around the island and saw our first red footed boobies. They were very close to us on the cliff edge almost oblivious to us. The islands are really trying to keep a close guard on the local domestic animals, they aren’t allowed to roam free and each one is chipped to make sure if there are any animals wandering around they can quickly get returned. They learned the lesson the hard way after two dogs were responsible for killing a few hundred iguanas. They weren’t killing them to eat, but merely playing with them, picking them up and shaking them leaving small teeth marks in the iguanas skin. It wasn’t the picking up that killed them, but the bacteria in the bite wound. That is why the control of domestic animals is so strict now.

There is supposed to be cat on this island, and it kills the small birds. So far they haven’t been able to catch it, and we didn’t see it while we were hiking.

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Red footed Booby

The landscape is almost barren in parts with few plants and flowers. But what it lacks in color in the landscape is more than made up for win the wonderful wildlife. The return to the main boat was pretty scary, the waves were much higher and the guy had trouble getting the dinghy close to the shore. He made it and we all clambered in, just before two massive waves crashed into the boat. We were soaked, and sitting in about a foot of water. I was terrified the boat was going to sink but we made it back and luckily I had wrapped my big camera up in my waterproof jacket and put the rain cover over my camera bag else they would have been ruined. Not my favorite activity, but we made it bag with a huge sigh of relief.

When you arrive back the man in charge of the service is waiting with a drink and snack, anything from empanadas, small banana fritters, guacamole and pitas, or something similar. Then time to shower and change before dinner, which is always delicious. I can feel the waistbands on my trousers getting more snug each day…. Oh well. Never mind. We’ll deal with that later…

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