Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Galapagos Birds: Magnificent Frigatebirds

The first Magnificent Frigatebird appeared early on our first day on the boat, and they were nearly constant companions to our boat when it was cruising. They came very close.

The male's bright red neck pouch during breeding season is visible from quite a distance.

Our first landing took us to an island rookery where numerous Frigatebirds were concentrated on ill-formed nests in very low bushes.  During breeding season, the male is often seen with the pouch inflated to create a display of vitality. As nesting progresses, the neck pouch recedes as seen above.

Frigatebirds are an aggressive bird with a reputation for stealing food from any other bird, as it returns from the sea. Various sources call them pirate birds or condors of the sea. They seem to eat anything.  Their aggressive nature was also displayed towards neighboring nests, and it appeared to include unattached males seeking to displace other males from a nest. The male seen below landed near the couple on the nest and displayed what he likely considered a superior inflated pouch.  Note the colors on his neck hackles.

The intruder neither intimidated the male, nor evoked any visible interest from the female partner.    A stare-down developed.

A physical conflict soon developed. The female seemed impassive to the fight as it progressed.

The conflict continued beak-to-beak with no way of knowing which one was winning.

The fight ended with no apparent knock-out blow, as the intruder suddenly abandoned the fight. There was no victory celebration, and the female was as impassive as ever. Some degree of calm returned.

The breeding appears to be spread out over a span of time; we saw a mix of  courting pairs, small chicks and much larger chicks. The  female lays a single egg.  An adult guards the lone chick for the first weeks, but as it gains size both adults go to sea for food, and it is left alone to await a feeding visit. So it was that we came upon nests that had a single chick of pretty good size.  Many chicks were panting in the intense equatorial sun and alertly watching the sky, likely looking for an adult returning with food. The chick below is seen to be shedding its down for juvenile feathers.

As noted, the nest construction is sparse and unkempt.  There seems to be a shortage of building materials, and the low bushes have little to support a more elaborate construction. Nest malfunctions happen and chicks fall out, such as is probably the case below.  It is likely doomed, and the nesting pair will have to start over.

A visit to the Galapagos is done with the requirement that you do not to interfere with  nature's processes, and that you stay on the trails to minimize your impact.  This chick will not be returned to its nest, nor even approached. That hands-off policy is a key to keeping the islands true to their heritage. There appears to be no shortage of Frigatebirds.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Tale of the New and the Old- Blue-footed Boobies & Yellow Warblers

Saw an incredible variety of new birds during my recent trip to the Galapagos Islands. I'll begin with a short post featuring the most entertaining bird seen, the Blue-footed Booby.  At the time of the bird's naming the meaning of "booby" was essential a clown.  Actually, they are a graceful with a stately posture (most of the time).  

And, they are fast flying --like dive bombers-- projectiles that can slam into the water at any moment when they see prey.  In once place,we saw them in group formations exploding into the sea to catch fish.  But, the most endearing image is of a male prancing about in a high stepping display.  Isn't he handsome?  Well, he surely is to the females.

Let's go to a short video that captures the persona of this actor. (Probably best viewed a medium screen size or smaller..)


 So, on our first day we saw this entirely new bird and fell in love with it.  Almost at the same time, we saw an old friend from the Northeastern United States.  There among the salt bush and the mangroves was the same colorful Yellow Warbler, only they call it the Mangrove Warbler.  Still a lovely find.

Now, I am not a "counter" out to tally up a large number of species so I found both of these birds entertaining as I watched how they behave in this new found environment.  It is truly amazing how far some of these tiny birds can travel to find  islands 600 miles from the mainland.

Keep in touch.


Sunday, September 13, 2015

A Taste of Autumn

After processing 1865 images of Ecuador into around 344 final images, I needed a break.  Today dawned cool and rainy with the smell of autumn in the woods. Took a break from the computer to visit the Thomas' woods in Caton for a two-hour saunter.  How refreshing it felt.  My first stop was at a fresh mushroom under the tall trees.

Notice the little orange creature in the upper left.  After a day of rain, it is pretty certain that the Red Efts will emerge to search for small gnats and the such. They are just lovely little guys. Had to get closer to the newt.  I am guessing that the orange is a message to any predators that they are toxic.  Anyone want to test that?

Moving on in my ramble, I saw another fungus of interest, called Turkey Tails.  I have seen some very nice earrings made with these.

The morning was so entertaining; I had lost track of time, so I headed toward the Thomas house only to be sidelined by a final mushroom.  The iridescent colors on the foreground leaves were hard to show in the camera without overdoing the overall balance, but will remain clear in my memory.

The morning was over except for a visit with my friend, Leo, and the usual cup of perfect coffee.  I am really pumped up for autumn after this morning's taste of it.


Thursday, September 10, 2015

Discovering Quito and nearby Papallacta Pass

Pam and I arrived in Ecuador two days before our flight to the Galapagos. We had an extra day to discover the city of Quito before our formal tour began with a trip into the mountains (for hummingbirds). So, on day one we joined two other couples- also in our group going to Galapagos - in a guided tour of Quito.

Quito lies 9,350 feet above sea level, so a leisurely day to become accustomed to the thin air was helpful before going even higher on day two.
We discovered a host of welcoming Ecuadorians including our knowledgeable guide, Patricia Villarreal. The ride into the city confirmed that staying out near the new airport was a  wise decision by our tour leader.  It is an enormous city with serious traffic congestion.

Our first stop was at the statue of the Winged Virgin that overlooks the old town.  The statue is constructed of cast metal plates anchored to an internal steel frame work. One can ascend the stairs inside for an expansive view of both the old city of Quito and, to the left, the volcanic mountain that Marshal Sucre descended with the army of independence to expel the Spanish in 1822.

Note at the base of the statue is a serpent on a leash that is held by the winged Virgin Mary. Of course, the message is that the serpent of the creation story is subdued by faith.

There is an outside viewing balcony on the statue that reveals a bustling city and a multitude of volcanic peaks in every direction.

We next went into the center of the old city at the Plaza de la Independencia.

Central to the plaza is a monument to independence with a cathedral behind it and the presidential place to the right. In the plaza we found a mix of tourists, locals, vendors and police.


We found one lady selling beautiful woven scarfs. Her prices were a bargain, too.

We explored the sights beginning with the entrance to the Presidential Palace.  Then we went down a side street to some of the many churches. No photos were allowed in the gold encrusted church on our right, so only a door could be shown.  It was in sharp contrast to a nearby Jesuit church where a mass was in progress.  This one was far less formal, and the service was enthusiastic and lyrical.

The entire day could easily have been filled with the sights of the old town, but we moved on for a casual lunch, and a visit to a cultural  museum located exactly on the equator.

While the day's activity had not been strenuous, we did feel the effects of the thin air. 

While we toured Quito, more of our group arrived at our lodging, a 300 year old hacienda converted to a luxury garden hotel. It was a very relaxing location with a great restaurant providing a great conclusion to our day.


Early the next morning we went to the mountains for hummingbirds. Guango Lodge is just past the crest of Papallacta Pass (nearly 14000 feet).  The day was misty and cool, just perfect for bringing in scores of hummingbirds to the feeders.  Here are a few of the birds we saw.

Now, one would expect the hummingbirds to be the  highlight of our day in the mountains, but one huge surprise remained. As we crested Papallacta Pass and headed down towards Quito, our alert driver spotted a bear on edge of the road.  He quickly pulled off the road, and we soon saw that it was a Spectacled Bear, actually a sow and cub. They crossed just upslope from us and continued up a very steep mountainside.  These are the only bears in South America and extremely unusual to see.

We continued towards our hotel only to discover that the active Cotopaxi Volcano was in clear view just outside Quito.  Another stop and and good view of the ash venting some 50 kilometers away.

At that point it was hard to say what was the highpoint of our first two days.  It was dinner and early to bed for a 6:30 flight to Galapagos.  There would be a lot of 4 and 5 am  wake-ups for the next ten days. 


Friday, July 24, 2015

Exploring the Capitol Mall

The National Mall in Washington just became much easier to explore with the introduction of the Circulator Bus. A huge amount of walking is avoided at a very modest fare. It begins in front of Union Station and makes a figure-eight passing in front of the National Gallery and the Smithsonian Museums of Natural and of American History before circling around the Washington Monument. It then goes clockwise around the Tidal Pool to deliver you to the Jefferson, ML King and Lincoln memorials. The route returns passing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and again circling the Washington Monument on the way to return up the opposite side of the National Mall.

While in DC at a family celebration, we explored this new way to see the mall. It was extremely hot, and the Circulator allowed us to easily visit those sites, such as the Jefferson Memorial, with little stress. Here are some photos of what I found.

 I began straight off the Metro near the Capitol walking from the Federal Center stop to the US Botanic Gardens at the foot of Capitol Hill. It was 10 am, so I began outside before the heat soared.

The gardens offer a quiet  place among the constant traffic around the Mall. Still small glimpses of the buildings sneak into view like the National Museum of the American Indian (which is highly recommended).

Given the  heat, I found the gardens in surprisingly lush bloom.  This ramada was surrounded by native plants in brilliant bloom.

Hidden in among the natural stone were a wide array of colorful summer blooms like these.

Nearby is nice water garden with a Mallard drifting about looking for feed. The bench seemed a welcoming place to relax, but on this hot day visitors seemed more intent to keep moving and rest inside the air-conditioned conservatory areas.

As the heat built above 90F, I, too, retreated to the Conservatory building. One of my favorite places was a tropical orchid display.

Across the Mall,  one can board the Circulator at Union Station or at the National Gallery of Art.  The attractions at the east end of the Mall (near the Capitol) are easy to visit, so we rode to the west end.  Our first stop was the Jefferson Memorial.  Stepping off the bus, the west side is seen.  It surely echoes Jefferson's Monticello.

The east side presents massive steps up to the rotunda.  Note the red "Bike Share" bikes parked in front. They offer a second way to easily move through the city. Residents love them for fast commuting.

Inside the rotunda, Jefferson's statue is flanked by some of his most notable writing. His declaration of "We hold these truths to be self evident" flanks his left shoulder.

Another of his statements to the statue's right shoulder was new to me and certainly apropos 239 years later.  I felt moved to record it.

It was time to hop on the next Circulator for an air- conditioned ride to the Martin Luther King Memorial. The work of the sculptor appeals to me both for the overall memorial's design and for the beauty of the sculpture.

We were making excellent progress at a pace far exceeding what could be done on foot.  Back on a Circulator for the Lincoln Memorial.  More steps.

The view from the steps is a classic one towards the Capitol.

We found the Lincoln Memorial to be the most crowded of all.  The classic photo standing in front of the great statue seems to be the ultimate proof of a visit.  It took patience and holding the camera overhead to simplify the image.

Our long-delayed visit to the west end of the mall complete, we were again on the Circulator for a final stop at our favorite spot on the Mall.  The National Gallery of Art always has new exhibits, plus our beloved gallery of impressionist paintings. As usual, many hurry through taking snapshots without really seeing, and a few settle on the sofas and really see the art.

This time, there was a painter copying Monet's The Artist's Garden at V├ętheuil. This would seem to be the best example of really seeing the painting. It seemed that few visitors paused to see the paint being applied.  Isn't that a chance to go back in time as though Monet was working the canvas?

Thank you for allowing me to take you along on our exploration of the National Mall using the Circulator to catch some of the high points.  The standard fare is $1.00 for up to two hours of boardings.  They run very frequently too.