Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Galapagos: Discovering the Shore

Our floating hotel for our week in the islands was the Yolita II, a comfortable 110' yacht hosting 14 visitors, trip leader, birding guide,  naturalist, and a crew of 8.  It was a comfortable accommodation with an efficient, and always helpful, crew.

At the appointed time for each shore landing, we donned life vests and boarded the two zodiacs for our trip ashore - sometimes a wet landing and other times a questionably dry one. Tide and wave height can make the dry quite wet.

Often, the trip to our landing was in itself an event, as when we toured this bay with its distinct volcanic features.

Every day was characterized by intense equatorial sun.  Sunscreen and a good sun hat were perhaps as vital as a good (dry) camera.

On Espanola Island,  there was a skeleton of a Humpback Whale with one of the endemic Mockingbirds perched atop.  

The bird was not really being friendly. There is scant water on the island, so these birds were constantly trying to mooch water from people. Human visitors are not to alter the balance on the island; it was expressly forbidden to offer them water.

The Sally Lightfoot Crab is often seen in great numbers.  The name reflects the  speed with which they can move. Common from Florida to Chile, they eat algae plus whatever else can be found.

Any trip to the Galapagos calls for considering some of the thirteen species of Darwin finches. Their adaptions to the differing conditions among the islands have been a mainstay of evolutionary studies over the years. They are frequently seen near the beaches in the low shrubby growth.

At the left is a Small Ground Finch. (But it could be a "medium" GF. I'm no expert).

One of the more interesting birds we saw was  the Cactus Finch seen below. (There are both Large and Small Cactus Finch species.) They are thought to have evolved from ground finches to more effectively feed on the Prickly Pear Cactus, eating  insects in the flowers and the fruit itself.

The Galapagos visitor sees new animals that create a certain amazement, and some quite familiar ones.  So, it was with some surprise that I saw this bright yellow warbler, called a Mangrove Warbler.  Looks everything like what I see here in New York. It's a bit involved, but the New World warbler species Setophaga petechia has about 35 sub-species of which our American yellow warblers have six, and the Mangrove Warbler has twelve.  One difference is that the Mangrove Warbler comes very close to humans.

Another familiar bird was the Green Heron. The major difference observed was that in North America the Green Heron is very shy and hard to observe closely. The ones in  Galapagos seemed unperturbed by people, and provided interesting observation.

Contrast that with the fascination one feels when watching the Land Iguanas. The males are boldly colored, and rather like bulls looking to show their strength to other males.  The claws are impressive.

Marine Iguanas are often seen sunning to regain body warmth before returning to the cold ocean water to harvest seaweed.  They don't seem to have the personality of the land variety. They impressed me as being something from a prehistoric era, even more so than the Land Iguanas.

The reader can appreciate that on our tour of Galapagos, our group's observations were certainly more thorough than some.  A pause on the beach revealed the tracks of a Marine Iguana, as it emerged from the sea.

We were often on shore for three hours or better, wherein other boats making the same landing came ashore later and returned to the boat sooner, accounting for at most half of our time.  Many seemed to be in a race to complete a trail. This can perhaps be attributed to our deep interest in our surroundings, and to a birder's penchant for seeing the details.

As a result, we also took
pleasure in some typically overlooked details, like the Spotted-wing Glider at left and the Large Painted Locust at right.

Other groups also missed the small Lava Lizards, and in particular the orange cheeked males, that would appear when a person would slow down and allow them to become active. Truly, the less you move, the more you see.
There is a common misconception that all animals on the Galapagos are fearless of humans and, while this often seems true, there are examples where survival demands fear.  Again, slow and thorough observation revealed a Santa Fe Rice Rat.  They are wary and secretive.  This one ventured out from cover to chew on the edges of a Prickly Pear Cactus. It's really only about 2-1/2 inches long at the most.  Non-native species have decimated their numbers.  It was special to just see this animal.

So, this is my recap of what a Galapagos island landing might reveal on any given day.  The return to the Yolita II always included a large tray of freshly squeezed fruit juice and some freshly baked treat. After as much as three hours(or more) in the equatorial sun, this was a real boost.

In my next installment, I will get to some of the amazing birds that we saw.

Kind regards,


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