Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Galapagos Islands, Part 2

Galapagos Yellow Warbler

Now where was I? Oh yes, the rest of our 8 day tour of the Galapagos Islands! Refer to my previous post if you missed the details of the first days.

On day 4 we got out very early and headed for Punta Pitt, near San Cristobal. We hiked a narrow and rocky trail to high, dry territory. The scenery reminded me a bit of Southern Utah. The rocks were even reddish brown in some parts of the island. The structure of the island is compressed ash, tamped down by rain. We saw frigate birds and pelicans overhead and lots of Red-footed Boobies on nests. There are two "phases" of Red-footed Booby and we saw both the white phase and the brown phase of these birds. There were also plenty of Blue-footed Boobies and we saw a pair that we thought might be courting because they were doing a little dance. Mockingbirds and Yellow Warblers moved among the bigger birds, searching for food. The red leaves of the carpetweed made a beautiful backdrop for the pretty birds.

Red-footed Boobies, White and Brown Phase

I skipped the afternoon snorkel that day because I was tired, but I rode along in the dinghy and saw dozens of Marine Iguanas and Crabs clinging to the rocks at the waterline. There were also some shorebirds near the rocks--Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings. My husband reported that the fish underwater were more spectacular than ever. Figures!

In the afternoon we took a very long hike on San Cristobal to the "Galapaguera", where the San Cristobal Tortoises can be found. It was hot and dry that day and hiking was difficult as we were walking over large lava rocks much of the time. We saw 10 or more tortoises along the way and at the end of the trail. We were visiting in the dry season and food was hard to find for most of the animals on the island. Many of the trees were bare but would leaf out again when the rains started. We saw lots of dried tortoise scat and it wasn't clear to me if the tortoises were eating dried leaves or if this was left from last season. We saw signs of the goats that are exotic pests on the island, competing with the tortoises for food. The goats are very difficult to catch or control. We also saw San Cristobal Mockingbirds and several finches.

San Cristobal Galapagos Tortoise at the Galapaguera

On day 5 we swam and then traveled. Our big adventure was snorkeling around Leon Dormida, aka Sleeping Lion or Kicker Rock. The rock is far off shore from San Cristobal and the water is deep and cold. The waves are also rather rough, rocking up against the huge rock. I decided to wear a life jacket and it turned out to be a mixed decision. On the one hand, I had some extra buoyancy when I felt out of my element (which was most of the time because I am not a great swimmer), but on the other hand the jacket made me bob around like a cork and it was hard to direct myself against the waves. But nonetheless, our group made our way around and between the huge rocks. The colors were stunning. Steep rock walls were covered with bright, fat starfish, coral and urchins. And huge schools of colorful fish of many sizes and shapes, including pufferfish, swam past our group, sometimes close enough to touch. We also saw a Sea Turtle and 2 Sharks, and we were pretty sure that the larger of the two was a Galapagos Shark. It was very exciting but kind of scary, too, and I decided to limit the rest of my snorkeling to areas where I could touch or at least see the ocean floor.

Leon Dormida (Sleeping Lion)--if you look carefully you can see the lion's head on the right, its haunches in the middle, and its tail is the pointy rock to the left

Day 6 took us to the island of Española, at Punta Florez. We were up and exploring very early, even though we were tired after snorkeling the day before. But our guide explained to us that we had to be off of the island by 10am so that the National Park could bring in their own groups of tours, and the number of visitors at any time is limited. Just as well--we were met at the dock by noisy Sea Lion mamas and lots of young babies. Several appeared to have been born that morning. It's good to be out early! The mother Sea Lions stay close to their newborns for several weeks, letting the babies get to know their call and scent. After that they can leave the babies on their own while they hunt for fish. Click here for a video of the sea lions. Just past the sea lions were big piles of pinkish Marine Iguanas that we had to shuffle through the just to walk to the trail. The Iguanas were fairly passive, mainly just sunning themselves. But we did see a few that were interested in the placentas of the newborn Sea Lions. Our guide told us that though the Iguanas were primarily vegetarians, they would eat the placentas for the valuable moisture in an extremely dry environment. A little further down the path we found a rather gruesome looking Española Mockingbird and an Iguana partaking in a bloody drink.

Newborn Baby Sea Lion

Iguana Road Block

Getting Moisture

An interesting thing about the Española Mockingbirds is that they have learned to associate tourists with water and will tap on the lids of water bottles and pester people for drinks, mewling piteously. Even though we were supposed to stay 2 meters away from the wildlife and not touch or bother them, it was hard to avoid birds that came up to us! They are unafraid of people and will poke around gear and climb into bags and backpacks. They are very smart.

There were lots of wonderful birds and more Marine Iguanas at every bend in the path. We had our first view of Albatrosses up close and saw some of their scruffy chicks. Near the end of the hiking loop we stood on the edge of a sheer cliff wall and watched water spouting up from a natural blowhole in the lava rock. Albatrosses, Masked Boobies, Frigatebirds and Tropicbirds flew and hovered in the wind. You can watch the soaring birds here. We watched a Yellow Crowned Night Heron chasing after Sally Lightfoot Crabs and saw a big Galapagos Hawk cruise overhead.

Masked Boobies with Carpetweed Background

Waved Albatross Chick

Later that afternoon we swam at a beautiful beach called Bahia Gardener. We saw more sharks, some rays and a sea turtle. The Española Mockingbirds there were rather cheeky and rifled through our bags. A Galapagos Flycatcher and a Lava Lizard tried to join in, too. It is so strange being around animals that don't fear us (that aren't raccoons!). I saw a Wandering Tattler at this beach, and watched a Marine Iguana gnawing on the seaweed growing on a rock.

Española Mockingbird Thugs

That night we had rocky seas as we traveled to Floreana. The boat rolled back and forth and sometimes I felt like I would be rolled out of bed and right onto the floor. Happily, I didn't feel especially sick, just tossed and turned. When we motored at night the pelagic birds followed alongside the boat. I could see the white forms of Swallowtail Gulls, Boobies and Albatrosses moving just outside the window of our cabin. It reminded me of the cyclone scene in the Wizard of Oz movie, with the rocking chair and wicked witch and cow floating by as Dorothy watches from the swirling house.

Day 7 took us to Floreana at Punta Cormoran, where we started the morning by walking around a brackish pond that was home to a few American Flamingoes and some Pintail Ducks. From there we walked to a soft sand beach with Sea Turtle tracks and nests. There were Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones and a Semi-palmated Plover. Back at the landing beach, we watched diving Pelicans compete for fish with Boobies and Penguins and Sea Lions. Click here for a short video.

Pelican With a Full Pouch and Penguin Nearby

That afternoon we visited the "Post Office" at Floreana, which is really a barrel full of postcards. Folklore has it that the pirates and whalers would leave an addressed letter in the barrel and anyone coming through would look through the letters and if they found any addressed to the place they were going, they would take it and deliver it in person. The modern version is for tourists to leave post cards and take one or two home with them, but Art and I didn't get the message and had no post cards when the time came, so we wrote notes to our daughters on folded paper with the address on the outside. And amazingly enough, one of the letters made it to Brooklyn! Time will tell if the the other, going to Arkansas, makes it. We delivered 2 cards when we got back home to Georgia. After the mail, we swam. The final snorkel trip of the cruise that afternoon was my favorite. We were in shallow and clear waters and swam with Sea Turtles and Penguins. They are fast and fun! What a blast! I wish we had photos, but the good memories are lasting.

Sea Turtle

Day 8, the last day, was a little melancholy because the trip had been such a special experience. For one final excursion before our flight out, we took a quick tour of the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz and saw examples of some of the other kinds of tortoises from islands we didn't have a chance to visit. It was also good to learn a little about some of the research and conservation projects going on in the Galapagos Islands. They're doing great work caring for these world treasures. It is an extremely difficult job, but it is clear that they love and care about the islands very much. I feel so fortunate that I was able to visit them myself.

Saddleback Galapagos Tortoise

One Research Project at Darwin Station

Fabulous

These are only a few photos from the trip, but if you are interested in seeing more, you can see them here on my photo website. Thank you for reading and watching.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Time to Rise

Panther Creek Falls

Well, last night's election was a long, painful experience, and all day I've been trying not to give in to despair. I've already gone through all the five stages of grief, starting with Denial--this can't possibly be happening. Then Bargaining--if I'd just helped more with the campaign, maybe it would have turned out differently. I promise to always be more involved! Then Anger--blaming the mess on the media, or FBI, or people who didn't vote or who voted for the "wrong" candidate. All this was followed by Depression--how can I get out of bed in the morning when everything I believe in is going to be negated in this new administration? And in the end, Acceptance and Hope--my candidate lost, but one of the beautiful aspects of our nation is the peaceful transfer of power with each election. Like it or not, this is democracy in action and, as President Obama said today, we all hope the next 4 years go well. I shook off my dazed stupor and realized, that as bad as it might get politically, the world did not stop turning. Life is going to continue, and I still have my family and my health. There is still music and art, the birds sing, children play and flowers grow. After a suitable amount of mourning and moping, there comes a time to stand up, dust myself off and continue on.

Maidenhair Fern

So here I am, resolved to make these next 4 years work in my life. First off, I have decided that I need to exclude the negativity. The last year, and especially the last few weeks, were so stressful and I was anxious and depressed in dreaded anticipation of every dip and turn of the election, long before last night. Now that the election is done, I'm cutting back on the radio, newspaper and social media that thrive on fanning flames. I'll check in, but I'm buffering myself. And what I take and share with others will be nurturing and positive. I want to take the high road. Even though I enjoy a zinging bumper sticker or meme as much as the next person, I need to keep my personal world kind. We've had enough unkindness in this cycle for a lifetime. Instead of media/screen time, I'll spend time with people I love, listen to more music, read books, watch movies, cook great meals, visit with friends, and try to learn things, like improving my Spanish or mandolin playing. Most of all, I will get out and hike more. The forests, swamps and prairies give me strength and soothe my world-weary soul.

Bumblebee

I want to continue to learn more about natural history (especially of my new home of Georgia) so that I can be a better Naturalist Guide for the hundreds of young people who come through the doors of the nature center where I volunteer. I will teach as many of them as I can the value of protecting their natural areas. I will show them not to fear nature and to feel comfort, joy and awe when they are in its presence. Today's young people are tomorrow's adults and if they do not love nature they will not care to protect it.

Window Pane in Oak Leaf

I want to become more involved locally in the issues from the election that were important to me. Though I am a shy person by nature, I want to become a rabble rouser and a witness so that I can let my fellow citizens and elected officials know when I think attention needs to be paid. In the course of supporting the first woman candidate for president, I have realized how important it is to me that women have an equal voice in our government. And as a woman, I want to have my voice heard.  I will hound the president and my representatives if they try to take away health care, marriage equality or reproductive rights, or target Muslims or immigrants. I want to get involved in our local political organizations as they build a democratic opposition from the ground up so we are ready for the next round. In my state of Georgia, many state and even national representatives ran unopposed. Change starts from the ground up, but nothing changes if there is no opposition.

Eastern Phoebe

I think the most important thing to me is that I do my best to reflect the world I want to see in my daily life. I will continue to treat people with kindness, compassion and respect and "even if my voice shakes" will speak up if I see injustice. Because I am fortunate to have what I need, I will share more of what I have with others--resources to feed the hungry, clothe the cold, house the homeless and provide a good education for everyone, not just those living in the right zip code. I will continue to travel because it is important to understand people from other cultures. I want to be an ambassador, letting the people I meet know that we in the US do care about the rest of the world. I will defend the environment because this is the only Earth we have and I want something left to pass on to the next generation. Very locally, I will continue to model wildlife and environmentally friendly landscaping at our home so it can be a haven for wildlife and native plants. I will work harder to leave a smaller footprint, ecologically and economically by reducing, reusing and recycling and will drive less and walk or bike more.  And, finally, I will continue in my little project to fill the world with more beauty and joy by sharing photos and writing more and speaking out. It feels better to have a plan and makes me look forward to the future.

Maple Leaf

Monday, October 31, 2016

Galapagos Islands, Part 1

Map of the Galapagos Islands

When I was in elementary school in the early 1970's, my friend Willow's father came to our school to present a slide show about his journey to the Galapagos Islands. Keep in mind that the islands had only opened for tourism in the 1960's. I don't remember how much I knew about the Galapagos prior to his presentation, or much about the specifics of what he said, but I do remember ending the day with the understanding that this was a remote and very special place with wildlife and plants unlike any place else. Those magnificent and ancient Galapagos tortoises! Over the years I thought back to that day in school, especially when I heard mention of the islands in the news or TV or movies or literature, and they took on an almost mythological quality in my mind. The Galapagos Islands. And never, ever, did I think that I would actually go there. But sometimes opportunities present themselves, and in September, because we were already visiting Ecuador, I was able to go see some of the Galapagos Islands for myself. It was every bit as extraordinary as I had hoped it would be.

Blue-footed Booby on the Lava Rocks

When my husband and I first started exploring the possibility of a trip, I was concerned about whether my travel to the Galalpagos could be harmful to the islands. When I was a kid in the '70's, travel there was more of an ordeal and was fairly uncommon, but in the years since then cruises and hotels have made it so easy that just about anyone can get there. I was worried about contributing to pollution or overgrowth or too much contact with the wildlife. But our Ecuadoran friends insisted that we had to visit one of their most treasured places. We were directed to a tour company that was in line with our environmental ethic. So we booked a trip, and it turned out to be nothing like I had feared and was a fantastic experience.

Saddle-back Galapagos Tortoise

This is not to say that everything is perfect. I understand that there is increasing concern over huge cruise ships bringing large groups of people in for short visits (though we did not see any of them), with maximum impact on the natural areas, but with little benefit to the local economy. And as the popularity of the parks grows, the towns supporting the tourist economy grow. The population on the islands has grown dramatically in the last 50 years. Also, the park management has a difficult battle with invasive species brought in. There are plants, animals and insects that are displacing the native species. Over fishing and poaching on the islands is troubling and protecting the islands is an ongoing battle. But these are issues recognized by the Ecuadoran government and the park management and they are moving to address them.

Sea Lion by an Ice Cream Stand--Clash of Cultures

As I learned more about the past history of the management of the Galapagos, I came to believe that controlled tourism is really the best way to protect the islands. In the past the animals were exploited for food and lamp oil (the tortoises) and people tried to colonize and exploit the islands for their resources. The US saw the islands as a strategic location for a military base in WWII. They created what is now the airport in Baltra. Fortunately, the islands were so remote and the habitat was so difficult that relatively few areas were colonized. In 1935, the government of Ecuador designated part the islands as a wildlife preserve, and in 1959 they became Ecuador's first national park. In 1978 UNESCO recognized the Galapagos Islands as a World Heritage Site. There are some towns on some of the islands, and some private land, but for the most part, the islands are very carefully managed. Each visitor to the park pays a $100 entrance fee that goes to to support the preserve. And every visitor must be accompanied by a Naturalist Guide who is responsible for the behavior of the guests. On our trip in the park, we saw no litter and everyone was respectful of the wildlife and of the trails and park. By sharing the wonder of the Galapagos Islands with the public, more and more people learn about the importance of protecting them. The people who live on the islands are learning that the health of the islands is important in order to bring tourists to support the lucrative tourist economy. People want to protect something that they understand.

"Don't Touch the Tortoises"--Sign at Private Ranch with Giant Tortoises

We ended up choosing an 8 day cruise on a small catamaran that held 16 passengers at maximum and a staff of 8-10 people. We visited about half of the islands and did much of our travel at night while we slept, leaving the days open for exploring. Our crew was friendly and knowledgable and many of them were locals. Our tours were led by a naturalist with 20 years experience in the islands. We had perfect weather with only one or two rocky, seasick periods. Being on the ocean with no internet was lovely and relaxing. The few times we were in port and could check email and the news felt harsh and jarring after days of nature walks, reading by natural light, early bedtimes and actual conversations.

Gorgeous, Quiet Beach
Most of our days consisted of a morning hike, a midday swim or snorkel, followed by an afternoon hike at a new island or section of an island. We parked our boat and traveled by dinghy to the shore or snorkeling site. We did some birdwatching from the deck of the boat and it was very exciting to watch the Frigatebirds, Albatrosses and Shearwaters that typically flew alongside as we moved through the water. We spotted a Humpback Whale the first day but didn't see others the rest of the trip. Sea turtles were common but we did not see any dolphins.



Frigatebird Follows the Boat

Our journey started at Santa Cruz island, where the Baltra airport is located. After boarding the ship around lunchtime, we traveled by boat, then by bus to the Santa Cruz Highlands where we visited a private ranch and tortoise preserve. There we saw dozens of giant tortoises. No one is really sure how old most of them are unless they were raised in captivity, but some are estimated to be 100-175 years old. It was incredibly moving to see these revered creatures just ambling along the side of the road. One even walked in front of our bus and just sat down. We waited in the road until it decided to move on. On the ranch, the giant tortoises chewed grass along side of the cattle. At the ranch we also saw several kinds of Darwin's finches, the most exciting (to me, at least) being the Woodpecker Finch that uses small sticks to fish insects out of holes in trees. Later we explored some of the volcanic features of the island and walked inside of a huge lava tube. It is interesting to keep in mind that these islands are geologically rather new. The Galapagos Islands are located over a magma hotspot between two tectonic plates. The plates have been moving very slowly for millions of years over the hotspot, forming new islands. The oldest islands are closest to the mainland and are estimated to be between 3 & 4 million years old. Some submerged islands are thought to be older, perhaps as much as 15 million years. The newer islands, further to the west, are only hundreds of thousands of years old and some are still volcanically active. We did not visit the western islands.


Giant Tortoise Blocks the Road

Giant Tortoises and Cattle

Woodpecker Finch (Darwin's Finch) with Stick

The next morning we explored Isla Plaza, just off of Santa Cruz, where we saw Sea Lions, Frigate Birds, Masked Boobies, Swallow-tailed Gulls, Shearwaters, a lost Galapagos Penguin, Brown Noddies, Red Billed Tropicbirds, Pelicans, Cactus Finches, Marine Iguanas, Land Iguanas, Lava Lizards and Sally Lightfoot Crabs. It was a full morning! The wildlife was abundant and very tame and unafraid of people and I was able to get some fantastic photos. Visitors are asked to stay 2 meters from the wildlife, but sometimes it is not possible to keep that distance, or the animals come near you. I used a telephoto lens, too, which made some of my encounters seem closer. Sometimes the telephoto didn't work because the animals really were that close! The landscape was strange and beautiful, with drought tolerant plants like cactus and carpetweed (a kind of succulent portulaca) growing over the volcanic terrain.

Carpetweed and Cactus

Swallow-tailed Gull

Sally Lightfoot Crab

Young Sea Lions Chasing a Galapagos Penguin (They don't eat penguins but they like to bother them)

One very interesting thing my husband and I noticed was that although there were large numbers of animals and plants, the number of species was relatively small. And different variations of those few species appeared on different islands. For example, there were 4 species of Mockingbird, but some only appeared on specific islands. Because there were so few species, I was able to identify many of them with a field guide specific to the islands. The Darwin Finches gave me some difficulty, though, because some of the distinctions were small. I couldn't always tell the difference between a small and medium tree finch or a small and medium ground finch and relied on our guide to point out a cactus finch.

Cactus finch

Tree Finch or Ground Finch; medium or small billed?
I finally went with Medium Ground Finch, but I'm open to corrections.

That afternoon we went to Santa Fe island and saw a land iguana specific to that island. They are yellow. We also saw Lava Lizards, Galapagos Mockingbirds, Galapagos Doves, Cactus Finches and Sea Lions. Afterwards, we snorkeled in the bay. I wish I had an underwater camera because the colors and number of ocean species were amazing. But we swam with playful Sea Lion pups, saw a Galapagos Green Sea Turtle and several other turtles, a big White Tipped Reef Shark (that gave me a start, but they are relatively harmless), an Eagle Ray and some other rays and hundreds of marvelously colored and shaped fish, including Puffers!

Santa Fe Land Iguana

The next day, day 3, we had traveled a long way overnight to San Cristobal where we dropped off some passengers at the airport and picked up a few more. My husband Art and I spent the morning exploring the Galapagos Information center and walked a trail that overlooked the beach where Darwin supposedly first set foot on the islands. We wandered around the small town and picked up a few supplies, like extra sunscreen (it is very sunny on the equator and especially so on the islands in the ocean) and extra photo memory cards (I took about 4000 photos!). That afternoon we snorkeled near Isla Lobos (just off of San Cristobal) in rather cold water. I was wishing we'd sprung for the wet suit rental, but after swimming a while we warmed up. The fish were amazing and it was neat to see colorful coral, urchins and clownfish. The loud clicking of the fish underwater was very strange and interesting. After the swim we dried off and hiked on the island where we saw colonies of Frigatebirds and their chicks and got our first good look at Blue-footed Boobies. They are the most endangered species of booby on the islands (we saw 3 species). Several of them made nests right on the path. Some of the juveniles objected to our presence and wouldn't allow us to pass, causing the group to walk up on the rocks out of the way. It was kind of funny to see our group of big humans back down to a flapping teenage booby. We also saw some very young Sea Lion pups, some of them still nursing. And we saw either a Lava Heron or a Striated Heron--it was hard to tell which.

Graffiti on San Cristobal Island

Frigatebird Colony with Fuzzy Chicks

Male Frigatebird

Blue-footed Booby Nest on the Ground. They poop away from the center to keep the nest clean, creating the ring.

Blue Feet

I'll break here to keep this post from being too long. Read part 2 for the rest of the story. You can see a full album of photos from the trip on my website by clicking here.








Wednesday, October 5, 2016

And it Begins Again

Brown-headed Nuthatch at the Front Yard Feeder

This is a short detour from my travel log. When we came home from Ecuador after being away for a month, my husband and I were thrilled to see that the butterfly garden we'd planted in June had filled in, grown up and burst into bloom. It's amazing what a month of heat and rain can do for a bunch of wildflowers! When we left in August a few of the plants were beginning to show buds and one or two kinds of flowers had just begun to bloom. A month later, watching the garden was like seeing a fireworks display with splashes of yellow, red, purple and green. Scores of butterflies and bees come to dance around the blossoms, hungry for nectar. The birds are enjoying the bounty, too, and just yesterday I spied a Common Yellowthroat perched on a Goldenrod stalk. I started counting last week and so far I have seen 20 species of butterfly, many species bees, flies and wasps and several species of moths. I've also found caterpillars from 2 kinds of moths and we came home to 6 huge monarch caterpillars on the milkweed. I'd say that this new wildlife garden is a huge success!

Silver Spotted Skipper on Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum) in August

Gulf Fritillaries on Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Cabbage White on Liatris

Eastern Tailed Blue on Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)

Wasps and Bees on Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)

Monarch Caterpillar and Aphids on Milkweed

When we moved to this house a year ago, I saw the manicured yard and declared in a blog that I would soon "fix that". It took a while to get it started and we hired a landscaper to make it happen faster, but here we are with a lovely front garden that attracts wildlife and fills my heart with joy. Once again our yard is an urban oasis for a hungry bird or squirrel or bee. And once again we see pedestrians and cars slow down to look at the garden, so full of beauty and life. With luck, we'll inspire other people and wildlife garden will be catch on all over our neighborhood!

New Garden in June

Garden in October
When I look out over our new wildlife garden, I remember the many people over the years who helped me learn about plants and animals and to appreciate the importance of conservation and environmental education. I'm posting this just after learning of the deaths this past week of two of those special people and am so thankful that I have been able to take the love and practices I learned from them while living in Florida and translate it to my life here in Athens.

This is dedicated to Akers and Pete.

Cucullia Moth Caterpillar on Fall Aster

Common Checkerspot on Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)

Cloudless Sulphur on Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)


Fiery Skipper on Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)

Variegated Fritillary on Coneflower ssp.

Ocola Skipper on Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Bumblebee on Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)