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Ecuador - The Galapagos Islands (Part 2)

11/10/2022 - 11/13/2022

The Galapagos Islands.... I had a lot to say in the last post about them. I will have just as much to say in this post. It really is hard to put into words the overall experience. We crammed so much in the seven days we were there. That is really the thing that makes this trip hard to sum up. We did a lot. So, instead of trying to sum it up, I will just dive right back in. As I mentioned in my previous posts, my trip started with a tour up to Lake Mica in the Antisana area. The main trip would cover the southeastern set of islands: San Cristobal, Espanola, Floreana, Santa Cruz, Bartolome, North Seymour, and the South Plaza islet. The first post covered our time from San Cristobal to Floreana. We will follow this up with a few days in Mindo. This post covers our time from Santa Cruz to the South Plaza islet and back to San Cristobal.

11/10 -

Today, we woke to cloudy, gloomy skies. I was a bit concerned. I swore it was going to rain on us. It was not a matter of getting wet. It was more a concern about it ruining any birding. Today was the only day of the trip we really had a chance to find some different Darwin finches. We would be heading up into the forested highlands of Santa Cruz. I was, again, up early. It was dark when I went up to the top deck; so, I went back to bed and then got up a little later. The light had improved?

The day started with a bus ride. I am joking, of course. Every trip started with a panga ride. We took pangas to the marina and then we boarded a bus. Getting us out of the marina was a bit like herding cats. There was a lot of activity in the water, including Black-tipped Reef-Shark. Just as Antonio got us all moving toward the bus, Karina called out the small pack (group? flock?) of golden ray swimming by. I remember Antonio looking at her and asking her why she would do that. She innocently shrugged. After much admonishment from Antonio for us to "stop having fun" and to move towards the bus, we were on our way.

Our first stop would be our only real planned chance at birding. Up the highway about a half hour was a spot with a pull-off called Los Gelemos, "The Twins". The stop here was planned, but we would be doing it as a birding stop. It is normally just covered as part of the geology/natural history of the island. We did my least favorite thing here. We split into two groups. Here, we would have our only chances at Green Warbler-Finch, Small and Large Tree-Finches, Woodpecker Finch, and Vegetarian Finch. I was eager to see them all; particularly the Woodpecker Finch. Its use of tools is fairly unique in the bird world. During a stop at the entrance to the national park area, we were fortunate enough to have a Small Tree-Finch feeding right next to the bus. At this height, we were in a forested area with large trees. This was what we needed for the other finches. The two groups headed in different directions around a loop, and I knew this would work out poorly. It did. We met halfway around the loop, and the other group had found Woodpecker and Vegetarian Finch. We had some Green Warbler-Finch. We finished the loop and still had nothing. The other group had not arrived yet; so, I headed back down trail and started birding on my own. The other guide had been pishing. Our guide had been silent. I went back and started pishing my way through the loop until I met the other group. To rub salt in the wound, they had found another Woodpecker Finch. I had at least managed a Large Tree-Finch. Disappointed did not really sum up my feelings.

Large Tree-Finch

For the most part, the birds are pretty much identical. How are they being identified? Size and, mostly, bill size. The "Darwin" finches are all descended from a single ancestor; identified as most likely being a Dull-coloured Grassquit. Over time the bird evolved into different species to exploit various food resources. As a matter of fact, the species are continuously evolving now. In years with lots of rain and ample food supplies, the Small, Medium, and Large all "expand" in bill sizes. There can be overlaps in the bill sized of the various species. In harsher years, the species get pared back to definitive groups that each have their own specialized food resources they exploit. According to an article I saw, in the '80s, an Espanola Ground-Finch had made it to Daphne Major, an island well north of its normal range. There, it was breeding with other finches and making a new "large" finch that was able to exploit new food sources. Will it become a new species? Hard to say, but it is interesting.

Back to the topic at hand, there is really nothing in the way of plumage to differentiate the bird. They have different songs, but that is only helpful if they are singing and if you know the song. Very few birds were singing. This makes some of the identification subjective and, possibly, indeterminate. Ground-Finches are found everywhere - lower elevations, higher elevations, dry grass areas, and wet forest. They tend to be more brownish or solid black. Tree-Finches are found in the wet forest highlands. Males are more two-toned. Jon explained it as Oregon Junco-like. Females are more gray. As for the Small/Medium/Large designations? Small are relatively smaller and have noticeably small bills. Helpful? Large have hulking bills with a pronounced curved culmen. The bills dominate the entire face. To me, the Medium looked like a thick version of the Small. The bill was not as deeply curved as the large, but it was not as fine and nearly-conical as the Small. Makes sense? Well, I would not call myself an expert. At least here, we did not have to worry about Medium Tree-Finch. They are not on this island. As for the Woodpecker Finch, I could not tell you. I never did see one. Without first-hand experience, I cannot lend photographical or anecdotal information any better than what you can find online elsewhere. I did finally find a Vegetarian, and I can talk about that more when we get to it.

In the meantime, our group have moved on to the Giant Tortoise ranch, Rancho Primicia. The place had dozens of free range tortoise milling about. After a quick change into some rubber boots to help protect against invasive fire ants, we were turned loose for a half hour to enjoy the place. It was still a somewhat forested area; so, you could guess what I was doing. Me and a couple other birders who had missed out on the other finches set off on a mission. We wanted to see some finches. I mean, I wanted to see tortoise, too. Between walking and pishing loudly, I took the time to shoot some tortoise pics. These were much easier to see and photograph than the ones on San Cristobal. Again, I drew the line at laying down in an area covered in giant tortoise poop (key word here is giant) and with fire ants. Better/braver photographers than I will have to take that on. I settled for taking a knee where possible.

I also caught this strange bipedal tortoise while there. Interestingly, it appeared to be some sort of visiting "tourist" tortoise, because it was way too busy taking photos of all the other tortoises to notice me stalking it.

"Tourist" Tortoise

Finches were abundant here. The open grass areas attracted large numbers of Ground-Finch. It was just a matter of sorting through them for the ones that were different. Unfortunately, we only had one Tree-Finch come in here. It was a Large Tree-Finch, which was nice. As is human nature, we tend to focus on the things that are unique or different. Unsurprisingly, I walked out with many more photos of Medium and Large than I did of Small; even though Small was the most abundant.

Here are a couple photos to highlight what looks like a Small and a Medium Ground-Finch. Both birds are sitting on the same perch. The one happened to come in and displace the other while I as shooting.

Medium Ground-Finch

You cannot judge relative size of this bird. While the photos are of the same branch, I have moved between shots. What I see above is a bird with a heavier looking bill. The culmen is thicker and has a pronounced curvature to it. The bird below has a smaller, albeit still thicker than some, bill. The culmen is noticeably thinner and much less sharply curved. Overall, it occupies less space on the front of the head. Basically, imagine a line coming through the middle of the bill (where the two parts come together). The eye sits just above this line on most birds. Now, imagine two parallel lines that are positioned at the top and bottom of where the bill meets the head. On a Small, this top line is coming just above the eye. On a Medium, the line is coming across just short of the crown.

Small Ground-Finch

For completeness, here is another shot of a Large Ground-Finch. A very thick bill with a very deeply curved culmen. The bill occupies about the full width of the head. In terms of the parallel lines mentioned above, here the top line would align directly with the top of the head. Anyway, this and relative size of the birds compared to others around it is how I judged the birds.

Large Ground-Finch

Now that I have explained myself, on to other birds! Of note here were Common Gallinule (which I embarrassingly called out as rail - many times the mouth engages before the brain), a Purple Gallinule (found and correctly ID'd by Robin), and some White-cheeked Pintail (which I stupidly called teal - why??). As always, there were also a number of Yellow Warbler about.

Time here flew by, and it was time to get back on the bus. I was dejected at having failed to find a Woodpecker Finch and may have been sulking. I had forgotten that we were going to visit a lava tube before heading back to the boat. All was not lost.

We drove to a spot down the road that had a thick stand of trees. The lave tube was down a short path into the trees. I have seen lava tubes. Neat? Yes. As interesting as a new species of bird? Not at this moment. John, Karina, and I stayed up top and birded while everyone else headed down into the tube. They would be coming back up; so, we did not need to follow them. I started pishing in birds. A Woodpecker Finch had been seen shortly before we had arrived. While pishing, a large finch pushed in above us. It would not come down, and the overcast backlighting was making it really tough to see the bird. I took some quick shots. The shot revealed nothing in the way of features, but I knew it would be that way. The key was to get some sort of record before I started taking the time to adjust the exposure compensation. At least this way I would have something to adjust and review when I got home. I finally got the compensation right and found we were looking at a Vegetarian Finch. Somehow, this made everything a little better.

Vegetarian Finch

While it is not the best photo and more of a side portrait would highlight things a bit better, this will have to do. As with other finches, you want to look at the bill. Both the upper and lower parts of the bill are deeply curved. The bill is almost shaped like that of a parrot. Compared to other finches, this finch is also the largest, but that is impossible to judge from a photo. And that pretty much concludes everything I think I know about Darwin finches.

The group returned a few minutes later, and I straggled back onto the bus. We made the drive back down to town and returned to ship. Lunch was served and then we got ready for our next excursion. I mentioned this in the last post, and it is no less true, now. I understand why we have limited time in the areas we visit. I just wish we had longer. An hour to two hours is not nearly enough time for these visits. There is so much to see, and I was rarely ready to move on when our time had run out.

This afternoon's excursion was going to be a bit different. We were going to visit the Darwin Center. There, Antonio talked to us about the importance of conservation. He stressed the importance of communicating this to the younger generations and getting them involved. It was a message we had heard many times in Costa Rica. The Darwin Center, in addition to breeding tortoises, was the community outreach and education center of the island. Here is where field trips went and, hopefully, the importance of preserving the environment was spread to young minds. We got a bit of this message, and it was moving to see how passionate our guide was in communicating it to us. We also visited the pens where the various tortoise from different islands are raised for release. Some quick notes about the tortoise and their shells. As you may have noticed, the ones earlier in the day were very dome shaped. At the center, they had tortoise from various islands, and some of those have shells that are what they refer to as a saddle shape. You can see one in the images below. The shell is a bit flatter and rises a bit in the front. Not overly similar to a modern saddle, but close enough for early explorers to note the similarity and name the islands for the old Spanish word for saddle - Galapago.

From there, we headed in to see the remains of Lonesome George. I am not going to go into details on the story of Lonesome George. It is a sad tale and one easily looked up on the internet (or by just clicking the link back there). What I will tell you is that his remains are housed in a very expensive facility on the island. After his death, it was decided to have his remains mummified. This does not mean wrapped in bandages and stuck in a sarcophagus. Organs were removed. Skin was prepared. The body was desiccated, etc. He looks real. It is kinda creepy. As dry as the islands are, they are still way too humid for a mummified tortoise. So, a special facility was built that keeps the temperature and humidity just right. Everything is carefully controlled. As I said, the building is very expensive. And that was a problem. The town did not need an expensive mausoleum for Lonesome George. It needed better schools and a better hospital. As our guide mentioned, the old hospital was conveniently located just up the road from the church. So, how did the building get funded? One word. Ecotourism. Building the facility and the building would, in turn, bring more money in than it would cost. The town was not convinced, but an agreement was finally reached. As part of the agreement, all tours allow for free-time in the city. The hope is that the tourists would visit shops and spend money that would enrich the city in other ways. And that is exactly how our afternoon was spent; enriching the town and, in a way, our own experience.

First though, I tracked down some of the birds I had seen while touring the center. I had not seen Common Cactus-Finch yet. The Galapagos Mockingbird here was the fourth and final endemic mockingbird for the islands. I wanted a picture.

Afterwards, we wandered our way back to the marina. Carmen and I visited some small boutique art stores. I bought a small piece of art with a Blue-footed Booby on it. Carmen and I stopped at a place and had passionfruit smoothies. She also bought a brownie for one of the panga drivers (George) whose birthday was yesterday (she is one of the most thoughtful people I know).

Not surprisingly, I am always looking for birds. I noticed some Lava Gull flying overhead. I turned around and looked directly at the fish market I was standing in front of. Skulking around behind it was a Lava Gull. I had been looking for photos of this bird since we arrived. Reportedly, it is the rarest gull in the world. It is endemic to the islands, and I think they said there were about 400 or so of them? Unfortunately, the bird was just wondering around on the concrete waiting to scavenge some fish scraps, but you take what you can get.

We got to the marina with some time to spare. The most interesting thing we found (aside from the Lava Gull, of course) was a very poorly photographed scorpion. We amused ourselves with photos around the marina until it was time to head back to the boat.

The evening finished with the usual routines. With the overcast skies, I skipped the evening visit to the sun deck and headed for bed.

11/11 -

Today, I could feel the weight of the end of the trip starting to settle in. I was convinced that the birding was primarily over and that the rest of the trip would be "going through the motions". Of course, I was wrong. Poor attitude aside, I was up early to check out our new location. We were at Bartolome. From a birding and wildlife perspective, this island was not talked up well - at all. Dangerously hot to all wildlife. Something about the heat being magnified by the large iron content of the rocks. Little plant life. No soil formation had occurred yet on this relatively young island. It was stated that things came here to die. It sounded pleasant. Regardless, it was beautiful in the early morning light.

We were going to start the (every) morning with a panga ride. Our guest panga drivers were already waiting for us. Suddenly, these guys are everywhere.

This was not just any ride, though. This morning, we were going to go look for Galapagos Penguin. They form small colonies, and there was one on this island. They head out early to fish, but the guides were hopeful that we would catch some before they had left. We found one. The lighting was tough, but I had time to work through it. By the end, the sun was hitting the bird harshly from the side (as opposed to more from the back, which is easier to compensate for), and I just shut down the exposure to keep from blowing out the white portions of the bird and let the rest bleed into a low-key, black image. I like the way it turned out. These guys are super cute, and I was overjoyed to have such a good model.

We looped around a bit and then headed to the landing. I guess once you get a photo of a Lava Gull, they become a lot easier to find.

Way back in the first post, I made mention of not always choosing the right time to bring the small camera. Normally, I carry a tiny 16-50mm pancake lens on it and use it for landscape shots. I wanted something a bit higher quality for this trip and brought a much larger 24-70mm lens. There were those dreams of close-up boobies and albatross. Those were going to be shot wide angle. The lens makes the small camera heavy, and it does not clip on the backpack as nicely. I left it behind. This island features a couple hundred steps leading up to the top of it. Part of what makes this island unique (aside from its desolate geology) is that it has a terrific overview of the general makeup of the islands; in other words, it shows that the entire area is one of the most concentrated volcanic areas in the world. From atop the island, you can see a lot of craters - a lot. That boat ride to see the penguin. We were in one. You could see that clearly from up there. The island also holds the distinction of being the only (according to our guide) place that has ever been featured twice on the cover of National Geographic magazine. That he spent 12 years working with them lends some credibility to this statement. So, why did I leave the wide angle lens behind and trudge up there with just the long lens? I guess I only had penguins on my mind. Now, I have regrets. It was beautiful.

What I was able to capture were some lava lizards that inhabit the island. Some locusts that blow in from Santiago (to die). Some cactus that grow out of the dying remains of past cactus - there is no soil. Some small plants eking out a meager living. Nothing of the overall geology or geography. No lava tube remains. No grand vistas. Anyway, you get the idea. Carry both cameras. At least bring cameras you are willing to carry.

Back aboard the ship, we prepared for snorkeling. This was my second and final attempt. It went better. The draw of seeing a shark got me in the water. I still had issues with the mask fogging (shampoo nor spit did nothing to fix the issue), but I at least got to see a White-tipped Reef-Shark snoozing on the bottom. Carmen found it, and I was happy she pointed it out.

That afternoon, we heard a talk from Karina on the early life of Charles Darwin. It was interesting and changed my perspective a bit. It was also interesting to learn of Alfred Wallace and his simultaneous development of theories on evolution.

During this time, we moved locations and returned to the north side of Santa Cruz. There was a changing of the guard somewhere along the way. Where we mostly had Great Frigatebird previously, we now had mostly Magnificent Frigatebird. One of the adult males made this ID super easy.

The purple iridescence makes this a Magnificent Frigatebird

A few birds took to perching on the support arm for the panga hoist. This sometimes necessitated the cleaning of the boats before the next excursion. Here, you can see a female Magnificent and an immature Great Frigatebird. The female has black feathers extending down from the throat. The immature bird has rusty feathers on it, which makes it a Great.

I also took some time to look for petrels (I only distantly saw a pair on our first day of the trip) and different storm-petrels. No joy for either. I got some shots at Elliot's Storm-Petrel and some Galapagos Shearwater for my efforts.

At Black Turtle Beach, we took another panga ride to explore the mangroves. Again, no Mangrove Finch. Nothing really of note from this ride. We did have a bit of excitement when a sea lion scared up a fish. As soon as the fish hopped out of the water, the Brown Pelicans nearby sprung into action. It was a close call, but the fish escaped the pelicans - only to be captured by the sea lion. The fish never really stood a chance.

The narrow escape.

Smooth-billed Ani, Cattle Egret, Striated Heron, Yellow Warbler, and Galapagos Flycatcher rounded out sightings on the trip. There were a lot of sea turtles back in the various coves, as well. Our guide, Antonio, asked to have his picture take to prove to his wife that it was very cold out. It was quite warm; maybe just not by Ecuadoran standards.

It is actually a bit unfair to say that nothing else exciting happened. As we were boating back, Jon, our trip guide, looked up and suddenly called out an Osprey flying over. That is quite a rare sighting for the area. I snapped some quick ID pics, but they were not worth sharing. Quite a record, really. Amazing to think of how the bird could have even ended up there.

We headed back to the boat and I snapped a pic of what I was fairly sure was the same Blue-footed Booby I shot on the way in; just dramatically different lighting.

The mood in the cabin that night was a bit more somber. There was talk of repacking and the flights ahead. We still had one more full day. We also had a few days of birding ahead of us. So, talk of heading home was a bit premature. This is how trips typically go, though. There comes a point where you realize it is going to end, and then you think about heading back to work. It is nice to get away. I particularly like trips where I cannot be reached. There were many days this trip that we were completely out of cell service. Those days were nice. They also were not over, yet. Another night of being rocked to sleep and a new set of islands in the morning.

11/12 -

I am not sure why I do not have a sunrise shot from this day... (checks journal) no reason. I guess we get right to the wildlife pictures, then. Overnight, we had moved to the South Plaza islet. We had one goal here. We were looking for Galapagos Land Iguana. The iguana is reliant on the cactus found here. Males will stake out a cactus and, apparently, wait for the rainy season to settle in and things to spring to life. In the meantime, the iguana patiently waits. There is no real way to dress this up. We found two, and I cannot even tell you if they blinked. They did not move. Again, it is part of the problem with wildlife being indifferent to people. These iguana had already seen Americans and were not as excited about seeing us as we were to see them. If only we were from somewhere more exotic... maybe? Do not get me wrong. I did not want them scurrying away in fear. After a bit, you just start to feel invisible.

The red plant is Sesuvium, also known as carpetweed. It turns bright red as the dry season lingers on. It will eventually return to a more normal looking green once the rainy season returns.

A closer look.

Personally, I think it looks fantastic in red, and I shot as much as I could against a backdrop of it. There was nothing else new in the way of wildlife on the island. Off the island was a different story. The waters are patrolled by Galapagos Shark, a relative of the Great White. We were lucky enough to spot a dorsal fin of one swimming close to shore. The tip of the fin is a dark gray. Snorkeling is not allowed here.

Back on land, there were the usual suspects. Not that I was bored of them. Quite the opposite. In fact, I really wanted to spend a lot more time on this island. I think we only had an hour or an hour and a half. Never enough time.

One more of that super-cute baby sea lion!