Travelogue with Land Birds

Colm Atkins

July 6, 2004

Day 1, 17 June 2004:

Arrived in the Galápagos Islands via Baltra today by way of large introduced migratory bird known simply as a Boeing 727. The bird thrives in its newfound home, though it has been known to cause smaller species, namely every other bird species on the island, to fly away in terror. While waiting in the line for incoming tourists to pay the park entrance fee and have our forms examined, Dr. Merck spotted a pair of finches resting on one of the nearby trees. Unfortunately, telling them apart with any great degree of certainty is next to impossible. You can make a good guess to gender, as the adult males are mostly all black whereas the females are a mottled brown, but species differentiation is anyone's best guess. The larger of the small ground finches have more than a passing resemblance to the smaller of the medium ground finches, and so on and so forth. The only person(well, group of persons, really) on the planet that can tell them apart do research on the island of Daphne Major under the auspices of Peter Grant. After years upon years of returning to the islands regularly, they can identify individuals with stunning accuracy. Nobody else gets to visit the island, so I can't exactly give you a first hand description of the place, but judging by the book on their research, The Beak of the Finch, its desolate nature is rivalled only by Mars, and at least Mars being rapidly covered by interesting looking rovers.

After working our way through customs and handing over 5 crisp $20 bills for the park entrance fee, we were met by our amazing guide, Luis, and went off to the boat. After a stint on the boat where Luis informed us that clicking our tongues is not the proper way to call sea lions, we set off for a "wet" landing on the island of Santa Cruz. This turned out to be my first encounter with the now infamous Yellow Warbler. At first you're excited. Look! A pretty yellow bird, and it doesn't mind much if you're just a foot or two away! Although, someone seems to have upped the caffeine content of the bugs on the islands, because the little things hop around like nobodies business. Then you start seeing them everywhere. They're the crows of the Galápagos. You see them everywhere and sometimes you wish they'd fly into a bus. Like the finches, they have a convenient system for telling the sexes apart. The males have a bright red crown, which is ornithologist speak for 'hat.' According to Dr. Merck, it's supposedly unusual to see them in and around the rocks on the shore, but they can always be found flitting around among the similarly everpresent sally lightfoot crabs and waves.

And in the distance, someone claims they spotted a Galápagos Hawk. >From the number of supposed sightings, you'd assume the blasted things would be littering the ground. I didn't see this one firsthand, but later in the trip they figure prominently in a category I like to call 'out of focus pictures taken from far away containing what could conceivably be a form of life.'

Day 2, 18 June 2004:

Woke up early, lying on a pair of deck loungers pushed together to form a bed. Immediately noticed that the group of people sleeping outside had suffered two defections to the indoors during the night. Not that I can blame them. If I can offer any advice to the class of 2004, it would be to wear sunscreen. The second piece of advice I would offer is to wear socks if you're going to sleep outside in the middle of an ocean. It gets windy and cold out there, people. I slept outside on the deck every night on the boat. It's really the only way to go. Surprisingly, I didn't once wake up to look at the sunrise.

The horde of people we call a study abroad trip noticed a Galápagos Flycatcher lounging in a tree on the way to what I'll call 'shark overload beach.' Unfortunately I was unable to get a picture of the thing because at the moment I was busy having a heart attack over whether or not the battery that powers the light meter on my camera was really dead, and whether I'd really remembered to pack the spare battery in my messenger pack. As it turns out the battery was fine, and the spare was back on the boat. That said, I'm surprised the bird didn't stick around to have its picture taken, by me at least. According to our frield guide they're "notoriously inquisitive" and often seek out tour groups to investigate. I guess we probably scared the thing off. This bird's related to the much more interesting and rare vermillion flycatcher, which we meet on Santa Cruz island shortly following Tortoisepalooza later in the trip. Another long distance sighting of the Galápagos Hawk today. As the trip goes on these will become far less interesting.

It's fun to watch the transition of what is worth photographing. As the trip begins, you photograph anything and everything composed of at least 60% organic matter. You have this tendancy to thank for the dozens of poorly composed pictures of brightly colored crabs flitting about the surf. Then as the time wears on, people become more and more choosy with their photos. That is, unless you're Dr. Holtz and possess the holy grail of camera technology and space for 2,500 pictures. Finally, you start focusing on your favorite of all the creatures. For me, that was sea lions. I have dozens of pictures of sea lions. The blasted things are just too damn cute.

No other birds of note on Bartolomé, site of Pinnacle rock. The interesting thing about the pinnacle is that it's not a natural formation, but was blown to that shape by the US Navy using it for target practice back during WW2. Daphne Minor is the size it is for the same reason. It's mostl likely so devoid of land birds because of the almost total lack of sizable vegetation. It has a slope full of grey matplant, and the occasional lava cactus. The local population of lava lizards probably provides enough food for the Galápagos Hawks passing over it, but I wouldn't imagine they make a permanent home of the place. The individual we saw was probably flying over from Santiago, where they're still a viable breeding species.

Day 3, 19 June 2004:

Spied a few finches while paddling about in Elizabeth Bay on Isabela Island today. They were flying in and about the many kinds of mangroves that line the water. Didn't hear anything about seeing an actual mangrove finch, but the introduced wasps are quickly outcompeting them into extinction, so they're becoming harder and harder to find. Not much else of note land bird wise in this place.

Later in the day at Urbina Bay we came across a bit more variety. As we walked along the interior we came across a good number of nests up in the tops of the trees. The ones that open from the sides are the finch nests and the others were mockingbird nests. The great similarity of the finch nests illustrates the limited degree of speciation among them. Came across a vegetarian finch in a bush I was unable to identify while everyone else was busy taking pictures of two land iguanas they were hoping would get down and start mating right there in the middle of the path for their amusement. To add another to the list of things I heard about but did not actually witness, I believe that Dr. Merck, or possibly Sue, recognized the call of the short billed ani and made note of it. This recently introduced bird's call is a "whining whistle" and it is presumed to have been introduced by cattle ranchers to get ticks and other parasites off of their herds, a task at which it excels.

As usual, we had a large number of yellow warbler sightings and specks in the distance that could conceivably be hawks, given their tendancy to be circling over land. Also saw another large billed Galápagos Flycatcher. It's probably time to explain why I really don't have pictures of all these things. My camera is old, crotchety and annoying. Couple that with the fact I was shooting my 28-120 and you have a recipe for me not being able to get focused on anything before it gives up on me and decides to go find something to eat.

Day 4, 20 June 2004:

Unfortunately for my stated topic, there's not much a bunch of small squaking land birds can do to tear my attention or memory away from a sea lion giving birth about 15 feet away. It was quite an amazing event to watch, especially given that it was the first birth I'd ever seen, outside of that terrifying video they show you in 9th grade sex ed. I'm sure there were the usual instances of yellow warblers skipping around the rocks, and a ton of finches just about everywhere you look, but I really wasn't paying attention to them after the sea lion incident.

That and I'd completely given up on the food from the boat. Not that I had many expectations, but I'd really had my fill of mixed vegetables, white rice and water for dinner. Not that I can really complain being that I'm a vegetarian by choice, but I would've killed for some tofu mixed into the vegetables or maybe a bean dish.

Day 5, 21 June 2004:

Today was the first really interesting encounter with any land birds. Upon our landing on Pto. Egas we started walking inland past the places associated with the old salt mines. Who should cross our path but a mockingbird. According to the guidebook these things should have been all over us from the first landing, so I'm rather surprised that they didn't really show themselves until today. This was alone, so presumably it wasn't a juvenile. If it had been with another and frequently taking the submissive posture of lowering its head, it's the older bird teaching its younger sibling the ropes of staying alive. The thing pecked at my and Terrance's feet, though I'm not sure why. We'd just had a wet landing so our feet were a little wet but I wouldn't think a bird like the mockingbird would want the salt water our feet were soaking in. My only other hypothesis is that we had some very little seeds on our feet already, which make sense considering I was walking along without any shoes.

Day 6, 22 June 2004:

Today was definitely the high point of the entire trip when viewed through the lens of land birds. The morning was spent in and around Pto. Ayura on Santa Cruz. We toured the Charles Darwin Research Station and got to walk among the reared tortoises. I noticed that there were always birds sitting at the edge, or nearby, of the tortiose's big water pool. Given that the defining characteristic of the islands is that they're pretty short of water this is surely effecting the bird populations in some way. It's also insulates them from nature's effects because the park maintainers aren't going to cut off the water supply to the turtles in the event of a la nina or a drought, so these birds will be able to thrive pretty well no matter what nature is throwing at them. Although, they didn't seem to interested in people, which might mean that peoplpe visiting the research station are being good about not feeding the animals, at least when they're within eyesight of station staff and marines carrying very large rifles.

Following a stop in the town to do some shopping, we headed off into the highlands where we were treated to both tortoisepalooza and both the rare vermillion flycatcher and the woodpecker finch. We hiked through the highlands, chowing down on introduced guava and passion fruits, and spotting tortoises left and right.

After that we drove a little bit higher up the mountain and got into the real business. Our first rare find was the woodpecker finch. Now it's not quite like your normal conception of a woodpecker, in that it doesn't have the strong beak and tough skull necessary to hammer away against tree bark in search of bugs. But it does do basically the same thing. It's pries off chunks of bark and searches about for grubs. The really special thing is that if it finds a stick or twig of suitable size and strength, it'll use this tool to aid in finding food. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see anything like that, but since neither Holtz nor Merck had ever seen one before, it's enough just have seen one. It looks like a normal old finch, really. As I said before, they're pretty tough to tell apart unless you happen to be God.

Our second find was the really pretty vermillion flycatcher. We either saw more than one or a single individual was stalking us. The latter seems more likely seeing as this is rare bird to see and it was a first for both of our fearless leaders. We saw it sitting on branches for a little bit, but it shortly took off to flap really hard against the wind and hover above us, presumably showing off for the ladies in the group. We saw males, because the females are a more subdued shade of yellow. Yet another case of guys dressing up to impress women.

Day 7, 23 June 2004:

Today was really more of a migratory bird day, but we saw them on land so at least for today I'm going to lay claim. We sailed down to Española island in the course of the night and saw a whole lot of nesting blue footed boobies, Nazca boobies and Waved Albatrosses. The albatross mating ritual is pretty bizarre. We watched a male smack his beak with the beaks of two females for about half an hour until he finally chose one got down to the more serious business of smacking his beak more and more often with his beau. According to Luis, this is all so they can get to know each other, as no breeding will take place in the first year. The next year they'll get to know each other a little better before getting down to making new albatrosses. They mate for life, but the males aren't above sneaking in with another female if they arrive back at the island their partner hasn't returned yet. Of course that raises the question of how albatrosses signal that they'd like to engage in an affair. Perhaps the movements of the beak are even more complicated.

Witnessed the mockingbird submission thing for sure today. A mockingbird was walking around our feet, followed closely by a larger bird that pecked and squaked at the poor thing about every five seconds. We knew it was teaching the younger bird exactly how to survive, but it was pretty sad to see this little bird getting smacked around by the older sibling.

Day 8, 24 June 2004:

Our last event of the Galápagos was a short trip to North Seymour Island that started really early in the morning. Normally we'd be up at 6:30 and off the boat around 8. Today we were up at 6 and off the boat 15 minutes later. It was definitely worth it though. We finally saw the frigate birds with those extravagent neck pounches inflated and showing off for the ladies. Not a lot of land bird action, except for the final land bird of the islands, another Boeing of the 727 species.