Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Galapagos - Floreana Island

Three hours on a speed boat later, and via Endersby Island, we arrived at Floreana Island. One of only four inhabited islands in the island chain, it has the smallest population, with fewer than 150 residents, and many haunting tales to accompany it. At the small harbor we were greeted by enormous and colourful marine iguanas, much larger than on San Cristobal. Once our bags had been inspected, we were deposited in a hotel called 'Lave Lodge'; a series of small wooden cabins, one per pair. This was the most rustic accommodation we had been in so far, and we were sharing ours with at least three small geckos... which at least meant that it was mosquito free.

Travelling in style on Floreana...
After lunch with some very inquisitive Galapagos finches, and a rest, we were taken, via a rather interesting mode of transport (seen picture, left), to the highlands of Floreana. On our way up, we saw our first cattle and farmland of the trip. There were huge orange farms, as well as many other fruit farms. As we ascended, the air became noticeable cooler and the vegetation became greener and more lush.

Yellow warbler, mid snack
On our walk through the trail, we spotted yellow warblers, Galapagos flycatchers and Galapagos finches. But, most impressively, we came across our first giant tortoises. These were not necessarily wild, but were in a large enclosure surrounded by huge boulders to prevent them going into 'town'. These tortoises were also hybrids, so were not supposed to breed, so as not to dilute the 'pure' native populations. We had been warned several times that we were not allowed to get closer than 2 m to any of the animals, but even so, when we took photographs of the tortoises from this distance, some did not take too kindly to it, and began to hiss quite loudly. If you can imagine what Darth Vader wheezing with a bad cold might sound like, it is not too dissimilar from the noise these tortoises could make. Our guide explained that this is what they would do if they felt threatened; the purpose was not to scare away intruders, but to expel air from their lungs in order to make room for them to retreat their heads into their shells if necessary.

Galapagos flycatcher
Galapagos giant tortoise
We did see tortoises even bigger than these on Santa Cruz, but that is a different story. Beyond the tortoises, we came to a natural spring. Floreana is one of only two islands with a source of freshwater. The other is Santa Cruz, and everywhere else must have their water imported. This meant that Floreana was the first island to become inhabited, and our guide told us many of the strange tales of what became of the first inhabitants of this island...

Brown pelican
After our excursion, we had the option of snorkeling next to one of the small black sand beeches. My husband snorkeled, seeing Galapagos green turtles nibbling away and many fish. I sat on the beech with the others who came along, trying to take photos of the bird life that had come to join us. One was a huge pelican who settled nearby on a rock, creating a beautiful silhouette against the almost setting sun. The others were squabbling striated herons, who I accidentally got into the middle of before they could resume their argument.

Brown pelican against the dusky beech

Battling striated herons
Having the full attention of a striated heron can be a little disconcerting...

Floreana sunset

We started our next and final morning on Floreana in possibly the best way to start a morning. Straight after breakfast, we went snorkeling in a sheltered cove not far from the lava lodge. Our guide said that he knew where the turtles slept, so we would be guaranteed of seeing them. He wasn't wrong. We saw maybe 20 or more Galapagos green turtles, all either resting on the sea floor, eating breakfast off the rocks, or beginning to surface for air. At one stage, with three of us in a rough circle, one turtle slowly drifted up from the floor and gently surfaced to take a breath right in the middle of us. An absolutely magical experience, and certainly the best way to start the day.

Straight afterwards, we had to prepare for our speed boat ride to our next island; Isabela. But more on that in my next post!

(Only after we had been seen off by the marine iguanas though...)

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Galapagos - San Cristobal Island

Galapagos ground finch
For our honeymoon, we went on a once in a lifetime trip to the Galapagos Islands. It was everything we dreamed it would be; the animals were so unafraid of humans they would not run away and all of the wildlife was so abundant. We saw over 40 different species, and that's before even taking into account fish seen whilst snorkeling, or plants!

The first island we visited was San Cristobal. We arrived by plane from mainland Ecuador, and were immediately greeted by views of frigate birds over the sea, and by Galapagos finches hopping around the airport. We were quickly taken to our hotel and to pick up snorkeling equipment. Then, our naturalist guide took us to the waterfront. It was unbelievable; there were sealions and marine iguanas everywhere, along with sally lightfoot crabs and a lava heron. Some sealions were even asleep on the benches! Our guide was patient, and understood our excitement, despite knowing that these were the most common species we would see over the coming days.

Sealion on bench, reading 'preserve what is ours'

Marine iguana
Later he took us on a walk to and along the beech, where we saw even more sealions, marine iguanas and frigate birds, but also lava lizards, pelicans, flying blue footed boobies. A couple of frigate birds flew over our group so low that we could have reached up and touched them. After this little adventure, we got dropped off at a beach to await the sunset, enjoying the company of the sealions and watching the youngsters call and search for their mothers, then suckle. Some of them looked like perfect sand sculptures as they clambered up the beach still wet from the sea. The sun, as it set, was beautiful over the sea and by this point, we were completely and utterly enchanted by these 'charmed islands' and were looking forward to what the next day had in store.

Sally lightfoot crab

Lava heron (subspecies of striated heron)

Lava lizard

Frigate bird - one of the pirates of the sea

Suckling sealion

Sealion sand sculpture

Sunset with the sealions

Kicker rock
The following day was a snorkeling trip to 'Kicker Rock'. As we had to be there for a particular time slot, we had a couple of hours wildlife spotting from the speedboat. We saw blue footed boobies and brown pelicans up close, young, female and displaying male frigate birds, a yellow-crested night heron, swimming marine iguanas, and the odd Galapagos green turtle poking its head out of the waves.

Snorkeling at Kicker Rock was hard work; it was deep and the current was strong, so I didn't last long before heading back to the boat. I occupied myself attempting to photograph the seabirds resting and nesting on the rock, such as Nazca boobies, red-billed tropic birds, brown noddies... Most of the others, however, including my husband, continued on to see hammerhead, Galapagos and white-tipped reef sharks, as well as thousands of fish, green and hawksbill turtles... sealions...
Blue footed booby!
Brown pelican
Brown noddies
Yellow crested night heron
Displaying frigate birds
Brown pelican
Nazca boobies
Rescued giant tortoise
Later in the afternoon, our guide took us to the Interpretation Centre on San Cristobal, where he explained how the island chain formed and how different species arrived on the islands, were isolated for many many years, and therefore accrued mutations that led to them becoming new species in their own right. Speciation is a fascinating process, and can be obviously seen through the bill shapes and niches of the Galapagos finches. However, our guide explained that it was actually the mocking birds of the Galapagos that Darwin focused on more than the finches, and which gave him the idea. At the interpretation centre, we saw a rescued giant tortoise and our first Galapagos flycatcher. On our way out, we were told about the environmental issues facing the Galapagos, such as how they generate electricity (at present, some islands are powered by diesel generators, the diesel for which must be imported from the mainland), what they do with their waste, how they get enough food for the people that live there... and what is being done to combat these problems.
Galapagos flycatcher
The next morning we headed to the myseterious Floreana Island, which you can read about in my next post!

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Wedding Wildlife

My quietness over the last few weeks has been due to manic preparation for our wedding, which has meant there has been little time for our usual excursions to Strumpshaw or Foxley. However, in true 'us' style, we had a natural and wildlife themed wedding. Our flowers were designed to be as wild and natural as possible, and our florist did a wonderful job. Our photographer tried to get us in as many 'natural' locations as possible, which meant tracking across fields in a wedding dress and heels in a few places! Each table was named after a different British animal, and I painted a picture for each table rather than just having the table names. We had a wonderful day, and we hope everyone who attended did too! These are the pictures I painted for each table, and I will try to find more photos soon:

Badger - I think badgers are amazing, although I've still only seen live badgers on a few occasions when I was
much younger on holiday with my parents in Torquay.

Barn owl - This beautiful animal is another that had eluded for some time, but now that I work in rural Norfolk I
see them more often when driving to and from school in the dark.

Brown hare - Yet another that did a good job of eluding me when growing up in Cambridge. I have since sought them
out on Havergate Island in Suffolk and on farmland in Norfolk.

Goldfinch - I remember it being a rarity to see a goldfinch in the garden of my childhood home, but I am glad to say
it is now probably our most common visitor to our bird feeding station.

Hedgehog - Sadly, an animal that I used to see far more often than I do now. I can't remember the last time I saw one
in the wild.

Kingfisher - One of the birds that always gets a warm response. When I have been on trips on the canal boat with my
husband, mother- and father-in-law in the last few years, the sightings have been many!

Marsh harrier - A bird I assumed to be scarce before moving to Norfolk and visiting Strumpshaw Fen!

Otter - I think otters are beautiful, but I have not seen a wild one in a very long time. This might be my next challenge.

Red squirrel - these critters do a very good job of avoiding me, I have been to Kielder forest and not seen one, I have
also been to viewing points in the lake district and not seen one. Seeing one is very high on my 'list' though!

Water vole - Such cute little mammals, I used to see them often when living on campus and regularly walking round the
'lake' at UEA, or on Ecology field trips.