Sunday, 28 September 2014

September Walks

September is a time of year that I look forward to and dread in equal parts. It is the start of the new school year and, it may surprise some people, especially our new students, to hear that we teachers worry about what the start of term will be like and our how our new classes will be too. At the same time, we look forward to the fresh start of the year ahead, with new and eager faces to enthuse with science and familiar faces with whom we continue to enthuse or attempt to re-enthuse. It also marks the start of summer turning into autumn, with the calendar year beginning to draw to a close, with changing colours in the trees above and new wildlife sightings to be had, with birds reappearing after eclipse and winter migrants starting to make themselves known.

I have visited two well trodden parts of my local patch this month, the UEA broad and Strumpshaw Fen.

2nd September 2014 - UEA Broads

The day before the start of term, I decided to don my walking shoes and clear my head by heading to the UEA to walk around the broad and through the woodland. There were lots of people running and using the space, so there wasn't a huge amount of wildlife in plain sight, but the 'lake' still looked beautiful in the fading light. Walking along the boardwalk, I was lucky to glimpse a kingfisher perched on an overhanging branch, and as bad as this photo is, in my family proof of a kingfisher sighting is always required! The UEA rabbits were also out in force and robins were starting to sing by the field next to the horses. 

As I got closer to the end of the walk, I could hear countless small birds in one of the trees, but could not see any of them! I could pick out blue tits, great tits and perhaps long tailed tits too, but I could only guess at some of the others. I think there must have been an abundance of insects in this particular tree to have so many small birds of different species flocking to it.

27th September - Strumpshaw Fen

I've said it many times before, but I love going to Strumpshaw Fen. Whenever I visit, I am rewarded with a peaceful walk and some great photo opportunities. This time, it was with dragonflies, mostly Common darters. There were more of them than I could count, as well as some larger species that I could not see clearly enough to identify, but would hazard a guess at Southern hawkers and Emperor dragonflies. It has been unseasonably warm and dry for September, which may explain their abundance. It wasn't only members of the order of Odonata that we spotted this time, but also many avian species too. There were shovelers, gadwall and other ducks at the reception hide, and we spotted marsh harriers, herons, lapwings, greylag geese and a huge mute swan at the Fen hide and walking around the reserve. We spotted a volery of my favourite small bird, long tailed tits, when we were nearing the end of our walk. This gang must have been at least 20 - 30 strong and we stood and listened to their contact calls for a few minutes before moving on. 

Monday, 15 September 2014

The Galapagos - Santa Cruz

Our arrival at our fourth and final island was somewhat of a shock after our first three landings. There were actually people here, and lots of them, both tourists and locals. Welcome to Puerto Ayora, the biggest town in Galapagos, where over half the population of the entire archipelago live. Although, at least seemingly, in relative harmony with the wildlife. Watching fishmongers fillet enormous fish caught that day with a wild pelican eagerly awaiting one side and a sealion waiting below for anything that may fall off the table, was ever so slightly surreal.

Galapagos mocking bird at the Charles Darwin
Research Centre
Our first taste of this island was the Charles Darwin Research Centre. Although we unfortunately missed 'Lonesome George' by a couple of years, we did meet his two female companions who shared his enclosure. This was also the first and only time that we were able to see a land iguana. The animals here are part of a breeding program to increase numbers in the wild population again. Similarly, there were species of giant tortoise from a number of islands being used for breeding and release programs. Our guide told us, as we were standing by the monument of Lonesome George, how, as a child, he belonged to the 'friends of Lonesome George'. This meant he got to help feed the giant tortoises here and speak on the radio. To me, at least, this seems like a place where people and animals can coincide harmoniously and where the local people love and respect their environment and what a special place it is.

Captive giant tortoise at the Charles Darwin Research Centre

Captive land iguana at the Charles Darwin Research Centre

Wild giant tortoise in the highlands
The next day, our final full day on these 'charmed islands', we hired kayaks in Tortuga Bay, and went looking for, and found, white tipped reef sharks, green turtles and spotted eagle rays. The spotted eagle rays were in large groups, and some of the individuals had an enormous wingspan; easily wider than I am tall (I am 5' 7")!

Me with a wild giant tortoise!
In the afternoon, we were taken to farmland in the highlands where wild Santa Cruz giant tortoises come to graze. There were so many of them, it was difficult to believe really. Some were bigger than others, but some truly were giants, easily 500 - 600 lb. The small cafe by the entrance had three tortoise shells, which really made you appreciate how large these beasts are. We each had a photo with us inside the shells and there was little if any struggling required to fit (although it was a little more challenging getting out again)...

White cheeked pintail who was happily bathing with
the giant tortoises
On the same land, we also got to explore the lava tunnels. Amazing geological formations, created when huge flows of lava cooled down faster on top than below, causing a river of still hot and flowing lava to continue through and out, leaving the outer shell behind. These have then been further eroded by rivers of water during floods and other events, leaving them heavily scarred and patterned inside.

This unfortunately spelled the end of our time here, and the next day, we headed back to mainland Ecuador and to Quito. Most definitely the best holiday ever.

Me in a giant tortoise shell
Ribs and vertebrae inside tortoise shell

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The Galapagos - Isabela Island

Frolicking sealions
After another interesting speed boat transfer, we arrived at what became my favourite island: Isabela. Isabela is the largest of the Galapagos Islands, we stayed to the southeast of the island in Puerto Villamil, a great base for exploring. We were greeted by Galapagos penguins on the rocks and zipping through the crystal clear water, their silhouettes appearing perfectly streamlined. There were also, of course, more sealions and pelicans on our arrival by water taxi into the harbor. The sealions were incredibly playful and were rolling and tumbling in the shallows.
A happy and dozing Galapagos penguin

Marine iguana trying to cool down
Isabela is a relatively young island when compared with those in the East, meaning it is still quite volcanic. So, on our first afternoon on the island, we were taken to the lava fields a short water taxi ride away. Our guide warned us to be careful. The igneous rock making the land was basalt, and due to the way it cooled and the shapes made, there were jagged pieces jutting out in all manner of directions. The other thing to look out for were the marine iguanas. Although we had see them many times already, we had never been to an area where they seemed to blend in quite so well... We had to be very careful not to tread on them! We also saw some different marine iguana behaviour. They are dark in colour, as are the igneous rocks they bask on, meaning that they are very good at absorbing infrared radiation from the Sun. When it is a hot day, like the day we visited, they are at a serious risk of overheating. The marine iguana in the picture (left) has his tail raised, which is their method of cooling down.

Lava lizard, staying still for once!
Another creature to look our for among the rocks was the lava lizard. They were everywhere, scuttling over the rocks, the iguanas, all looking for flies and insects to snack on. It was as I was trying to photograph these that we suddenly heard our guide call:

"Quick everybody, boobies!!!"

 Not a phrase I thought I'd ever hear, or if I did, not one I would run towards... But we were glad we did. As we rounded the corner, we saw hundreds and hundreds of blue footed boobies gathering and circling in a large flock above the bay. We watched them in awe, which was made even greater when, all of a sudden, and almost simultaneously, they folded their wings and dove into the surf creating a feeding frenzy. The video of this moment is below.
Blue footed boobies gathering in a feeding frenzy

On our walk back, we looked for white tipped reef sharks in the channels through the rock. When we got back to Isabela, we spent the evening in a beach bar, with its own passed out marine iguana. All of this amazing wildlife, and it was only our first afternoon on Isabela. We still had a day and a half to go!

Galapagos mocking bird
The next day was physically the toughest of the trip. We started the morning early to pick up mountain bikes to cycle through the wetlands to the 'Wall of Tears'. The wall of tears is steeped in human history, and is where, as our guide said "the weak man dies and the brave man cries". As he was explaining the story to us, a series of Galapagos mocking birds came to check us out from the top of the wall, and tried to chime in their side of the story too. Whilst I was taking photos though, I managed to get stung by an introduced yellow paper wasp. Something I would recommend you avoid if you go to the Galapagos. On our cycle back, we stopped at
various places in the wetlands. The first was an inlet, surrounded by mangroves, we had to walk through a tunnel made out of their intertwined branches to reach it. We abandoned our shoes and waded through this slightly brackish 'stream' until we reached the sea. The view was akin to that of a stereotypical tropical paradise, but complete with perching boobies, snowy egrets and pelicans.

Our next stop was to a freshwater pool in the hope of seeing greater flamingos, and we were not disappointed! A small group of flamingos were filter feeding, with one, presumably a male, being rather loud and showing off. Greater flamingos are a recent addition to the fauna of the Galapagos, having only been here for around a thousand years. After being enchanted by them for a number of minutes, we were off again to our final stop before heading back to town, the giant tortoise breeding center. We had seen some wild giant tortoises on our cycle ride, tortoises probably bred at the breeding center and released into the wild. The breeding center had the young tortoises in different holding pens, and each had tortoises of a similar size. They were all tiny compared to those we had seen earlier and whilst on Floreana island. We also learnt that giant tortoises are the only animal that eat the 'poison apples' we kept seeing, and they do so to use it as a laxative to speed up their digestion.

Young giant tortoise eating a 'poison apple'

That afternoon, we hiked the Sierra Negra volcano. An hour and half's hike to see the 10 km wide crater of this shield volcano was well worth it. The volcano is still active, but is packed with wildlife on the walk up to the summit. We heard what we think was a short eared owl, although it refused to call every time we pointed it out to our guide. We also saw both male and female vermilion flycatchers.

Male and female vermilion flycatchers
Our final morning on Isabela was one of my best snorkelling experiences. It's not every week you get to start a Friday by snorkeling with playful Galapagos sealions and beautiful Galapagos penguins. Completely unafraid, we drifted close to a pair of squabbling penguins, listening to their calls and bill clacking. The sealions too were unafraid, but also curious, and would come right up eye to eye with you to blow bubbles at you or just check you out. At one stage, a young sealion jumped over my head as raised it out of the water!

After this amazing experience, it was time to head to our final island: Santa Cruz.