More details of the trip

Giant tortoise front foot.
Giant tortoise front foot.

There are crazy, rich people doing bad things all through history. It helps sometimes to remember now is no different than any other time. Right now might be closer to home for some of us but corruption and exploitation are a continuous part of human history. From the bible’s first stories (allegory, mind you) to current day news, from the current situation in the U.S. to the Galapagos Islands you can find people lining their own pockets at the expense of others everywhere.

At Egas Port on Santiago Island in the Galápagos there are the remains of a salt production facility.  Internet research reveals only a tamed down version of this story our guides told us. In the 1960s Hector Egas was granted a salt monopoly in Ecuador by his buddy the president. There was no shortage of cheap salt available in Ecuador and it made no sense to mine salt on an island over 600 miles from the mainland and ship it to consumers but the monopoly made that a money making situation. An additional economic plus came from Egas promising his workers land in exchange for work. Out in the islands with nothing to do after work, the workers even made block in their spare time. For free. Because that block was going to be used to build a hotel (where they might work) and their future homes. Meanwhile they mined salt and lived in rough circumstances and received very low pay. They bunked in a barracks. Oh, there was a soccer field. This lasted about two and a half years.

But surprise, surprise. New elections came and Egas’ buddy lost. Egas also lost his salt monopoly and the workers learned that Santiago Island was a national park and there was no land for them. They were out of work, out of luck and they had to go. Today everyone is gone. Only some pilings from the barracks, a commemorative sign and scattered remnants remain. Current day ship workers still use the soccer field, the salt lagoon is a safe home to breeding birds, including flamingos, and there are still blocks visible along the trail. Visitors are not allowed to visit the lagoon but can take a very scenic walk along rocky cliff and grottoes. Notable for our trip were the fur seals and a wee oystercatcher hatchling. Darwin himself spent several weeks on this island while the HMS Beagle sailed off to restock with water. Darwin was constantly afflicted with sea sickness so he leapt at the chance to stay on land for a few weeks.  There’s a feature of surging, roiling water seaside named Darwin’s toilet. No proof on whether or not Darwin found relief there.

Moral of the story: the regular people got screwed, the villain’s family is still prominent, and elections happen. And it’s hard to get to the truth of the history. Googling only came up with superficial stories. Nothing on the exploitation and heartbreak the workers must have felt after spending years working towards a dream of their own home.

Female laza lizard on concrete block.
Female laza lizard on concrete block made by salt mine workers. Puerto Egas on Santiago.
Whale spine
Whale spine with Darwin smiling.
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Trip Report

Galapagos February 2019 Naturalist Journeys, LLC trip with hosts Susan and Burt Mittelstadt. More photos daily as data limits allow.

Group at the Airport in Galápagos
Group at the Airport in Galápagos

Guests: Mariel, Roy, Jill, Maggie, Baird, Janis, Chuck, Mary, Peggy, Bobbie, Julia and Janet.

Before flying to the Galápagos our group of fourteen travelers took an excursion to Antisana National Park to see creatures of the high Andes. Rain was predicted for the afternoon so we got an early start despite some late night arrivals. Despite the predictions it was as clear a day as one could hope in the mountains. Manuel was our knowledgeable guide and Jonaton our expert driver. Our goal was the Andean Condor. At the first pullout it was clear we weren’t at sea level. Despite pounding hearts and fuzzy heads (the elevation all morning was near or over 13,000’) we were all thrilled with instant success. Andean condors were spotted by Maggie at rest on cliffs across the deep canyon. Manuel set up his spotting scope and showed us how to take great photos with our phones and the scope.

The day continued to amaze. Condors were spotted at a total of three locations with one very close flyby. Lunch was a delicious Andean feast. The rain started to come down just as we puled away to head for our hotel. Here’s what else we found that day:

Andean duck
Silvery grebe
Eared dove
White-collared swift
Sparkling violetear
Ecuadorian hillstar
Black-tailed train bearer
Tyrian metaltail
Shining Sunbeam
Giant hummingbird
Slate-colored coot
Andean lapwing
Andean gull
Black-faced ibis
Andean condor
Cinereous harrier
Variable hawk
Black-chested buzzard-eagle
Carunculated caracara
Tawny antpitta
Stout-billed cinclodes
Plain-capped ground-tyrant
Sedge wren (Paramo)
Great thrush
Paramo pipit
Rufous-collared sparrow
Black flowerpiercer
Plumbeous sierra-finch
Plain-colored seed eater.

White-tailed deer
feral dog
Andean rabbit
Alpaca
Feral horse

Andean condor on the Antisana NP sign
Andean condor on the Antisana NP sign
There's a condor in there.
There’s a condor in there. Two.

Galápagos

Day One: Arrival in San Cristobal

We were met at the airport by the brother and sister team of guides, Ivan (I-love) and Karina and four more passengers of our ship the Eric. These two very experienced guides got us to the Eric for lunch and a safety drill and then we were back in out pangas for a visit to the Galapaguera, a tortoise breeding facility on the Island of San Cristobal. At the port we found our first creatures of the Galápagos. There were sea lions, Sally Lightfoot crabs, blue-footed boobies and a green heron. In Galapaguera we saw our first of Darwin’s finches and learned about efforts to restore the archipelago’s land tortoise populations. The highlight bird was our first of two woodpecker finches. We also were introduced to the poison apple tree. The rainy season was well underway and the island was lush with greenery and the air heavy with humidity. Our winter escapees had found a warm refuge. That evening we met the crew and toasted to our great luck to all come together on the fantastic final voyage of the Eric. Our evening meal was the first of many tasty meals. Sleepyheads one and all we hit the racks and motored all night towards Genovesa.

Smooth-billed ani
Galapagos petrel
Frigate (sp)
Blue-footed booby
Brown pelican
Great egret
Cattle egret
Striated heron (Galápagos)
Galápagos flycatcher
San Cristobal Mockingbird
Yellow warbler
Woodpecker finch
Medium ground-finch

Galápagos sea lion
Sally Lightfoot crab

Our first embarkation on the last voyage of the Eric.
Our first embarkation on the last voyage of the Eric.
Our Crew
Our Crew

Day Two: Genovesa, Darwin’s Cove and Prince Philip’s steps.

First activity of the day was a walk at Darwin Bay. Immediately we were met by the archipelago’s famously accessible wildlife. Birds and lizards and fish all seemed to welcome our observations and photographs. Our first marine iguanas were here. After our short walk and talk we donned our gear and hit the water. This group was a happy bunch of snorkelers. Ivan even had a Ring-of-Happiness and individual support for our less experienced participants. After the hour long swim we headed back on ship for snacks and lunch and sea kayaking and paddle boarding. Late that afternoon, after music and a siesta we did a deep water snorkel. Hammerhead sharks and many of their sea companions joined us, including a baleful purple octopus. Back on board to change and then back in the pangas. We climbed the Prince Philip steps to see the vast population of birds that make this remote isle famous. Target bird was the short-eared owl. Bobbies, gulls, frigates, doves, mockingbirds, there were a lot of birds, both species and numbers. As we walked we learned about the Nazca boobies practice of NAV (non-parental visitor aggression) and we watched a juvenile spar with an NAV. The short eared owl has developed a daylight hunting strategy to avoid the Galápagos hawk. It can take birds much bigger than itself and on Genovesa it frequently waits in cracks to ambush incoming storm petrels. We spotted four of these interesting birds on our afternoon walk. One gave quite a show looking as though he might have a pellet to expel. Nothing materialized despite a solid ten minutes of what appeared to be owl expectoration. Then it was back to the Eric for more food and libations. The very active day sent us to bed right after dinner.

Galápagos dove
Ruddy turnstone
Wandering tattler
Swallow-tailed dove
Lava gull
Red-billed tropicbird
Band-rumped storm petrel
Wedge-Rumped storm petrel
Galápagos petrel
Magnificent frigatebird
Great frigatebird
Nazca booby
Blue-footed booby
Red-footed booby
Brown pelican
Yellow-crowned night-heron
Short-eared owl
Galápagos mockingbird
Large ground-finch
Large cactus finch
Galápagos storm-petrel

Underwater:

Spotted eagle ray
Blue chinned parrot fish
Sea cucumbers
King angelfish
White sea urchin
Pencil spend sea urchin
Marine iguana
Wrass
Barberfish
Yellowtail surgeon fish
Gold rimmed surgeon fish
Hammerhead shark
Manta ray (sp)
White-tipped reef shark
Morrish idol
Octopus
Spine-tailed mobula
Diamond stingray
Pufferfish
Blue-chinned parrotfish
Hieroglyphic hawkfish
Three-banded butterflyfish
Giant damsel fish
Panama sergeant major
Large banded blenny
Calico lizard fish
Guinea fowl puffer
Grouper (sp)
Baby jack (sp)
Streamer hawkfish

Nazca Boobies
Nazca Boobies
Short-eared owl
Short-eared owl. Well hidden.

Day Three: Santa Cruz Island, Black Turtle Cove, Baltra, Dragon Hill

After a sound sleep and another long night crossing we headed out early into Black Turtle Cove on the pangas. Here we learned about the mangroves and saw an abundance of penguins, turtles, and nursery sharks. A pair of Pacific green turtles obliged us with their mating practices. The penguins swam by in formation. It seemed like they were seeking handouts. The next activity was another snorkel. The snorkels were so full of saline that further lists only contain notable animals. Midday was occupied by refueling at Baltra. The Gypsy Carpenters helped pass the time with a singalong
in the lounge. That afternoon we snorkeled (again :)) and took a hike up Dragon Hill in search of land iguanas and giant tortoises. Of course we saw both. This group had magic.

White-Cheeked pintail
Smooth-billed ani
Black-necked stilt
Whimbrel
Least sandpiper
Wandering tattler
Lesser Yellowlegs
Lava gull
Elliot’s storm-petrel
Blue-Footed booby
Frigatebird (sp)
Brown pelican
Great blue heron
Galápagos flycatcher
Yellow warbler
Large tree-finch
Small ground-finch
Common cactus-finch
Medium ground-finch
Semipalmated plover

Pacific green sea turtles
Black-tipped shark
hammerhead shark
Concentric pufferfish
Chocolate chip seastar
Spiny lobster
Blue seastar
Pencil sea urchin
Sand dollar
Diamond ray

Day Four: Fernandina Island, Punta Espinoza, Bahia Urvina

By day four we are really into the rhythm of our daily activities. Getting in and out of our wetsuits, eating great food, napping, singing. every day is action packed. This day we arrived at the western most part of our trip. Fernandina is the youngest island in the archipelago. Our landing on the dock brought us nose to nose with marine iguanas and sea lions. Overhead we found three Galágos hawks. Underfoot there were lava lizards sunning onto of sea iguanas. We saw the rarely seen flower of the lava cactus and flightless cormorants. Our afternoon hike on the edge of Isabela Island was filled with enormous marine iguanas, giant tortoises and more cormorants.The day’s snorkels were excellent again but it was hard to imagine better, but more was waiting.That night we had a special concert by the Eric’s crew. I-Love led the group in high energy songs but Segundo moved us with his traditional ballads. Those guys could really jam. There were songs and dancing and Maria led is in the limbo. Then collapse into our beds with smiles again.

Galápagos dove
Smooth-billed ani
American oystercatcher
Semipalmated plover
Whimbrel
Wandering tattler
Franklin’s gull
Lava gull
Galápagos penguin
Magnificent frigatebird
Frigatebird (sp)
Blue-footed booby
Flightless cormorant
Brown pelican
Striated heron (lava)
Galápagos hawk
Galápagos mockingbird
Yellow warbler
Small tree-finch
Small ground-finch
Medium ground-finch
Darwin’s finch (sp)

Mola mola (giant sunfish)
Octopus
Pacific green sea turtle
Marine iguanas
Penguins

Day Five: Isabela Island, Elizabeth Bay, Tagus Cove, Darwin’s Crater:

After another fortifying breakfast we took a panga ride along the coast of this marvelous island. The surprise was seeing the largely vegetarian Pacific green sea turtle with it’s jaws firmly locked on an half eaten fish. A large half eaten fish. Somebody was craving protein. A concentric pufferfish was dining on a moth. The damp season had brought a lot of insects and the birds and fish were taking advantage. Spiders (argiope sp) in beautiful webs were also seen everywhere. The morning snorkel was laden with sea life. Penguins, cormorants, turtles and iguanas in a parade amongst the permanent creatures of the deep. we learned that an animal is a land creature if it eats on land and a marine creature if it eats in the sea. One irritable flightless cormorant took a nip at Bobbie’s right calf leaving a small red dot. Another first for our group. Really, the visual wonders of the sea made it hard to end every snorkel. Our guides frequently had to chase some of us back into the boat. That afternoon we hiked to Darwin’s Crater for magnificent views of the mysterious salty water body and the vast lava field making up the north of the island. Mockingbirds and finches entertained us with their feather fanning mating displays. Heaps of Monarch butterflies raised questions of migration and food sources. They do not migrate and there is milkweed on the islands. How the Monarch got to the Galapagos is a mystery.

Brown Noddy
Galápagos penguin
Flightless cormorant
Brown pelican
Galápagos flycatcher
Galápagos mockingbird
Small ground-finch
Medium ground-finch

Golden eagle ray
spotted eagle ray
Sea (Tree) lion
Pacific green sea turtle
Concentric pufferfish

So many fish. We got tired of trying to sort them all out. Heads were exploding.

Day Six: Puerto Egas of Santiago, Rabida Island

At Puerto Egas we learned about a short lived era of human habitation that left behind a few ruins. It was the eternal story of corruption and exploitation that we hear all over the world. People were promised land that the promiser did not own. A change in government ended it all and everybody left. Today the island teems with wildlife. A group of fur seals were frolicking in the grottos near Darwin’s toilet. We could see the different facial features between the sea lion and fur seals, even thought this fur seal is not a true seal. The dominant male greeted our group with a large bellow. Along the edges of a tidal pool was an American Oystercatcher with its wee down covered hatchling no larger than an egg on legs. Sally Lightfoot crabs added dots of red and gold on the dark sculpted rocks. Zig zag spiders decorated trailside trees. On our morning snorkel we spotted a huge stone scorpionfish and a school of salema I would have said numbered over 100,000 individuals. The afternoon snorkel had a spotted tiger eel snake and toothy moray eel. Late in the day we hiked the red soil of Rabida. Before we even had our shoes changed Burt yelled, “Flamingo” and Karina ran to see if he was kidding. He was not. For the first time in years and only the second time ever in her 20+ year career there was a flamingo in the brackish water at Rabida. Oddly, it was the second time in 18 months for Burt and Susan to see a flamingo here. Their amazing good luck continued. We got an eyeful of that calm and showy bird. It was spectacular. We all watched as it swung its improbable bill back and forth in the water filtering out crustaceans and preened its bright pink feathers.

Red-necked phalarope
Galapagos martin
White-cheeked pintail (Galápagos)
American flamingo
Galápagos dove
American oystercatcher
Semipalmated plover
Wandering tattler
Brown noddy
Galápagos penguin
Galápagos shearwater
Magnificent frigatebird
Frigatebird (sp)
Nazca booby
Blue-footed booby
Brown pelican
Galápagos flycatcher
Galápagos mockingbird
Finch (sp)

Moray eel (sp)
Tiger eel snake
Sea horse

Day Seven: Highlands of Santa Cruz Island and the Darwin Center

Our tour was coming to an end and there was a kind of gentle sadness infecting us. Not only would we have to say good-bye to new friends but all of us, crew and passengers, had to bid farewell to the Eric. After nearly three decades of service the Eric was being replaced by a new ship. We all loved this hard working craft and nobody wants dot see it retired. Still we had fun and more things to see and more songs to sing. That morning we visited the Darwin Center and Karina delighted us with a passionate presentation of the land tortoise restoration program. She explained how island by island rats were being eradicated. It was a complex process but slowly they were notching up success. Land tortoises are breeding in the wild for the first time in 100 years in some locations. Then we took an hour to explore the town and stock up on gifts for home. After lunch we took a bus ride to the highlands and visited the Gemelos, twin sink holes. Green warbler-finches sang for us and a woodpecker finch sped on past. At the working ranch we observed the tortoises in mid-migration across a working farm. We also walked through a dark and damp lava tube. Karina explained how these tubes form when the lava cools at different rates. A cooler and harder exterior can contain a warmer flowing interior, like a straw and soda. That night we played music and gathered ourselves for the parting.

White-cheeked pintail (Galápagos)
Smooth-billed ani
Franklin’s gull
Galápagos shearwater
Frigatebird (sp)
Blue-footed booby
Brown pelican
Cattle egret
Yellow-crowned night-heron
Galápagos flycatcher
Galápagos mockingbird
Yellow-warbler
Green warbler-finch
Vegetarian finch
Woodpecker finch
Small tree-finch
Small ground-finch
Finch (sp)

Day Eight: Interpretive Center at San Cristobal, Departure

The final day was spent touring the exhibits at the San Cristobal Interpretive Center or hiking up Tijeretas Hill followed by a snack and wi-fi in town as we waited for our flight to Quito. The hill hike rewarded us with a breeze and expansive views of Puerto Ayora and the Pacific. Our group arrived in Quito and had one last dinner together and then it was off on ur own journeys. Some headed home, others to Mindo for more birds, and others for a more expansive tour through Ecuador. It was a privilege to be in your company. We were lucky to have a group of warm and interesting companions, guides that wanted to share their home with us, and a crew that saw to our every need.

Blue-footed boobie
Ruddy turnstone
Franklin’s gull
Frigatebird (sp)
Great blue heron
Great egret
Yellow warbler
San Cristobal mockingbird
Small ground-finch
Finch (sp)

San Cristobal lava lizard

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Oil Birds

Jungle plants
Jungle plants

So here’s a little something you might never have heard of, the oil bird. When I think oil bird I always think of oiled birds, those black creatures accidentally trapped in spilled oil. Happily, oil birds are not oiled birds though the origins of their name are just as grim. Oil birds are a nocturnal, fruit eating bird of South America. They are the only bird in their family. That means there are no other birds like the oil bird. These unique avians live together in large groups inside of caves or cave-like formations. The oil birds use echolocation and smell to find fruit in the dark. They can fly nearly 120 miles away from their cave each night in search of food.

Burt and I heard about the oil bird cave in Ecuador and despite it being an hour drive from where we were I told him we had to go. I knew just enough to know that you must pilgrimage to the oil bird roost. We’d never see one just wandering around. Their nocturnal lifestyle and jungle habitat make them very hard to see. Burt had never heard of this creature. I told him I’d spotted some posts about it from friends that had been to Trinidad and seen them there. So off we went to visit La Cueva de los Tayos.

If you google cueva de los tayos you’ll find a bunch of stories about a famous cave, aliens, astronauts, Native Americans, and expeditions. That’s a different cave. If I ever go there, I’ll share that story. Here”s ours.

We found the Cueve de los Tayos well signed on the side of the highway 45, northeast of Baeza. Already that morning we’d hiked to a waterfall in the rain and we were thoroughly wet. We pulled into the roadside parking area and found a pair of city visitors and a guide. Our guide advised us that we were about to embark on a steep, muddy walk with a thigh deep river crossing. We were going to get wet. I replied we were already wet so let’s go. Our guide did not lie. It was a steep and muddy descent into the upper elevations of the Amazonian jungle. As we carefully made our way down slippery stones and mushy logs I pondered my lack of knowledge on the Amazon. Here I was in the actual jungle, in the Amazon watershed for the first time in my life and I was completely uninformed. Were there army ants? poisonous frogs? venomous snakes? I felt a slight taste of panic rising. Would I return home covered in leeches? Tropical diseases I hadn’t prepared for began to run through my head. Yellow fever, cholera, malaria. Wow. This was a fun way to pass a hike where the biggest risk was probably breaking my ankle. I talked myself off the ledge and reasoned that we were still too high for any tropical nightmares. But were we?

Eventually we reached the river. Going down is hard work because the body is fighting gravity and trying to use it at the same time. It’s much easier to fall while trying to stay in balance. Climbing is easier mechanically but much harder on the cardiac and respiratory systems. I was concerned I would not be up to the up hill climb. I put all these worries aside and followed my guide across the river. The thigh deep water was only to our knees. Burt’s and my knees. The guide and our Ecuadoran companions were nearly hip deep in the flow. This was a serious mini-expedition. I asked the guide if there was an easier way in and he said no. If you want to see these birds you’ve got to suck it up and do the work.

We followed the river up stream just a few hundred more feet. The greenery covered walls of the canyon closed together over our heads and we entered the nave of a natural cathedral. This wasn’t an actual cave but a tight spot in the canyon where light couldn’t reach. It was more like a tunnel. Light peaked in from the far side. Our guide urged us to keep quiet as we walked deeper into the darkened enclosure. Just over head a pair of big eyed birds gazed down. One at a time we each went in and stood. Birds called in a cat-like scream from all around and flew back and forth from shelf to shelf. It was magic. There was a lot of action and the birds were very loud. Nocturnal doesn’t mean they are all asleep all day long. They eat at night but they do other birdy things during the day. These birds seemed to be gossiping.

Eventually we turned back and made our way up and out. It was a nice slow pace and not difficult. I think it took about 30 minutes to go bottom to top. On our way up I asked about snakes and our guide said they aren’t found at that elevation. I can also report I contracted no tropical diseases and did not find any leeches.

Oil birds got their name because oil birds feed their chicks so much that they become super fat and eventually weigh more than the parent birds. These chicks were a rich source of food and easy to catch.  These plump chickies were eaten and also boiled up for oil. Check out THIS funny write up on the oil bird.

our guide to the oil bird cave.
our guide to the oil bird cave.
Jungle feel.
Jungle feel. The cave just ahead.
The ledges were stocked with cackling, calling oil birds.
The ledges were stocked with cackling, calling oil birds.
Cueva de los tayos. Oil bird cave.
Cueva de los tayos. Oil bird cave. See the bird up in the light?
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Existential Angst

Vaquita Susan and Susan
Vaquita Susan and Susan

Some days the ennui of modern life takes hold. The weeks of visiting and traveling are over. Here we are in Mexico for a couple of stationary months. No visitors planned. No big ideas looming. This morning I woke up just kind of down. A why am I here? kind of day. The kids all failed to show up to English class a few days ago. Possibly they stayed home because Thursday was the start of a holiday weekend. Or because Vikki suffered an injury and couldn’t rally the troops. Or maybe, word hadn’t made it around we were back in town. We’ll never know. I felt the funk creeping in that day.

There’s all kinds of problems in the world. Here we have the usual neglect and abuse of little ones. Right now we’ve got a neighborhood flasher harassing the kids. I have some ideas of what I’d like to do to the guy and his equipment but I’m leaving it to others. It wouldn’t be prudent to say more here. If I write a book the details will be in there. Ask me about it if you see me. Also, just down the hill from us is a camp of migrant workers. Rumors are the kids don’t even speak Spanish and that they are hunting grasshoppers for their meals. The neighbors are collecting clothes, food, and blankets to help ease the suffering.

Then there’s Vikki. She fell and severely hurt her knee. That means no work and no money while she recuperates. Of course we’re all helping out there. There’s also another friend with aggressive breast cancer. She’s just 40. The news is not optimistic. Sometimes it seems like death and loss are all we know. Suffering is all around.

And then there’s me. My suffering is caused by feeling powerless to help. We throw some money here and there. Give a blanket and some toys. Try to keep the kids busy so they don’t wander around town looking for attention. And I just find myself wondering is it doing any good? any good at all? I really don’t know. But these are the only ideas I have right now.

On the up side, here’s a little glimpse into the hard as hell life of Luz Maria. She is one tough broad. Luz Maria is the mother of our friend Elsi. Everyone calls her (and all women her age) Mama. I first met mama ten years ago. That was before her husband died. Luz Maria mostly keeps to the traditional ways. She dresses as she always has in a wool skirt, embroidered blouse, coral and gold jewelry. She also always sports the multi-purpose shawl. The shawl keeps her warm or shades her head or serves as a carry-all. Sometimes she wears a hoodie. Now, she has a pair of readers. Luz Maria is in her late sixties and probably hasn’t read a label in 20 years. She needed help threading needles. All fine work required a younger set of eyes. Now she can see a little better. We brought a pack of readers for the family. Both mamas, and Luis Fabian and Elsi now have reading glasses to help read bills, labels, and homework assignments.

While we were visiting in Peguche we took a walk to Luz Maria’s home. Luz Maria and I connected over our shared love of animals. She credits my good wishes to her laboring cow with the safe delivery of the heifer’s first calf last fall. I was honored when the calf was named Susan. My only namesake and she’s gonna spend her life making babies and milk until she’s slaughtered. That’s a thought to shake the doldrums.

Luz Maria toured us around her fields and her old home.  The cows were tied out and grazing in separate locations. Our journey took us through fields of corn and beans and across muddy roads and deep puddles. At an elevation of nearly 10,000′ I could hardly keep up with Luz Maria for the length of our hour long walk. One stretch of the journey found us balance beaming along a three foot high concrete wall. That woman can move in a pair of rubber boots. Our chore was done when we walked the cow and calf back to the security of the house yard for the night.

Luz Maria grew up in a dirt floored stick hut. She speaks kichwa. Her Spanish is about as good as my Spanish. She glows with light. I’m going to try and remember her and her smile and her cows.

Luz Maria's former home
Luz Maria’s former home
Luz Maria walks to get the mama cow.
Luz Maria walks to get the mama cow. Bean vines climbing the corn stalks.
River crossing with the cow, Julieta. Named for Jueves which means Thursday.
River crossing with the cow, Julieta. Named for Jueves which means Thursday.
Heading home for the night.
Heading home for the night.
Luz Maria and her new readers.
Luz Maria and her new readers. This is in the kitchen of her daughter’s home.
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More to Ecuador, too, two…

Penguin pillows
Penguin pillows

After the Galapagos excursion we spent some time on the Ecuador mainland. Before visiting our long time friends in Peguche we spent a couple days at an Ecolodge in the Amazon basin. This was a friend of a friend kind of thing where we visited a place hoping to check it out as an option for other people. It worked out okay but staffing was weird and people seemed distracted and we didn’t get consistent service so rather than provide a review I will leave out the details of where we went. It was a kind of place where when the boss was around everything was okay but when the boss was gone we were treated like intruders. Here, for once, I am applying the adage of it’s better to say nothing if you don’t have good to say.

At the jungle local we did stumble across a handful of exotic birds. There was a sunbittern. Check out this link for an eyeful of this spectacular and hard to find bird. The sunbittern’s open wings resemble two giant red eyes. This defensive tactic seems to prove dragons once roamed the earth. I can’t think of any currently alive animal with eyes so big or so red. Then I saw the flying penis of the south: Cock of the rock. It might seem hard to miss a parrot sized, flame-orange, flying penis, but these birds can also be hard to see. They are shy and keep to dense foliage. In fact, Burt missed the one that flew over my head. It was a lucky and brief but easily made identification for me. Kudos to whoever named this bird.

There was also a shimmer or bouquet of hummingbirds. Ecuador is home to over 100 species of hummingbirds. So many hummingbirds live in the South America that they aren’t even called hummingbirds. They have names like train-bearer, sylph, woodstar, thornbill and sun angel. These names, while lovely, made it hard to identify the birds using the guide book. I had no idea if I what I was trying to find. Here’s one to check out: the booted racket tail. That’s a little bird with a lot of gadgets. We saw this raquet-dragging wee thingy flying around in its Uggs. It sure was cute.

After the ecolodge we drove up and over the Andean divide and north to Peguche. On our way we tried to spot some Andean condors but had no luck. The back road through the national park required permission to use and we didn’t have permission. This was a spur of the moment idea. Sometimes you win sometimes you lose. This day we lost. If you plan on visiting the national parks of Ecuador check them out on line first. Some of them require permits to enter. Others are open and free.

The Lema family was right where we left them in November but this time we were arriving at the end of a week of festival. School was out and there was time for everyone to play together. Burt and I rented a car just so we could carry everyone around and that’s what we did. After a long stint as a successful business man  selling Ecuadorna crafts in the US and Europe Fabian’s economic trends are in a down turn. He was evicted from the US a while ago for selling sweaters and playing music when his visa only allowed him to play music. He and other members of his family were regulars at the Helena Christmas fair in the Capitol Hill Mall for many years. Because of this loss of his way of life Fabian’s family only has a pickup truck. Since 6 people cannot get around safely in a small pickup we brought a car to the party.

With our car we were able to drive an hour and a half away to a hot spring with everyone. We spent a morning soaking and swimming because it was Shadé’s birthday and that’s what she wanted to do. We also drove over to the raptor center and watched the free fling raptor show and we spent a morning driving north to a pretty lake for a lakeside tilapia lunch.

On another day we spent some time with Elsi at the Poncho Plaza watching her work her sales magic on the locals. She sold three parkas while we watched. It was an arduous process of back and forth but every person that expressed an interest left with a coat. The negotiations were all done in the local kichwa language, except the pricing. The prices were back and forth in Spanish. Nobody would tell me why but they laughed when I noticed.

Hot dogs
Hot dogs
Cacao. A three dollar bar.
Cacao. A three dollar bar.
Nirvana?
Nirvana?
Welcome Committee
Welcome Committee
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Ecuadoran Friends

Shadé and me
Shadé and me

As stupendous as the Galapagos was it paled in comparison to our reunion with our Ecuadoran family. Burt has known the Lemas for twenty years and I have known them for twelve. They have visited us in Montana and we have stayed with them in Ecuador. It has been ten years since we’ve seen each other. Tighter U.S. visa restrictions shut down the Lema family music and festival touring business. They’ve spent the last ten years redeveloping from Ecuador. Burt and I were thrilled to finally see them again.

We spent four days touring the area near their home and we took a side trip over to a jungle with friends. I caught three trout from a trout farm pond. The men were skunked. I accompanied Elsi on her work. We taught Fabian to use binoculars. And we FINALLY played music together again. This time we played with FAbian’s 15 year old daughter Quetzali on the fiddle. Ten years ago this was only a dream and now she’s standing up playing tunes on her own. We played American fiddle tune, Andina folk, and Christmas carols.

Christmas starts early in Ecuador but the Lema’s delayed putting up their tree so we could help. They say it was an honor. I suspect it was so they could take advantage of our long legs. Ten years ago Quetzi crowned our tree at our house. This year I crowned their tree in their house. No joke. It was an honor they waited for us.

The gathering is always fun. This family takes us in as their own and treated us like long lost children. We were fed and bejeweled and begged to return. More on them later.

The mama of Elsi had a gravid cow while we were there. She was very worried about this first time mother. Our last day visiting I visited the cow. Two hours later she delivered a female calf. As the supposed last person she saw I was deemed to have brought good luck. That was jueves (Thursday). All jueves cows are named Julieta or Julio. Welcome Julieta Susana to be called Susi.

Abuelita, mama de Elsi.
Abuelita, mama de Elsi.
Fabian and his first look at a bird through binocluars.
Fabian and his first look at a bird through binocluars.
Don Luis makes stairs in the jungle.
Don Luis makes stairs in the jungle.
Waterfall crew
Waterfall crew
Waterfall wefie.
Waterfall wefie.
Waterfall bath
Waterfall bath
Fishing for farmed trout.
Fishing for farmed trout.
3 two pounders.
3 two pounders. I caught them all.
Don Luis makes stairs in the jungle.
Don Luis makes stairs in the jungle.
Merchants at Otavalo market. Elsi (left) and aunts and uncle.
Merchants at Otavalo market. Elsi (left) and aunts and uncle.
Aunt sizing my wrist for jewels.
Aunt sizing my wrist for jewels.
Elsi installing my new Otavaleño style bracelet.
Elsi installing my new Otavaleño style bracelet.

Quetzi, Elsi, and me.

Xmas tree.
Xmas tree.
Burt and Quetzi.
Burt and Quetzi.
Elsi shopping for work materials.
Elsi shopping for work materials.
Elsi and Fabian
Elsi and Fabian
Fabian hair.
Fabian hair.
Lema family products.
Lema family products.
More porducts
More porducts
Quatzi plays my mando
Quatzi plays my mando
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Back to the itinerary

Our cabin on the Letty. We were at water level.
Our cabin on the Letty. We were at water level.

The good ship Letty was our vessel for the week. She’s about 30 years old but biannual dry dock upgrades have kept her in fine shape. I wish I could go in for a remodel every two years. Burt and I were bunked below deck in a room with three beds. The extra bed made for spacious storage. We had our guitar and mandolin and the usual necessities to stow and the bed made it much easier. Also, it’s generally considered more comfortable to sleep apart in rough seas. There’s nobody else rolling around in your bed. Elbows and knees fly about erratically when trying to exit the bed for a midnight pee. Not a very romantic situation.

The first excursion was to La Loberia on Isla San Cristobal. Here was a harem of sea lions lolling about and a ‘beach master’ bull male guarding his ladies. The beach master was lumbering in and out of the shallows and down the  shore break bellowing and grunting. He swung his head back and forth and if his flippers could reach he would have been beating his chest. The beach masters are mature males working hard to prevent competitors from accessing the females. Beach masters work so hard chasing off suitors they only last in charge a short while until they collapse from exhaustion and hunger. Every few weeks they are dethroned and a new beach master takes over until he too is drained of all virility.  This sounds entertaining for the ladies in more ways than one.

While the menfolk do what men do, the females are feeding and caring for the youngsters. We saw many nursing babes and juveniles snoozing in the waning sun. Well fed sea lions rolled around and did yoga poses and slept while we gaped and took photos. It was as if we were invisible. Our guides kept us a whole 6′ away. Years of conditioning made it hard to let an animal of this size this close. In a magnificent roll reversal I was more cautious of the sea lions than they were of me. I mean to tell you, those things have some serious teeth and despite the lack of legs they do move fast.

San Cristobal Island is one of teh oldest in the archipelago. At La Loberia the lava boulders are well worn and rounded because it is the oldest lava and the beach faces the harshest waves. Over the milleniums the rocks have been softened. Other places we were to see were full of jagged and scary rocks of new lava. Also, there are two types of lava: aa and pahoehoe. Aa lava is jagged from the time it erupts. Pahoehoe means robes and it is a softer, more sinuous lava. Pahoehoe rocks start out smoother. Our guides explained all this during our walk to the beach.

We returned to our ship where I had an octopus dinner. Burt had beef. The cruise’s food was good and surprising. The menus are very diverse. Lunches are more traditional with a base of beans and rice but dinner was influenced by world cuisine. That night was a 15 hour open ocean cruise north to Genovesa. I took a dramamine and woke up 12 hours later. I highly recommend dramamine if your are prone to motion sickness. I nearly threw up trying to brush my teeth. Once I took my pill and hit the hay I had not a care in the world.

Morning found us anchored in a sea filled volcanic crater. Coolio.

Female sea lion at La Loberia on San Cristobol Island.
Female sea lion at La Loberia on San Cristobol Island.
San Cristobal
San Cristobal
My new blue footed booby buff.
My new blue footed booby buff.
San Cristobal
San Cristobal
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Boobies

Nazca Booby
Nazca Booby

Everybody loves boobies. They are so darned cute. On the Galapagos Islands there are three species of boobies: Red-footed, Nazca (formerly masked), and blue-footed boobies. Foot color and intensity is an indication of health. Blue-footed boobies have an elaborate courtship dance that includes bowing and wing flapping and very sustained showing off of the feet. Look! My feet are bright blue! I am young and healthy! Pick me! Female boobies wave back with their feet if they like a guy. Lucky for us we saw a blue-footed booby couple dancing and calling. There was all kinds of foot waving and bowing.

Red-footed boobies are similar to blue-footed boobies that wave their feet and dance when looking for a sexual partner but the red-footed boobies also do a thing called sky-waving. They point their blue faces skyward and show off a blue throat. We did not see this but we did see nesting red-footed boobies and red-footed booby chicks. Red-footed boobies are very diverse in appearance. There is a white phase and a brown phase and several mixed phases between white and brown. Add to that juvenile versus adult coloration and sometime these boobies are hard to tell apart from other boobies.

Nazca boobies take a different approach. Nazca males find a tree based nesting spot and defends it. The ladies pick the males based on the desirability of the nesting site. Very sensible. Choosing real estate over theatrics and cosmetics is astute.

Boobies deep dive for fish. Their nostrils are permanently closed and a sac of air protects their brains from high impact dives. Each of these species fishes in a different area of the ocean. In close, out further, and out really far.  Blue-footed fish close to shore and the red-footed fish scores of miles out at sea. The Nazca booby fishes in between.

Nazca is the name of a region of Peru and the tectonic plate of the Galapagos islands. Nazca boobies can be found in the Nazca region of Peru as well as teh Galapagos Islands.

Boobies sometimes land on tourists heads. It almost happened to me.
Boobies sometimes land on tourist’s heads. It almost happened to me.
A flock of juvenile boobies.
A flock of juvenile boobies.
Red-footed booby
Red-footed booby. It has a blue face.
Baby booby.
Baby booby.
Blue-footed booby
Blue-footed booby and Sally Lightfoot crabs.
Marking territory with a circle of defecation.
Marking territory with a circle of defecation. a popular roosting spot. The poop stream changes as the bird moves to face the sun.
Red-footed Booby
Red-footed Booby
Nazca Boobies
Nazca Boobies
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Marine Iguanas

Marine Iguana country. Our ship in the background.
Marine Iguana country. Our ship in the background.

Marine iguanas are also, surprise, known as the Galapagos Marine Iguana. These reptiles are unique in the world. They forage at sea for algae. The larger males dive deep and can spend many minutes under water. Females and juveniles eat closer to shore and from the inter-tidal zone. Their noses and teeth are specially adapted to eat close growing algae off of rocks. Burt and I saw a few swim by while we were snorkeling. A lizard at sea. In times of scarce food, caused by current shifts, the iguanas can reabsorb bone and literally shrink in size. last year there was a food shortage and large numbers died. We saw many skeletons and got a good look at their vegetarian teeth. This year the food is abundant and the population is bouncing back. Several island have their own unique subspecies. Old mariners thought the iguanas were ugly. Carol Simon and I think they are sublime.  Carol is a herpetologist and the marine iguana is her favorite lizard. When watching sunning marine iguanas you will see them occasionally snort spurts of salty water. They expel excess salt through their noses.

Marine Iguana
Marine Iguana. Stub nose, strong swimming tail.
Warming in the sun
Warming in the sun
Marine Iguana teeth.
Marine Iguana teeth.
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Galapagos Highlights

Naturalist Journey's trip to see the Boobies. Three kinds in the Galapagos. Do you know which these are?
Naturalist Journey’s trip to see the Boobies. Three kinds of boobies live in the Galapagos. Do you know which these are?

I’m too tired to get into the blow by blow trip details. The Galapagos are famous for the friendly wildlife and amazing scenery. They are a volcanic archipelago bathed in cold sea currents. If you don’t know the name of some species of plant or animal stick the word Galapagos or Lava in front of it and you might be right. Lava gull, lava lizard, Galapagos mockingbird, Galapagos prickly pear….Our journey covered more than 500 nautical miles and 5 islands in 8 days. Naturalist Journeys hosts Howard and Carol gave 4 lectures covering the natural history, human history, evolution, and environmental threats. Our local guides were phenomenally well informed, energetic, and kind. Burt and I snorkeled in 8 locations. We saw more than 40 new species of birds and animals. I think you should check it out.

IMG_0322
Flying juvenile red-footed boobies. The red feet come later.
Dead Marine Iguana.
Dead Marine Iguana.
Many Marine Iguanas.
Many Marine Iguanas.
Lobo Marino or Sea Lion.
Lobo Marino or Sea Lion.
Galapagos lava
Galapagos lava
Cactus
Cactus
Galapagos Prickly Pear.
Galapagos Prickly Pear.
Land Iguanas. Males squaring off for a territorial battle.
Land Iguanas. Males squaring off for a territorial battle.
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