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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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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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Up in the Wild

Old Ranch near Babisal
Old Ranch near Babisal

Babisal Ranch is at the heart of the Norther Jaguar Project’s reserve. The cows are long gone but the original structure is used as a kitchen and two new adobe and stone guest rooms have been added. Burt and I will turn an old water tank into a third guest room. Year round these facilities are used by cowboys and biologists and other visitors. Overflow people stay in tents or hammocks. On this trip Burt and I scored a cabin of our own. The beds are traditional rancho cots made from burlap suspended between two Xs. With a Thermarest pad the bed is pretty comfortable but it moves a lot and the motion made me a little queasy. More Galapagos training I told myself.

Our group consisted of two donors, Mark and Monica, a photographer, Charles, us, and Randy and Turtle, NJP’s staff/guides. After the 12 hours of driving Burt and I headed straight to bed after dinner and didn’t really get a good look at our companions. We were grateful for the warm food and welcome gifts of NJP hats and personal napkins. In the morning we had some more filling and tasty vegan food and then piled in a pickup for a nearby hike.

All seven humans and three dogs rode up the steep mile or so to another defunct ranch. We would hike up the a tight, wet canyon and pass some camera traps and see what some people consider the spiritual heart of the reserve. In fifteen bumpy minutes we reached our starting point. The abandoned ranch buildings were full of wood perfect for our project. It will be fun to deconstruct and reconstruct out in the wilderness. The old wood will look beautiful in a new situation.

Pretty quickly we reached a camera trap. Randy and Turtle removed the data chip and tried to find a camera that could reveal its secrets. There are a few different models of cameras in use at the reserve and they all have their own way of formatting chips. Luckily our third and last try at reading the chip was successful. The chips and batteries are changed out every one to three months. Since this particular trap’s chip had been changed four mountain lions, a few bobcats, and an ocelot had passed by the trap. The ocelot passed just the day before we did. Smiles all around thinking the ocelot was nearby watching us. As Randy says, I haven’t seen a jaguar but I know they’ve seen me. I like that feeling.

Our walk to the canyon wasn’t more than half an hour. We could have gone further but we didn’t feel like swimming and mud crawling so we sat around and enjoyed the scene. I visited the spiders. Snacks and water and getting to know you conversations were had by all. After people were satisfied with the hanging around we had a choice, return home by the trail we had taken in or canyoneer our way down canyon. We chose the adventure route. It was pretty rough going but Randy was a competent guide and very able assistant. Burt and I did fine on our own. We mostly traveled ahead of the group. It took us much longer to reach the truck going down the boulder filled stream bed but it was also more fun. The dogs have a different version. One ran home on the trail. Another was lifted through the worst spot. The third either jumped or fell twenty feet into a pool. She was not happy. Eventually it was just a stream bed and we all dispersed. Burt and Randy went to inventory wood and I wandered downstream alone.

At the truck point we all reunited. Burt and I opted to avoid the truck bed for the downhill jostle and walked back to camp along the stream. It was a tussocky and watery route back. It was noticeable that there were not a lot of birds. When we finally reached camp it was time for lunch and a siesta.

That evening we took a silent sunset walk. We heard an elf owl. Or was it pygmy? I’ve forgotten. Tracks were seen in the creek bed sand. Quail flew up. We thought they were scaled quail but they were Elegant Quail. Similar but not the same. Dinner and bed.

The trap camera showed us an ocelot had passed by the day before.
The trap camera showed us an ocelot had passed by the day before.
Boulder crawl down the canyon.
Boulder crawl down the canyon.
Our room.
Our room.
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Other Critters at the Reserve

Red-Spotted Toad, Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
Red-Spotted Toad, Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
Tree frog, Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
Tree frog, Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
Velvet Ant, Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
Velvet Ant, Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
Ring necked snake, Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
Ring necked snake, Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
Tiny cat prints, Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
Tiny cat prints, Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
Grasshoppers getting down, Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
Grasshoppers getting down, Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
Frogs, Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
Frogs, Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
Northern Jaguar Project Reserve, beetle and bugs
Northern Jaguar Project Reserve, beetle and bugs
Tarantula, Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
Tarantula, Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
Neotropical otter or nutria,Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
Neotropical otter or nutria, Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
Wolf spider, Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
Wolf spider, Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
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Northern Jaguar Project Reserve

Jaguar at the Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
Jaguar at the Northern Jaguar Project Reserve

I was very surprised to see a jaguar on our trip to Mexico but the proof is indisputable. There it is.

That’s the last fake news for this post. Jaguars live among us in southern Arizona and New Mexico. They are few but they are genetically important. The males in the US have come from just south of the border. They disperse and roam away from the wild lands of Mexico and remain available to spread their DNA when the time arrives. Lucky for them a federal judge just deemed these few individuals worthy of consideration when we (our society) makes land use decisions.

I personally consider these US individuals important whether they get a chance to reproduce or not. Here we have an apex predator the likes of which we hardly compare on a human scale. The claws, the jaws, the speed. My cat Mimi times fifty. Taller than me and so much stronger. So seldom are jaguars seen that we need tight networks of cameras surreptitiously taking photos just to prove their existence.  A several hundred pound cat is walking around near major population areas and we can’t see it. Think about it. Habit, camouflage, and rugged terrain make it invisible. In this era of over-exposed everything this mystery gives me joy.

The jaguar species requires vast tracts of land to survive. Aside from room to wander, Jaguars obviously need game to eat and water for fun and nourishment. The land needs to be healthy and full of other animals. Jaguars like to swim.  Protecting the jaguar protects everything in the web of life it shares. The Northern Jaguar Project has been working to provide jaguars sufficient habitat for their survival. They have a 40 something square mile reserve of land in Mexico they own that is managed for the jaguar. The NJP buys land but also works directly with surrounding land owners to provide critical breeding habitat for the northernmost population in the Americas. Nearby cattle ranchers are educated on the jaguar needs and habits and given trail cameras to document individual animals on their land. Through an incentive program that includes damage loss reimbursement, rewards for photos, rent for access to trail cameras, and other things the NJP are expanding their influence and the area of acreage available to the jaguars. In the last ten years fifty individual jaguars have been captured on the NJP’s cameras. One camera even caught a pair copulating. Scores of mountain lions, ocelots, and bobcats have also been seen on the project’s network or cameras.

All this land and cameras requires a team of people to manage. Land costs money but so do staff. There is a ranch manager (Randy, bilingual/bicultural Jack-of-all-Trades) and Turtle (US money wrangler) and a team of cowboys and biologists. There are roads to maintain, fences to mend, and cameras to check. In the backcountry there are simple accommodations that staff and donors use when visiting the area.

For several years Burt has been trying to coordinate a trip in to the reserve to provide some needed carpentry. The main camp cabins are 41 miles and a 6 hour drive from town.  Seven miles an hour and the drive is bone rattling. This year our schedules all had room for a scoping trip. Turtle, Randy, and some donors were headed in and we were available to join them. Working in the wilderness requires a lot of from a team of people. You have to trust each other and you have to be really good with logistics. We all decided to meet and give the job a looksee and decide if we were willing to commit more time. Could we get along with them and could they get along with us?

After our 5 day scoping trip it all looks good from here. More to come. Enjoy these landscape photos of the protected habitat.

The general vicinity of the reserve.
The general vicinity of the reserve.
The Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
The Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
The Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
The Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
The Northern Jaguar Project Reserve - Aros River
The Northern Jaguar Project Reserve – Aros River
The Northern Jaguar Project Reserve
The Northern Jaguar Project Reserve

 

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Sunburst Diving Beetle

Sunburst diving beetle
Sunburst diving beetle

This here bug, I am recently informed, is a rarity in the Chircahua Mountains where I found her. She’s called the sunburst diving beetle. These predators like to eat mosquito larvae. Most astounding is they are the only known organism in the entire animal kingdom with two lenses in each eye allowing for precise near and far vision. It makes them excellent hunters. Wish I had me some of that. Thanks for naming it for me Shane Burchfield. Shane tells me it is also his favorite bug in the world. Shane owns a company called Bugs of America so that’s saying something.

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Tripping off to Mexico Mañana

Me on Bob's fiddle
Me on Bob’s fiddle. Mom always said to clean behind your ears. I see why now.

Today is Laura and Barry’s wedding day. We’ve been hanging around Portal waiting for this day since the bridge was finished. An event well worth waiting for but, my, there’s not much going on when we’re not working or super hiking. I practiced some of my new Irish tunes this week. I read a book. Burt and I visited centenarian Bob again. A bear attacked the gNash. I saw a couple more tarantulas. We took a hike. A mouse landed on my shoulder.

Yesterday Mimi was dropped off at Dodie’s for her extended kitty B&B stay. I left Dodie with Mimi’s bed, food, snacks, bowls, litter box, litter, blankie, and more food. Mimi’s luggage weighs more than mine. We also left Dodie with our minds at ease because we know she won’t mind having an elderly stink ball as a companion. Mimi isn’t so sure what to do with all the floor space. When I left she was completing her 53rd circumnavigation of the living area. The gNash is soulless without our feline companion.

Two nights ago was the incident of the bear under the gNash. Just after 11:00 I was woken by two quick Olive barks. Olive has a sophisticated system of barks. These two barks were ‘I hear something’ and ‘GoAwayBear!’ I woke up and, with Ollie ears in tune new we were under assault. Olive was quiet and there was a dragging/grating sound emanating from just outside the window on Burt’s side of the bed. I leaned over and peered out blindly but thought I saw a very large and dark hump moving. I said, “There’s a bear” as I shook Burt. Like all husbands roused from sleep he yelled, “There is NO bear.” Insert murderer, robber, thief, rapist for bear and you have all men waking up to wife saying: There’s a …. Is this in their DNA or are they taught by their fathers or is it learned after millions of false alarms?

Clearly Burt hadn’t fully assessed the situation. Nor was he awake. Still I thought, maybe he’s right. It’s probably a mouse. Suddenly more dragging noises and I hit Burt again and I said, “There’s a bear.” This time he bolted straight up and yelled, “There’s A bear.” This was the first time in history that I feel Burt actually met or exceeded my level of concern for our physical safety. Wide awake he knew instantly what I did not. Burt knew the bear had found a stash of food under our trailer (Hellooo, Hell, no…) and now the bear knew our trailer was a flimsy tin can of filled with delightful food. Burt closed his window and the window over the dinette. I left mine open. Menopause, bear or no bear. Our noise making scared the bear enough so that noises stopped and we couldn’t see it. Not much sleep was had as we both envisioned the bear ripping off our grey water tank or stretching a paw in to find the dog food. The next morning the bear was still on the pile of dry beans (my zombie apocalypse supply) when Burt went out to check the damages. He chased bruno away. Our storage cooler had sustained minor bite damages and the rice and beans were spread all around. I presume that bear got a mean tummy ache from eating dry beans. Burt cleaned up the mess as best he could. We seal up the windows whenever we leave now but if a bear wants into a trailer it can make it happen. Today we are moving to a new location. Hopefully the bear doesn’t follow.

Also this week we played music for Bob. It was a kind of practice session. Whiel visiting Burt asked Bob if he had any of his instruments still. Bob still had his fiddle which he had inherited from his father. He showed it to us. I got it in tune and played some tunes on it that Bob’s dad might have played. Bob practically seized the thing from me and gave it a go himself. Despite his torn rotator cuff, deafness, long finger nails, and lack of practice the phrase of a tune came out. Bob commented that he liked my bow. You can see the video on Facebook. This private session was further rewarded when Bob left his house and came to our concert the next day. He doesn’t get around like he used to. He and his gal friend Gloria were all the audience we needed to make our day special. We made plans to have another jam session between our Mexico and Galapagos trips.

Another recent wildlife encounter happened when I decided to clean out a bird nesting box on the old adobe stage building where we are parked. I lifted the front of the box and it was packed full of bedding. Fearing biting bugs and the mites I’ve found in other nests I grabbed a stick to clean the place out. As I dug in a very alarmed mouse jumped out and landed on my shoulder. I screamed. She screamed. Then she ran down my chest, jumped to my knee, and then the ground. I stopped cleaning for fear of finding babies. The birds will have to battle it out come spring.

Bob on Bob's fiddle. Originally his father's fiddle.
Bob on Bob’s fiddle. Originally his father’s fiddle.
Barfoot view
Barfoot view
View of Barfoot lookout.
View of Barfoot lookout.
Bear destroys but does not eat dried beans.
Bear destroys but does not eat dried beans.
We had almost an inch of rain in under an hour. Bear tracks in the mud.
We had almost an inch of rain in under an hour. Bear tracks in the mud.
Bob and Gloria made it to our show among many notable Portal residents.
Bob and Gloria (front, far left) made it to our show among many notable Portal residents.
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Some creatures I met this week

A pretty beetle.
A pretty beetle.

The bears are all around this year. Some say there’s not enough food. Others say they’ve had a very profligate couple of years and there are just a lot of them looking for food. Going into Portal is like hitting Costco. Food samples everywhere. Generous stores of bird food abound. There’s even a bunch of fruit trees. Word is five bears have been removed from town this year. Males get exterminated. Females get a second chance. It’s sad.

Many of this year’s Portal Irish Music Week staff and students reported sightings as they walked and drove from classroom to hike to session. SOme were shaken and others thrilled. I was jealous. Burt and I didn’t see any. We heard one in a neighbor’s yard and I found a large print in the sand between our gNash and the lodge. Then just a night or two ago we were walking home in the dark from a friend’s and there was mister bear. I suddenly had sympathy for our timid clients. In the dark, on foot, in brushy country was not the time to wake up a bear sleeping in the creek. I admit I was more than a bit excited and not in the all good way. Mr. Sleepyhead woke himself up and took in our proximity and headed away from us. He was a big boy and I appreciate he decided to give up his bed and let us by without a toll.

A shy black widow.
A shy black widow.
We met this prowling black bear after dark.
We met this prowling black bear after dark.

Green Lynx Spider

Rattlesnake in a cage.
Rattlesnake in a cage.
Lil' bit the sweet duckling.
Lil’ bit the sweet duckling.
A tarantula harassed by ants. I took him to safety.
A tarantula harassed by ants. I took him to safety.
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Birding Basics

Fledged but not flying mourning dove.
Fledged but not flying mourning dove.

The walking is great here from Chez Gopher. Laura and I have a daily 3.6 mile loop we do every morning at 8 AM. It’s an effective addition to my Galapagos training program. Waking up on a schedule is as important as the exercise. Today the weather was noticeably cooler and there were overcast skies. I wore long pants and a long sleeved shirt for the first time since arriving here. Laura wants to learn more about birding so I’ve been bringing my binoculars but until this morning there hadn’t been much to see. I don’t know why today was different. We had reversed our normal route so was it because we were headed downhill instead of uphill so it was easier to stop and look around? Was it the cloudy sky? The cooler temperatures. Is migration underway and so the birds are lfocking up, making them easier to see? Because we had reversed direction we arrived at the birdier area earlier, Were the birds more active earlier? It’s impossible to know the reasons why today but it is not impossible to know if we keep studying the area and doing the same loop over time. We can make a habit of observing the birds through the month, season, year in the same place at the same time of day and someday we might be able to reach some conclusions. This brings me to today’s climate change blurb.

Climate change fact of the day: Warming temps have changed bird behavior. Birders have kept meticulous records for long lengths of time over large geographic areas. This makes for great data. We can see discernible trends in the last thirty years. A quick summary:

Birds are nesting earlier, birds are migrating north earlier and heading south later, and some birds aren’t migrating at all anymore. Birds are arriving in habitat that no longer meets their survival needs. Birds are in trouble.

So today I taught Laura the basics. We saw or heard juncos, titmice, towhees, jays, doves, hawks, robins, turkeys, quail, crows, and more. There were a couple we couldn’t ID. So annoying but it is what keeps the brain firing on all cylinders. Accepting the mystery is good for the mind and soul. Even the most mundane of birds can tell us what is happening in the world around us. There is no need in being an expert. Learning and recording your regular neighbors over time will help us (and you) develop a deeper understanding and connection to the natural world. Join me in learning your local birds and recording data. Be part of a worldwide team. Visit ebird.org and submit your feathered friends to the census.

Atascadero City Hall
Atascadero City Hall
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