Wildlife on the Galapagos Islands, Part 2 of 2

Frigatebird, male display, Galapagos

In 1841, Herman Melville came to the Galapagos Islands aboard the whaling boat Acushnet. He described the islands as having “emphatic uninhabitableness.”

 

I find this uninhabitableness part of the charm of Galapagos.

 

Welcome to Part 2. If you missed Part 1, click here.

 

Giant Tortoise, Galapagos

 

On Santa Cruz Island, we had the thrill of observing Giant Tortoises in the wild. At the Charles Darwin Research Station we visited the breeding station where they raise the young in their first five years. After that, the tortoises are released and monitored.

 

We also hiked up into the highlands, found what looked like large boulders–the tortoises. The largest living tortoise on earth, they can live to be 100 years old.

 

Oh how very slowly they moved. When those old eyes looked out at me, I was immediately struck by the wisdom and reverence of these venerable creatures.

 

Giant Tortoises, Santa Cruz Island

 

In addition to the large body, head that retracts into the scraped-up shell, and their freaky slowness…they hiss. They are simply letting air out of their lungs.

 

This video I found is a good representation:  YouTube Video by lauramoon.

 

Previously posted: Giant Tortoises of The Galapagos

 

Not to be outdone by the ancient tortoise, the Land Iguana is another reptilian island wonder.

 

Land Iguana, Galapagos

 

Endemic to the Galapagos, this large lizard is 3-5 feet long (0.9-1.5 meters), inhabits several islands. Their lifespan is 50 years.

 

This is not a flitty gecko in your presence; it is a huge, lumbering, prehistoric-looking behemoth.

 

Herbivorous, we found them eating, always. Due to their large size and short legs, they ate whatever was on the ground. They like prickly-pear cactus for the moisture, and eat low-growing plants and fallen fruits.

 

Land Iguana, South Plaza Isl., Galapagos

Previously posted: Land Iguana. 

 

For a week we lived and slept on a boat, the most common tourist method of accommodation here. Every night we sailed to the next island. Every day we boarded inflatable boats, and ventured onto a new island.

 

Often we saw sea turtles, whales, and other marine life.

 

Sea Turtle, Galapagos

 

Whales, Galapagos

 

When we came to Floreana Island we were treated to a look at flamingoes. With their specialized beak for straining food, they ate shrimp and made circuitous paths in the mud.

 

Flamingo, Galapagos

 

Flamingo feeding, Galapagos

 

Galapagos cormorants are one of the rarest birds we have in the world. Although cormorants live all over the planet, the Galapagos cormorants are especially unique. These birds are flightless.

 

They evolved without wings because there was plenty of food on shorelines, and no ground predators. With stumps for wings, these blue-eyed beauties hopped among the lava rocks.

 

Previously posted: Galapagos Cormorant

 

 

Galapagos Cormorant

 

North Seymour Island. It was very windy on this small and unprotected island in the middle of the Pacific, where sand whipped us and you could not hear the words of the person next to you.

 

We hiked to the frigatebird colony, something I had been dreaming about doing for years.

 

This is a remarkable sea bird that we only see in tropical ocean areas. They soar with their incredible wingspan of 7.5 feet (2.3 m), sometimes for weeks. It was an unusual sight to see frigatebirds up close, perched on branches; for they are usually high above, only recognizable by their expansive silhouette.

 

But the most striking aspect was the complete chaos. Frigatebirds were screeching, whining, rattling, whistling, and drumming.

 

Frigatebirds, Galapagos. Male with chick on left has deflated pouch, male on right has inflated it.

 

 

Male Magnificent Frigatebird displaying

 

With the most dramatic display of all the seabirds, the male frigatebird’s red gular pouch inflates to attract the females, is used as a drum to punctuate the message. He beats his wings against the pouch, creating a deep, low, booming sound. When the dance is done, the throat deflates.

 

Previously posted: Breeding Frigatebirds.

 

Galapagos Sea Lion

 

Herman Melville called it uninhabitable, Charles Darwin changed the world with his findings here.

 

Thanks for visiting this remarkable, other-worldly place with me.

 

All photos: Athena Alexander

Land Iguana, Galapagos

 

San Cristobal Island Harbor, where we boarded our boat

 

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Wildlife of the Galapagos Islands, Part 1 of 2

Swallow-tailed Gull, Galapagos

An archipelago located 600 miles off South America’s coast, the Galapagos Islands are a cluster of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean. Due to their remoteness, the islands have been difficult to access for hundreds of years, rendering the life that does exist to be unique, like nowhere else in the world.

 

Without significant predators present, the wildlife have evolved differently than what we see on mainland continents. It is here where Charles Darwin’s observations in 1835 led to the inception of the theory of evolution.

 

I recently read there are seven wildlife species tourists most want to see on the islands, so I have covered them all in this two-part series (not in this order), plus more: tortoises, sea turtles, marine and land iguanas, penguins, blue-footed boobies, and sea lions. (National Geographic June 2017)

 

Galapagos Island Wikipedia overview

 

Situated in a confluence of ocean currents, and influenced by extreme weather patterns and trade winds, the islands host a variety of habitats.

 

Life here is like being on a different planet.

 

Marine Iguana, Galapagos

Marine iguana, a fascinating and prevalent species on the islands. They are the only lizard on earth that hunt under water.

 

We were lucky one day to find two males gnawing at algae on the rocks under water with us, where we were snorkeling. Much of the time, however, you see their colonies lazing upon the lava and boulders, numbering in the hundreds; for they have to soak up the sun to move.

 

They range in color, depending on the island where they reside; and their sizes range too. The ones we saw averaged about 4-5 feet long (1.2-1.5 m) including the tail.

 

Marine Iguana, Galapagos

Previously posted: Snorkeling with a Lizard.

 

Though sources vary somewhat, the Galapagos have 18 major islands, 13 smaller islands, and 42 islets.

 

Espanola Island is the southernmost island and often the first stop for arriving birds. Here there is an unusual landscape of breeding birds. Among the craggy rocks, hard lava, and windy flats are the nesting colonies of two seabirds: blue-footed booby and waved albatross.

 

Gifted with the bluest feet you will ever see, the blue-footed boobies populate this island in various stages of breeding and nesting. One half of all breeding pairs in the world nest in the Galapagos.

 

Blue-footed Booby, Galapagos

 

Previously posted: Blue-footed Booby.

 

Waved albatross, usually only seen at sea, also nest here. Listed as critically endangered, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be so close to this remarkable bird.

 

Waved Albatross pairs, Espanola Island, Galapagos

 

Previously posted: Waved Albatross.

 

Blue-footed Booby mating dance, Galapagos

 

Keep in mind these birds are endlessly mesmerizing to a birder like me. But the harsh sun and sour, fetid smell of hundreds of nests at your ankles can be off-putting to some people.

 

Another day while snorkeling, we came upon Galapagos penguins, also an endangered species. They are the second smallest penguin on earth, and because of their small stature, they are preyed upon by a long list of land and sea animals.

 

Speed is their lifeline. They shot past us in the water like bullets.

 

Galapagos Penguins

 

Wikipedia Galapagos Penguin

 

Sea lions abound on the Galapagos. They frequent the beaches, traverse the lava, and are seen gracing every island. But the most thrilling day was when we tumbled over the side of the inflatable boat and into the deep water.

 

Sea Lions, Galapagos

 

As if we were their favorite playmates, the sea lions came bounding over to us–spinning and circling and ready to frolic. A social and playful mammal, they gave us the warmest welcome these chilly waters could offer.

 

Looking forward to continuing the wildlife adventures in Part 2, next Friday. Stay tuned, fellow earthlings.

 

All photos: Athena Alexander

 

Marine Iguana, Galapagos

 

Galapagos Islands, center. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

New Cooper’s Hawks

Adult Cooper’s Hawk, in mid-March in the oak tree

Hawks are fierce hunters; they fly and perch noiselessly, hunt swiftly and quietly. But the chicks, of course, are not that way; they haven’t learned how to be  warriors yet.

 

Dependent, hungry, and inexperienced, the chicks have squawky voices and incessant demands: “feed me feed me feed me.”

 

Cooper’s Hawk fledgling, early July

 

It was the Cooper’s Hawk chick that gave away the secret of the well-hidden nest I found, high up in a madrone tree.

 

Just as I looked up to examine the unusual sound, a parent swooped into the nest with food. This quieted the chick. The little guys hadn’t learned stealth yet, and the parents know too well the importance of it.

 

Stealth is the key to survival in nature.

 

This coyote, in the vicinity of the hawk nest, would find a hawk chick tasty

 

Accipiter cooperii are medium-sized hawks, native to North America.  They live and breed primarily in forests, preying on birds and small mammals. Adult pairs breed once a year, and live in the wild as long as 12 years.

 

Cooper’s Hawk info. 

 

It was back in mid-March when I began noticing the Cooper’s Hawk here every day.  Temperatures were in the 30s and 40s (F.), there was even snow. The hawk perched every day in the same bare-leafed oak tree. Quiet and still, it mostly watched.

 

Eventually the cold days gave way to spring, and leaves started to bud and unfurl on the hawk’s oak tree. The raptor apparently preferred bare trees, because he or she moved, began perching on a nearby dead pine tree.

 

Once in awhile a bold hummingbird would harass the hawk, rather ridiculously, scolding it to move on. But nothing ever happened.

 

Then in June things changed. The hawk moved from that favorite spot in the pine tree–began perching near the bird feeders, instead. There were close-calls when the hawk nearly got a pigeon or mourning dove; and more frequently we were finding signs of a kill, evidenced by gray dove feathers scattered in the yard.

 

California Quail

 

Then there was the breakfast incident.

 

We were eating breakfast outside when a terrified California quail, sounding his alarm call, flew by us. Just behind him, the Cooper’s Hawk sailed effortlessly by, gaining on the quail.

 

Quail are heavy ground birds and don’t fly much. Cooper’s Hawks are agile fliers, silent and fast, bearing down dramatically on their prey.  When they reach the prey, they capture it with the talons and squeeze the bird to death.

 

The two birds disappeared around a bend.

 

Ten minutes later, during tea and scones, the hawk flew over our heads with the plucked prey in his talons.

 

When a raptor is taking food away from the kill-site, it usually means there are hungry chicks waiting in the nest.

 

Cooper’s Hawk nest in madrone tree

 

It was the next day when I found the nest in the treetop, spotted the noisy chicks.

 

There were two chicks, and they were pretty big, nearly adult size. One was still in the nest; the other sat perched in a nearby tree. Neither could fly, but the older one could hop around.

 

Cooper’s Hawk fledgling, early July

A few weeks have passed and the nest is abandoned. But the chicks are still here.

 

The parents are quiet and hidden, there’s no evidence of them being around, but that’s the way it should be.

 

The chicks, well, they’re still learning. They hunt together, and I always hear them at dinnertime. The two siblings have high-pitched whistling calls, and they never stop making noise.

 

Instead of perching quietly and watching, they fly around conversing with one another through the trees. And yesterday they landed together on our deck railing.

 

We all have things to learn, even ferocious raptors.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Caribou of Denali National Park

Caribou, Denali NP, Alaska

The great state of Alaska boasts a healthy population of caribou. During a visit to Denali National Park in central Alaska, we saw caribou several times.

 

A large ruminant mammal in the deer family, Rangifer tarandus are the North American species; they occupy a substantial range in Alaska and Canada (see maps below).

 

Denali NP, Alaska

Equipped with large antlers for shoveling snow and specialized nasal passages that warm incoming frigid air, this mammal lives in the coldest areas of North America.

 

Upon first setting eyes on the caribou, it is the antlers that command your attention–an impressive rack. The caribou shed the rack very year, so the Denali Visitor Center had discarded racks out for viewing; they were so heavy I could barely pick up one by myself.

 

In this species, unlike all the other mammals in the deer family, both genders grow antlers.

 

Other interesting facts about the Denali caribou:

  • Their color varies, the coat changing with the seasons
  • Their coat consists of two layers, for thorough insulation
  • Size: 4′ tall at shoulder (1.22 m); 8′ in length (2.5 m)
  • Weight: Bulls 350-400 lbs (159-182 kg); Cows 175-225 lbs (80-120 kg)
  • They migrate in large herds, usually through adverse conditions

 

Denali NP

 

Denali herd info here

and

Wikipedia overview here. 

 

We occasionally came upon them while hiking, and although their size is intimidating, the caribou are gentle animals. We let them graze, and they let us marvel at their beauty and strength.

 

Some caribou subspecies have gone extinct or are diminishing for various reasons. In America, for example, it is very rare to see a caribou unless you go to Alaska.

 

According to Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, there are 32 herds in Alaska/Canada, estimating 950,000 individuals.

 

In Denali National Park, the 2013 census count recorded 2,230 caribou. In the park they are, in general, protected.

 

Other parts of Alaska, however, allow regulated hunting and harvesting of caribou.

Denali Alaska

While caribou live in many parts of the world, we call them different names depending on where one lives. In the U.S., this mammal is called a caribou; unless they are domesticated, in which case they are called reindeer. In Europe, caribou are called reindeer.

 

Whatever you call them, they are a strikingly beautiful mammal with a hardy lifestyle and elegant antlers.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

North America Caribou Range Map, courtesy Feldhamer, Thompson, Chapman; Wild Mammals of North America

 

World Caribou/Reindeer Range Map, Courtesy Wikipedia

 

Kingfishers of the World

Azure Kingfisher, Australia

A bird widely distributed across the world today, the kingfisher inhabits almost every continent (map below). This successful and thriving species has fossils that date back 30-40 million years.

Forest Kingfisher, Australia

 

Contrary to their name, not all kingfishers catch and eat fish; some species prefer frogs, snakes, worms, and more. Wikipedia overview.

 

Green Kingfisher (female), Belize

 

Though sources differ, there are approximately 100 species of kingfishers. Largely tropical birds, the majority inhabit the Old World tropics and Australasia.

 

The species we see most in North America is the belted kingfisher,.   In Europe, the kingfisher most commonly seen is appropriately called: common kingfisher. There are 10 species in Australia, 18 in Africa.

 

Whenever I am walking around a lake or river and hear the characteristic ratcheting of the belted kingfisher, whatever I am doing, I look up and search for this avian friend.

 

Australia, Kakadu Nat’l. Park

Kingfishers have a disproportionately large head and long, pointy bill; with short legs and stubby tails. They range in size from 3.9 inches long (10 cm) (African dwarf kingfisher) to 18 inches (45 cm) (giant kingfisher).

 

Giant Kingfisher, Botswana

When you come across a kingfisher, they are often perched on a branch, scanning the ground or water below. One of the easier birds to spot, they have bright colors, a distinct shape, and a predictable behavior.

 

Kingfishers have excellent vision, including binocular and color; and are able to recognize water reflection and depth. Some species have eye membranes for water protection. The pied kingfisher, for example, has a bony plate that slides across the eye on water impact.

 

Pied Kingfisher, Botswana

 

Blue-winged Kookaburra with frog in mouth, Australia

 

Little Kingfisher, Australia

Once the kingfisher spots the prey, they swoop down and snatch it, return to the perch. Holding the prey in their strong bill, they beat it against the limb, breaking it down to a sizeable portion for consumption.

 

Sometimes kingfishers will hover above water and dive in for fish.

Green Kingfisher (male), Belize

 

A kingfisher discussion would not be complete without mentioning the laughing kookaburra. Although this kingfisher lives primarily in Australia, many of us all over the world have heard of it, from the song. “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree….”

 

Laughing Kookaburra, Australia

You can hear the great old children’s song, written by an Australian music teacher in 1934, here: the song

 

The real-life sound of a laughing kookaburra is truly wonderful. When I first heard it in a park in Sydney, it startled me.

 

Loud and cackling, it sounds nothing like laughter. You might think it was a monkey (or a wild beast) if you didn’t know better. Kookaburra call. 

Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Zambia

With a variety of specialized hunting skills, successful worldly range, and striking  colors, this bird is one that many of us have been celebrating our whole life.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Kingfisher range. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

 

Jackrabbit Joy

Jackrabbit

Every morning the jackrabbit comes to visit. There are many remarkable aspects to a jackrabbit, but the one I like most is not in any of the research.

 

Technically the jackrabbit is not a rabbit, they’re a hare. Our northern California species, black-tailed jackrabbit, Lepus californicus, is the most widely distributed jackrabbit in North America (map below).

 

They like open grasslands and the chaparral terrain of the western U.S. and Mexico; and stay here year-round, eating grass and other ground plants. I’ve read they are nocturnal animals, but I see my visitor every morning; our critter cam captures them here day and night.

 

Unlike rabbits, hares have their young in a shallow depression, not burrows; and when hare babies (leverets) are born, they are in full fur, not furless like baby rabbits. One or two days after birth, hares are independent. Wikipedia info.

With many predators (fox, coyote, bobcat, and mountain lion to name a few), the jackrabbit is all about speed. Their quickness is attributed to the powerful rear legs. They can reach speeds of up to 40 mph (64 kph).

 

When I come upon one while driving on the narrow back roads, I know it might be awhile before he or she gets off the road. They run in a zig-zag pattern, to distract and divert their predator. Unfortunately they think the car is a predator. So they run and run, zig-zagging along the one-lane road, and we go like this for several minutes before he finally ducks into the brush.

 

My favorite thing about the jackrabbits are their long ears–they twitch and move with every sound; constantly assessing the danger.

 

Sometimes the jackrabbit goes into a torpor, a sort of sleep with eyes open; they just sit upright and take a half-snooze, look wide awake. How can I tell they’re asleep when the eyes are open? The ears aren’t twitching.

Checking out the water source

It’s the hare’s long ears that gave them the confusing name of jackrabbit. Mark Twain said, in Roughing It, “…[the jackass rabbit] has the most preposterous ears that ever were mounted on any creature but the jackass.” Sometime after this publication in 1872, the term “jackass rabbit” shortened to “jackrabbit.”

 

With all these curious features and talents, there is one more thing I find truly wonderful about the jackrabbit.

 

When the sunshine is behind this soft, furry speedster, and he is still for a moment, those glorious pink ears light up, glowing with rosy life, revealing vulnerability and vitality too.

Drinking water

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander and critter cam

Black-tailed jackrabbit, Lepus californicus, range. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

Let the Nesting Begin

Western Bluebird (male)

I’m always on the look-out for bird nests at this time of year. They’re all over, you just have to be in tune–the country or city, trees or eaves.

 

So far we have found five nests on our property: bushtits, violet-green swallows, western bluebirds, oak titmice, and pacific-slope flycatchers.

Bushtit

It takes some time to find a bird nest; it should, that’s the nature of a nest. How crafty the adult is at hiding the nest, and then keeping it a secret, is directly contingent upon the survival of the young, and ultimately the success of the species.

 

For the bushtits, it was a treasure hunt. One day I noticed they were a pair. Gregarious birds, they are always in flocks of about a dozen, except in spring when they pair off for breeding.

 

After that, I started noticing they were nearby several times a day, not just their once-a-day fly-through. Then I watched with binoculars and saw one had caught a worm and instead of gobbling it up, the bird carried it off.

 

Soon after, we followed the little fluffball as it disappeared into a manzanita bush. Bingo — we found a pocket of lichen in the center of the bush. You can see how hidden it is.

Bushtit nest (in center)

 

If you’re interested in attracting nesting birds, there are many things you can do, especially providing: food, water, shelter, safety. The main thing: be attentive.

Violet-green swallow on nest box

Info about nest boxes:

National Wildlife Federation, Nesting, U.S.

Nestbox Info and Books, England

 

As for finding nests, start watching bird behavior and you’ll be amazed how busy they are.

How to Nest Watch

How to Find a Nest, Canada

 

Good book (U.S.) with bird nest specifics: Peterson Field Guides, Birds’ Nests

 

This year and last, our neighbors lamented there were no more swallows in the area. What happened to the swallows? they said.

 

I grinned. We have them swooping overhead, all day every day, from March to June.

 

Here’s a previously written post about their nesting: Violet-green Swallows.

 

Every spring the violet-green swallows and  western bluebirds have a few weeks of territorial chest-thumping before they choose their respective houses.

 

Bluebird at nest box

 

The oak titmouse is always “our” very first songbird to nest. This year they found a cozy spot inside an old tree snag.

Oak Titmouse

It is for this reason that we keep some dead trees standing–they are a wealth of life regardless of how dead they look.

 

Oak Titmouse Nest Site (round hole toward top of snag)

The pacific-slope flycatchers migrate up every spring from Mexico. We have hosted so many generations of this bird that I could write their family tree.

 

A post I wrote about them: Generations of Flycatchers.

Pacific-slope Flycatcher on nest. Nest materials are same debris as on roof.

Many people don’t have big yards to provide nest spots. I like this story from fellow-blogger Helen at Tiny Lessons Blog. She helped engage the community in providing a new nesting place for the osprey at her local salt marsh: the fundraising efforts and the new nest.

 

What a wonderful thing to live where birds continue to reproduce. And there are so many ways to view the chicks, whether it’s in your yard, a community park, or from your computer via live cams.

 

It’s a sweet reminder of the joy of life.

 

Parent Pacific-slope Flycatcher with a lot to sing about

Photo credit: Athena Alexander