Of iguanas, seals and other beasts

Baltra Travel Blog

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Colours of the Galápagos: Santiago

Wildlife of the Galápagos

The Galápagos Islands are located 600 miles from the Ecuadorian coast in the Pacific Ocean. There are 14 large islands and 120 smaller islets and rocks. Their isolation from any other place has resulted in the evolution of many unique species of flora and fauna, endemic to the archipelago or even to just one island within it.

The islands have been formed through volcanic activity, due to a “hot spot” just the west of the group (under Fernandina). Eruptions here cause an island to form from the lava and rock emitted from beneath the sea bed. But rather than create one ever-growing island, made larger by each new eruption, the slow south-eastward movement of the tectonic plate on which they sit means that by the time of a subsequent eruption the island created by the previous one is some miles to the east, and instead a new one forms.

Colours of the Galápagos: Rabida
Thus each island is on a slow journey south and east (moving at a rate of seven cm/year); those furthest on that journey, such as San Cristobal and Espanola, are the oldest, and those in the west, such as Fernandina and Isabela, much younger (in geological terms).  

A keen geologist will be fascinated by the details, but for the rest of us the attraction lies in the vivid scenery that results from all this activity, and for me, above all the colours. A jumble of black lava boulders, the backdrop to a white coral beach. Or a black lava beach washed by a turquoise sea. Or again, on Rabida, dark red cliffs with dusty green Opuntia clinging to them.

And this dramatic scenery is the set for a multitude of living dramas, as the various animal species play out their lives under the gaze of mesmerised visitors.

Giant tortoise
For the islands’ isolation has not only led to the large number of endemic species being present, but also to their tame and inquisitive nature. The Galápagos were never attached to any continent and the island chain's remote location made it impossible for large land mammals that usually dominate the food chain to make the journey to the here. The giant tortoise became the dominate animal on the land, and he is a herbivore, so no threat to the others. With this lack of natural predators, the wildlife of the Galápagos thrived in an Eden-like environment and never learned to be fearful of other species – even our own. Meeting these animals and interacting with them in their own environment is the true joy of a Galápagos holiday, so this blog entry is devoted to a description of the main ones we saw on a lot of the islands.
Sea lion, Espanola

More about the most memorable of these encounters will follow in future entries describing the individual islands we visited.

Galápagos sea lion 

The first animals to greet us on almost every island were the sea lions. And I do mean “greet”. It often seemed that they had been lolling around on the beach or even the landing jetty just waiting for our arrival! This isn’t a scientific distinction, but for me they fell into four groups – adorable pups, languid and photogenic females, lively bachelor males, and the occasional bolshie alpha male throwing his weight about. The latter are best avoided, but all the others will allow you to come pretty close, and will often come closer still to you.

Sea lion pup, North Seymour

The Galápagos sea lion is a distinct species, but closely related to the California sea lion. They are found on all the islands and number in the ten thousands. The females usually have just the one pup a year, though Fabian said twins are not unusual and he has once seen triplets! We saw several newborn pups, for example on Sombrero Chino and Española. The babies are nursed by their mother for about six months until old enough to fish for themselves, and most of those we saw were still at this stage, so stayed quite close to mum. 

In addition to these large nursery groups we saw several of bachelor males (e.g. on Rabida and South Plaza). Male sea lions sometimes retreat to these so-called bachelor colonies to take a rest from the aggro of the alpha male.

Sea lion and pup, Rabida
Once refreshed they may try themselves to take on one of the latter and to try to establish their own beach territory with several females, which they will then have to defend continuously from other bulls. These fights take their toll – most alpha males we saw were battle-scarred, and Fabian told us that their reign is often short (sometimes only a few weeks) as they grow weaker with each fight and are then more easily vanquished.

Galápagos fur seal

In addition to the Galápagos sea lions, which are everywhere in the islands, there are a smaller number of Galápagos fur seals. These too are an endemic species, and live mainly on the rockiest shores. They are smaller than the sea lions, and their fur made them a target for poachers in the past, although they are of course now protected and their numbers are growing again.

Fur seal, Genovesa
They live in the greatest numbers in the western islands, Fernandina and Isabela, which we didn’t visit. They also tend to be shyer than their cousins! But although we weren’t lucky enough to see any while on any of the islands, we did see some on a couple of our panga rides, most notably off Genovesa when on our way to the dry landing at Prince Philip Steps. The sea was quite rough here and it was difficult to hold the camera steady, so the photos are not as clear as I would have liked, but they do show the thick fur and distinctive whiskers.

Fur seals are part of the same “eared seals” family as sea lions, and differ from true seals in having small external ear-flaps. Their hind flippers can be turned to face forwards, and, together with strong front flippers, this gives them extra mobility on land – an adult fur seal can move extremely quickly if it has to.

Land iguana, South Plaza
They also use their front flippers for swimming, whereas true seals use their hind flippers. Their scientific name is Arctocephalus, which comes from Greek words meaning “bear headed”, and it’s easy to see how they got this name.

Land iguanas

One of the largest animals you can see in the Galápagos are the land iguanas, which on some islands can reach over a metre in length.  There are actually two species to be found here –Conolophus subcristatus on six of the islands, and Conolophus pallidus only on Santa Fe. The latter is often a paler yellow than the main species (hence the name, “pallidus”), and has more spines on its back. Charles Darwin described the land iguanas as “ugly animals, of a yellowish orange beneath, and of a brownish-red colour above: from their low facial angle they have a singularly stupid appearance.

Land iguana eating opuntia, North Seymour
” however I have to say that I disagree with the famous naturalist, as I found them sort of cute, although probably only their mothers would find them beautiful!

All the marine and land iguana species in the Galápagos are thought to be descendants of a single species, the green iguana, which is native on the South American continent. Arriving probably on vegetation rafts to the isles, the green iguana, in order to survive, had to adapt to a new and different environment by evolving into two very distinct new species. The land iguana adapted to feed on the vegetation of the islands. Surprisingly perhaps, they prefer the prickly pear cactus or opuntia . This in turn has evolved, growing much taller than elsewhere in the world to be out of reach of the iguanas, but the latter simply stand on their hind legs to reach the pads and fruit.

Marine iguana, Santiago
They have a leathery, tough tongue and don't need to remove the spines from the cactus before eating. The cactus forms about 80% of their diet and ensures that they get plenty of water even in the arid dry season such as when we visited.

Marine iguanas

The other main species of iguana that you will see on many of the islands are the marine iguanas, of which there are in fact seven sub-species, varying in size and colour. Most are black or dark grey but some have red colouring too, most notably on Española where the males have not only red but often green colouring too, which becomes brighter during the mating season – giving them the nickname of Christmas iguana!

When the green iguana arrived here, some found themselves on islands where vegetation was sparse, and turned, through necessity, to the plant-life beneath the sea, and thus became the world's only sea-going lizard.

Marine iguanas, Santiago
They have developed a flattened snout and sharp teeth in order to feed on the algae on the underwater rocks. Their tail is flattened vertically like a rudder to help them swim and they have long claws to grip the rocks while feeding so that they don’t drift away.

Marine iguanas can stay submerged for up to ten minutes, before having to come up for air. When not feeding they are usually found sunning themselves on lava rocks, often in large groups and, as we saw in several places, even piled up on top of one another! Sometimes you will see them appear to sneeze, but in fact they are snorting to get rid of any excess sea salt with the help of special glands in their nostrils. 

Lava lizards

The smallest of the reptiles we saw regularly on the islands were the lava lizards.

Lava lizard, Espanola
There are seven species, and there is only ever one species on each island. All but the Galápagos lava lizard is found only on the island whose name they bear, whereas the former is found on many islands.

Lava lizards are smaller than the iguanas but nevertheless can grow to up to 30 cm in length (males – females are shorter), although the average is considerably less than that. They are found on all the major islands apart from Genovesa, and are the most abundant reptile on the islands. In all the species the females tend to be more colourful, with a red throat, but on Española the whole head is often bright red. Only the males have spines along their backs, and their colouring and patterns vary quite a bit between species, according to the landscape and environment of the islands, as they have evolved to blend in with their surroundings.

Sally Lightfoot crabs, Sombrero Chino
They don’t blend in that well however!

Sally lightfoot crabs

These distinctive crabs can be seen all over the Galápagos, especially on the dark lava rocks, and they really catch the eye with their vivid orange and blue colouring. They are not endemic to the islands, being also found all along the Pacific coast of South and Central America. Nevertheless they seem to be one of the animals most associated with the Galápagos.

They are quite large (adults can grow to about 20 cm) and really stand out against those dark rocks, so you will spot them easily. They are harder to photograph than some of the other animals though, as they can move quite quickly at times. If you spot one that appears to be blowing bubbles from under the shell, as in my second photo, it’s an indication that it will soon be discarding its shell.

Sally Lightfoot crab, Sombrero Chino
The crabs have to do this periodically as they grow, because the shell doesn’t grow with them and becomes too small. So they shed the old shell and then have to stay in a sheltered, hidden spot such as a crevice in the rocks until the soft new one beneath it, now exposed, can harden. During this time they are very vulnerable and would make a tasty meal for a sea bird, hence the need to hide. Also known more prosaically as red rock crabs, these are among the most beautiful of crabs. The colour can vary but is always bright, although the young are dark brown (for camouflage on the rocks).

Sea turtles

As well as all the wildlife on the islands and in the air above, there is lots to see in the surrounding waters. You will some marine life from the boat and panga, but to see it at its best it is necessary to get into the sea with them – I loved our snorkelling sessions here.

Sea turtle, Santa Cruz

The Galápagos green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas agassisi) is a subspecies of the Pacific green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), and is the only turtle to breed on the islands. Nesting is between the months of December and June, and we were there in November – too early, although Fabian did point out one nest on the beach of Bartolomé, where we also saw a turtle swimming in the sea very close to the shore, his head poked above the waves. We saw several on our last morning too, on a panga ride in Black Turtle Cove, Santa Cruz. But the best place to see them is, as I said, in the water. There were several at our snorkelling site off the beach of Santiago, while my clearest encounter was in Gardner Bay, Española.

The Pacific green sea turtle is listed as an endangered species and is protected from exploitation in most countries, including Ecuador.

Sea turtle, Espanola
The Galapagos National Park authorities close certain beaches in the islands when it is nesting season for the green sea turtles to protect the nests from tourist activity. However, the turtles are still in danger because of several human practices. Water pollution indirectly harms them as it threatens their food supplies, and many green sea turtles die caught in fishing nets. If you do find yourself on a beach with a turtle nest, as we did, your guide will point it out – be sure not to walk on it.

Blue-footed boobies

There are several species indelibly linked in the mind with the Galápagos Islands, and one of these is certainly the blue-footed booby. The distinctive feet that give it its name, almost turquoise in colour, really are as bright and bizarre-looking as they seem in the photos! These feet are used during courtship, the birds deliberately lifting their feet and showing them to their mates.

Blue-footed boobies, Espanola
The rest of the bird though is somewhat drab: a mix of brown and white with a large greyish-blue bill. This bill is used very effectively in feeding – the booby plunges downwards into the sea at speeds of nearly 100 kph, using the bill like an arrow to pierce the water.

Male and female blue-footed boobies look alike, though the females tend to be a little larger, and their eyes have a little more pigmentation around them. The males have slightly lighter feet, and I think that in my photo of a pair on Española, the male may be the one on the right, for this reason. They also sound different – males give a plaintive whistle whereas females and immature juveniles give a hoarse “quack”.

Blue-footed boobies are not endemic to the Galápagos, despite being so intrinsically linked to them in numerous images, but over half of all breeding pairs nest here.

Blue-footed booby and chick, North Seymour
They lay between one and three eggs, though two is usual. The eggs hatch a few days apart, and in seasons when food is scarce it is not uncommon for the older chick to kill its smaller and weaker sibling.

By the way, the odd (and in English rather suggestive) name is thought to have derived from the Spanish slang term bobo, meaning "stupid" – perhaps because of their clumsiness on land, or because these almost-tame birds had an unfortunate habit of landing on sailing ships and were easily captured and eaten.

Red-footed boobies

Before coming to the Galápagos I had seen numerous photos of blue-footed boobies and was looking forward to meeting them “in person”, but I had seen and read relatively little about their red-footed cousins and consequently was surprised and delighted to find them even more appealing! The combination of bright blue bill, pretty pink and turquoise colouring around the eye, soft brown (usually) plumage and red feet is a winning one.

Red-footed booby, Genovesa
I say “usually” soft brown, because you will also see white Red-footed Boobies, although only 5% fall into this category, and both are the same species.

Unlike other boobies, the red-footed ones nest in trees, and on Genovesa we saw loads of them in the red mangrove trees that lined the trail at Darwin Bay. Many of them had soft fluffy white chicks, and they seemed to be among the least fearful of all the birds we saw in the Galápagos, and as gently curious about us as we were about them. I took so many photos as it seemed that in every tree there was a red-footed booby more engaging and even closer to me than in the previous one!

These boobies are the smallest of the three species found in the Galápagos, at about 70 cm. They raise just one chick at a time, and about 15 months apart.

Nazca booby and eggs, Genovesa
Because mating isn’t seasonal, there is always a good chance you will see young chicks, whatever time of year you visit the islands.

Nazca boobies

The third of the booby species to be seen in the Galápagos are the Nazca Boobies. Once thought to be a sub-species of masked booby, these are now recognised as a species in their own right, endemic to these islands. They are mostly white, with an orange bill and the mask-like black markings around it.

Nazca boobies lay two eggs, several days apart. If they both hatch, the older chick will push its sibling out of the nest area. The parent booby will not intervene and the younger chick will certainly die of thirst, hunger or cold. Scientists believe that the two eggs are laid so that one acts as a sort of insurance in case the other gets destroyed or eaten, or the first chick dies soon after hatching.

Magnificent frigatebirds, North Seymour
They nest at different times on different islands, for instance you will see eggs laid on Genovesa between August and November and on Española between November and February. This meant that visiting in November we were able to see all the different stages of their life-cycle, especially on Genovesa where we saw lots of them, in particular along the path near Prince Philip Steps (El Barranco) – some had eggs, some a small or not so small chick, and a few pairs were in the early stages of courtship and building their nests. I have a short video taken there.

Frigatebirds

Frigatebirds are large mainly black birds, related to pelicans. There are two species found in the Galápagos Islands – the magnificent frigatebird (fregata magnificens) and the great frigatebird (fregata minor), and we were able to see both during our week’s cruising.

Great frigatebird, Genovesa
Both are fantastic flyers, able to spend up to a week in the air without landing, but they are clumsy on land and unable to swim. They feed by snatching prey from the ocean surface or beach (or sometimes from other birds) using their long, hooked bills.

The males of both species are black, with iridescent feathers that have a purple sheen on the magnificent frigate birds and greenish on the great frigatebirds. The females lack this sheen and have pale breasts. The eyes of the female magnificent frigatebird have a blue ring and those of a great frigate bird a red or pink one. Juvenile magnificent frigatebirds have pale heads, while the juvenile great frigatebirds have a ginger-coloured head that made me smile each time I saw one!

They were also regularly to be seen accompanying the Angelito as we sailed from island to island, including a memorable occasion when one left a sizeable “deposit” on my head, much to the amusement of others in our group, although not mine as I had only just washed my hair and had to do so all over again!

Galápagos dove

The Galápagos dove was another of the birds that we saw on many of the islands, on beaches and on the low scrubby ground that often lies behind the foreshore.

Galápagos dove, North Seymour
It is quite small (between 18 and 23 cm long) and rather attractive, with a vivid blue eye ring and red legs and feet “topping and tailing” a soft brown mottled body, its wing feather flecked with white and with a rose-pink breast.

The Galápagos dove has a curved beak and feeds largely on seeds picked from the ground, mainly from the Opuntia cactus. It also eats the pulp of the cactus, which is probably their main source of water. On Genovesa, Fabian showed us how the spines of the Opuntia cactus have softened through evolution, thus allowing the Galápagos dove to reach the pads more easily and to pollinate the flowers. This is a result of the lack of bees on this remote island that would normally perform this function.

Herons

There are several species of heron on the Galápagos, including great blue herons, yellow-crowned night herons and lava herons, all of which we saw in our time here.

Lava heron, Espanola
I have seen great blue herons elsewhere, but those seen here belong to an endemic subspecies, cognata. They are as the name suggests the largest of the herons, and are found in fairly small numbers on several islands.

Lava herons are fairly drab grey birds, with a hunched posture, but with bright orange-yellow legs when breeding (grey at other times). They feed on small fish and crabs. 

We saw several yellow-crowned night herons on Genovesa, both adults and juveniles. Only the adults have the distinctive yellow crown that gives them the first part of their name. The second part drives from their habit of feeding mainly at night, when they hunt for crabs in coastal lagoons. Despite this nocturnal habit, we saw quite a few here in broad daylight.

Mockingbirds

There are four different species of mockingbirds found on the Galápagos, all of them endemic.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Genovesa
Two of these are rare and one considered endangered, and we didn’t see either as we didn’t go to the islands where they live. These are the Charles (or Floreana) mockingbird found only on two small islands Champion and Gardner just off Floreana (of which only 150 birds are thought to exist), and the more common, but equally restricted in area, Chatham (or San Cristóbal) mockingbird, found only on San Cristóbal.

But we did see the Hood mockingbird on Española, where it is endemic and relatively common, and the Galápagos  mockingbird, which is widespread on several of the islands, on Genovesa. The latter is recognised as having six subspecies: barringtoni (Santa Fe); bauri (Genovesa); hulli (Darwin); parvulus (Fernandina, Isabela, Santa Cruz, North Seymour and Daphne); personatus (Pinta, Marchena, Santiago and Rabida) and wenmani (Wolf).

Galápagos mockingbird, Genovesa
The one in my photo, therefore, is subspecies bauri, since I saw it on Genovesa. Charles Darwin noticed the varied species and subspecies of mockingbirds in the archipelago, and his observations of them shaped his theories on evolution, probably more so than those of the more often cited finches:

“I examined many specimens [of mocking bird] in the different islands, and in each the respective kind is alone present. These birds agree in general plumage, structure, and habits; so that the different species replace each other in the economy of the different islands. These species are not characterized by the markings on the plumage alone, but likewise by the size and form of the bill, and other differences.” (Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle, 1839)

All the mockingbirds have grey and brown plumage with white under parts, and are about 25-28cm in length.

Ground finch (I think), Baltra
Their bill is long, thin and black. They are omnivorous, eating seabird eggs, insects, young finches or even small lava lizards in addition to seeds. They are known to try to get water from tourists’ water bottles if left on the ground for any time, and would eat any food dropped by visitors if they were to disobey park rules and bring some on to the islands. But that won’t be you, will it?!

Galápagos finches

Although small and relatively plain, the Galápagos or Darwin finches are amongst the best-known of the archipelago’s species, owing to the role they played in shaping Darwin’s theories. Although their bodies look similar, their bills vary greatly in size and shape, leading Darwin to theorise that they had adapted to suit the food that was available to them on their particular island.

Cactus finch, Santa Cruz

Altogether there are 13 species, all of them endemic to the islands, namely:

vampire finch; large ground finch; medium ground finch; small ground finch; large tree finch; medium tree finch; small tree finch; vegetarian finch; cactus finch; large cactus finch; woodpecker finch; mangrove finch; warbler finch

They can be divided according to whether they eat mainly seeds, fruit or insects. The former live mainly on the ground and have beaks suited for crushing. The insect eaters live mostly in trees. Some have probing beaks, while others are slightly hooked and best for grasping. The fruit-eating vegetarian tree finch has a parrot-like beak, and the ground-living cactus finch has a long curved beak like the probers, to get between the spines of the Opuntia on which it feeds.

Yellow warbler, South Plaza
But while all this sounds helpful, it is still difficult to distinguish some of the species from each other. None of us in the group were ever sure whether we were looking at a small, medium or large ground finch, however many times we asked Fabian (and he patiently replied). I think we would have needed them to line up in an avian identity parade to be confident of naming them! But the cactus finch was a little easier, owing to his long beak and unique choice of food.

Yellow warbler

One of the smallest but prettiest of Galápagos Islands birds is the yellow warbler.  It is not endemic, being found from Alaska to Peru, but as with all species, you are likely to get closer to one here than elsewhere. And like the finches, it is continually on the move and thus very hard to photograph – I have more pictures of blurred yellow warblers than of any other species!

This is a small songbird (12-13 cm in height), with a thin pointed beak.

Waved albatross, Espanola
It is mostly yellow in colour and the male has reddish streaks on his chest and a reddish-brown crown. The female lacks the crown patch, having a more olive-coloured head.

Other birds seen

We saw very many other species of birds in our week in the Galápagos Islands, not all of which I was able to photograph or even to note. Among those I did capture, either in my camera or journal or both, were:

~ Waved albatross

~ Red-billed tropicbird

~ Brown pelicans

~ American oystercatcher

~ Shearwaters

~ White-cheeked pintail duck

~ Smooth-billed ani

~ Vermillion flycatcher

~ Common noddies

I will share more wildlife as we travel around the islands, but by now I expect that you are as eager as we were, on first boarding the Angelito, to start to explore this magical world …


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Colours of the Galápagos: Santiago
Colours of the Galápagos: Santiago
Colours of the Galápagos: Rabida
Colours of the Galápagos: Rabida
Giant tortoise
Giant tortoise
Sea lion, Espanola
Sea lion, Espanola
Sea lion pup, North Seymour
Sea lion pup, North Seymour
Sea lion and pup, Rabida
Sea lion and pup, Rabida
Fur seal, Genovesa
Fur seal, Genovesa
Land iguana, South Plaza
Land iguana, South Plaza
Land iguana eating opuntia, North …
Land iguana eating opuntia, North…
Marine iguana, Santiago
Marine iguana, Santiago
Marine iguanas, Santiago
Marine iguanas, Santiago
Lava lizard, Espanola
Lava lizard, Espanola
Sally Lightfoot crabs, Sombrero Ch…
Sally Lightfoot crabs, Sombrero C…
Sally Lightfoot crab, Sombrero Chi…
Sally Lightfoot crab, Sombrero Ch…
Sea turtle, Santa Cruz
Sea turtle, Santa Cruz
Sea turtle, Espanola
Sea turtle, Espanola
Blue-footed boobies, Espanola
Blue-footed boobies, Espanola
Blue-footed booby and chick, North…
Blue-footed booby and chick, Nort…
Red-footed booby, Genovesa
Red-footed booby, Genovesa
Nazca booby and eggs, Genovesa
Nazca booby and eggs, Genovesa
Magnificent frigatebirds, North Se…
Magnificent frigatebirds, North S…
Great frigatebird, Genovesa
Great frigatebird, Genovesa
Galápagos dove, North Seymour
Galápagos dove, North Seymour
Lava heron, Espanola
Lava heron, Espanola
Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Genove…
Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Genov…
Galápagos mockingbird, Genovesa
Galápagos mockingbird, Genovesa
Ground finch (I think), Baltra
Ground finch (I think), Baltra
Cactus finch, Santa Cruz
Cactus finch, Santa Cruz
Yellow warbler, South Plaza
Yellow warbler, South Plaza
Waved albatross, Espanola
Waved albatross, Espanola
Oystercatcher, Santiago
Oystercatcher, Santiago
Baltra
photo by: eefab