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On the Geronimo Trail

New Mexico day three


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The Geronimo Trail

With a somewhat longer drive ahead of us today we made a prompt start from our cabin near Lake Roberts. To start with we took Highway 35 through part of the Mimbres Valley before turning off on Highway 152. We were following the Geronimo Trail, another of the state’s Scenic Byways.

And of all the scenic byways we travelled during this road trip, this was arguably the most scenic, although in fact we only travelled half of it as it is split into two sections, north and south, and we skipped the northern part – there’s never enough time for everything!

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On the road in the Mimbres Valley

Leaving the green farmland of the valley the trail climbs through a dramatic rocky gorge, crossing the Black Range Mountains. It emerges at the high point (literally and figuratively) of the drive, Emory Pass. Here there is a large parking area, and although it was still quite early in the morning we were nevertheless amazed to have it to ourselves – none of the few other drivers on the road seemed minded to stop for the chance to take in this awesome vista. Here you are 8,228 feet above sea level, and the view extends east for miles. The towns of Kingston and Hillsboro can be seen below, and Caballo Lake and Mountains, over 50 miles to the east, are easily visible. On a clear day you can apparently make out Elephant Butte Dam (approximately 65 miles away) as a distant white spot, but we had quite a bit of haze and could see no further than Caballo. Even so, it was an stunning view and one we lingered over for a while.

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Panoramic view from Emory Pass

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The views from Emory Pass

Kingston

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Kingston seen from Emory Pass

After Emory Pass, the road descended through a long series of hairpin bends, but although slow it was in good condition and not too difficult a drive. Near the bottom, we were on the look-out for a sign to the former boom town of Kingston, now home to just a handful of residents.

This is officially a ghost town, although a few people live here. It was founded in 1882 after a rich lode of silver ore was discovered in the area, and became a thriving metropolis almost overnight. At the height of the silver mining boom its population outstripped that of Albuquerque by at least 1,000. Its many hotels played host to Mark Twain and to assorted outlaws: Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, Black Jack Ketchum, and Billy the Kid. Its stage lines served all major routes, and there were 23 saloons, 14 stores, a brewery, 3 newspapers, and an Opera House.

Today only a few buildings remain, and the Percha Bank is the only fully intact original building in the town. Built in 1884, it was once the largest bank in New Mexico Territory and at its richest held $7 million in silver in its vault. The bank has been restored and is Kingston’s only sight, but we found it closed for further restoration. A sign said it was to re-open in Fall 201, so it seems we may have missed it by just a week or so! But although it was closed, it was quite easy to peer through the windows and see its ornate lobby, the tellers’ windows and a small display of old photos etc.

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The Percha Bank

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Hillsboro

Beyond Kingston the road passes through Hillsboro, another former mining town but with more life to it than Kingston, including some nice cafes and a great little gallery. But the warning sign that we spotted as we arrived, which said we were apparently approaching a ‘congested area’, was more than a little misleading. We live in London so we know what a congested area looks like, and let me assure you that it does not look like Hillsboro! It would be hard to find a more peaceful, tranquil little town.

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Hillsboro

Admittedly in times past it would have been rather different. Hillsboro is one of New Mexico’s many towns founded in the boom times of the mid- to late- 19th century, when silver was mined in the surrounding hills. At one time its population numbered 10,000, but the town went bust when in 1893 the price of silver plummeted, and by the mid 1890s fewer than 2,000 residents remained. Unlike some towns though (including nearby Kingston), Hillsboro managed to survive, kept alive by a few gold mines in the area, and cattle ranches dotted around this wild and rocky landscape. It was for a while the county seat, but lost that status to Hot Springs (later renamed Truth or Consequences) in 1936, and with it most of the remaining population.

Today the population is just 200, and from what we observed on this lovely Saturday morning, everyone pretty much knows everyone else. But whether they know you or not, Hillsboro folk seem quick to offer a friendly greeting. We had only planned to stop for a few minutes, but we lingered. In just a short while Hillsboro and its friendly residents had charmed us. And for the rest of the trip we were to measure the busyness of a place by how ‘congested’ it was in comparison to lovely, sleepy Hillsboro.

When we drove away from the cabin at about 8.30 that morning, the thermometer in the car had read 42 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, some two hours later, it was reading 82 degrees, a climb of 40 degrees in just two hours, driven by not only the sun climbing higher in the sky but also by our own descent to slightly lower elevations. So our first stop here was at the General Store Café, to have a cold drink.

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Mural on the side of the General Store Café

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General Store Café sign

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Chillies drying on the porch

This lovely old building is part of a larger structure destroyed in the 1914 flood. In the past it has housed a bank, a post office, a general store and a drug store. Today it is a friendly establishment clearly popular with locals as well as passers-by like us. The interior retains much of its former character with old shop fixtures and fittings, but as it was pretty full with customers enjoying a late Saturday breakfast and we only wanted a drink, we took our orange juices out to the shady porch where we enjoyed watching laid-back Hillsboro go about its morning business.

Refreshed, we decided to explore some more. We popped into Percha Creek Traders to see if they had any nice postcards, but we found ourselves lingering for a while, there was so much to see! We found an excellent selection of local photographs, paintings in all sorts of styles, fabric crafts, jewellery, pottery and more. The sales person explained that this is a local co-operative, run by and for local artists and craftspeople. When they started there were just a handful in the area, but their members now number over 20 and they are growing all the time. Clearly Hillsboro is a place that attracts artists.

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Percha Creek Traders

Although we had only intended to look for postcards, I was also on the look-out on this trip for a picture to go in our recently decorated hallway. But what caught my eye was not a picture but a piece of what I guess you would call ‘wall art’ – a ceramic horse created with a technique known as Raku. This is a traditional Japanese technique in which the glazed piece is fired and removed from the hot kiln and is put directly into water or is allowed to cool in the open air. The result is an unpredictable metallic finish, making each piece unique. The technique has been adopted by local artist Kathy Lovell for her range of ‘Kathy’s Kritters’ (I loved the work, but cringed at the name!) We were taken by the turquoise colours of some of her horses and knew that it would be a great match for our hall, so duly bought one. We later saw some of Kathy’s work in other galleries, e.g. in Mesilla, but we were pleased to have bought our horse here in her home town. And it still hangs in our hall today!

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Our purchase

Soon after leaving Hillsboro Highway 152 reaches the interstate where we turned north for Truth or Consequences and Socorro, where we were to spend that night. Some of the views were still good, but I25 is no scenic byway!

Truth or Consequences

We broke our journey north in this oddly named small town, where we popped into the Geronimo Springs Museum – the sort of quirky place you can’t help but like, with an eclectic mix of objects covering a range of topics such as local history, geology and crafts. Checking its website I feel it must have grown since we were there, as I don’t recall it absorbing more than 30 minutes or so of our time.

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Busts of famous figures from the region’s history

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Recreation of the bar that once occupied this building

We did however learn the story of the town’s unusual name here. It was previously known as Hot Springs, named for the several natural springs in the area around the town. Its present-day name comes from the popular radio show of the 1940s and 50s, Truth or Consequences. In March 1950, Ralph Edwards, the host of the show, announced that he would air the programme on its 10th anniversary from the first town to rename itself after the show. Hot Springs won the prize by officially changing its name on March 31st. The programme was broadcast from there the very next evening, April 1st. Ralph Edwards and his wife Barbara adopted the town as a sort of second home, visiting during the first weekend of May for the next 50 years. The town would hold a fiesta to mark their visit with beauty pageants, parades, fishing contests, rodeos, jeep rides, and boat races down the Rio Grande. Fiesta is still celebrated here each May.

Leaving the museum we found a café for a light lunch. We had thought about visiting the nearby Elephant Butte Lake but having spent so long in Hillsboro decided to push on north instead. There was one further place which we were keen to visit before reaching our final destination for the day.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

A little to the south of Socorro lies one of the most interesting bird-watching venues in New Mexico, considered worth a visit even if you're not a ‘serious’ birder – which neither of us is. For a short while in late October/early November it becomes a focus for birding enthusiasts as tens of thousands of birds, including sandhill cranes, geese and ducks, descend on the refuge and settle into their winter home. Their arrival is met with a festival, the annual Festival of the Cranes, on the weekend before Thanksgiving. We were in the area a couple of months earlier than this but thought that the refuge would still be worth a visit as there would be bound to be some birds whatever the time of year. We were, with a few exceptions, wrong!

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Cormorants

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Turtle

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More turtles

We were a little surprised on arrival in the parking lot by the visitor centre to see only one other car, but we figured that other visitors would be out exploring the loop drive. So we went inside, had a helpful chat with the ranger on duty who showed us on a map which roads through the refuge were open and explained that at this time of year (late September) we would be too early to see the large migrations but should see herons, cormorants and other birds out on the lagoon at the end of the loop drive. That sounded promising, so we headed out that way and were quite excited to see a large heron (I think a Great Blue) from the car as we approached, although it flew off before I could get a photo. So we parked up and followed a path that led out across the lagoon on a rather noisy metal footbridge. We got a good close-up look at the turtles that live here year round, and a more distant view of some cormorants drying their wings in characteristic pose, but otherwise it was pretty deserted, and sadly the heron never returned. Maybe a more patient birding enthusiast would have lingered longer but we decided that we would rather cut our losses, so left to explore downtown Socorro instead.

Socorro

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Capitol Bar, Socorro



We chose Socorro as an overnight stop primarily for its convenience, being a reasonable driving distance between several places we wanted to visit and at the junction of I25, which had brought us north from the Gila Forest area, and Highway 60 which we would take tomorrow.

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Our room in Socorro

We arrived here late afternoon and checked into our hotel, the Holiday Inn Express. As with the town, so with the hotel, which we also chose for its convenient location. We have found over the years that so many US towns have plenty of good-value motels, both chain and independent, on their outskirts, but few or none in the centre. And as we like to be able to walk to a reasonable restaurant in the evening (rather than drive) that can be a challenge as the better restaurants (and bars – also important!) can be in the centre, sometimes several miles away. But in the case of Socorro I had read good reviews of the Socorro Springs Brewery and spotted that the Holiday Inn Express seemed from its address to be very near – problem sorted.

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Dog in the Plaza

Once we had checked in, we went straight out again to explore the town. Although not a major tourist destination it does have a few sights of interest. If you pass by on I25, or even if you leave the Interstate and drive through on the main thoroughfare, California Street, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is nothing to Socorro apart from chain motels, fast food restaurants, supermarkets, shopping plazas and gas stations. Certainly you are unlikely to realise from this superficial glance that there is any real history to the town, let alone that some of this history is on show just one block behind the modern face that it turns to the highway.

But so it is. One block west of California Street is Socorro’s Plaza, and in its immediate surroundings you can get a sense of the small pueblo it once was. The town was founded in June 1598, when a group of Spanish settlers travelled through the nearby Jornada del Muerto, an inhospitable patch of desert that ends just south of the present-day city of Socorro. As they emerged from the desert near the pueblo of Teypana, the native Piro Indians gave them food and water. So the Spaniards renamed the pueblo Socorro, in honour of the aid given to them.

They later established a mission here, Nuestra Señora de Perpetuo Socorro (Our Lady of Perpetual Succour). But during the Pueblo uprising of 1680, the Piro Indians and Spanish settlers left for safer territory to the south, and without the protection of Spanish troops, the town was destroyed and the remaining Piro killed by the Apache and other tribes. It wasn’t until around 1800, that a small group of Spaniards resettled Socorro.

The plaza on the late Saturday afternoon when we visited appeared to be a popular hang-out for local young people, assorted dog-walkers and other locals maybe meeting up with friends prior to evening Mass at the nearby church or a few Saturday night beers perhaps. The atmosphere was quite lively but not one in which we as the (I think) sole tourists felt out of place.

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The Wheel of History

The centre of the plaza is a small park, Kittrel Park, named for a local dentist who first planted the grass and trees here, and around it are a few sights such as the ‘Wheel of History’. This bronze sculpture, just to the north of the plaza itself, was created in the late 90s to illustrate the history of the town.

Around the edge of the plaza and in nearby streets are a number of interesting signs such as the ones in my photos, each depicting a feature of the town or surrounding area.

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Signs around the Plaza

After our stroll around the plaza we were ready for some refreshment, and found it in the Manzanero Coffee Bar on its eastern side (now renamed as M Mountain Coffee it seems). They brewed proper espresso, made some delicious iced coffee drinks, and it was the sort of place where we felt comfortable sitting for quite a while over our drinks while writing a few post-cards.

An evening in Socorro

I have already mentioned that we chose our hotel for its proximity to a promising sounding watering hole, the Socorro Springs Brewery, which appears to be still going strong. And unsurprisingly so, judging by the pleasant evening we spent here. The restaurant specialises in wood-fired pizzas, and they were very good. To go with them we naturally chose from their selection of microbrews, which was equally good – especially, I noted, the Bridgeport’s Café Negro, with its strong espresso after-taste (created, according to the menu, by infusing ‘a specialised blend of coffee with the base beer during cold conditioning’). All in all, an excellent evening!

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Socorro Springs Brewery

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Posted by ToonSarah 02:21 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes art birds beer road_trip restaurant history views museum reptiles new_mexico Comments (9)

Ain’t no mountain high enough ...

Ecuador day six


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Cotapaxi

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Overlooking Quito

Up early today as we were off again for another overnight trip out of the city, this time heading south to the area around Cotopaxi. I love mountain scenery, so this had been a must-see on my list when planning our trip to Ecuador. And the mountain did not disappoint, although for several reasons I was not at my best that day to appreciate it in all its glory.

We left Quito quite early in hazy sun and drove south with Jose Luiz, our guide from Surtrek, along the Panamerican Highway. We stopped briefly at a viewpoint overlooking the city to get a different perspective of its unusual shape, squeezed between the mountains.

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To the south of Quito this stretch of that famous road is known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes because it passes between the eastern and western ridges of the Andes with several active and inactive volcanoes, of which the highest and most famous is Cotopaxi. Some of the volcanoes were very clearly visible, but others were disappointingly shrouded in cloud which seemed to build up the further south we travelled, including Cotopaxi itself.

A visit to a rose farm

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Jose Luiz suggested that we delay our drive up the mountain as he thought the weather might improve in a bit, and proposed that we detour to visit the rose farm belong to the hacienda where we were to stay later in the day. I was more interested in seeing the mountains than in roses, but as we couldn’t see any mountains just then, it seemed a good idea.

There are a lot of these rose farms in the area, but only a few can be visited. The one we went to is only open to those staying at the Hacienda la Cienega and security was tight, with Jose Luiz having to sign us in and accompany us everywhere while on the farm.

Rose-growing is an important part of the Ecuador economy and has increased dramatically in the last ten years. Many people in this region work on the farms. Jose Luiz explained that most of the roses grown here are exported to the USA, Russia and Indonesia. We saw the many varieties being grown here, under plastic to protect them from the cool nights. The climate here in the equatorial highlands, especially the consistent year-round hours of sunlight, means that the bushes produce a crop every six to eight weeks, making this a lucrative business for the growers and an important one for the country.

Fairly unusually for Ecuador, it seems, this is an organic farm – one of only four in the country. It switched from using the pesticides that are common here (including, or so I have read, some that are banned in more developed countries) and now prides itself on using only natural pest-control methods, including growing herbs to deter them near the entrances of the greenhouses and putting little bags over the most vulnerable blooms.

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Jose Luiz and Chris among the rose bushes

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We then went into the packing area where we could see how carefully the flowers are graded. The least good (that is, the smallest or those with too short stems) are kept back for the domestic market where they are sold very cheaply – you can get a large bunch (25 flowers) for the price of a single rose in the UK or US. The rest are packed in bunches of 12 and exported in refrigerated containers from a local airport.

In one corner of the packing room we saw some very unusually-coloured blooms. These are specially produced for the Far East market and are dyed with food colourings just as I used to do to carnations as a child!

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Grading the flowers

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And packing them

To Cotapaxi

After leaving the rose farm it was time to head for the mountains – well, for Cotopaxi specifically, the main object of our trip. We drove back north a little, and turned off the main road to enter the National Park that surrounds and protects the mountain, although on these lowest slopes the land is nevertheless used for timber and shows too many signs of human interference. The road through this lower part of the park was a bit of a mess, undergoing a lot of work that is intended eventually to improve access but in the short term has made it bumpy going! Jose Luiz explained that the previous Easter the President of Ecuador had come here for a camping holiday with his family and was so horrified by the state of the gravel road that he immediately ordered that it be tarred.

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Scenery around Cotopaxi

The road wound up through the pines until we reached the official entrance to the park. Beyond here we were above the tree-line and the scenery grew more wild and dramatic, although Cotopaxi itself remained stubbornly hidden from view. It was dull and a little drizzly in the low cloud, and we wondered if we would get any sight of the peak of the mountain, but our companion was optimistic that on the other side the weather would be better. It was quite usual, he said, for this side to be in cloud but for the far side, where we were headed, to be much clearer. And he was right. As we climbed, we rounded the mountain, and the peak of the volcano was revealed.

But we were still some way below it, down on the altiplano, or paramo as it is known in Ecuador, at around 3,800 metres. The road continued upwards across a barren stony terrain until we reached the parking lot. By now we were at 4,300 metres.

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Cars parked below Cotopaxi

From here it is possible to walk up to the refuge near the snow line (at 4,800 metres). But the altitude made my headache almost unmanageable, and my bad knee was another reason not to attempt the climb. So we contented ourselves with taking photos from this point, and even so, I soon had to return to the car and beg Jose Luiz to drive down a little!

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Clouds swirling around Cotopaxi

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Trying to pretend I feel OK!

It is relatively unusual for me to suffer like this at altitude. We had already been in Ecuador for nearly a week, spending our time in and around Quito. The city lies at 2,800 metres, which can be high enough to cause shortness of breath and making climbing its many hills a challenge (altitude sickness is generally thought to be possible anywhere above 2,400 metres). But we had both found that we didn’t really notice the altitude too much, apart from a slight breathlessness on the hotel stairs at times, and I had been hopeful that Cotopaxi would not be a problem either. But I think the problem was that I had woken up with a slight headache and the altitude turned that into a pounding one somewhat spoiling what would have been a super day. Even the local remedy of coca tea, which we bought at a little café and gift-shop inside the park made no difference, unfortunately. [On our second day in this area, when we went nearly as high, I had no problems, thankfully.]

It had nevertheless been a special experience to see this magnificent mountain. Whether you admire it from the plains below, drive up to the parking lot, walk up to the refuge or even climb to the summit (5,900 metres), a visit to Cotopaxi is a must when in Ecuador!

Cotopaxi means “Smooth Neck of the Moon” and the indigenous people have revered the mountain for centuries. The mountain was the bringer of both good rains and good crops. Pre-Incan civilizations believed god dwelled at the top of the mountain. But the mountain is also potentially the bringer of disaster. A still-active volcano (it last erupted about 70 years ago), an eruption today would cause the ice in its glacier to melt and to flood the valley below, bringing destruction to nearby Latacunga and as far north as the southern suburbs of Quito. Latacunga indeed has already been twice destroyed by such an eruption, in 1744 and 1768. The last major eruption was in 1903/04; does that mean that one is overdue?!!

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On our way down from Cotopaxi ’s parking area we stopped to take a short walk and see some of the hardy plants that grow in this altiplano or paramo landscape. Here we saw the chuquiragua plant, which Jose Luiz told us is the national flower of Ecuador. This is a low shrub which grows only in this country and neighbouring Peru. It has yellow/orange flowers which the hummingbirds like to visit for their nectar – indeed we saw an Ecuadorean Hillstar Hummingbird here, which is the highest-living hummingbird in the world. I didn’t manage to get a photo of the bird (though I was able to later in the day, as you will see), so am using Chris’s photo here, with his permission!

Other plants that grow in this tough environment include valerian and lupine. I took a photo of the latter and of a pretty yellow flower, which fellow blogger aussirose has suggested is probably a hawkweed - thank you Ann!

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Ecuadorean Hillstar Hummingbird

Tambopaxi Lodge

When we were back “down” (at 3,800 metres!) on the paramo Jose Luiz drove us to another area of the park with a bleak but to me very appealing landscape. Here we had a good lunch at Tambopaxi Lodge, sitting in the cosy dining room with views from the window (when the clouds permitted) of not only Cotopaxi but also another volcano, Rumiñahui (4,721 m). We were also pleased to get another look at an Ecuadorean Hillstar Hummingbird, this time a female, who visited the feeder outside our window several times during the meal.

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Female Hillstar Hummingbird

Our meal started with a really tasty and warming pumpkin soup. This was followed by pork chops, which needed the excellent spicy sauce, aji, to liven them up. We had mango mousse for dessert, and a choice of fruit juices – I chose the very good mango juice.

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Tambopaxi Lodge

Laguna Limpiopungo

After our lunch we retraced our route back past the turnoff to Cotopaxi and stopped a little further along the road at the Laguna Limpiopungo. This is a beautiful and tranquil spot, and an oasis of sorts in the paramo for all sorts of birds.

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Laguna Limpiopungo

A short walk from the car park brings you to a viewing platform where a notice board helps with identification. We saw a number of these, including Baird’s Sandpiper, Andean Teal, Andean Coot (so much bigger than the Coot we have here in England!), Andean Gull and nearby an Andean Lapwing. Other birds that can be seen here, according to the notice board, include the Caracara and Solitary Sandpiper, but we didn’t spot either of these.

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Laguna Limpiopungo

From the platform the path continues right round the lake, a circuit of just over a mile (just under two kilometres). We considered taking it, but it had started to rain, and the path was fairly uninviting as a group of construction workers was relaying it. So we decided to abandon the idea and instead just spent a little time with our binoculars, enjoying the bird activity.

We also had more good views of Rumiñahui from here. Unlike Cotopaxi this volcano is dormant and sits just below the snowline. It is named after an Incan general who fought against the Spanish conquerors, leading the resistance against them in this part of the country. Defeated by them in a battle near another volcano, Chimborazo, he had Quito burned to the ground rather than let it be captured by the invaders.

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Rumiñahui from Tambopaxi

As we drove away the rain got heavier, and we saw another aspect of the landscape here – bleak and rather forbidding but at the same time eerily beautiful. I have read that Limpiopungo is at risk of disappearing because the waters that feed it are being diverted for irrigation purposes. It would be a real shame if this lovely spot is lost, not only for those of us that visit the park but also for the many birds that come here.

Hacienda la Cienega

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Hacienda la Cienega

Leaving the Cotopaxi National Park in the rain we headed for our base for the night, the Hacienda La Cienega, arriving here in the middle of a storm. We received a friendly welcome and were shown to our room, having arranged to meet up with Jose Luiz later for dinner.

The room, number 31, was on the far side of this historic property and was a good size, with a large and comfortable bed, and was nicely decorated. We were pleased to see that it had a heater as well as a fireplace, as the day was chilly at these heights (over 3,000 metres above sea level I believe) and the fire not lit – although later it was lit for us, and very cosy it was too!

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Our bedroom at the hacienda

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One of the corridors

We went to the small bar to see if we could get a coffee but the friendly manager immediately proposed that we sat in the then-empty restaurant (it was only about 4.30 pm) as there was a good fire going. He brought us a cafetière of excellent coffee and even lit some candles! Later in the afternoon we went to sit in one of the hallways to take advantage of the free wifi (which didn’t work in our bedroom) and again staff hurried to make us comfortable, stoking up the fire in the wood-burning stove. Later the rain stopped and I took a brief walk in the courtyard garden, its lush tropical trees and bushes dripping and birds starting to sing after their soaking.

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In the garden

The hacienda is packed with history! It dates from the early part of the 18th century, and was so well built that it survived the 1744 eruption of Cotopaxi. It has played host to numerous famous people, including Charles Marie de la Condamine, a French scientist who participated in the 1736-44 Geodesic Mission that determined the true shape of the earth (and identified the location of the equator just north of Quito) and to Alexander von Humboldt, the German geographer/naturalist who studied Cotopaxi’s volcanic activity in 1802, and who is best known for proposing the theory that the lands bordering the Atlantic were once joined (and for having an ocean current named for him!), as well as many of Ecuador’s former presidents.

On one side of the courtyard is the small but beautiful Chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary. It can apparently be used for weddings, and Jose Luiz told us later that on some visits his tourist guests have been accommodated for dinner in one part of the dining room while the wedding party celebrated in the other. The chapel doors stood open when I was exploring the garden, as they did the next morning, so I was able to have a look inside at the lovely wooden altarpiece, unusual reed ceiling and several old paintings.

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Inside the chapel

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In the restaurant

In the evening we had dinner in the hacienda’s atmospheric restaurant, along with the only other people who appeared to be staying here, another couple and their guide. I had read good reviews of the food here, and seen an extensive menu, and as it was my birthday I was looking forward to a bit of a feast! But we discovered from Jose Luiz that our dinner was included in our tour and was a set menu. No matter – it would still be good, I thought. With hindsight though I wish we had asked if we could pay the extra to choose from the menu, as the meal proved to be rather disappointing. The vegetable soup was OK, but the chicken curry poor (we are used to good curries here in England) and served with pallid, floppy potato chips! They did however make a bit of a fuss about my birthday. I had not mentioned it at all to Jose Luiz, nor he to us, but Surtrek had clearly noted my date of birth and when the time came for dessert I was brought a slice of chocolate cake with a candle in it. Chris and Jose Luiz meanwhile were served a slice of something called “fruit cheese” – a sort of blancmange or mousse-like concoction. Chris and I decided to split our two different desserts and I was pleased that we did, as the fruit cheese was much nicer than my birthday chocolate cake, which seemed dry and stale. So altogether not an especially good meal and a somewhat unsatisfactory end to our day.

But overall it had been a good day: the clouds had cleared for us, we had seen Cotopaxi and the other volcanoes, and the fire was lit in our cosy room.

And tomorrow there would be more wonderful scenery – and no headache!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:52 Archived in Ecuador Tagged mountains birds volcanoes national_park cotopaxi Comments (6)

Our feathered friends

Ecuador days ten to seventeen


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In my last entry I shared some of the most distinctive animals we encountered on the Galápagos – iguanas, seals, lizards and crabs. Now it is the turn of the birds to step into the limelight.

Blue-footed boobies

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Blue-footed boobies, Isla Espanola

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. 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.

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Blue-footed booby and chick, North Seymour

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 above, 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. 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

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Red-footed booby, Genovesa

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. 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. 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

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Nazca booby and eggs, Genovesa

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. 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.

Frigatebirds

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Magnificent frigate bird on North Seymour, and great frigatebird on Genovesa

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. 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.

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Frigatebirds in flight above the Angelito

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!

Gulls

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Swallow-tail gulls, Isla Genovesa

There are five species of gull that you might see on the Galápagos Islands, of which two are endemic – the swallow-tailed and lava gulls. We saw both of these, but far more of the former. As the name suggests, it has a forked tail and is an attractive bird, I thought, with its silver-grey plumage (white on the under parts), dark head and red eye-ring.

Galápagos dove

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Galápagos dove, Isla Seymour

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. 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 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

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Lava heron and marine iguanas, Espanola

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. 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 quite 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.

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Yellow-crowned night herons, Genovesa (juvenile on the left)

Mockingbirds

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Mockingbird, Genovesa

There are four different species of mockingbirds found on the Galápagos, all of them endemic. 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). The ones in my photo, therefore, are subspecies bauri, since I saw them 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. 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

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Ground finch (I think) at the airport, Baltra

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.

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. 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.

We saw finches just about everywhere we went. Like all of the island species, they are pretty tame, but they hop around a lot and are hard to capture on camera. The best shot I got was at the airport on Baltra while waiting in the café for our flight back to Quito – the finches were everywhere snatching up the crumbs, sometimes even from the plates of those still eating. But of course by then we had no Fabian with us to help with identification! I’m pretty sure it’s a ground finch, by the shape of the bill, and if so it must be a female, as all the males are black; my guess is that it’s a female large ground finch, but if anyone knows otherwise ...

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Cactus finch, Santa Cruz

My other photo, above, is of a male cactus finch we saw at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz. You can clearly see the much longer, pointed bill.

Yellow warbler

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Yellow warbler, South Plaza

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. 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:

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Waved albatross, Española

~ 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 …

Posted by ToonSarah 03:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged birds islands wildlife galapagos ecuador albatross finches Comments (9)

Our first landing

Ecuador day ten continued


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North Seymour

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Taking photos on the beach

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The Angelito from North Seymour

As you can imagine, tourism to the Galápagos Islands is very strictly controlled. There are about 60 designated “visitor sites” which you can visit only with an authorised guide. You stick to a marked trail, leaving most of the island free for the animals to enjoy in peace. Some islands have only one visitor site, some have two and the larger ones have multiple sites. Each site is designed to showcase specific scenery, vegetation, and wildlife, although much of the latter can be seen at most locations. And each site will be designated as a “wet” or “dry” landing, depending on whether you have to wade ashore or can step directly on to land (usually a small stone jetty). Before each landing our guide, Fabian, told us what to expect and what footwear would be most suitable (“I recommend you tennis shoes” became something of a catch phrase!) Normally these briefings took place the previous evening but on this occasion we had just boarded the Angelito after landing at Baltra, so our briefing took place as we sailed.

North Seymour was the first island we visited on our Galápagos cruise on the Angelito, on the afternoon of our arrival day. Many cruises do this, as it is very near Baltra where most tourist flights arrive. And it’s a great introduction to the Galápagos! This is one of the smallest islands in the archipelago, less than 2 square kilometres. It is rather flat and was created by an uplift of land rather than, like many of the larger islands, being the eroded top of a volcano.

Landing on North Seymour

The landing here is a dry one, on lava rocks dotted with crabs. Even a small boat like the Angelito can’t moor directly at the island, so to cross to the island we took the pangas or small dinghies. We wore life-jackets every time for these short crossings, putting them on before getting into the dinghies and discarding them in the boat before stepping out on to the shore.

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Rocky shore near the landing place (with swallow-tailed gull)

Once on the rocks we all gathered around Fabian for a first introduction to the island, while the dinghies returned to the Angelito to await his call later to pick us up. This way the landing place is left free for any other groups arriving on the same island. Sometimes we did get an island to ourselves, but inevitably on others there would be more than one group there at a time, so we had to leave room for them to land. But Fabian was quite clever at making sure we didn’t get too caught up in other groups – for instance, we often went the opposite way round a loop trail so that we just passed them at one point!

The lava rocks

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Our first marine iguana

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Lava lizard, North Seymour

The trail on North Seymour is about 2.5 km in length and is rated as moderate/difficult, although as an inexperienced walker with a dodgy knee I didn’t find it too bad! It starts here on the lava rocks by the landing place. This rocky area was a good introduction to some of the wildlife of the Galápagos, as we saw our very first endemic species here, the idiosyncratic marine iguanas. These are the world's only sea-going lizard. They have developed a flattened snout and sharp teeth in order to feed on the algae on the underwater rocks, and 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, and this was how we first encountered them here on North Seymour.

We also saw swallow-tailed gulls here (endemic to the Galápagos), and lava lizards, as well as our first Galápagos dove.

On the trail

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Land iguana on North Seymour

From here we headed inland on a rocky trail which took us over mainly flat ground through a forest of grey palo santo trees and opuntia. This is where we saw our first land iguanas, and realised for the first time just how close we could get to the animals here.

There is an interesting story attached to the land iguanas here on North Seymour – a rare example where man’s interference in nature has proved to have a positive consequence. It is told fully in a Galápagos Online blog article, but to summarise:

In the early part of the 20th century neighbouring Baltra (also known as South Seymour) was home to numerous land iguanas, because of its plentiful supplies of opuntia or prickly pear cactus, their favourite food. In the 1930s the members of a scientific expedition noticed that, surprisingly, there were no land iguanas on North Seymour, despite it having even more vegetation. They had already been concerned to note that those on Baltra seemed to be suffering from starvation, so decided to move some to North Seymour. Such interference would normally be deplored, as introducing non-native species can have a disastrous effect, but it turns out to have been providential. In 1943 a military base was established in Baltra, and shortly after the end of the war land iguanas became extinct on that island. The reason for the extinction has been speculated for many years. The military personnel stationed here have been blamed for killing the iguanas for sport, but it seems more likely that the destruction of their natural nesting habitat, through the use of local sand etc. in construction, was to blame, and/or possibly workers from the mainland killing them for their skins.

Whatever the reason, by 1953 there were no more land iguanas on Baltra. The Baltra sub-species would have been extinct, were it not for the population by now thriving on North Seymour. In the 1980s the Galápagos National Park Service captured iguanas on North Seymour and brought them to the Charles Darwin Research Station for a breeding programme. In the 1990s these land iguanas were reintroduced to Baltra. Today Baltra has a healthy population of land iguanas that live happily alongside the military base and airport, but they also still remain and thrive on North Seymour.

Bird life

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Palo santo and blue-footed booby

This trail took us through an area full of blue-footed boobies, and also magnificent frigatebirds. I had been looking forward to seeing the former especially, as they seemed to me one of the symbols of the islands, so it was great to see them on this very first landing. Even more exciting, some of them had chicks! Lying so close to the equator, the climate in the Galápagos Islands is relatively stable, and many of the species that breed here do so year round. Here on North Seymour you are likely to see blue-footed boobies with eggs or chicks whenever you visit.

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Blue-footed booby & chick

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Blue-footed booby chick

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Magnificent frigatebird

But it was the magnificent frigatebirds that most attracted my camera – those bulbous red throat displays of the males are pretty hard to ignore! North Seymour is home to the largest nesting site in the archipelago of these well-named “magnificent” birds.

They were sitting in the bushes either side of our path, and many of the males were inflating their scarlet throat pouches, known as "gular pouches", to attract females to mate with them. We saw several groups each vying for the attention of a single female who happened to land in their tree – fascinating to watch and excellent subject-matter for our cameras!

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The female magnificent frigatebird -

Back to the coast

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Sleepy mother sea lion

After a while the trail looped round and returned us to the coast near where we had landed, but further west. The beach here is home to a colony of Galápagos sea lions. It was our first close look at these – and I mean close! We were still learning just how tame the wildlife here could be, and were thrilled at the photo opportunities. We spent a long while here, slowly making our way along the beach and stopping frequently to photograph yet another cute pup. The mothers too looked very photogenic in the golden light of late afternoon. Sea lions typically have just the one pup, and look after it carefully for the first six months of life, so here, as elsewhere on the islands, there were plenty of opportunities to observe the interactions between mum and baby.

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Mothers and pups

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Posing for Chris

As we walked back to our landing point the sun started to sink and we enjoyed some beautiful light for these last photos, with the skin of the sea lions almost golden in colour. There was a lovely sunset over the neighbouring island of Daphne Major. What a wonderful start to our explorations!

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Sunset from North Seymour

Evening on board the Angelito

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Relaxing in the lounge
Geoff and Simon

Once back on board we were able to properly settle into our cabins, before gathering in the lounge area for dinner. This was our first taste (literally!) of the excellent dining we were to enjoy all week – not fancy but very tasty and generous, and especially impressive given the small size of the galley. It was also a chance to start to get to know each other, which we did over a few beers from the honesty supply (note what you take from the bar on the sheet of paper pinned above it and the tally will be totalled at the end of the week). Fabian also delivered the first of his evening briefings, outlining the plans for the next day when we would visit two of the small islands that lie off Santiago – Sombrero Chino (Chinese Hat) and Bartolomé.

The Angelito spent most of the night moored off North Seymour, before sailing to Sombrero Chino in the early hours of the morning …

Much of the wildlife mentioned above is described in more detail in my previous entries on the animals and bird life of the islands.

Posted by ToonSarah 07:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises animals birds islands lizards iguanas galapagos ecuador sea_lions isla_seymour Comments (4)

Bird Island

Ecuador day twelve


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Genovesa: the furthest island

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Yolande and Reto at Darwin Bay

Genovesa, also known by the English name of Tower, is unusual among Galápagos Islands in having not a volcanic cone. Instead most of the volcano is submerged and surrounds an ocean-filled caldera on the south west side of the island. Due to its remote location and lack of fresh water the island was less visited in the past and has remained unaltered by man; there are no introduced species on the island.

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Our bunk beds

This was the fourth island we visited on our Galápagos cruise on the Angelito, and one of my favourites. The journey here is a long one, and consequently it remains less visited than some of the other Galápagos Islands. The small engines of some of the cheaper cruise boats cannot reach it in a comfortable amount of time, and the larger boats (over 40 passengers) are not able to enter the natural harbour formed by its caldera. But if you find an itinerary that includes this remote spot, go for it!

The downside of a visit to Genovesa is the long voyage needed to reach the island, as it lies at some distance from the centre of the archipelago. The Angelito sailed here overnight from Bartolomé, a journey of around seven hours, and the return trip to St James’ Bay, Santiago, was eight hours. The sea between the southerly islands and Genovesa is more open and exposed, and therefore can be rougher. We had been warned to expect this and to take seasickness precautions. I did take a pill before going to bed on both these nights, and whether because of this, or because it was not as choppy as it can get, had no problems at all – indeed, I rather enjoyed the rocking of the little boat when I woke in the night.

Genovesa is also one of just three main islands in the group that lie north of the Equator (the others being Marchana and Darwin, neither of which can be visited). Although we have crossed the equator many times, it has usually been in the air, so it was quite fun to think that we were doing so at sea level – but of course, being an overnight journey, none of us was awake and on deck to appreciate the moment!

We also missed our 6.00 AM arrival at Genovesa, which I would like to have seen as to moor here boats need to cross a shallow and narrow channel into the caldera in order to anchor at the base of the steep crater walls. The bay formed by this caldera is Darwin Bay. Both visitor sites are found here, and the one we went to first, in the morning, was a wet landing on the small beach that bears the same name.

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Darwin Bay - you can clearly see the caldera's shape, and sea lions in the foreground

Darwin Bay trail

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Graffiti

This 750m trail, rated as easy / moderate, starts on the beach and is at first sandy and later over rocky lava. Near the start, on the cliffs lining the beach, we saw swallow-tailed gulls nesting, some with chicks. We were surprised to see some graffiti on those cliffs, as the Galápagos Islands are so strictly protected. But Fabian explained that this is regarded as part of the human history of the islands, a record of earlier visitors here who didn’t have our modern-day awareness of the damage they were causing.

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Swallow-tailed gull and opuntia

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Mockingbird bauri

Another bird we saw on the beach was one of the six sub-species of Galápagos mockingbird, the bauri, which is endemic to Genovesa, as well as various Galápagos finches. There were also a few Galápagos sea lions, although not as many as on some of the other beaches we visited.

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Booby feet

After taking our photos on the beach we headed away from it to walk among the red mangrove and palo santo trees, in every one of which (or so it seemed to me) several red-footed boobies were nesting, and (again, so it seemed) posing for our cameras. 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! They are also among the most photogenic of Galápagos birds, with their bright blue bills, pretty pink and turquoise colouring around the eye (“I like the eye-shadow”, was my Dad’s comment later when he saw my photos!), soft brown plumage and red feet. The latter are worth a close look – not only for their vivid colour but also for their amazing prehensile quality – look at my close-up to see how they grip the branch of the tree.

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Red-footed boobies

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Red-footed booby chick

Further along the trail between the mangrove trees it was great frigatebirds that proliferated, mainly juveniles with those comical ginger hair-dos, and fluffy chicks. I imagine that many of the adults were at sea looking for food for the young – great frigatebirds care for and feed their young for up to two years.

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Great frigatebird chick

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Juvenile great frigatebird

Behind the beach at Darwin Bay, the trail through the mangrove trees is interspersed with more open stretches beside a series of sheltered tide pools set into a rocky outcrop.

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The tide pools

The trail winds in and out of the trees, and the stretches in this more open environment offer opportunities to see some different species. Among these we saw several yellow-crowned night herons, both juveniles and adults, stalking the rocks or tucked into the crevices in the low cliffs that surround them. Nesting on these outcrops were lots more swallow-tailed gulls. I enjoyed watching how affectionate the pairs seemed with each other.

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Yellow-crowned night herons, juvenile on the left

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An affectionate pair

There were also some marine iguanas here. These are the smallest marine iguanas in the archipelago, and the only reptile to live on Genovesa – there are no land iguanas or lava lizards here.

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Marine iguana

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Lunch on board

After we returned to the boat there was an opportunity for snorkelling in the caldera but I decided to spend some time relaxing on deck and catching up with my journal – not a bad decision as it turned out, as visibility was poor and those who went said that it was the least good of all the snorkelling sessions of our week on the Angelito. We also had our usual excellent lunch on board – even though we were spending all day at this one island, park rules prohibit taking any food or drink other than water ashore so picnicking is out of the question!

Prince Philip Steps

Our afternoon landing was at Prince Philip Steps (also known as El Barranco), where a steep but short climb leads to a trail across the cliffs. On the way there we took a panga ride along the cliffs that surround the caldera. We saw a lava heron poking around among the jagged rocks, and some Galápagos sea lions sleeping here, but the most exciting sight was of a small group of Galápagos fur seals who make their home here. This was our first clear sighting of these and a good chance to appreciate the differences between them and their cousins, the sea lions.

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Galápagos fur seal

Arriving at the foot of the steps we made the usual transfer from panga to dry land – life-jackets off and passed to the stern, step off one at a time, from alternate sides of the boat to maintain balance, and move forwards quickly to let the next person off behind you. The slight challenge here was the last part of the operation. We were faced with the steep and uneven stairs cut into the rock, and although there was a (slightly wobbly) hand-rail to grasp, the large size of a couple of the steps meant that some of us took them a little slower than our usual pace.

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Short-eared owl

Add to this the wish to stop and take photos as we climbed, and you will understand that Fabian had to chivvy us along at this point! Just the same, we were all soon at the top, 25 metres higher than the landing point, and ready to set out on the trail.

Prince Philip Steps take their name from the visit by Britain’s Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, in the 1960s. They are also known by the Spanish name of El Barranco. Once at the top of the steps you are at the start of a 2 km trail, rated as moderate. It passes at first through a palo santo forest typical of the arid zone of the Galápagos Islands.

One of the first things we saw, very near the top of the steps, was a short-eared owl. Even Fabian was surprised! He said he had been counting on being able to point some out near the end of the trail, but not at this spot.

But mainly here it was the Nazca boobies that most engaged my photographic efforts. While the red-footed boobies we had seen in the morning nest in the mangrove trees, the Nazca boobies prefer the ground. They have different breeding seasons on the different islands, but here on Genovesa it is August to November. Many of them had chicks of different ages, from scrawny new-borns to larger balls of fluff.

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Nazca boobies with new-born chicks

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Close-up of a chick

Other pairs were yet to produce their young, and were either guarding eggs (Nazca boobies lay two) or even still in the courtship stage, building their nests.

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Nazca booby and eggs

I made a short video of one pair engaging in a rather lackadaisical courtship and of a very baby chick. You can see some finches in the background and hear Fabian speculating about the species, as we all did so often!

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Fabian demonstrating the scent of "holy stick"

We also saw more red-footed boobies here, and Galápagos doves. Fabian pointed out how the spines of the opuntia cactus here 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. He also broke a palo santo stick to demonstrate the scent that gives it its alternative names of Holy Stick or the Jerusalem Tree.

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Palo Santo

Eventually the forest started to thin out and we emerged on to a more open plateau. This is a broad lava field that stretches towards the north shore of the island. Here we saw more Nazca boobies nesting, mainly still quite close to the trees. We followed the path through the scrubby vegetation towards the cliffs. Birds were swooping overhead – frigatebirds, swallow-tailed gulls and others. We also saw storm petrels. The petrels here, wedge-rumped storm petrels, are unique among petrels in flying so much during the day. They only return to their nests in the evening in an effort to avoid their predators.

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Birds above the lava fields

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Geoff and Sue on the trail

We were excited to see the birds' main predator, the short-eared owl, also flying past. Owls on the Galápagos Islands are not nocturnal so it is not unusual to see them in broad daylight like this, but for us it was amazing to watch them hunting in the middle of the afternoon! Fabian explained that with few competitors for prey and no real threats, they are free to hunt by daylight, unlike elsewhere in the world. However they do tend to feed nocturnally in areas where the Galápagos hawk is present - unsurprisingly!

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Short-eared owl

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He's spotted us!

The short eared owl is a medium sized owl averaging 34 – 43 cm in length. It has large eyes, a big head, short neck and broad wings. Its plumage is mottled tawny to brown with a barred tail and wings, and a streaked breast. Its beak is short, strong, hooked and black, and its eyes yellow. Those seen here in the Galápagos belong to an endemic subspecies, Asio flammeus galapagoensis.

We returned to the landing place at Prince Philip Steps by the same route and were back on board the Angelito in plenty of time for dinner, before casting off for the long journey back to the main group of islands and our next destination, Santiago …

Much of the wildlife mentioned above is described in more detail in my previous entries on the animals and bird life of the islands.

Posted by ToonSarah 07:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals birds islands galapagos ecuador Comments (6)

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