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Ecuador day ten


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A world apart

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The Angelito seen from the beach of Sombrero Chino

For many years I wanted to visit the Galápagos: to walk on these remote islands where unique species thrive, where Darwin first developed the ideas that would change our understanding of nature, and where animals have never learned to fear humankind. And in 2012 I realised my dream. And fortunately, it more than lived up to my expectations!

A week of discovery, with each day surprising us with something new, something special. One day, a giant manta ray languidly turning in the waves beneath the cliffs where we stood. Another, an albatross chick, already enormous, sitting watching us as we sat and watched him. On one memorable morning, we were spellbound by a group of young Galápagos hawks who clustered around a new-born sea lion pup and his mother, one of them eventually swooping in to grab the placenta which all then eagerly devoured. And on another, we swam and snorkelled with a group of lively sea lions, patrolled by the watchful alpha male who tolerated our intrusion but disdained to join the fun.

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Galápagos wildlife

We spent our week travelling the islands on board the Angelito, one of the older established boats available for tourist cruises, and one of the best value. Its itineraries and guiding are recognised as first class, but the boat itself is less than luxurious, though it has all that you need for a wonderful week at sea. No fancy cabins or leisure facilities, but a friendly and super-helpful crew, great meals conjured up in a tiny galley, a knowledgeable guide (Fabian) considerate of everyone’s needs, and enough space in which to chill and appreciate your surroundings between island visits. What more could we have asked?

We were also fortunate to find ourselves travelling with a super group of fellow explorers. Drawn from six nationalities, and spanning several decades in age, everyone nevertheless got on incredibly well, helped by a shared passion for what we were seeing and a respect for each other’s right to enjoy (and photograph!) it as much as we were.

In this and the following entries I want to share these experiences of our trip of a lifetime with you. So let’s go!

Galápagos day one

After our overnight stay at the Grand Hotel in Guayaquil we were up early (very excited!) We had breakfast in the same coffee shop where we’d eaten dinner – this was a much better meal than that had been, with a selection of hot and cold items served buffet style along with fresh fruit, a wide selection of rolls and pastries, and decent coffee.

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At the airport

After breakfast we were picked up for our transfer to Guayaquil’s modern airport, José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport. The airport is only four miles from the city centre and as it was a Sunday traffic was light and we were there very quickly. The airport terminal is very new (at the time it was the newest in the country, since superseded by Quito’s new airport). It was opened in 2006 and the old terminal turned into a convention centre.

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Coming in to land

This is the nearest airport to the Galápagos and many flights from Quito stop here to pick up passengers. We found it to be relatively quiet and well-organised for the additional complications of a Galápagos flight – buying our INGALA transit control cards (INGALA is the agency that regulates travel to the islands), and having our luggage inspected to meet quarantine regulations. Both these operations went smoothly and we had time for a coffee in the bright and comfortable departures area (with good free wifi) before boarding our plane. Only 15 hours after arriving in Guayaquil, we were leaving already.

The flight lasted 1 hour 45 minutes, but because the Galápagos Islands are an hour behind mainland Ecuador, we arrived well before lunch-time. Our first views of the islands, from the air, were enough to raise the excitement levels further. Our dream holiday was about to begin!

But first, there were some more formalities to get through. Everyone visiting the Galápagos has to pay a $100 national park fee, and as this can’t be paid in advance, it must be done on arrival at the airport and in cash. I was pleased that in addition to the attractive souvenir ticket I also got my passport stamped.

Baggage claim consisted of all luggage being piled up in a hall to one side of the arrivals area, and once we’d retrieved ours we were able to exit to the main part of the airport where Fabian our guide was waiting for us all to escort us to the Angelito.

Transfer to the boat

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Crossing from the jetty to the Angelito

The airport at Baltra is just a five minute drive away from the small port where the cruise boats moor, and the journey is undertaken on a fleet of elderly buses whose comings and goings are controlled by the military who own the airport. Fabian directed us to the right bus, on arrival at the port, organised the transfer to the Angelito. Even the smaller boats, judging by our experience, aren’t able to moor directly at the dock, so the 16 of us crossed to the boat in one of its two small dinghies, in two groups, while the other was used for our luggage.

We were very soon all on board and looking round eagerly at our home for the next week – and at each other, our travelling companions. It would have been good to have known already at that point that we would quickly become a tight-knit group and would thoroughly enjoy each other’s company as well as the trip itself.

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Our group

The Angelito

Since our trip in 2012 the Angelito has been modernised, so our experiences of it won’t be quite the same as anyone travelling on it now, but I doubt they could be better! We were very happy indeed with our choice of this boat for our Galápagos cruise, as were all the others in our group it seemed. She isn’t a luxury vessel, but she is solidly built (entirely from wood), owned (and crewed) by locals, and provides a friendly, comfortable setting that we believed helped our group to gel and absolutely fitted the unique atmosphere of this special part of the world.

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Moored off North Seymour

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Some of the crew

The Angelito accommodates 16 passengers in 8 cabins, all of which (at that time) had bunk beds. This was one factor keeping the price of her cruises lower than it might otherwise be. But what matters most on a Galápagos cruise is not the comfort of the vessel (imho) but the quality of the guiding and the interest-level of the itinerary. The Angelito offered guides qualified to the top level (level three) and, with a great little engine, the capacity to travel to some of the further flung islands (such as, in our case, Genovesa).

Almost as important, the service we received on board was of a similarly high standard, with plenty of tasty food served by a super-friendly chef and a helpful and ever-smiling crew. The shared public areas were more than adequate for the sixteen of us, with a lounge space inside and seating on a covered aft deck and open foredeck. There was a bar with an honesty system for drinks, including a ready supply of beer, and a small reference library of wildlife guides and other reading material.

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Bunk beds

In November 2012 when we stayed on her, the Angelito’s eight cabins were split between four on the lower deck and four on the upper, with the lounge, dining area, bar and galley on the main deck in between. Cabins couldn’t be pre-booked but were allocated on arrival on board. We were given one on the lower deck, #2. In some ways, I was disappointed not to have the large window of an upper deck cabin (we had only two small portholes) but that was the only disadvantage, and on the plus side, these lower cabins are considered to be more stable during a heavy swell. Chris quickly claimed the upper bunk, which I was glad to agree to. We found we had just enough storage space for our belongings, and soon settled into the space. The cabin was compact but of course we didn’t spend a lot of time in here, other than when sleeping, and the public areas were generous enough that I could always find somewhere to sit on the rare occasions when on board and not eating or socialising. My favourite spot to relax and catch up with my diary or read became the aft deck, where the loungers were shaded and the view of frigate birds and others following our wake always enticing.

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On deck

Although on the basic side, all cabins had a small bathroom with toilet, washbasin and shower, and hot water was plentiful at all times. Sheets were changed once during our stay, and towels were plentiful, both in the cabins and when needed after snorkelling or swimming. This was no luxury cruise, but for a friendly welcome, top-notch guiding and a genuine Galápagos experience, it’s hard to think that we could have done any better than the Angelito.

Because we spent a whole week on the boat and I don’t want to keep repeating myself in these entries, I’ll say a bit more here about life on board.

Meals on the Angelito

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Chef and assistant

To say that meals on the Angelito are generous is an understatement! And not just meals – every time we returned on board after an island visit or a snorkelling session, a treat would be waiting for us. And with two visits each day, and snorkelling on most days, that’s a lot of treats! All meals are included in the cost of the cruise, apart from drinks other than water, tea and coffee, and also apart from those treats and the delicious fruit juices at breakfast time. So with everything already paid for, it would be a shame not to eat it, wouldn’t it?!

A typical day’s eating and drinking would be something like this:

Breakfast, usually served early (somewhere between 6.00 and 7.00, depending on the plans for the day) -
Fruit juice (as fresh and wonderful as everywhere in Ecuador), fresh fruit, bread or toast, jams, cheese and ham, and some sort of eggs – one day scrambled, another a tortilla, and so on. Some days there were extras – one morning we had pancakes with maple syrup, for instance, and another there were little sausages.

After our first landing (usually about 10.30), as we climbed back on board –
Snack, such as more fruit juice and mini empanadas, or biscuits
If we snorkelled after this, we would be greeted on our return with a hot drink – chocolate or a herbal tea.

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Ceviche

Lunch, usually around midday –
Soup, meat or fish with rice, sometimes potato too, and vegetables, and a platter of fresh fruit.

After the afternoon landing, another snack, similar to the morning but never the same. One day we had mini hot-dogs, on another there were slices of excellent pizza.

Dinner, which might be served before or after the evening briefing depending on where and when we were sailing –
Meat or fish with rice, sometimes potato, vegetables and salad, and a dessert such as a mousse or crème caramel. On two special occasions, the dessert was a celebration cake – once for Brian’s birthday which fell on the Thursday of the cruise, and on the final night, when dinner was a buffet with a spectacular fish dish as its centre-piece.

With all this to eat, is it any surprise that despite all the walking and swimming, I put on weight during the week?!

Our itinerary

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Our guide, Fabian

Regulations prohibit any boat from revisiting any island within a fortnight, so all the boats cruising the Galápagos offer two different one-week itineraries, which they alternate. The plus side of this is that anyone with the time, money and enthusiasm who wants to, can book both and have a two week cruise! For the rest of us, short on the first two of these ingredients, there is the difficulty of choosing which to do. Every boat’s schedule is different, although of course with only so many islands to include, there is plenty of overlap.

I studied the options for ages, trying to make up my mind! I’d identified a number of islands I’d particularly like to see, but no boat (in our price range at least) covered all of them in a single week. But the Angelito had been strongly recommended, and its itinerary A covered all but one of my priority islands (Genovesa for the birds, Bartolomé for the views, Española for the albatrosses – only Fernandina was missing). So that was our final choice, and a great one too! I have read that like us, everyone agonises over their choice of itinerary, and everyone has a wonderful time regardless of where they decide to go – there are NO bad itineraries when it comes to Galápagos cruises!

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Our captain

Anyway, the A itinerary of the Angelito which we experienced was (in 2012):

1. Sunday: Baltra – North Seymour

2. Monday: Sombrero Chino – Bartolomé

3. Tuesday: Genovesa: Darwin Bay and Prince Phillips Steps

4. Wednesday: Santiago (Puerto Egas) – Rabida

5. Thursday: Santa Cruz: Darwin Station, Puerto Ayora and Highlands

6. Friday: Española: Playa Gardner and Punta Suarez

7. Saturday: Santa Fe – South Plaza

8. Sunday: Black Turtle Cove (Santa Cruz) – Baltra

Of all the islands we visited, my favourites proved to be two of those I had especially aimed to see (Genovesa and Española) and one that I had not (Santiago), although it was Santa Fe that gave me two of my most memorable experiences – snorkelling with sea lions, and a close encounter with Galápagos hawks.

My following entries will cover all the wonderful places we went and sights we saw, but again to avoid too much repetition, I will start with one describing some of the wildlife we encountered on the islands …

Posted by ToonSarah 00:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals islands boat wildlife cruise galapagos ecuador Comments (7)

Of iguanas, sea lions and other beasts

Ecuador days ten to seventeen


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

Animals of the Galápagos

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Land iguana on North Seymour

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. 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).

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Colours of the Galápagos - Isla Santiago and Isla Rabida

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.

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Giant tortoise

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

Galápagos sea lion

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Sea lions at Gardner Bay, Isla Espanola

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.

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Seal 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. Some were more adventurous though and were venturing along the beach or across the rocks. One such followed a few of us for some time at Gardenr Bay on Española, apparently mistaking us for family – so cute!

In addition to these large nursery groups we saw several of bachelor males (including on Isla 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. 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

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Fur seal, Isla Genovesa

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. 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 my photos were 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. 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

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Land iguana on Plaza Sur

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Land iguana eating opuntia ,
North Seymour

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.” 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.

One of these, 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. 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

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Marine iguana on Isla Espanola

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!

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Marine iguanas,
Isla San Salvador

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. 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

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Lava lizard, Isla Espanola

The smallest of the reptiles we saw regularly on the islands were the lava lizards. 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. They don’t blend in that well however!

Sally Lightfoot crabs

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Sally Lightfoot crabs, Isla San Salvador

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. 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). John Steinbeck, one of my favourite authors, wrote about them:

everyone who has seen them has been delighted with them. The very name they are called by reflects the delight of the name. These little crabs, with brilliant cloisonné carapaces, walk on their tiptoes. ... They seem to be able to run in any of four directions; but more than this, perhaps because of their rapid reaction time, they appear to read the mind of their hunter. They escape the long-handled net, anticipating from what direction it is coming. If you walk slowly, they move slowly ahead of you in droves. If you hurry, they hurry. When you plunge at them, they seem to disappear in a puff of blue smoke—at any rate, they disappear. It is impossible to creep up on them. They are very beautiful, with clear brilliant colours, red and blues and warm browns.

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.

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Sea turtle, Isla Espanola

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. 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.

Some other animals, seen on only one or two of the islands, will feature in my future entries about our visits to those. Meanwhile though I will continue this overview of the wildlife of the Galápagos in my next entry, with a look at the islands’ birds …

Posted by ToonSarah 01:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals turtles islands lizards wildlife crabs iguanas galapagos seals ecuador sea_lions Comments (2)

Our feathered friends

Ecuador days ten to seventeen


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

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)

Kamikochi in the rain

Japan day thirteen


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Rain over Kamikochi

After yesterday’s typhoon and associated rain, we awoke today hoping for better weather. Well, it was slightly better, in that the typhoon had passed and there was nothing to stop us getting outside, but the rain was still falling and not forecast to stop before the evening. Clearly we would not be getting mountain views today, but we were still keen to get out and see something of Kamikochi.

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Breakfast at Nishi-itoya Sanso

Over the Japanese style breakfast (salmon, pickles, miso soup, rice and tea) Andrew proposed leading a group on a walk to the Myojin area of the park, east of our hotel. The shrine that is located at the Myojin Pond is a popular sight and sounded lovely, but Chris and I decided we would rather do our own thing today. So after supplementing the breakfast with the free coffee available in the coffee shop, we got ready to face the elements. Chris’s umbrella had given up the battle with these in yesterday’s wind, so it was good that the hotel provided them for any guest needing one. While we had waterproof clothing, I find an umbrella invaluable in protecting not just me but my camera – most of the photos on this page were taken juggling camera and umbrella!

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Chris with hotel umbrella

Our riverside walk

Leaving the hotel we turned right, having decided to explore in the opposite direction to the main group. Kamikochi is a park for walkers and hikers (there isn’t much else to do here) and there are paths to suit everyone, from an easy stroll by the river to a challenging hike up one of the mountains. In this weather however the riverside routes are the only practical ones (even the best walkers in our group stuck to these) and the area around the hotels and Kappi-bashi was busy with visitors. But many don’t go very far from the hotels and bus terminal and we knew we would soon leave the bulk of them behind.

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The path by the river

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Information sign

The trails are easy to follow and clearly marked, and helpful little maps are available, small enough to slip in a jacket pocket. I had picked up one of these at the hotel, where they are free, but you can also buy them for 100¥ from the tourist information office at the bus terminal and from various shops. There are also signs along the way describing the landscape, trees, bird life etc. These are in Japanese and English, and are very informative – although it was somewhat frustrating to see on some of them the pictures of the stunning mountain range that was totally hidden from our view by a blanket of low cloud!

Following the park rules (naturally!)

Kamikochi is part of the Chubu-Sangaku National Park and, like national parks everywhere, there are various regulations in force to ensure the protection of the wildlife here. These include specific protection for certain animals, the rock ptarmigan, antelope and char, which are designated as ‘Precious Natural Animals’ in Japan. A voluntary group called ‘Kamikochi Preservation’ was established by the local community in 1965 to support conservation activities in the area. They promote three regulations that visitors are asked to observe in order to preserve Kamikochi for future generations:

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Tree with moss

1. Don't Feed & Disturb!
Do not disturb or feed birds, insects, fish or other wild animals.

2. Don't Harm!
Do not harm or damage wild flowers and plants.

3. Don't Dump!
Carry all your garbage home with your splendid memories.

With these in mind, and cameras and umbrellas at the ready, we started our explorations!

The Weston Relief

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The Weston Relief

This is the shorthand name given locally to the Reverend Weston Memorial Plaque, which we came to after a short walk from Kappa-bashi. It commemorates the Reverend Walter Weston, an English clergyman and missionary of the Church of England during the late 19th / early 20th centuries. He first visited Japan at the age of 27 and was captivated by its mountain regions which he introduced to the world through his book, ‘Mountaineering and Exploring in the Japanese Alps’ (1896). It is he who is credited with spreading the popular name for this region, the ‘Japanese Alps’, around the world. He was influential in establishing the Japanese Alpine Club in 1906 and was its first honorary member.

In 1937, Emperor Hirohito conferred on him the Japanese ‘Order of the Sacred Treasures (fourth class)’, and the Japanese Alpine Club erected a bronze plaque in his honour here at Kamikochi. Today’s plaque is a 1965 reproduction of that earlier one which had got badly damaged over time.

From here we continued along the riverside path.

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The Azusa River near the Weston Relief

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Colours of Kamikochi

Tashiro Bridge

About a kilometre from Kappa-bashi the path, which at first follows the northern bank of the Azusa River, crosses it via the Tashiro Bridge. The river views on and near the bridge are great, and the water so clear as it runs over the pebbles, even on a wet day. On the far side of the bridge is a small shelter with some interesting information displays about the park’s wildlife. From here you could walk straight ahead to reach the main road and bus stop, but we turned right to continue along the trail.

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Kamikochi streams

Soon after this point the path divides and you have the choice of following a route near the river or one that runs among the trees. We chose the former, and followed the path as it crossed a couple of smaller streams that feed the Azusa near here, before arriving at the beautiful Tashiro-Ike.

Tashiro-Ike

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Tashiro-Ike

This was easily my favourite spot of those we visited in Kamikochi. We had been walking in the rain for some time, enjoying the soft light and changing colours, when suddenly the path through the trees emerged into a more open area, filled with rust-tinted reeds and edged with larch and other trees. This was Tashiro Marsh, which is gradually being formed by the silting up of Tashiro Pond through many years of accumulated dead leaves. A raised path crosses the marsh and leads to the edge of the pond itself, Tashiro-Ike. Its clear waters reflect, on a bright day, the surrounding mountains but today, in the soft Kamikochi rain, they glowed deep and green, reflecting only the nearby trees. In this busy park, and only minutes from its most popular trail, we had this spot almost to ourselves; many visitors, it seems, don’t bother to make the 100 metre or so detour to see this pond. They are missing a treat!

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At Tashiro-Ike

Tashiro is from all accounts lovely whatever the season. In late spring and summer it is surrounded by flowers, including Japanese azalea, and later the autumn colours that we enjoyed appear. In winter Kamikochi is closed to visitors, but if you were able to visit Tashiro you would find the waters still flowing, as it is fed by an underground spring and never completely freezes over.

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At Tashiro-Ike

From here we retraced our steps to the main path and continued in the direction we had been walking.

Taisho-Ike

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Taisho-Ike

This trail ends at the Taisho Pond, one of Kamikochi’s most popular and photographed spots. The pond is a relatively recent addition to the landscape here, having been formed in 1915 by the volcanic activity of nearby Yakedake. On June 6th that year an eruption caused an avalanche of mud which blocked the Azusa River and led to the creation of Taisho-Ike. The trees drowned when the river was dammed still stand, withered but upright, and make for an eerie sight, especially in the grey misty light of a rainy day. By contrast, a clear day will reveal reflections of Yakedake and Mount Hotaka in the pond’s still waters (we were to get a glimpse of this from the bus the next morning as we left the park).

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Taisho-Ike

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Reflections, Taisho-Ike

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Taisho-Ike

To reach the water’s edge we scrambled over the rocky foreshore to take some photos. We then climbed a short path up to the hotel that sits here, which in fine weather has great views of the reflections in the pond, and is consequently often crowded, I believe. But today it was quiet here and it was easy to get good photos from both foreshore and above.

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Taisho-Ike

Once we’d seen and photographed all we wanted to, we climbed up the short path to the hotel where we were able to use the toilets. We also went in the café here to get a hot cup of coffee to warm us up after the rainy walk. The café also has lovely views of the pond so there were more photos to be taken of course!

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On Taisho-Ike - taken from the hotel above

A relaxing afternoon

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Salmon and meat patty set

The only walking route back to Kappa-bashi from here is to retrace your steps along the same path, but we decided we had had enough rain for one day. So instead we caught the bus from a stop just outside the hotel. This took us to the bus terminal from where it is just a short walk to the bridge and hotels on the far side. But by now we were hungry so we went back to the restaurant above the gift shop where we had eaten on our arrival in Kamikochi the previous day. Again it was busy with visitors escaping the wet weather but we didn’t have to wait too long for a table. I had a ‘set’ with a small piece of salmon in crispy crumb, a meat patty cooked the same way, salad, rice, miso soup and pickles. It was more than I wanted but I fancied having salmon, so I ate that, the salad, a little rice and the soup. Chris had the meat patty along with his ‘curry rice’ - the Japanese take on curry which consists of a rich meaty curry sauce with very little actual meat! While this meal too was fine, I have to say I had preferred my soba dish of the previous day.

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Bedraggled Macaque

After this late lunch we crossed Kappa-bashi back to the hotel where we relaxed in our room for a bit. Later we visited the coffee shop for cake and coffee, and sat at a counter with a great view of the path outside that was favourite route for passing macaques. I loved watching their antics, especially the young ones, and managed to capture a few more photos than on the previous afternoon. I also made a little video of a couple of them, although unfortunately the window frame kept getting in the way, so you only get short glimpses of each as it passes.

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Macaque with baby on board

Dinner that evening was as much of a feast as on the previous day and served in the same traditional style, with all courses beautifully presented and served individually to each place-setting at the same time. This time the menu was:

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Assorted samplers
including river crab

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Sashimi

Assorted samplers
~ grilled saury [a fish] with citron flavour
- river crab
- chestnut
~ persimmon jelly
~ pumpkin millefeuille

Sashimi: local salmon and maraena white fish

Grilled sweetfish with salt

Hot buckwheat noodle

Beef steak and salad

Fried buckwheat noodle rolled with laver
Fried ginkgo nuts

Clear soup with mushroom paste

Rice and vegetable pickles

Fruit [apple slices]

Again, a fabulous spread! I loved the sashimi again and also enjoyed the buckwheat noodles both fried and served in their hot sauce. The river crab was really too tiny though to have any significant flavour or meat to it. But as on the previous evening we all came away from the table feeling very full and rather pampered by the whole experience.

When the skies cleared

Later that evening, at around 9.00 PM, we were sitting in the inn’s coffee shop, drinking beers and sake with some of the group, when the guy who was on reception came hurrying in. In his limited English he explained that if we came outside we would see the full moon and ‘white mountain’. So we left our drinks and hurried out, to find that at last the skies had cleared and we could indeed see the nearest mountain glowing palely in the light of the moon. It was bitterly cold, so we didn’t linger long, but that tantalising glimpse made us eager for the next morning.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:27 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains trees monkeys rain water wildlife monument river weather national_park kamikochi Comments (2)

Tiger, tiger burning bright

India days fourteen and fifteen


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Ranthambore

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Like just about everyone else who visits, we came to Ranthambore with the aim of seeing tigers. And Ranthambore is all about the tigers. Every conversation you have here is guaranteed to start with “Did you see any tigers?” The answer is quite likely to be yes, although there are, as ever with wildlife, no guarantees ...

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Painted storks

We drove (or rather, Mehar drove!) to Ranthambore from Bundi, a drive of about three hours. We weren't able to stop too often for photos, as we had an afternoon safari drive booked and had left Bundi fairly late after a visit to the palace there. But we did stop briefly twice. The first was at a pretty lake where lots of Painted Storks and other birds were feeding. Painted Storks get their name from the bright pink feathers near their tails, which do look just as if someone had dabbed them with paint! They are found in the Indian subcontinent south of the Himalayas as well as in south east Asia. Wikipedia’s description of their feeding behaviour matches exactly what we observed:

“They forage in flocks in shallow waters along rivers or lakes. They immerse their half open beaks in water and sweep them from side to side and snap up their prey of small fish that are sensed by touch. As they wade along they also stir the water with their feet to flush hiding fish.”

Our second stop was to take photos of some young girls in colourful saris working in the fields. This was a shot I had been after for the whole trip, but it proved slightly difficult to get because as soon as the girls saw us and our cameras watching them over the hedge they stopped work to pose rather stiffly – very nice of them, but not what we had in mind! Luckily after a while they relaxed and went back to work, and I got my shots.

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They've spotted us!

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Back to work

Tiger Den Resort

Our base for our two nights near the national park was this fairly basic resort not far from the entrance. This was the least good of all the accommodation we used in Rajasthan, by some way. Of course a visit to Ranthambore is all about the animals and the quality of the accommodation comes second. But you get the same safari experience wherever you stay, and between drives you want somewhere to relax – and from what we saw there are better quality places than this in which to do that. Having said that though, Tiger Den is certainly more than adequate and not without its quirky charms.

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Our bungalow is the one on the far left

Our bungalow room was a good size and had all the basics, including a comfortable (but creaky) bed and air conditioning. The bathroom had a bath with shower over and basic toiletries were provided, although not as nice as those in other hotels we stayed in on this trip, and although there were sufficient towels, several were fraying and one unpleasantly stained. Some of the light fittings didn't work either, making the room a little gloomy at night.

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Our room

Wifi is available, at a cost - 500IR for two days' use on a single device. It only works in the reception and restaurant areas, although as our room was right behind the reception desk we found we could pick it up there too, which was a bonus. The “resort” has a swimming pool, which we didn’t use, and a small shop selling souvenirs rather than practical items.

Overall we found this a reasonable base for a couple of days but I wouldn’t choose it for a longer stay because of the dull and repetitive meals and unwelcoming bedroom. By the way, do check out the website, Tiger Den Resort, if you’re a fan of ludicrous hyperbole! Here’s a small sample:

“An ideal RE-SORT (yes, you will re-sort your self) to distress and detoxify away from the maddening crowd away from the constant ringing of your cell phones, emails, Internet and newspapers. You definitely deserve it, and we know you desire it as well. Come and live your dreams, of a peaceful life, close to nature, close to God, and above all close to yourself….

Experience immortal bliss and behold peace in your body, mind and soul. You will really hum the famous line by Robert Frost:
‘Woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promise to keep.
And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.’”

Arriving here meant saying farewell to Mehar. As we would be travelling back from here to Delhi by train there was no need for him to hang around while we did our game viewing, so he was headed back that afternoon, with more work waiting for him there the next day. We took some photos, exchanged contact details and promised to send pictures and to recommend him in our reviews and via the tour company. We were sad to say goodbye to him, but very happy to see him again briefly when we bumped into him at the station in Delhi a few days later where he was picking up another couple of tourists who had been on the same train as ourselves.

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Farewell to Mehar

Ranthambore National Park

Ranthambore can be regarded as something of a wildlife preservation success story; a former hunting ground for the maharajas of Jaipur, it is today a hunting ground of a rather different type for camera-wielding tourists. Its almost 400 square kilometres were declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1957 and it became a national park in 1981. Although you come here to see the wildlife, and the tigers in particular, it is worth saying that the park itself is beautiful in places and was especially so on our one early morning safari, when the light was at its best.

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Looking up at the fort

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Small temple by the lake

The park lies at the junction of the Aravalli and Vindhya ranges, and the landscape varies from grassy plains to rocky hills. The park is named for the fort that lies at its heart. Historically this changed hands several times, passing from Mewar rulers to the Rajputs of Bundi, from them to the sultans of Gujarat and from them to the Mughals under Akbar, before passing to the maharajas of Jaipur in the 17th century – hence the development of the area around it as their favoured hunting ground. Inside the fort are three Hindu temples and one Jain temple. It’s possible to visit the fort, although we didn’t do this, and Hindu pilgrims are allowed to walk up to the temples without paying the park entrance fee – you will probably see many on your way into the park.

Our first drive in the park

The basis for everyone’s activity when staying in Ranthambore are the safari drives. Regardless of where you stay you will have the same options and the same experiences – it is not your hotel which organises these but the park. The drives operate twice a day, leaving around 6.15/6.30 and around 14.30/15.00. They last about three hours, but that can include picking up other tourists from their hotels, unless you have paid the extra for a private safari.

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Rufous Tree Pie on our jeep

There are two types of vehicle used – open-topped jeeps seating six people, plus driver and guide, and so-called cantors, large vehicles accommodating 20 people. The jeeps offer the better experience as you are seated only three to a row rather than four, and can manoeuvre more quickly to reach the best viewing positions for the wildlife. To get a seat in a jeep seems to be something of a lottery however, as although you can book in advance, numbers are limited and there are no guarantees. We got our tour operator to reserve ours at the times of booking the holiday, about three months before our visit, but even then they could make no promises, and it was only on arrival in Ranthambore that we knew we were sure of the jeep places.

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Map by the entrance

The other lottery is where in the park you will go. Some areas are closed for visits, and the remainder is divided into nine zones. Each driver is allocated a zone by the forestry authority that administers the park, and only learns what zone they will be visiting about 30 minutes beforehand. For the tourist this means that it is pot-luck whether you get a "good" zone or otherwise (although this hasn’t prevented loads of online discussion about which is “best”). In practice however there is no saying what constitutes a good zone, as of course the tigers move freely between them, and a sighting in a particular zone on one day is no guarantee of a sighting on the following day.

You can book to do as many or as few drives as you want during your stay, but with little else to do here apart from relax by a hotel pool, you might as well do as many as you can fit in and afford. Received wisdom is that if you do three or more you have a close to guaranteed chance of seeing tigers, but of course there is no such guarantee. We met people who had done four drives and only seen tigers on the last of them, so three would not have been enough for them. Other people see them on their first drive and may ask themselves why they paid for more! It’s all a matter of luck, and the only thing that can be said for certain is that by increasing the number of drives you are increasing your chances.

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One of several lakes in the park

We had our first drive on the afternoon of our arrival and were allocated zone four (zone three is generally held to be the best!) The other four people in our jeep had already done a drive that morning but not seen a tiger, and as someone (our tour company? our hotel?) had told our guide that it was my birthday he was determined to find me one.

For a while though it seemed we would be unlucky, although we enjoyed getting our first views of the park which is, as I have said, very pretty. And there were plenty of other wildlife sightings:

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Spotted deer, also known as chitral, with faun

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Sambar deer

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A crocodile

We also saw a number of colourful birds:

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White-throated kingfisher and Bulbul

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Peacock

Then our guide got a message that a tiger had been seen in one of the neighbouring zones and was walking towards ours. Cue great excitement! The jeep was turned around and we headed back to a likely spot, where several other vehicles had also gathered, lining the road and looking towards an area of long grass. And we waited … and waited … Then our guide exclaimed – he had spotted movement at the edge of the grass. Most of us could see nothing at first but then we spotted him – a solitary male, some distance away, just emerging from the grass. We need binoculars to see him clearly, and I was grateful for the good zoom on my camera that ensured I got a couple of reasonable photos. He lingered for a while, turned and followed the edge of the grass for a distance, then disappeared into it again. Our first drive and we had seen a tiger!

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Our first tiger sighting

As we drove back to the park entrance we saw for ourselves that there is no “best” zone for tiger sightings. We passed the low chain barrier that separates zones three (generally talked of as the best) and four. Lined up on the far side were all the vehicles who had been allocated zone three that day, their passengers desperately hoping that the tiger we had seen was coming their way – but he wasn’t, and they would leave without a sighting on that occasion. We on the other hand were very happy – and I think our guide may have been the happiest of all at having found me a tiger on my birthday!

Evening at Tiger Den

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My birthday cake

Stays at Tiger Den are on a full-board basis, but the included meals are nothing special – rice plus the same, or very similar, curries served buffet style for both lunch and dinner. On this first evening the latter was served outside, with tables and chairs set round small bonfires. Unfortunately, the staff insisted on regularly dowsing the flames with kerosene (even when asked not to by some guests), making the eating area unpleasantly smelly. The food was unexciting but OK (I did like the stuffed potatoes), while the inevitable music and dance performance was quite fun to watch as a young boy did a sort of hobby-horse dance and one of the men was a flame thrower (more kerosene!)

The local agent had clearly told the hotel that it was my birthday as I found a cake awaiting me in the room after dinner that night – a sweet touch (very sweet, as it turned out – Indians love their sugar!). In fact, the staff here were the best thing about the place, as they were generally very friendly and attentive, anxious to hear if you had seen a tiger (we had), wanted more coffee (no thank you) or beer (yes please), and were enjoying your stay (we were).

Safari drive two

The next morning we were up early for our second drive in the park. The hotel provides much needed tea, coffee and biscuits for early risers, but breakfast would have to wait.

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Early morning in Ranthambore

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Tiger tracks

There was much to enjoy about this morning’s drive. Our companions in the jeep were friendly and interesting to chat to. Our guide was the best of the three we had. We were allocated zone two which is one of the prettiest areas and looked lovely in the soft early morning light. And we were told that there had been a good tiger sighting in that zone the previous afternoon and it was likely that he was still here. Wrong! Despite the best efforts of our guide and driver (even lingering slightly longer in the park than is strictly allowed), and seeing some tracks at one point, the tigers eluded us on this drive.

Funnily enough, that didn’t seem to matter over much, and I realised on reflection afterwards that in many ways this was my favourite of the three drives we took. The light was beautiful for photography, we saw lots of other wildlife and I got my best bird photos, and the lack of tiger sightings made it a more relaxed experience. Of course, had we not seen a tiger on our first drive we might have felt differently (luckily our companions had also seen some the previous morning).

Our best sightings on this drive included lots more chitral, some langur monkeys and a wide variety of birds.

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Chitral

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Langur monkeys

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White-throated kingfisher, back and front

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Bulbuls and Rufous tree pie

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Lapwing

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Brown heron

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Scops owl

Back at the hotel we had a leisurely breakfast and spent the middle part of the day relaxing, catching up on photo sorting, and eating the unexciting but included lunch.

Safari drive three

We had already seen one tiger but were keen to see more, so we were pleased to have this third drive in our schedule to increase our chances. It didn’t start well as the jeep was rather late in picking us up (so much so that the concerned hotel staff, spotting us still sitting on the terrace when others had already left, called the local agent to check that we weren’t forgotten). When the vehicle did arrive, we found that our companions for this drive were already in there and I suspect they may have caused the delay by not being ready for pick-up. No matter, we were off – and pleased to hear that we were to visit the much-coveted zone three!

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By Rajbagh Lake

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Cormorant

This took us past one of the several lakes in the park, Rajbagh Lake, where we saw cormorants and other birds, and a crocodile. We also got some nice shots of the ruined temples dotted around the lake and saw some Sambar deer among the trees.

But like all the guides, this one was keen to find tigers for us. He heard that there might be one in a certain spot so we headed in the direction of a path he thought the tiger might take, and parked up to wait. While we did so he showed us some photos of previous sightings on his phone – he was clearly proud of the photos and they were good but of course not the same as seeing for ourselves. After a while I found myself thinking it would be better to drive around seeing other wildlife even if it meant missing a possible tiger, but I didn’t say so as I had a feeling our companions (who were from another part of India and didn’t speak much English it seemed) hadn’t yet seen one.

Then a message came through that the tiger seen earlier had gone in the opposite direction and was now to be found in another part of our zone, with her eight month old cub! The driver started the engine and we were off, racing along the track to get there while they were still in view. And he made it, but our time spent waiting at the wrong spot had cost us a bit, as other vehicles were in better positions to see them. Our guide was confident though that mother and son would come our way, and he was right. They followed a path past the other vehicles and came right alongside our jeep.

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Walking away

This should have been a wonderful opportunity to get some great photos, but the experience was somewhat marred by the bedlam caused by the drivers and guides of all the other vehicles jostling for position to give their passengers the best view. While our guide and driver jostled with the rest, the vehicle was rarely still enough for photos, and when it was our guide stood up and blocked our view while taking his own video "to show his tourists", he said. In fairness, he did sit down when we asked, but by then the tigers were walking away and the best photo opps were past. I did point out that we too were “his tourists” and that we had very limited time here to see and appreciate the tigers, while he could come every day to take photos. I have also since complained about his behaviour to the tour company.

Still, we had seen the tigers at close quarters and that counted for a lot. And maybe one or two of the photos were OK! So we headed back to the hotel pleased to have had this second sighting and to have got so close to these magnificent animals.

Dinner on this second evening was in the restaurant and the food a little better, and we enjoyed sitting out on the terrace afterwards over a Kingfisher beer.

The next morning we left Ranthambore for Delhi, the last leg of our tour around Rajasthan. Meal timings here are planned around safaris, so breakfast doesn't start till 9.00 when the early morning ones return. This is fine if you're going for a drive, but if not you just have to wait, which was a little frustrating. However we had plenty of time before our pick up for the drive to the station at Sawai Madhopur, and the helpful driver who took us stopped on the way so we could buy cold drinks and snacks for the journey in a local shop, so we were all set for the six hour journey back to where we had started.

I have described this journey already in my Delhi entry but as it completes the circle I repeat it here – feel free to skip!

Our journey from Sawai Madhopur, near Ranthambore, took something over six hours. The train had started in Mumbai the previous evening so the second class a/c carriage where we sat was a sleeper one. We had been allocated both lower and upper berth in a four person curtained section, but only used the lower for sitting as the journey was an afternoon one.

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At Sawai Madhopur station

For part of the time we shared the section with a friendly young local couple. She spoke some English and chatted to us a bit about our holiday as well as pointing out one of the stations in which we stopped as being Mathura, believed by Hindus to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna, and offering us bananas.

I enjoyed taking my last long looks at the passing landscape, watching the largely rural communities we passed through going about their daily lives. This was to be our last day in the country (for this trip) as we flew home the next morning. The windows were just a little less grubby than had been the case on our first train journey and I was able to take some reasonable photos of the various sights.

The train pulled into Hazrat Nizamuddin station only slightly late. We were met there (and as I have already mentioned, bumped into Mehar) and driven to our Delhi hotel for one last night in India before our flight home. A last night, that is, for this trip, as we would quite soon be back …

If I have whetted your appetite and you would like to read about our next visit to this fascinating country, you can do so on my other blog: Return to India

Posted by ToonSarah 05:35 Archived in India Tagged birds monkeys wildlife india tigers rajasthan big_cats Comments (7)

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