A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about wildlife

Of iguanas, sea lions and other beasts

Ecuador days ten to seventeen


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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 (4)

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 (11)

Kamikochi in the rain

Japan day thirteen


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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 (5)

Monkeys galore!

Gambia day seven


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Green Vervet Monkey, Bijilo Monkey Forest

This morning we had booked another trip with the excellent Habib, who picked us up soon after breakfast when the air was still fresh and pleasant. As I mentioned in my previous entry, following all our chat about football he had promised that today he would wear his Newcastle United strip (a gift from a previous client) in our honour and sure enough, he did!

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Chris with Habib
~ not only is Habib wearing his NUFC strip, but Chris has his NUFC shorts on!

Bijilo Forest Park

Bijilo Forest Park is an easy and popular excursion from any of the coastal resorts. It’s an area of natural sandy-soiled forest that was preserved when the coastal strip was being developed, so that tourists would have a chance to see something of natural Gambia on their doorstep. It has become home to troops of monkeys, with two species living here: Green Vervet and Red Colobus. While the latter are relatively shy and sightings not guaranteed, the Green Vervets are habituated to humans and incredibly friendly and inquisitive – probably because they have learned that most tourists come bearing gifts in the form of groundnuts. Not for nothing are these also termed monkey nuts, as the creatures clearly love them!

In theory feeding the monkeys is not encouraged; in fact, there were signs at the entrance to the park saying that it was not allowed. But in practice all the guides seemed to me to encourage the tourists to do so and the park security guys must know this and turn a blind eye as long as the food (bought from sellers just outside at 50D a bag) is hidden from view in your bag as you enter the park. Arguably we should have resisted the temptation to buy any food, but as it was clear that everyone else fed the monkeys there seemed little point in not doing so ourselves, so we succumbed.

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Sign at the entrance

Strolling among the different trees was lovely, and for a while we were happy with sightings of birds (a hornbill and bee-eater in particular), ants’ nests, various trees etc. But to start with at least, there were no monkeys to be seen. Habib explained that they would have gone to the nearby hotels to forage for breakfast scraps and would be back soon. He promised that we would see the Green Vervets for sure, and get some good photos, but gave no guarantee about the Red Colobus monkeys.

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Red Hornbill, and Swallow-tailed Bee Eater
~ and you can just see the tail of a Long-tailed Glossy Starling behind the hornbill, I think!

After we had been walking for about half an hour, and while I was engaged in photographing an interestingly shaped baobab tree, suddenly there was a small Green Vervet monkey at my feet! Soon several more appeared and as Habib pulled our bag of nuts from his pocket, even more. I reckoned that even without food you’re pretty much certain to see these cute animals here, as they will surely come to check you out. But if you have some nuts they will linger and you'll get a chance to really interact with them and get some great photos too - although I found the latter wasn't as easy as you might think at these close quarters, as they are almost continually on the move.

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Green Vervet Monkeys

We spent some time with this group - in fact until all (or so I thought) our nuts had gone. It was a wonderful experience to feel their soft hands gently tugging at your finger to see if you had a nut for them. What intrigued me most was the very clear distinction of characters within the group. Most were friendly and eager, without being pushy. But one large male, clearly the alpha male, threw his weight around and tried to shove the smaller monkeys away if he felt he wasn't getting his fair share - on a couple of occasions a brief scuffle ensued. One younger male in particular took my fancy, sitting patiently in a nearby tree, at shoulder level, and seemingly accepting each nut I passed him with almost spoken gratitude. And one poor little one was so self-effacing that she hung right back and wouldn't even pick up a nut that landed nearby when I tried to toss it to her, because she just knew a bigger, bolder monkey would easily grab it from her before she could eat it.

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Green Vervet Monkeys

Eventually we moved on. Habib was continually on the watch for the Red Colobus monkeys and we were in luck! It was not too long before he spotted a group in some trees above our heads. We grabbed a few shots but it wasn't easy; however he soon motioned us to a better position on a side path and we were able to get some better ones and to enjoy the sight of a small baby with its mother high above us.

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Red Colobus Monkeys

As we returned to the park's entrance we found that more tourists had arrived (up to this point we had seen only a handful of other people) and also a lot more Green Vervets, who were interacting with the visitors and enjoying a bounty of nuts. One was even sitting on a man's shoulder!

It was at this point that we found that Habib had kept back a few nuts. He suggested I sit on a low branch and hold a nut by my shoulder to see if a monkey would take it from there. As soon as I did so I had a monkey on that shoulder, with his tail draped round my neck, and a couple more on my lap! They quickly realised that my small supply of nuts was in my pocket and when that ran out one monkey even stuck his head inside the pocket to look for more - so cute and clever!

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Feeding the monkeys

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Altogether we spent almost two hours here and had a great time, although I realised afterwards that I should have worn old and/or darker shorts – monkey paws aren’t very clean! If you look at my legs in the photo above you can see how dirty they got!

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Green Vervet Monkeys

Back at the lodge

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Habib dropped us off back at Ngala Lodge in time for lunch. We’d had two super outings with him at a very reasonable cost, much more so than the official tours. We paid him, as he had requested, in sterling – he preferred this as he could wait till the low season to change it and get a better exchange rate. As you can imagine we also tipped him well, again in sterling. Incidentally, it seems from reviews I’ve read that Habib is still working with Ngala Lodge and their guests and still providing a great service – worth knowing if you ever find yourself in the area!

[Postscript: after our return from The Gambia I wrote a number of reviews including of course a very positive one about Habib. We had exchanged email addresses, so that I could book him directly for future trips should we return, and could include his contact details in my review. I duly sent him an email with a link to the review, asking him to let me know if I’d said anything incorrect and/or if he was happy with the photos of him I’d posted alongside it. The next evening I was sitting at home when my phone rang. It was Habib calling, having found my number in my email signature, to thank me for the review. He was so pleased with it, as up to now, although people writing reviews of Ngala Lodge quite often recommended him, no one had ever written a review solely about him! And I was equally happy that he had gone to the trouble, and the expense, of calling me to say thank you rather than just reply to my email. A lovely man!]

This was our final day at Ngala, so we had another relaxing afternoon of swimming, reading by the pool and taking photos.

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Bougainvillea at Ngala Lodge

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Bougainvillea at Ngala Lodge

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Pyrostegia venusta
[I think!]

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The pool

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In the pool

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Chris by the pool, and Common Bulbul

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Gambian currency

We also went to the small office to change some money – we’d been warned that our next destination, Mandina Lodges, only accepted cash payments so needed to take plenty with us. One small issue was the lack of large denomination notes. The highest available was the 100 Dalasi note, worth only about £1.60. Although prices here were lower than at home, we found ourselves with an envelope stuffed with banknotes to take to Mandina!

Towards the end of the afternoon we packed our bags ready for our onward journey, then spent our final evening here as we had many of the others, enjoying the sunset, drinks on the terrace and another excellent meal in the restaurant. We were excited to be heading inland a bit tomorrow, to see more of the country, but knew we would be sorry to leave the haven that is Ngala.

Posted by ToonSarah 03:02 Archived in Gambia Tagged people animals birds monkeys flowers wildlife hotel africa gambia Comments (12)

In Makasutu - birds and baboons (and the occasional cat!)

Gambia day nine


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Mandina sunrise

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Jenny

Every morning at Mandina tea or coffee is brought to your deck at a pre-agreed time, so we were woken this morning by the pleasant sound of a tray being placed on the table outside and a cheerful ‘Good morning’. As soon as we were dressed we hurried outside to enjoy our coffee and watch the river come to life around us.

Floating Lodge 1 has been adopted as home by one of the eleven resident cats, Jenny, who joined us here today (and each subsequent morning), as well as regularly visiting us inside (at our invitation). By the way, the fact that she shares her name with the manager of Ngala Lodge is no coincidence – the managers of the two properties are good friends and Jenny the cat was named after Jenny the hotel manager!

The sun was just rising over the trees and the river was coming to life. A Goliath Heron flew down from its roost to land on the deck of the next-door Floating Lodge.

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Goliath Heron at sunrise

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Goliath Heron on the decking of the neighbouring lodge

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Mandina sunrise

Makasutu Cultural Forest

Once we had drunk our morning coffees sitting out on our deck it was time to meet up with Amadou to go for a walk planned with him the previous evening. We were going to explore the immediate surroundings of Mandina, Makasutu Cultural Forest.

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Makasutu, early morning sky

Makasutu means ‘sacred forest’ in Mandinka. This 500 hectare reserve was founded by two British men, James English and Lawrence Williams, who had a passion for The Gambia and wanted to help to preserve its wildlife and natural environment. They gradually bought this area of land and restored it to its natural state. It encompasses five different eco-systems including gallery forest, savannah, mangroves, palm forest and wetland. In addition to the luxury lodges at Mandina itself they built what has become known as Base Camp (because this was where they first settled and camped while developing their project) where day visitors to the forest are welcomed.

Despite all the tourist activity Makasutu is still primarily a wild and natural environment. Or at least, so it appears. In fact, it owes its present-day appearance to the efforts of English and Williams who spent seventeen years restoring it, planting thousands of trees and working with local people to ensure sustainable use of the land. Today those same locals still farm some areas, and the village women harvest oysters from the mangroves, but most of the land is covered with trees and provides a perfect home for birds and other wildlife.

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A variety of trees

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Tree and strangler fig

Makasutu has become something of a prototype for what a sustainable approach to expanding tourism in The Gambia might look like, and has also shown what the passion of a couple of individuals can achieve. According to the Mandina Lodges’ website:

‘Jebril, a Jola tribesman, has been working at Makasutu for the past seventeen years and revealed that long before the Englishmen arrived, he and the others had dreams that two whites would come by river and settle at Makasutu and keep it from harm – a myth that has now turned into reality.’

Sadly James English died three years before our visit, but Lawrence kept Makasutu alive and going from strength to strength. We met him during our stay and his passion for the project, the area and for The Gambia as a whole really shone through.

But I digress, as we learned much of the above only gradually throughout our stay. Back to this morning, when Amadou led us out of the lodge complex and along the main track a short distance, before turning off into the ‘forest’. In truth it is more a wooded scrubland but was very pleasant to walk through at this time of day, with a fresh breeze wafting the scent of mint and other herbs across our path.

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Chris and Amadou

Amadou was very alert to any movement in the trees and we saw lots of birds. I was particularly taken with the pretty red Bearded Barbet and the impressive Crested Eagle. Others we saw included Plantain Eaters, a couple of Red Hornbills, a Pied Crow, a Blue-spotted Wood Dove, a Black Kite and some Long-tailed Glossy Starlings.

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Bearded Barbet

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Blue-spotted Wood Dove

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Pied Crow

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Crested Eagle

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Red Hornbill

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Red Hornbill

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Plantain Eater

We emerged into open space surrounding a dried-up lake where local villagers often grow rice.

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Dried-up lake in Makasutu Cultural Forest

From here the path led past a small cashew grove and back towards the hotel complex. As we approached the gate, we saw that a large troop of baboons had gathered there and we were able to get lots of photos of their antics.

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Approaching baboons!

The dog who had accompanied us on our walk (one of six that live at Mandina) was challenged by the largest of the baboons and retreated sheepishly behind me and Chris as we stood there taking pictures!

A possibly unforeseen result of the reforestation of Makasutu has been the return of the baboons. Or rather, they foresaw their return (one of the aims in reforesting the area was to encourage wildlife) but perhaps not the impact they would have on human activity here. They are something of a mixed blessing, it has to be said. On the one hand, we tourists love to see them and their relative habituation to humans means that we can get quite close to observe and photograph their behaviour. On the other hand, their almost daily incursions into the hotel’s grounds in search of food make work and worry for the staff. We were warned not to leave any toiletries in our open-air bathroom as the baboons would certainly snatch them thinking they might be edible, although of course would discard them as soon as they tasted them!

Also, the baboons are starting to steal crops planted by the local people who have traditionally cleared the forest to grow rice and other cereals. They have been able to retain their patches of ground which have been kept clear of trees in the general replanting, but they are unable to stop the baboons.

One partial solution adopted by the Mandina management was to feed the baboons at a specific spot near Base Camp, to encourage them to go there for their food and also give the day trippers some certainty of seeing them. While this was obviously achieving the second aim, I wasn’t sure about the first, and I wondered if they might have to make some difficult decisions about the future of these engaging creatures at some point.

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Baboons near Mandina Lodges

The baboons found in The Gambia are the species known as Guinea Baboons, the smallest of the five species. They seemed cuter to us than others we have seen elsewhere, perhaps because of this smaller size and also the attractive colouring – reddish brown on their backs, a more olive mane around the face, and that black hairless face with brown eyes peering at us quite intelligently and inquisitively. They sleep in trees, so their numbers are regulated by the availability and spread of these – hardly surprising then that with the reforestation of Makasutu the baboons have returned. They live in large groups or troops of up to about 200, with the most common troop size being about 30–40 individuals. The Makasutu baboons were at the time of our visit a single troop but their numbers were growing so fast that Amadou predicted that soon they may split into two, which could make for some interesting arguments! Within the troop the baboons live in ‘harems’, with one dominant male and one subordinate male plus several females and juveniles.

After spending some time with the baboons, we were ready for breakfast so headed back into the lodges complex and the restaurant area, very satisfied with our morning outing.

A day at Mandina

Breakfast consisted of a choice of juices (the baobab was my favourite), a plate of fresh fruit, good crusty bread with jams and honey and a cooked breakfast with eggs done to your taste – the scrambled eggs were excellent! The table was beautifully set with fresh flowers (hibiscus) as decoration.

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Breakfast at Mandina Lodges

We spent the rest of the day relaxing and enjoying all that Mandina had to offer. We swam in the pool and met another of the resident cats who liked to hang around there and make friends with the guests.

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Chris with one of the cats, by the pool

I took photos of the various birds, many of whom were attracted by the large expanse of water in the pool, including Bee Eaters diving down to grab a drink on the wing (far too fast for me to capture on camera) and several others enjoying the fresh water available from a bird bath on a small island in the middle of the pool – a Speckled Pigeon and Firefinch among them.

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Firefinch

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Speckled Pigeon

Later we hung out on our decking watching life on the river, with the local fishermen paddling past, and the women in search of oysters which they gather from the mangroves. The latter is one of the mainstays of the local economy in this region. Collecting them is a tough job, and one traditionally done by the women from their dug-out canoes or pirogues.

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Local woman collecting oysters

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Fisherman

Jenny came to visit us there again, and I spotted some more Bee Eaters (White-throated, I believe) although didn’t get great photos on this occasion.

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Jenny on our deck

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White-throated (?) Bee-eater

In the evening we enjoyed another dinner and a night-cap by the firepit before strolling back along the board walks to our cosy Floating Lodge.

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Bat in the rafters of the restaurant

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Mandina Lodges at night

Posted by ToonSarah 04:52 Archived in Gambia Tagged people trees animals birds fishing wildlife hotel africa apes gambia Comments (13)

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