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The Cliff Topped with Palo Santo Trees (Bursera graveolens), Genovesa Island
"The Cliff"
Topped with Palo Santo Trees (Bursera graveolens)

Genovesa Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 14, 2007

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FACTS & PHOTO SLIDESHOWS
St. Phillips Steps, Genovesa Island
St. Phillips Steps
Genovesa Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 14, 2007

Nazca Booby (Sula granti) Nesting on The Cliff, Genovesa Island
Nazca Booby (Sula granti)
Nesting on 'The Cliff'

Genovesa Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 14, 2007

Unattended Baby Nazca Booby (Sula granti), Genovesa Island
Unattended Baby Nazca Booby (Sula granti)
Genovesa Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 14, 2007

Red-footed Booby (Sula sula) Adult with White Morphology, Genovesa Island
Red-footed Booby (Sula sula)
Adult with White Morphology

Genovesa Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 14, 2007

Juvenile Red-footed Booby (Sula sula) Perching on Palo Santo(Bursera graveolens), Genovesa Island
Juvenile Red-footed Booby (Sula sula)
Perching on Palo Santo (Bursera graveolens)
Genovesa Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 14, 2007

Male Great Frigatebird (Fregata minor) Performing Mating Ritual, Genovesa Island
Male Great Frigatebird (Fregata minor)
Performing Mating Ritual

Genovesa Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 14, 2007

Female Frigatebird (Fregata minor)Sitting in the Bushes, Genovesa Island
Female Frigatebird (Fregata minor)
Sitting in the Bushes

Genovesa Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 14, 2007

The Crevice, Genovesa Island
The Crevice
Genovesa Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 14, 2007

Darwin
Darwin's Beach in Darwin's Bay
Genovesa Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 14, 2007

Red-footed Booby (Sula sula) Perched on Tree, Genovesa Island
Red-footed Booby (Sula sula)
Perched on Tree

Genovesa Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 14, 2007

Nazca Booby (Sula granti) on Cliff with Cactus, Genovesa Island
Nazca Booby (Sula granti)
On a Cliff with Cactus

Genovesa Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 14, 2007

Swallow-tail Gull (Creagrus furcatus) Standing on the Beach, Genovesa Island
Swallow-tail Gull (Creagrus furcatus)
Standing on the Beach

Genovesa Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 14, 2007

A Pair of Lava Gulls (Leucophaeus fuliginosus) Laughing Like Humans, Genovesa Island
A Pair of Lava Gulls (Leucophaeus fuliginosus)
Laughing Like Humans

Genovesa Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 14, 2007

Juvenile Yellow Crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea) Cooling Off in the Water, Genovesa Island
Yellow Crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea)
Cooling Off in the Water

Genovesa Island, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
May 14, 2007

May 14, 2007
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Genovesa Island, Otherwise Known as the Bird Capitol

I awoke to a sea lion barking impression sent out over the intercom system throughout the boat. "Time to wake up to the first full day in paradise," he continued. I was too sleepy to hear whatever he said afterwards, but slowly arrived at consciousness and went out onto the back observation deck. We were in a large bay surrounded by steep, whitish-gray rock walls and covered by even grayer, low lying overcast skies. The air was fresh and moist hinting that it would probably be a hot and humid day ahead. The Letty was anchored in a triangle formed by its sister boats the Flamingo and the Eric, all of which traveled together during the week long tour.

The Cliff that surrounded us is the crater wall, or caldera, of a dormant volcano that formed what is today Genovesa Island. To the South the rim was lower and had an area submerged deep enough to allow the boats to enter what is now Darwin Bay, even though Darwin himself never visited this island on his journey aboard the Beagle. The bay or caldera is very deep reaching depths of 277 m (900 ft) and would serve as the location for our first snorkel later in the day.

I made my way down to the dining room where a breakfast buffet of fresh fruit, cold cereal and hot coffee awaited consumption. I made myself a cup of coffee and loaded a plate of fruit before sitting down to enjoy the first meal of the day. My headache seemed to have gone away and I was feeling ready to get on with the day's activities. As the group was wrapping up breakfast an announcement was made that we would be boarding the pangas in 15 minutes and that we would have a dry landing.

The first stop on this day was St. Phillips Steps, a narrow crevice in the rock wall where steps had been constructed to compliment the natural rock steps that lead 25 meters (82 feet) to the top of what is known as "The Cliff." Pepé's group disembarked first while my group, led by Harry, waited at the cliff walls for our turn. While sitting in the panga we watched the activities of the Nazca boobies (Sula granti) perching on ledges in the cliff where they tended to nest. Because the Nazca boobies are somewhat large, nesting in the high reaches of rock walls aid them in taking flight helping them to conserve their energy for other needs such as flying out into the open ocean to forage.

After scaling St. Phillips Steps we discovered a landscape of bushes and shrubs, mostly palo santos (Bursera graveolens) in the arid zone, most of which looked dead or dormant devoid of green foliage. However, the diversity and abundant populations of bird life present made the island come alive. Located on the ground were dozens of Nazca booby nests while the bushes were teeming with great frigatebird (Fregata minor), magnificent frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) and red-footed booby (Sula sula) nesting sites. In addition, I spotted at least two of the four species of Darwin's finches found on the island, a pair of mockingbirds (Nesomimus) and a colorful Galápagos dove (Zenaida galapagoensis).

While the group was taking in the scenery and the array of birds crammed closely around us, Harry provided verbal insights and information regarding the species of this island. Having been an active member of a study that had been conducted in the recent past on the Nazca Booby he opened our eyes to the practice of infidelity that occurs within these majestic birds' populations. It was found that the Nazca booby female will copulate with other males when their mates are absent even though they tend to have life-long pair bonds. That being said, the female will exclusively copulate with her chosen mate when she is fertile, possibly indicating that this species may participate in sexual acts for the purpose of fun.

The morphology of the Nazca booby and the masked booby found in Columbia are quite similar, but based on this cultural finding of the study they were determined to be a separate species. It was also discovered that the Nazca booby males will always return to their birthplace year after year to nest and produce their offspring.

Nazca and red-footed boobies fly far out to sea to catch their prey with the Nazca boobies venturing out the furthest. However, these two inhabitants of Genovesa possess two distinct strategies in rearing their young.

The Nazca booby seemingly employs a cruel method to increase the odds of having their chicks survive by laying two eggs each mating season. Because of the time and energy required for these birds to fly out to sea to forage, they can only bring back enough food to support one chick. So, of the two chicks born, only one will survive - the strongest.

In what is known as siblingicide the strongest, usually the first born, forces its sibling out of the nest where it will soon die without nourishment from its parents. This practice increases the chance of a successful mating by ensuring a second chance in case the first chick dies. The red-footed booby on the other hand simply lays a single egg and raises a single chick.

Red-footed boobies share the same territories with the Nazca boobies to nest and raise their young on Genovesa Island. However, the red-footed booby makes its nests in the bushes and shrubs rather than directly on the ground like the Nazca boobies. In fact, the red-footed booby has developed claws on its webbed feet to aid them in grasping onto tree branches where they perch. The red-footed booby is the only tree nesting booby found in the archipelago.

Given that we were visiting the islands in May and towards the end of the mating season for these two species of boobies, we were able to see many booby chicks and juveniles. The Nazca booby chicks were like little balls of fluffy, white down feathers with gray beaks extending back and adjacent to their black eyes.

Red-footed booby juveniles tended to be brownish-gray with gray feet and beaks. These chicks will mature into one of two morphologies, one being white bodies with black feathers on the edge of their wings and the other having a brown body. Both morphologies have blue beaks and bright red webbed feet that may be a result of red dyes they ingest from their favorite food source - squid.

As if the large number of these big birds habituating the area was not enough, occupying the same vicinity were the great frigatebirds. Frigatebirds get their name from their hooked beaks and their thieving, harassing behavior. Frigates are pirate ships and these birds are pirates of the skies. Because these birds cannot dive into the water for food lest their feathers become water logged and they drown, they have evolved a unique way of obtaining a meal.

Frigatebirds will wait for the boobies to return from their deep sea foraging and attack them in mid-air usually grabbing their tails continuing the harassment until they drop their bounty. Once the food is released the agile frigates will quickly dive after and catch it before it hits the water. The frigate's scissor-like tail enables them to maneuver ever so quickly in this feeding process known as cleptoparasitism.

During our class time we had learned that the male frigate will inflate his bright red, modified gular sack to attract females in which to mate. Luckily, touring the islands in May, we got to observe these birds during their mating season. It was an incredible sight to watch the males with their inflated "man sacks," wings spread wide and heads thrown back to watch the skies for passing females. When females approached the males would sound their call, similar to a turkey gobble, in an attempt to attract the female to their nest for mating. I was even more amazed that the males, "man sack" inflated, were able to fly!

Female frigatebirds do not have the red gular sack, but they do have a bright red ring around their eyes. Males possess black plumage with a green sheen. Unlike their male counterparts with black throats and breasts, the female frigates have white throats and breasts. Chicks are completely white at first and then their heads and necks will turn hazelnut in color.

Genovesa has two distinct species of frigatebirds. The great frigate described above and the magnificent frigate. The morphological differences in these two species are: magnificent males have a purple sheen on their feathers, females have a black triangular patch on their breasts and do not have red eye rings, and they feed closer to shore than do their great counterparts.

I found the cliff's top rim area quite intriguing given that three large bird species all inhabited the same location and lived amongst each other in seeming harmony, especially that the boobies share territory with their pirating enemy, the frigatebirds. Moreover, other small ground birds forged out niches in the same area taking advantage of insect and seed populations ignored by the larger sea birds.

As we made our way off the rim to the outer edges of the island the scenery gave way to barren, red rocky terrain with a large crevice spanning across the small island. This crevice or crack was created when fluid lava flowed back into the fracture before it hardened. The only plant life in this section of the island is lava cactus (Brachycereus) and a low growing bright green ground plant.

This environment supported yet another bird species, Castro's storm petrels (Oceanodroma castro), that inhabited lava holes and lava flow edges. These birds were flying around the coast in vast numbers (hundreds of thousands) on Genovesa where they forage on small sea fish and squid. The primary predator of the storm petrel is the short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) of which we did not spot on our tour of the island.

Having walked across this end of the small island of Genovesa, we made our way back to St. Phillips Steps and the panga. Once back at the Letty we would have a quick rest and then snorkel for our first time in the deep waters made by the volcanic crater that long ago formed the island.

Snorkeling in Darwin's Bay

I had been looking forward to the first snorkel since I found out we would be snorkeling in class. I had bought a new wet suit, mask and fins and I was anxious to finally try them out. I had snorkeled one time before from the beaches of Jamaica, so I did not think there would be any problem doing a snorkel in deep waters from the panga. We suited up and loaded the pangas and proceeded to the outer edges of Darwin's Bay.

The navigator and guide demonstrated the proper way to enter the water from the panga by sitting on the edge with your back to the water, holding the mask to prevent it from coming off and then falling backwards into the water. When I entered the water I was quickly taken aback by the coldness and seemed to have lost my breath as I suddenly became paralyzed and disoriented.

I was on the verge of panic because I could not get a breath from my snorkel and when I opened my mouth from around the snorkel I breathed in a good load of salt water. I finally surfaced spewing out the water with violent coughing and gasping for air. At this point I had to remind myself not to panic and breathe slowly until I felt comfortable enough to continue the snorkel. I was also contemplating if the snorkel I had bought, a dry snorkel that had a floating ball to close the air opening at top when underwater, was a good idea being that the float obstructed the breathing channel when each wave went over it.

Within a few minutes I had regained control of myself by switching on the underwater camera and focusing on trying to take photos. I then forgot about the fear and went about snorkeling. As it turned out the water was very green and murky, so much so that I was not able to get any good pictures from the snorkel. However, I did see some razor surgeonfish (Prionurus laticlavius), two small rays and a small, exotic purplish/blue jellyfish pointed out to me by Mama Soso. Although the snorkel was short due to the poor visibility, it had been a success in the respect that the first one was over and I had been orientated to snorkeling in the Galápagos.

Darwin's Bay Beach

The final activity of the day involved a choice: 1) snorkel from Darwin's Bay Beach, or 2) relax on the beach. Because I was a little shaken up by the first snorkel I thought I would relax on the beach and take up snorkeling the following day. Unfortunately, I missed out the first shark sightings of the trip, not to mention a chance to photograph one. Mike T. and Chris M. spotted and photographed some small whitetip reef sharks (Triaenodon obesus) in the lava rocks adjacent to the beach. Meanwhile, I strolled along the beach taking note of the terrestrial wildlife and plant life existing on this opposite end of Genovesa Island relative to St. Phillips Steps.

The beach itself presented a very different ecosystem than we had visited on top of the cliffs. The beach was located in what seemed to be a break in a corner of the crater's wall. The Cliff continued to run along one side of the beach creating a walled area in which cactus (Opuntia echios) were growing and Nazca boobies were nesting on the rocks. The other side of the beach was separated from the outer caldera wall by a tide pool that flowed into the bay. It has white sands from millennia of coral erosion and is lined in the back by vibrant green mangroves called black mangroves (Avicennia germinans) supporting the nesting sites of red-footed boobies and frigatebirds.

Other life I saw on the beach included what I thought were three different species of gulls. As it turns out I only saw two species, the third was a morphological variation of the swallow-tail gull (Creagrus furcatus) during its juvenile period having a black and white spotted appearance. The swallow-tail gull is quite a beautiful bird with a black head, tail feathers and beak, gray back and wing feathers and a white chest and breast. The gull features a bright red eye ring that is thought to help these nocturnal feeders find food in the dark by acting as a sort of sonar. The legs and webbed feet of the gull are bright red as well. The tip of its black beak is white, which helps chicks find the mother's beak in the dark to receive their meals.

The other gull species I spotted had a call that sounded like a baby crying. This gull is an endemic resident of the island and is thought to have only 400 breeding pairs. It is known as a lava gull (Leucophaeus fuliginosus) and has a black head, tail, feet and beak with gray body and wing feathers.

A juvenile yellow crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea) was wading in the fresh water river and is commonly seen overlooking tide pools at Darwin's Bay. Also present on the beach were a few female sea lions and numerous bright red, sally lightfoot crabs standing out against the black lava rocks making up the crater wall.

When the snorkelers made their way back to the beach the pangas were dispatched to pick us up and return us to the Letty. Back on the boat we were met with soda and snacks after which we would prepare for dinner. I chose to have large shrimp served with cauliflower and green beans, another delicious and healthy meal. After dinner we all settled in for the next day's briefing. We were going to be traveling through the night up and around the north edge of Isabela Island and then back down where we would have our first hike of the day on Fernandina, the youngest island in the Galápagos.

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