Sunday, May 13, 2012

Touring San Cristobal

One of the first things we did on San Cristobal was to take a walk up Cerro Tijeretas or “Frigatebird Hill.” While we saw no evidence of nesting frigates there (and only a few soaring over the beach below), we saw a myriad of other wildlife. First, we took a lava trail connector to the interpretive trail. 

On the lava trail, we saw our first lava lizards. As with much of the other wildlife on the Galapagos, different islands have different species of these ubiquitous reptiles.

Male San Cristobal Lava Lizard

Female San Cristobal Lava Lizard
Even spiders appeared new and different, since we were at the Galapagos.

We also saw this gnarly centipede. It was eight or nine inches long!

We spotted the first of “Darwin’s finches,” and saw many more of these as we made our way up the interpretive trail to the viewing platform at the top. 

Ground Finch

Warbler Finch
A few days later, we took a tour of the island which included several interesting wildlife habitats. The first was Laguna El Junco, a freshwater lake in the crater of an extinct volcano. The volcano is only about 600 meters high, a short but steep hike up a path and wooden staircase.The volcano’s slopes house the Miconia plant, an endemic shrub whose habitat is disappearing.

The crater was smaller than I’d imagined and is one of the only, if not the only, source of freshwater on the Galapagos islands we visited.

Laguna El Junco
 From there, we could also see the San Cristobal wind farm,

a colorful wetland below,

and one of the most picturesque (in terms of its setting) HAM radio stations in the world.

We also had beautiful views of the north, west, and southwest coasts of the island.

However, the highlight of El Junco are the frigatebirds, who go there to wash the salt crystals off their feathers.

As we toured the island (in a small tour group of three which included us and a German sailor), we saw some of the many tropical fruits growing on the island:  banana, papaya, guava, passion fruit, and mandarins. We later learned that the guava covering much of the island is an introduced species. I also wonder about the mandarins we saw, since one I had onboard was confiscated upon our arrival.

We next visited the Galapaguera Cerro Colorado, a giant tortoise breeding center. Even though the Galapagos are known for its giant tortoises (of which there are currently 11 subspecies left), these magnificient animals are threatened by a variety of human activities. On San Cristobal, conversion of their natural forest habitat to other uses and predation on their eggs by introduced species such as rats and feral cats are two factors contributing to the turtle’s struggle for survival. At the breeding center, they give the tortoises a head start by removing the eggs from the wild, incubating and raising them in a nursery, moving the turtles to an adaptation pen between two to five years, and then returning them to the wild.

At Galapaguera Cerro Colorado, we were able to observe some of the native plants in the tortoise’s natural habitat. One of the most important for people to know about is the manzanillo, or poison apple tree. While highly toxic to humans, and found in many other places on the island, this plant is an important part of the diet of giant tortoises on San Cristobal.

Young manzanillo

Mature manzanillo

"Poison apple" from manzanillo
 While not a completely natural setting (the park creates feeding and water stations near the trail to draw the tortoises into view of the visitors), you are pretty much guaranteed to see some giant tortoises at the Galapaguera. Not all of the tortoises remain at the feeding stations; however, and we did observe others along the trail and under the foliage. We were able to observe some of the older tortoises, who ranged anywhere from 60 to 100 years old. 

San Cristobal giant tortoise
 The females were smaller than the males, but both sexes exhibited some territorial behavior. Here, one male challenges another male for (what looked like) the space he was occupying.

These two females were battling over a leaf. Perhaps it was a particularly succulent leaf, because there were identical (to us) leaves like it in the nearby feeding station. Our guide remarked that watching the tortoises is like watching “American football.” I responded that American football wasn’t over a leaf, but then I added that football is over less than a leaf! (A leaf is food for survival, while football is just a game.)

Another inhabitant of the forest was the San Cristobal mockingbird.

 Our last stop of the day was La Loberia, a sea lion rookery and popular surfing beach.

 Here, Patrick finally captured one of San Cristobal's bright yellow warblers on film.

We also saw a native beach morning glory.

We were supposed to do some snorkeling at La Loberia, but it was too rough on the day of our tour. While we saw many sea lions---which I wrote about in the last post---we were only able to see one or two marine iguanas. Due to the tide coming in, the iguanas had fled the basking rocks near the surf zone and had crawled under the beach vegetation for their siesta. We could see the tracks their tails left in the sand. As Patrick remarked, “It’s even too hot here for the iguanas!” We learned that it is best to visit the beach during low or slack tide if you are in search of marine iguanas.

However, I really wanted to see some marine iguanas, so Patrick humored me by returning to La Loberia two days later. (It’s just outside of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, and it’s possible to walk there, although we took a taxi.) This time, in addition to seeing a unique lava heron...

....we were much more successful in viewing iguanas! We saw some of the older, mature iguanas basking on the lava boulders near the surf zone.

They were confident in their aura of cool, unperturbed by our presence. They sit still as statues and indeed, their mouths look like they are composed of granite. Only their warm golden eyes give any indication of life.

Further on down the trail, past the sea lions, surfers, and crab zone, we found many younger iguana. These were smaller in size and a little more wary of us. “Older” and “younger” are relative terms:  I don’t know the life span of a marine iguana. Reptiles, in general, are long-lived, and we later learned that a terrestrial iguana can live to up to 60 years old. I assume the life span of marine iguanas is similar.


Iguana as Buddha
 As we checked out of San Cristobal, we felt like we’d seen most of what the island has to offer. This was our first stop in the Galapagos, and we ended up losing a lot of time on logistics. (Check-in or waiting for aspects of check-in were spread out over parts of three days; arranging and receiving fuel delivery took the better part of a day; we needed fresh food and laundry done after a three-week passage; and check-out also took several visits to our agent’s representative.) If I had it to do over, I would have visited the Interpretation Center early on to learn more about the island’s geology and history. I also would have taken a tour to Punta Pitt, where we learned too late about the booby rookery and tropic birds you can see there. Overall, our stop on San Cristobal was a great introduction to the Galapagos wildlife and the Galapaguenses (Ecuadoran people who live in the Galapagos islands).

Night falls on Puerto Baquerizo Moreno


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