Monday, June 9, 2014

Unique to the Galapagos

Galapagos Cormorant (flightless). Susan Alcorn
The Galapagos are volcanic islands that were never part of any continent. That meant that what flora and fauna was there before humans arrived got there by swimming, floating, or flying. Some of the animals we now see are very different than their ancestors--they have evolved in unique ways in order to succeed in their unique environment.

Cormorants are not unique to the Galapagos, but the flightless one is. The Galapagos Cormorant (Phalacrocorix Harrisi) is found on only two islands there--Isabella and Fernandina and its numbers are estimated to be in the 900-1600 range making it one of the world's rarest birds.

The Galapagos Cormorant shares some of the physical and behavioral features of other cormorants. Its four toes are joined to form webbed feet--enabling it to swim well. Its legs are powerful. Because its feathers are not waterproof, it dries them by spreading its wings. Its wings, however, are much smaller than other cormorants--and about a third the size that would be required for it to fly.

The flightless cormorant evolved at a time when there were no enemies on the islands. Like most of the other animals in the Galapagos, it is quite tame compared to others of its genus because it evolved well before there were any humans around that might hunt or otherwise hurt it. However, as people began to inhabit the islands and bring along dogs, cats, and pigs, the birds became increasingly at risk. The Darwin Institute and others periodically assess the situation and conservation measures have periodically been undertaken--such as removing predators from the islands. Another continuing threat to the flightless cormorant is from human activities. They may get caught up in nets used for fishing and they are helpless in case of an oil spill.

When visiting the Galapagos, look for the birds in the waters near the shoreline. We were best able to see them when kayaking or riding in the Kodiacs out from our sailing ship, the Mary Anne. If you're there July to October, look for nests in the rocks above the high-water mark. The nests are usually made of seaweed and sometimes "decorated" with offerings of bottle caps and such brought by the admiring males. The female flightless cormorant can have three clutches each year--let's hope this enables them to flourish in spite of the risks it faces.

Previous Galapagos blogs:

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Ten things you may not know about the Galapagos

Red-footed boobies
In my three previous posts about the Galapagos, I introduced some of the exotic animals that live there--Blue-footed boobies, Frigate birds, and Hammerhead and reef sharks. Now, I am stepping back to give you some background info about these remarkable islands.
  1. The Galapagos Islands are part of Ecuador (annexed in 1831) and lie approximately 600 miles off the mainland's west coast and in the Pacific Ocean.  
  2. The Galapagos Islands are volcanic in origin and were formed at different times--some were formed more than 5 million (mostly in the east), some were formed closer to 3 million years ago. Eruptions that change the landscape have occurred within the last 200 years on some islands. 
  3. According to experts, there were no original (indigenous) people living in the Galapagos. The islands were first sighted in 1535 by Tomas de Berlanga, the Spanish Bishop of Panama, from aboard his ship.
  4. Until the early 1800s, pirates lurked in the bays and inlets of the islands waiting for Spanish galleons to come by with their booty of gold and silver taken from South America. 
  5. In the 1700s and 1800s, whalers and fur traders frequently stopped in the islands to collect
    Galapagos Tortoises at the Darwin Research Station
    fresh water and to capture the Galapagos tortoises, which they then used for food. The tortoises could live in captivity on the ships, without food or water, for up to a year. This practice nearly drove the Galapagos tortoises to extinction.  
  6. On September 15, 1835, the HMS Beagle arrived in the Galapagos with  
    Charles Darwin on board. His observations there were instrumental to his later written works, including the Origin of Species. 
  7. In the 1920 and 1920, Norwegians came to the islands because they were offered free land; other Europeans followed--including some from Germany fleeing their country because of the political climate.  
  8. The Galapagos and the surrounding marine area became a National Park in 1939, and then National Heritage sites.
  9. The population of the Galapagos is approximately 25,000. The population groups are mestizos (descendants of Native Americans originally from Ecuador's mainland and Europeans); the descendants of European and American settlers. 
  10. Nowadays, the majority of visitors stay in small hotels on the islands and
    take day trips to see the islands and their flora and fauna. There are strict conservation measures in place. The number of boats is limited and the times and places that islands and waters can be visited must be scheduled in advance.

We highly recommend the company that we went with, Wilderness Travel of Berkeley, and the Ecuadorian company that guided us. We spent two weeks on the Mary Anne, a powered sailing vessel. In my opinion, cruises are a far superior was to see (as Wikipedia puts it) "the complex environment and wildlife of the islands."
If you have seen the movie, The Galapagos Affair: Satan came to Eden, we'd love to have your review. 

Next up, a return to the exotic animals. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Wonders of the Galapagos, swimming with the sharks

Black-tipped reef shark: Susan Alcorn
It was just days before we left for the Galapagos trip when a friend, who had been there previously, just happened to mention that we might find ourselves snorkeling with sharks--and not just any kind of sharks--but hammerhead sharks. Now, I'm not exactly an expert of sharks, but I do know that hammerheads are big! According to one online site, they can weigh up to 1,000 pounds and grow to 20-feet long.

The good news is, however, that most species of hammerheads -- six out of the nine (another source says eleven) species are harmless to humans. Of course that implies that three out of the nine (11) species can be harmful to humans. When I looked further, I read that the three potential dangerous ones are the scalloped, great, and smooth species. The Scalloped Shark (so called because the leading edge of the "hammer," is scalloped) not only hangs out in the Galapagos, but is commonly seen in schools upwards of 100!

Hammerhead sharks belong to the genus Sphyrna and have easily recognizable heads--the front part is flattened into a distinctive flattened "hammer" shape called a "cephalofoil." This cephalofoil may help its sensory abilities; like other sharks, the hammerhead usually hunts during the night.

Because we had already paid for our trip and it was, we joked, predestined and because neither Ralph nor I had read of any (recent) shark attacks in the Galapagos, we assumed that we should not worry about hammerheads. As it turned out, we didn't see any while snorkeling, but we did see an impressive looking one from the boat.

What we did see while in the water was "white-tipped" and "black-tipped" reef sharks (the tips of their fins are either white or black). These are much smaller fish, typically five to seven-feet long. As with the sharks, the reef sharks are usually not a threat to swimmers, snorkeler, or divers. Another website, Living with sharks, recommends that people don't harass, don't tease with food, and don't chase sharks. I think a reminder "do not feed" would be important, too. Of course, there are some who think it's cool to pull on a shark's fin, or try to ride one, but I generally try to avoid morons.

So, though we weren't unduly concerned about the shark-issue, Ralph did become a bit nervous when he saw a reef shark circling around below me, and he suggested we move to another area. There were so many zillions of fish everywhere, that we knew that the sharks had more than an adequate supply of food.

Some facts about sharks:

  • According to OMG, there were "118 shark attacks in 2011 and only seven were fatal." An attack can be anything from a young shark taking a sample to a full-blown encounter. Because of sensationalized coverage of attacks and movies such as "Jaws," many people have an exaggerated fear of sharks.
  • Probably not surprisingly--considering the number of sharks and the number of people in the water--Australia has the most fatalities and the U.S. the greatest number of attacks.
  • Many sharks are now on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCM) list as vulnerable or endangered including the Great White Shark. 
  • Sharks are at risk because of over-fishing and because of their fins are considered a delicacy. When "finning," fisherman cut off the fins and throw the fish back in the water. After losing their fins, the fish can no longer swim and die a slow, painful death.
  • Many conservation, and other groups, are working to save our dwindling number of sharks worldwide. The Sea Shepherd group states that they are working with the Ecuadorian officials to form a K-9 corps to sniff out shark fins.
Clearly one of the many benefits of traveling to an exotic place such as the Galapagos is the opportunity to learn more about what's working there and what isn't. We were greatly impressed with some of the environmental research and conservation practices occurring on these unique islands. I am also glad that in the process of researching the sharks of the Galapagos, I also learned more about the threats that they face. 

In line with that, we are reviewing the guidelines of the "Seafood Watch." This is a chart originally created by California's Monterey Bay Aquarium in conjunction with their Seafood Watch program. The chart indicates which species of fish are "best choices," "good alternatives, " and "to be avoided" in order to not harm the environment. 

In addition, I am going to pay greater attention to which restaurants and grocery stores offer sustainable seafood. Please join me! 

Part 3, above.
Part 2, to learn about blue-footed boobies, click here.  
Part 1, to learn about Frigate birds, click here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Wonders of the Galapagos, part 2

The bluest of the blue: One of the best known, and loved, animals of the Galapagos is the blue-footed booby. This delightful seabird, while graceful in flight and streamlined when diving into the water, is definitely awkward while on land. Those bright blue feet are about as clumsy on land as ours are when we are walking around in snorkeling fins. However, during courtship and mating periods, the female booby is very interested in the feet of the male. In fact, during the mating ritual, the male struts back and forth in front of the female, lifting his feet up and down. The brighter the blue, the more likely the male will be successful in finding a mate. 

It's all in the genes: The blue of the boobies' feet is from the carotenoid pigments obtained from fresh fish. Experiments have shown that depriving a booby of fish for 48 hours will reduce the intensity of the blue. In addition, the older the booby, the less bright the blue. Added together, good nourishment and youth are more likely to produce successful offspring.

Sibling rivalry played out: After boobies successfully mate, usually a single egg is laid immediately and the parents begin taking turns incubating it (under those blue webbed feet). A second egg is usually laid five days later. Therefore, the first chick usually will hatch a few days earlier than the second one. (This is called asynchronous hatching.) 

This type of hatching has advantages and disadvantages. In some respects, it's easier on the parents because the earliest days of feeding the chicks are the most difficult in terms of energy expended. It sometimes leads, however, to what is called facultative siblicide -- in this case, the first chick killing the younger chick if there is a food shortage. On some questions of which chick is favored by the parents in case of food shortage, experts do not necessary agree (some say the smaller, some say the larger), but most seem to agree that as far as facultative siblicide, the parents do not appear to interfere with the process. 

Designed for diving: With its thin bill and sleek head and body, the booby is well-suited for diving from high in the air and deep into the ocean. They can dive from 100 feet up and into the water 75 feet deep in their search for small fish such as sardines and squid. Their nostrils are permanently closed; they breathe through the corners of their mouth. 

The Mary Anne flies the flag of Ecuador. 
Where to see them:  Although they can be found in the Gulf of California and along the western coasts of Central and South America down to Peru, about half of all breeding pairs nest in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. We saw large numbers of blue-footed boobies on the islands of Espanola and North Seymour.   

More info: 
Galapagos Conservation Trust, click here 
Wikipedia, click here.  

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Wonders of Galapagos, part 1

It's been a long hiatus from making a blog post because we've been away on a trip of a lifetime--to the Galapagos. There is so much to say that I have needed a couple of days to be able to make this attempt to highlight some of our adventures.

The Galapagos can make anyone feel like a National Geographic photographer. Where else can you approach such abundant wildlife and have the animals not only hold still for you, but appear to preen and pose? We came home with 2,500 images. We will, of course, edit them down to a reasonable number by culling the ones that are out of focus or duplicates, but that number is a reflection of how often we saw things that we felt worthy of recording.

What's even more amazing is that we didn't take any underwater photos. Several people in our group did take pictures while snorkeling, but I was more focused on staying far enough away from the rocky shorelines and clearing my breathing tube. I'm not a strong or confident swimmer, so I need my hands free of cameras. If I had taken photos of the fish, I would be posting some of the black-tipped or white-tipped reef sharks that we saw with.

Our trip, with Wilderness Travel (Berkeley, CA) was amazing. Our boat, the Mary Anne, was the most beautiful craft on the water. Every time we left the boat to go snorkeling, kayaking, or a walk on one of the island, I would look back at our boat and be able to imagine early pirates roaming the seas. (Not historically correct, perhaps, but fun.) The sails were only occasionally used; we relied on the motor, but that didn't detract from the romance.

Over the next few weeks, I'll share some of the stories and photos that we gained while in Ecuador. Let me leave you with this collection of closeups of some of the magnificent creatures of the Galapagos.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Hikers do it for free!

Joaquin Miller Park, Oakland Parks & Rec

All things being equal, most hikers like to walk on a well-maintained trail with beautiful scenery; with enough of a challenge involved so that we get a good workout (but don't need three days to recover); that it be reasonably close to home; and that it not cost anything.

While there are hundreds of trails in the Greater Bay Area that fill the bill--East Bay Regional Parks, State of California Parks, National Parks and Preserves, various county and city parks, and more--sometimes we're interested in a particular trail, yet the park's entrance fee makes us go elsewhere. 

If getting into a park free that usually charges an entrance fee sounds good, check out these: 

Fee-free admission days in 2014 to entice:

National Parks and Forests:
April 19-20. National Parks Weekend (National Parks free)

June 14. National Get Outdoors Day (National Forest free)

August 25. National Park Service Birthday (National Parks free)

September 17. National Public Lands Day (All Federal Public Lands free)

October 12. National Wildlife Refuge Week (National Wildlife Refuge Week)

November 11. Veterans Day (All Federal Public Lands free)

Some other days to celebrate: 

May 1-Sept 10--Sierra Club members: LeConte Lodge in Yosemite is looking for volunteers to help with seasonal operations (one week minimum). Free entrance to the park and free camping in the group campsite during the time you volunteer.

May 10. Audubon members: Polewalking: Special session for birders. Learn how to use hiking poles with Jayah Faye Paley ( in Pacifica, CA. Go to

June 7. National Trails Day. Open to all. Thousands of organizations, across the country, will offer free activities ranging from guided hikes to whitewater paddling. 

June 1, 2014. Cal Academy of Science, 55 Music Concourse Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Chase Bank sponsorsquarterly Free Sundays--first come, first served. The Academy is free to everyone on selected Sundays throughout the year. Admission is on a first-come, first served basis, and early arrival is recommended due to the likelihood of high demand. Please note that final entry to the museum is one hour before closing.

Varies by zipcode: "San Francisco Neighborhood Free Days."  415-379-8000. (The Spring 2014 dates currently appear/check back for later dates.)  

Have fun, hikers!


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Celebrate Spring with a special hike in the Bay Area

There's an abundance of hikes planned for the spring! Consider one of these unique offerings in your greater Bay Area: 
Explore Mt. Diablo State Park, Contra Costa County (Susan A.) 
Saturday, April 6, 2014. 8:30* OR 9:30** A.M. – 2 PM. Natural & Cultural History Walk.  Hike on Mt. Diablo with Doc Jim Hale, wildlife biologist and naturalist. Hale will interpret the fire ecology of the recent Clayton Burn, wildlife, geology, wildflowers, and the material culture of the Native Americans, their useful, edible, and medicinal plants. We will visit bedrock milling stations, as well as a village site and pictograph site. 

Hiking level is easy. Bring lunch and liquids. We will carpool from the garden at 8:30* A.M. or meet at 9:30** A.M. at the John Muir Picnic Area just below the summit of Mount Diablo. 

A park entrance fee applies at both the north and south entrances. Cost for this class: $10/individual; $20/family tax-deductible donation to Lafayette Community Garden. Register: Sponsored by the Lafayette Community Garden and Outdoor Learning Center. 

Birds-Eye Gilia (Doug Wirtz) King-Swett
Saturday, April 12. 9 A.M. – 1 P.M. Hike the King-Swett Ranches. Join naturalist Jim Walsh to hike the the hills between Fairfield, Benicia, and Vallejo; this area is otherwise closed to the public.Walsh will share insights about the birds and other wildlife that call this area home, and he’ll give you a great workout! 

On a clear day you can see views across the Suisun Marsh to Mount Diablo, the Golden Gate Bridge and Mount Tamalpais, the San Francisco and San Pablo Bays, the Napa River and marshes, perhaps even the Sierras.  

Hike is free; donations are appreciated.  No reservations are necessary but an RSVP would be appreciated to Jim at 916-870-4824 or

All ages are welcome, but participants must be prepared for a strenuous pace hiking 4-6 miles off-trail, up and down rugged, steep, and slippery hills that are full of sticky seeds, thorny plants, and thistle, passing free range cattle along the way. Bring a backpack with plenty of water and snacks; boots or sturdy closed-toe shoes with good grip for rugged, steep, and slippery off-trail terrain; long, sturdy pants and layered clothes that you don't mind getting dirty; and protection from sun, wind, fog and rain.  Binoculars, a camera, bug repellent, hiking sticks and gaiters are also recommended. Very heavy rain cancels the hike. Call Jim if the weather is uncertain.

Meet Walsh promptly beside his white "TruGreen" pickup truck, at the Park-and-Ride lot where McGary Road, Hiddenbrooke Parkway, and American Canyon Road intersect (on the Hiddenbrooke side of the American Canyon/Hiddenbrooke Parkway exit, off Interstate 80).  Be ready to carpool or caravan from there to the trailhead. Sponsored by

Saturday, April 12. 8:30 A.M. - . Lafayette Hiking Group invites participants to the join them on an easy to moderate walk of 3-4 miles in Paso Nogal Park, Pleasant Hill. Walk trails meandering among oak trees, native plants and some neighborhood streets with nice views of Martinez, Concord, Pleasant Hill and Mount Diablo. Dog friendly trails. Some easy hills. Leader: Linda On. 

Meet in the parking lot out from Lafayette BART’s main entrance at 8:30 A.M. We form carpools to the trailhead.  Bring lunch or snacks, water, layered clothing, good walking shoes, sun protection and money to contribute toward gas, bridge tolls and parking.  ($3 local, more if further). Questions? Email

Incidentally, Lafayette has just released an updated "Recreational Trails Map" of all the trails in Lafayette, and new maps of the individual City trails. The are available at the Lafayette Parks, Trails & Recreation Office at 500 Saint Mary's Road, the City Offices, Chamber of Commerce and on the City website at (search on trail maps).

Saturday, April 26. 9:00 A.M. - 2:00 P.M. Early Settlers History Hike at Deer Creek Hills. Join Deer Creek Hill's historian David Scharlach as he will tell of the amazing first owners of DCH, including a cowboy Casanova, a drunken scoundrel and murderer, the intrepid teenage daughter of George Donner, and the last owner whose fight over the property went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The hike will take about 3 and a half hours. All ages are welcome. $10. Register online: Sponsored by the Sacramento Valley Conservancy. 

Saturday, April 26, 6:30 P.M. -10:30 P.M. Globe at Night Hike in Sunol-Ohlone Regional Wilderness. How dark is the night sky? We’ll engage in a little citizen science as we hike our way up hill and over dale and through spring constellations in search of the marvels of local planets. About three miles, some up. 

Sunol Regional (Susan Alcorn)
Meet at the Old Green Barn Visitor Center. Reservations required by Thursday, April 24. Course #4944 To make a reservation: By phone: 1-888-327-2757 option 2 (Monday through Friday) Or online:

Wear sturdy shoes with textured soles for hiking on slippery slopes, dress in layers, wear sunscreen and a sun/rain hat and bring water and a trail snack to share. We meet RAIN or SHINE, but will moderate our adventure to accommodate the weather. We encourage and can often help arranging carpools. Parking fees may apply. Be prepared with change or small bills for parking fees and/or machines at park gates. 

Please contact Naturalist Katie Colbert if you have any questions about the hike or the trail. (510-544-3243 or

This hike is part of the East Bay Regional Park District’s Women on Common Ground program. If you would like to receive Women on Common Ground program information via email please call 510-544-3243 or send a note to

Directions: (Please confirm all directions with a map). To reach Sunol-Ohlone: From Fremont, drive north on Hwy. 680 and exit at Calaveras Rd. (near the town of Sunol.) Turn right on Calaveras and proceed about four miles to a left turn onto Geary Rd. which leads directly into the park. From Oakland-Berkeley area, drive east on Hwy. 580 to junction with Hwy. 680. Take 680 south and exit at Calaveras Rd./ Highway 84 just south of the Sunol exit. Turn left onto Calaveras Rd. and proceed as above. From Walnut Creek/Danville area, go south on Hwy. 680 and exit at Calaveras Rd/ Highway 84 just south of the Sunol exit. Proceed as above. To reach the Old Green Barn take the first left after the park entrance.

Hope all of your spring hikes are as wonderful as these promise to be!