Located near El Chato Giant Tortoise Reserve, Rancho El Manzanillo offers a lovely open-air dining area (below), where we had a delicious lunch. “Manzanillo” is the name of the small apple-like fruit that grows on the trees in the area. Mazanillos are poisonous to humans—not just the fruit but the sap can cause blistering too. But the tortoises eat them with no problems. While we were eating, Carolina chatted with the owner to find out what might be going on with the tortoises. We learned later that an international group of tortoise researchers were having lunch at the next table over from us.
After lunch, we headed out to walk the grounds. Our first species were the most common of the 13 species of “Darwin’s finches”—Ground Finches feeding on the eponymous ground. The Ground Finches are notoriously difficult to tell apart; since these were feeding as a group, we can probably rule out Large Ground Finches. Most likely, they were Medium or Small Ground Finches, given the location. At Galápagos Lake, we spotted a Galápagos (White-cheeked) Pintail (below left) bathing amidst the red pond vegetation. (Yes, that is water!) Note that the word “poza” on the sign implies a puddle or a backwater. The Galápagos Pintail is a subspecies of the Bahama (White-cheeked) Pintail and in the same genus as the Northern Pintail, familiar to us in the U.S. A Smooth-billed Ani—an unbelievably successful invasive, non-native species first introduced in the archipelago in the 1970s—watched us from above (right). And a rather scruffy Galápagos Mockingbird—the most widespread of 4 endemic species of mockingbird in the archipelago—followed us curiously as we headed down the trail (below).
But the stars of the show were the Galápagos Giant Tortoises. The archipelago has 2 types of tortoises: those with saddle-shaped carapaces (shells) and those with dome-shaped carapaces. (Click here to read more about these gentle giants.) On Santa Cruz, you’ll find the 2nd largest population of Giant Tortoises in the islands—all dome-shaped. (Isabela boasts the largest population in the archipelago.) They live harmoniously with highland farmers such as Rancho El Manzanillo and Rancho Primicias, who farm much of their moist, lush habitat (and sometimes make some money from tourists to support this peaceful coexistence of species). Males are considerably larger than females—almost twice as big—and males have longer tails. Tortoises don’t breed until 20 to 25 years of age. Nesting season stretches from May to October; during this period, the breeding females head (veeerrryyy ssssllllooowwwlllyy) to the sandy beaches in the lowlands to lay their eggs. Females can lay eggs more than once; each time, they dig out a new nest to deposit approximately 20 eggs. The breeding males may or may not follow the females to the lowlands. Since we were there during breeding season, we not unexpectedly saw mostly younger tortoises—those that hadn’t yet reached breeding age. In addition to being smaller, their carapaces still showed ridged rings and some lighter colors. (As tortoises age, the ridged rings and light coloration on the carapaces wear off as they move under low vegetation and past boulders.) You can see these diagnostic characteristics in all of these photos. (Click on any photo to see a larger version.)
And perhaps only a wildlife rehab person would care—but I asked Zell to take a photo of the tortoise poop that we found on the trail. We don’t have anything in the photo for scale, but this particular specimen was probably 5 or 6 inches long.
Back at the dining area, we pulled sticky seeds off our pants and shoes— don’t want to risk spreading Santa Cruz seeds to another island. They seemed to attach better to nylon than to denim. Folks wearing jeans had a much less tedious task. We also had some wonderfully refreshing cold lemongrass tea. We climbed back on board our bus and headed down to Puerto Ayora.
Continued on p. 3; click below.