Santiago—Playa Espumilla

Route map

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SantiagoLying to the east of Isabela, Santiago was originally named James Island, after King James II.  However, the Spanish name of Santiago didn’t wander far from “James,” since “Santiago” means “St. James” (although it refers to James, the brother of the Apostle John, rather than the King).  Santiago was the second island visited by Charles Darwin, arriving October 5, 1835.  Even at that early date, he found a group of Spaniards who had come from Charles Island (??) to dry fish and cure tortoise meat using the salt that from a salt mine on the island.  (Salt was commercially excavated from Salt Mine Crater, which has a seasonal salt-water lagoon, in the 1920s and again in the 1960s also.)  Santiago had a long history of providing water, wood, and tortoises for buccaneers and whaling expeditions.  And with these visitors and early colonization efforts came goats, pigs, donkeys, rats, and mice—all of which eventually wreaked havoc on the local wildlife.  However, a huge invasives eradication program called Project Isabela, undertaken by the Charles Darwin Foundation and the National Park, removed thousands of non-native goats, donkeys, and pigs by 2006 on Santiago.  The native vegetation rebounded quickly, although a few invasive species (most particularly, a species of raspberry called Mora by locals) that had been controlled by the goats still present a challenge.  You can read more about this impressive conservation effort on the Galápagos Conservancy’s Web site.

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This route map for our landing on Playa Espumilla is from the National Park’s terrific Web site.  Click here or on the photo to read the rest of the page on Playa Espumilla.

Friday, May 17, morning

scheduleDay7On the northwestern coast of Santiago lies Playa Espumilla, on James Bay.  “Espuma” means “foam” in Spanish, so perhaps this beach is named for a “foamy” surf.  Indeed, some WCDuckdescriptions note that the landing can be challenging with high surf.  We, however, had very calm seas for our landing.  In a seasonal lagoon, our first wildlife spotting was a White-cheeked Duck (left), a species endemic to the archipelago in theWhimbrel same genus as the Northern Pintail.  A Whimbrel (right) worked the mudflats and scampered away as we approached the other side of the lagoon.  Even with this departing shot, you can get a sense of its strongly decurved bill.  Whimbrels are not endemic to the islands and are not known to breed there, but they are present year-round.  A small group of Yellow Warblers (below) enjoyed the gently lapping water and even waded in for a quick dip.

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A juvenile Galápagos Hawk watched us calmly—a not uncommon situation GAHA_1for these young hawks. (Click on either photo for a larger look at this winsome raptor.)  Endemic to the archipelago, this species is the GAHA_3only resident hawk in the archipelago.  You can tell this bird is a youngster because it has such a mottled appearance.  Young hawks hang around their parents until they are 3 – 5 months old; after that, they move around non-territorial areas until they are ready to breed at about age 2 or 3 years.  These young “nomads” are the ones that most likely   A second young Galápagos Hawk watched us a bit more warily from the top of a mangrove tree.

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This new fledgling (below) is a bit challenging to identify.  My first thought is that it is a Galápagos Flycatcher, because of the 2 evident wingbars.  It could also be a young Yellow Warbler, although even a youngster would typically show more yellow that this critter has.  So I’ll tentatively call it a Galápagos Flycatcher for now.

GAFLKeeping up the tradition of memorializing our gorgeous boat through different views, Zell snapped a photo of the lovely Mary Anne from our landing.

MAWe passed an adult Galápagos Hawk further on.  In sharp contrast to the juvenile hawks, the adult hawk is much darker overall and a bit more wary.

GAHA_6We passed through an interesting “tunnel” through arching button mangroves (below, left).  Once out of tunnelthe tunnel, Carolina picked up a goat skull (below, right) and talked about Project Isabela.  A “Judas goat” wasgoat sterilized and fitted with a radio collar.  At a cost of $1,000/hour, helicopters staffed with hunters followed the radio signal of the collared goat and exterminated the other goats that came to the collared goat.  Costing a total of $8,000,000, Project Isabela eradicated approximately 80,000 goats from Santiago and 60,000 goats from Isabela.

As we headed back to the beach and the pangas, a trio of American Oystercatchers—2 adults and a youngster—moved in front of us, moving in and out AMOY_2of the lapping waves.  Their long, powerful red bills are flattened laterally, which helps them to open various crustaceans and bi-valves.  These lovely shorebirds have stunning yellow eyes surrounded by equally stunning red eye rings when tAMOY_1hey are adults.  (Juveniles have brown eyes.)  You can see this feature in the above photo.  In the photo on the right, you can tell the juvenile (the bird on the left) from the adult by the dark areas on its bill.    (Click on this or any photo to see a larger version.)  The bill starts out all dark and turns red over about two years.  The adult’s bill (on the right) is a stunning red.  Family groups often stay together for almost 6 months after the young hatch.  Zell took a brief video of this threesome; watch the adult catch and devour a crab!

Back on the boat, the Captain motored a bit north of James Bay to Buccaneer Cove for our morning’s snorkel.  As usual when we were underway, Carolina kept a keen eye out forCarolina anything interesting in the sea (right).  In the 17th and 18th centuries, Buccaneer Cove was a stopping point for pirates, whalers, and Charles Darwin to stop for repairs, fresh water, firewood, and tortoises.  (See photos below.) Our snorkeling found us among guineafowl puffer (also called a golden puffer), rainbow wrass, number of parrotfish, king angelfish (also known as passer angelfish), and 4 resting whitetip reef sharks.  Unlike most other species of shark, these sharks don’t need to move through the water to breathe.  Instead, a special structure moves water through their gills as long as their mouths are open a little.  Because of this, they can rest on the ocean bottom for long periods of time—which is what the 4 we watched were doing.

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Carolina called us all over when she spotted a Pacific seahorse perhaps 5 feet under the surface.  It was wonderfully camouflaged while hanging onto a piece of tan vegetation that perfectly matched its tan color, the seahorse swayed in the current as if part of the plant.  Carolina dove down and pointed it out to us, which was the only way I could even catch a glimpse.  One member of our group, David, was an avid photographer and headed down to take a photo.  What a challenge!  He’d load up on air, dive below the surface, and search around for the well-disguised critter.  By the time he found it, he had run out of air and had to return to the surface.  After going through this process several times, Carolina finally grabbed his camera, slipped below the surface like a sea lion, snapped a terrific photo, resurfaced, handed the camera back to David with a grin, and headed out to spot other wonders.  Good sport that he was, David laughed as hard as the rest of us.

Back on the boat, we headed north again to Puerto Egas for our last afternoon’s outing.  On the way, we passed Bishop Rock (bel0w).  You can get a suggestion of a pointed bishop’s hat, with his hands either closed in prayer or holding a book.  I personally thought that the face rather resembled the Grinch from Doctor Seuss.

Click here to read about Puerto Egas.  {coming soon!}

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