Wednesday, 21 October 2009

More Boobies Than Your Wettest Dream

  • "Peek-a-Boobie" - sorry, I just couldn't resist!

Just imagine the kind of hits that I am getting from Google with a title like that! That should boost my readership, shouldn’t it? Well, perhaps not, since I am betting that most of those hits are from people that don’t actually want to read anything – they would be more interested in the pictures. And not the pictures that I have, since mine will be of birds, of the feathered variety. So, if you were popping in for an eyeful of boobs and not birds, I suggest you take your dirty little mind elsewhere. For the one reader that is left, read on!

The Galapagos – rocky, volcanic islands in the middle of nowhere. Most of the islands are dry and barren, with little water and even less food. So why are they teeming with birds? Everywhere I look, there is a bird looking straight back at me. I have to watch every step I make, for fear of bumping into a booby, flattening a frigatebird or annihilating an albatross. There are eggs left all over the place and pathetic balls of fluff with gaping beaks littering the path. The poor stunted trees are festooned in feathers, the branches full of fowl. The air is no less busy a place, with more flight paths going overhead than Heathrow and Gatwick combined. The air is constantly swirling with a myriad of eddies and vortices caused by the passing wings of the wailing, screaming and screeching birds that call these islands their home. And the reason they are all here? Well, it is not like they have a whole lot of choice if they want some solid ground on which to lay their eggs and the seas around the Galapagos are rich in nutrients. These nutrients provide food for all manner of microscopic life, which in turn feed the millions of fish that inhabit the cold, equatorial waters. So, fish for all our feathered friends of these wondrous islands.

This brings me to the main subject of this post – the booby. Go on, snigger away, I know you want to. Now that you have got that out of your system, I can enlighten you as to why they are actually called boobies. The name is apparently derived from the Spanish term bobo, meaning stupid or dunce. A little harsh perhaps, but they are quite clumsy on land and will alight on any passing ship, meaning they are easily caught by sailors – anyone for roast booby? I prefer to think that the name refers to the rather clownish antics that they perform during courtship and their delightful and endearing nature on land. Here is one particularly cheeky chap that we found on the beach one day. He is a young blue footed booby and he seemed just as interested in us as we were in him.

So, let’s get started by looking at a few interesting facts about boobies. Did you know that a booby is one of the fastest water diving birds in the world? They can dive from heights of over 100 ft and hit the water at a speed of 60mph (100kph). This is the reason that I don’t have any photos of diving boobies, since none of my lenses are fast enough to catch them mid dive. To prevent brain injury every time they hit the water at that speed, they have an air sac in front of the brain to cushion it and protect it from the impact. To prevent water from spurting up their nostrils and power washing the insides of their skulls clean when they dive, they have permanently closed nostrils. A fascinating feature of the nests of ground nesting boobies is the almost completely perfect circle of guano that surrounds the nest. This forms because the booby tracks the sun as it moves across the sky, keeping its back to the sun to shade the eggs from its burning rays. Since the booby will not leave its eggs, when it has to go, it stands up and shoots away from the nest, resulting in an encircling ring of excrement. Why is it that when I start looking for interesting facts about any animal, I always end up talking about poop?

Now let’s have a look at the most famous of all of the boobies - the blue footed booby. It is easily recognised by its blue feet (no s#*^ Sherlock, you hardly need a PhD to work that one out, do you?!). But this does beg the question as to why these birds have feet that are so very large and so very blue. Let’s deal with the size thing first. Well, we all know that in a male big feet are a good indication of a big ................. O.K., let’s stop right there and get our minds out of the gutter, again. When a female is sizing up a male, she is interested in the size of his feet because that is what boobies use to incubate their eggs. Most birds have a brood patch, which is an area on the chest of the bird that is free of feathers and very rich in blood vessels. This allows the bird to snuggle down on the eggs to keep them warm. Boobies, despite their name, do not have this chesty feature. Instead, they use their very large feet. When a booby is incubating eggs, more blood vessels develop in their feet, which the bird then wraps around the eggs to keep them warm. Since both males and females incubate eggs, large feet are a feature that is favoured by females when she is sizing up a potential mate. As to why the feet are blue? Well, your guess is as good as mine on that one. The females obviously prefer blue feet and the male goes to great pains to show his feet off during the booby mating ritual. He will rock back and forth, lifting one foot off the ground and then the other, presenting them to his prospective mate. What appears to us to be a comical dance is apparently quite the turn on for a female booby.

Obviously not all boobies are so taken with bright blue, as we can see with the red footed booby. Now, you don’t have to be Naturalist of the Year to recognise the red footed booby. Having said that, they do have one sneaky little trick up their wings that might fool you - they come in two different colour morphs; a brown and a white form. Still, they are the only boobies that perch or nest in trees or shrubs, so life is good, life is easy. This had led me to ponder my choice of biological specialty, insects. Once in a while, I will see someone approaching me, clutching a jam jar or a margarine container and my blood will run cold. Uh oh, here we go, they have an insect or some other small creepy crawly in there that they expect me to be able to identify, since I am an expert, right? I will have a look and say something suitably intelligent like “Well, I think that it is an insect, but I have no idea what kind.” Pretty impressive, huh? You see, there are a lot of different insects out there – not just thousands or even hundreds of thousands, but millions, many of which haven’t even been described yet. So, the chances of me actually recognising one is much like the chances of me winning the lottery. I did win $1000 once, so I do get lucky sometimes, but really, I just tend to look like a bit of an idiot and people probably go away wondering where I purchased my PhD. Now, if I had decided to specialise in birds, well, that would significantly reduce the number of species that would need recognising. What about bats? They would be even better, since there are only around 1100 species worldwide. If I had specialised in bats, the chances of anyone actually bringing me one to ID would be pretty slim and even if they did I would stand a fair chance of recognising it and looking as though I actually deserve my PhD!

Anyhoo, I really am getting a bit sidetracked here, so back to the boobies. The last of the common boobies found on the Galapagos is the masked booby. If I am going to be factually correct at this point, I should admit that these boobies are technically known as nazca boobies, but the name masked booby just conjures up a much more humorous image – just imagine what the eyeholes might line up with! The nazca boobies were particularly prevalent on Isla EspaƱola, the most southern of the Galapagos islands. As we were walking around the rocky shore, I kept hearing gentle, clacking noises and soft, breathy whistles. It really did sound as though there must be an outing of old folks with ill-fitting false teeth just behind the next boulder. I was expecting to see some old dear, sitting in a rocking chair, knitting away to her heart’s content, while her husband sat next to her, slowly nodding off with a sigh and a snort. It turns out that what I was hearing were the nazca boobies. These boobies are another ground nesting species and, like the blue footed booby, have many breeding rituals. These include clacking their beaks and raising their heads to the sky while emitting a high pitched whistle. The males will also offer “gifts” to their mates, although I am fairly sure that this female was not very impressed with the stick that this male was trying to give her. Perhaps she would have preferred it if he hadn’t kept poking her in the eye with it? While these mating rituals are very endearing, the nazca booby is not all loving and giving. After breeding, the female will lay two eggs. The first egg will hatch two days before the second and, when it is old enough, the older chick will push the younger out of the nest, leaving it to die of starvation or cold. The parent will do nothing to stop this siblicide and the younger chick is doomed to its fate even before it has hatched.

So there you are, the boobies of the Galapagos. Now, I have never been much of a bird fan, but these boobies, especially the blue footed ones, are so charming and endearing that you can’t possibly not like them. A bit like penguins really, and we all know how much I like them, don’t we!

Monday, 5 October 2009

The One Place to See Before You Die.

You all must have heard of those books that tell you of all the places and things that you must see before you die? You know the ones that I am talking about – 1000 Places to See Before You Die or 1001 Natural Wonders You Must See before You Die. Well, don’t you find them all a bit depressing? How on Earth are you going to find the time and the money to visit ALL of these places before you die? Quite frankly, it is all a bit intimidating and a bit daunting and you start feeling like a failure because you know that there is no way that you will ever be able to get to all of those places before you pop your clogs and visit the One Final Resting Place, be that a hole in the ground, a fiery inferno or an eternal holiday, blessed with sun, endless hot water showers and no intestinal tract issues. So, I have decided to make it easy for you and I am going to write an abridged version which only requires you to travel to one place before you die. We should all be able to manage that, shouldn’t we? It won’t take you a whole year just to read the book, you won’t have to deliberate and agonise over which destination to go to next, there will be no long, tedious and annoying arguments with your partner (or with yourself, for that matter) over the merits of Angel Falls and Venezuela versus the undersea wonders of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea or the The Hanging Gardens of Babylon versus herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plains of East Africa. OK, so the Hanging Gardens of Babylon don’t actually exist anymore, but you get my point.

So where is this one place to go before you die?

The Galapagos Islands.

After three and a half months tootling around South America, we finally made it to end of our journey, a group of small volcanic islands squatting on the equator, nearly 1000 miles from the coast of Ecuador. This is the place that inspired the whole trip. This is the place that I have been waiting to visit since I first decided that I was going to be a biologist, all those years ago when I was still suffering from buck teeth, a flat chest and National Health glasses. This is one of the places that inspired Charles Darwin, which helped to shape his ideas as he formulated his Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. This is a biologist’s Holy Grail. And now that I had finally made it to the One Place that I needed to visit before I died, I was worried that I was going to be disappointed. How on earth could this place live up to my expectations? After all, I am a tad demanding and somewhat critical and just a teeny weeny little bit hard to please. What exactly is there to see here? Let’s make a list of what you can expect to see or not to see:

1. Volcanic lumps of rock, devoid of any obvious signs of life.

2. Volcanic lumps of rock covered in bird poo.

3. A lot of water – well, they are islands.

4. No elephants, lions, tigers, hippos, bears, antelope, moose ........ I could go on, but I am sure you get the point. For someone who loves to see lots of big and exciting wildlife, this does not seem to be the place to be.

5. Nothing especially dangerous. See above for large animals that might eat you or gore you to death, plus no venous snakes or snakes large enough to swallow you whole, no horribly large and hideous spiders with fangs the size of my little fingers, no scorpions or box jellyfish, no alligators or crocodiles. Now this might seem like a plus for many people, and I suppose that it is, but I do have this fascination with all animals, big and small, domestic and dangerous and I do get quite excited by the less liked and more reviled members of the animal kingdom. As far as I can see, the biggest dangers one faces on these islands is being hit by incoming bird shit or tripping over a lizard that looks suspiciously like a lump of volcanic rock – there is a lot of that around here. I suppose you could worry about stampeding tortoises, but I am guessing that you could avoid them by walking away.

6. No natural wonders such as snow capped mountains or lush and vast rainforest. No thundering waterfalls scouring out impressive canyons, no glaciers, no flower filled meadows, no towering trees, no glistening lakes.

So, to recap - lumps of rock with the occasional lump of sea lions and lizards that look like lumps of rock, with a lot of birds flapping around using you for target practice and a very fishy atmosphere wafting up your nostrils. There you have it, the Galapagos.

After this, I don’t think that I can expect a letter from the Ecuadorian Tourist Board seeking my assistance in selling holidays to the Galapagos anytime soon. You are probably not all rushing for your nearest computer or travel agent to book your holiday of a lifetime. You are more than likely changing the title of my post to “The One Place To Avoid While You Are Still Alive”.

So, what was it about the Galapagos that captured my heart? Why is it that, out of all the amazing, fascinating, breathtakingly beautiful places that I have visited over the years, the Galapagos rates as number one? To be honest, I am still not sure, but here are some of my thoughts.

The Galapagos are often thought of as the islands that inspired Charles Darwin, that led him down the winding path of thoughts and ideas that finally culminated in his Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. While this may not be the whole truth, Darwin certainly did visit these islands back in 1835 and they did make a significant impact on his view of life and its evolution. He did not step ashore, see a bunch of different finch species and have a eureka, naked-in-the-bath moment. Darwin was a keen observer and a great collector of specimens, facts and ideas. He travelled the world and picked up pieces of the puzzle from many countries and many people. His greatest feat was to bring all of these ideas and observations, facts and thoughts together to come up with a theory that could explain the diversity of life on earth, a theory that would forever change the way we look at ourselves and our relationship to other animals and our relationship with God. Darwin changed the world with his theory and he changed man’s place in that world. We were no longer separate and apart from all other life forms, we were no longer the pinnacle of God’s creation. So, just being on these islands, seeing some of the things that Darwin saw, knowing that I was walking in Darwin’s footsteps sent a tingle down my spine. I had a sense of being somewhere important, being in a place that helped to change the world.

Since I am such an animal lover, it should come as no great surprise to anyone that I loved the Galapagos due to the weird and wonderful animal life that can be found on the islands. Is there anywhere else you can go where you can find marine lizards feeding on seaweed or an assortment of tortoises that are big enough to ride (although I would have to wonder why you would want to, since it is far quicker to walk to wherever it is you want to go and it would not exactly be a thrill a minute). Where else can you find a slew of finches that have beaks of all shapes and sizes that can cope with diets of seeds, grubs, nectar and even blood or a bunch of boobies with bright blue feet prancing and dancing around like drunken sailors who have not found their land legs yet? Where else can you see pairs of albatross clicking beaks and dancing for each other oblivious to the world around them or penguins at the equator – oh yes, there are even penguins here, and that will always make me happy! There is nowhere else on earth that you can find some of these creatures, there is nowhere else you will see this assortment of bizarre but loveable animals and this makes the Galapagos a very special place indeed.

But I suspect that the most compelling reason for me ranking the Galapagos as the One Place is the fact that the animals don’t run, waddle, hop, swim or fly away. I spent 90% of my time in the rainforest gazing up into the canopy trying to convince myself that I really could see the monkey/porcupine/bird/anteater that the guide was patiently trying to point out to me. I spent the other 10% of my time trying to capture those small blobs that my guide assures me were monkeys/porcupines/birds/anteaters with my camera using my biggest zoom. The rainforest was fantastic and when you finally did see something or catch it on film, you would be delighted. But for far too much of the time you just stood there, gawping up into space getting a very stiff neck. The Galapagos were completely different. Throw away those binoculars; don’t bother lugging around that behemoth of a lens. You won’t need them. If you want a closer look at that bird or those lizards, just walk a bit closer. That sea lion not close enough? Well, give it a minute and it will probably flop its way over to see you. Just be careful where you step or you might squash one of those adorable little sea lion pups with its eyes of liquid chocolate or trip over a booby having a nap. This really is the place to go if you want a close encounter of an animal kind.

So, there you have it. Lumps of rock, yes, but oh so much more. I suspect that I have not been able to convey the true majesty of these islands, but I hope that I have given you a taste of their magic, their beauty and their allure. While I hope that some of you may now be tempted to wander their way there, please don’t all go there at once – that would kind of spoil it.