The Unadorned Sanderling

One of the most delightful excursions occurred on Santa Cruz Island when we visited Tortuga Bay. It takes a bit of effort to get there, but it’s definitely worth it. When I brought my laptop home with all my 4000 unedited photos, my family beelined for the Tortuga Bay images because it is essentially paradise.  White sand beaches, empty white sand beaches, mangroves, birds and other wildlife.

Sheer perfection.   No photoshopping here. No airbrushing, trimming the waist, enhancing the beak, etc.  What you see is exactly what I saw.

Sanderling takes a vacation

Sanderling takes a vacation. Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz, Galapagos, Ecuador. Taken January 13, 2014.


When normal people arrive back from 3 weeks of travel, they typically take off for a conference the next day, right? I’m not sure at which point in my travels I gestured to myself and proclaimed “Loco!” but it was sometime after nearly admitting myself into emergency medical services, standing atop a 10-m rock, and climbing 45m into a rainforest canopy.  But Loco certainly fits.  I arrived back in the states on Wednesday evening, made it back to my apartment by 2am Thursday. (The airline managed to misplace the baggage from three arriving South American flights.)  Thursday I spent recovering, and Friday I jetted off to the ANJEE (Alliance for New Jersey Environmental Education) conference.

In between I’ve been following everyone’s photo uploads to facebook and processing my own photos.  I’m still on day 1.  I’ve downloaded a trial of Lightroom to play around with based on a recommendation. (Anyone else use Lightroom or have alternative recommendations for photo processing for novices?)

As I’ve recuperated, I’ve been processing what it’s like being home and this is the current list of things I am grateful for (the list is pretty spotty):

  1. Being able to drink water from the bathroom.
  2. Being able to choose what foods I eat.
  3. Downtime.

I captured 4000 photos and videos of my travels with the greater emphasis on birds (obviously).  I’ve spent considerable time processing how I want to share these and haven’t reached any decision yet.  But for now here’s a taste from my first day:

Frigatebird soars over Playa Mann.

Frigatebirds soar over Playa Mann, San Cristobal, Galapagos, Ecuador. Taken January 4th, 2014.

Also, I saw *lots* of birds, but I don’t have the official count yet.

Natural and Unnatural History IX

I’m traveling in the Galapagos currently.  Hopefully I’m having fun and seeing great birds and other species!  In the meantime here’s a little of what I will hopefully be seeing!

The Galapagos’s Natural and Unnatural History: Tiputini Research Station (Amazon)*
*Not a part of the Galapagos, but a special feature

Collectively, we were so overwhelmed and excited by the prospects within the Galapagos we didn’t realize we’d also be traveling to the Amazon.

Like the CDRS, the Tiputini Research Station has a similar goal of promoting conservation through science, education, and ecotourism.  Located in the heart of pristine Amazonion forest in Ecuador, the region is one of the  world’s most biologically hot spots for insects, birds, plants, you name it.   From their website,

We welcome all interested, serious visitors to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station. While we are not involved in typical tourism, we are pleased to have opportunities to receive two primary groups of visitors – scientists and students. Recognizing that today fewer people than ever before have access to wilderness areas and therefore, less overall appreciation of nature, we wish to expose as many individuals as possible to the wonders of Yasuní so that more may understand why it should be protected and maintained.
Tiputini, Universidad San Fransisco de Quito

The Huaorani are the indigenous people whose land the station resides on.  One of the travel reads I’ll be bringing with me is Savages, a work detailing the lives and history of this people.

I’ve done extensive preparation for what we might encounter in each region we’re traveling to and Tiputini is no different.  I’ve generated lists, from ebird data for what can be seen in each location during the month of January and I didn’t leave Tiputini off the list. To tell the truth, my heart did quiver a bit when I saw how long the list was compared to those for the Galapagos.  254 species some species with which I am already familiar: Black-and-white Warbler, Great Kiskadee, Black Vulture, etc., others whose families are at least familar: Motmots, Macaws, Oropendolas, Woodpecker, Hawk, Wren and Woodcreeper; then those who are entirely new: Antpittas, Antwrens, and Antbirds (yes, there are more Ant variations),  Tapaculo, Foliage-gleaners, Becards, and Manakins. Oh my!  And yes, they have owls.

Video: Visiting Tiputini Biological Research Station


  • BU: Tiputini Research Station
  • Tiputini, Universidad San Fransisco de Quito
  • Natural and Unnatural History VIII

    I’m traveling in the Galapagos currently.  Hopefully I’m having fun and seeing great birds and other species!  In the meantime here’s a little of what I will hopefully be seeing!

    The Galapagos’s Natural and Unnatural History: Charles Darwin Research Station

    One of the places we’ll be visiting is the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS). Founded in 1964, the CDRS is tasked with conserving the Galapagos.  Over 100 scientists from Ecuador and around the world collaborate in the race to preserve the archipelago.  One of the projects they are best known for is their conservation and breeding programs for the tortoises.

    Also, the CDRS works with the Galapagos National Park Service in the conservation mission.  Over 97% of the land is preserved.   With such protection is there still a threat to the islands?

    In 2007, the UNESCO added the Galapagos National Park to its List of World Heritage Sites in Danger, reflecting the dangers posed by a fast pace of human development in all its areas: immigration, tourism and trade, all increasing the likelihood of introduction of invasive species to the islands. This represents the gravest danger to the fragile ecosystems which have evolved over millions of years in natural isolation.
    – Wikipedia

    The Galapagos is truly a microcosm for the world.  If evolution is more stark here, so are the troubles that face every region: the balance between human needs and environmental needs.  In a country where the average income is $5,000 (the base cost of the trip), the Galapagos for many represent hope for a better life.   So immigration there increases as people hope to make a better living profiting from the tourists.  They need more land, more resources, have more of an impact on the ecosystems.   Many tour operators and shops operate under ecotourism principals, but not all of them, and it is the savvy traveler who can distinguish between them.  Not to mention that even the most conscious of operators or travelers may be the unwitting conduct transporting a surprise guest onto a new island.

    Do I feel guilty for traveling there and contributing to the burden?  Of course I do.  It’s a complex situation with few clear answers.

    Video: Visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos (National Geographic)


    Natural and Unnatural History VII

    I’m traveling in the Galapagos currently.  Hopefully I’m having fun and seeing great birds and other species!  In the meantime here’s a little of what I will hopefully be seeing!

    The Galapagos’s Natural and Unnatural History: Darwin’s Finches Today

    I probably have been aware of the Galapagos as a place of ecological and evolutionary importance since I took up ecology in college.   I took a wonderful evolutionary class, but it wasn’t until one summer years ago I stumbled across a copy of “The Beak of the Finch” that the enchantment fell upon me. I read it at the shore, I think.  I don’t think I saw much of the beach that vacation.

    The “The Beak of the Finch” juxtaposes current research on Darwin’s finches, with Darwin’s development of his theory, with related work on microevolution (essentially evolution that occurs in measurable time; which are generally very small changes).   In the previous post on evolution, the example of strong selection for chess players over athletes for a generation is an example of microevolution.

    Many people – even biologists, even today – find the power of slight variations hard to believe.  “Once just as I was beginning a lecture, a biologist in the audience interrupted me: ‘ How much difference do you claim to see,’ he asked me, ‘between the beak of a finch that survives and the beak of a finch that dies?’
    ‘One half millimeter,’ I told him.
    ‘I don’t believe it!’ the man said. ‘I don’t believe a half millimeter really matters so much.’
    ‘Well that’s the fact,’ I said. ‘Watch my data and then ask questions.’ And he asked no questions.”
    – Peter Grant, The Beak of the Finch

    But I digress, you’re probably more interested in the finches than data and theory.  In the late 1970s, Rosemary and Peter Grant, of Princeton University, embarked on a study of the finches of Daphne Major, a small island in the archipelago.  What was meant to be a couple year study has blossomed into a lifetime’s worth of work from the wealth of information they’ve gleaned that has transformed our understanding of evolution.  The Grants were the first to witness evolution in action.  From the time of Darwin we could find evidence that evolution had occurred but no one could say “Here, now is evolution. I saw it!” It was a big thorn in the on-process of convincing skeptics, in fact it even gave Darwin doubt.

    Scientists have looked for it.  By no means were Peter and Rosemary the first. In fact, scientists even returned to the Galapagos, the holy grail, to find evidence there.  It was during David Lack’s time there that he coined “Darwin’s Finches”.

    The Grants arrived in 1973, just after El Nino had finished so food was bountiful.  They observed, measured, counted. For season after season.

    “No one had ever subjected Darwin’s finches  to so many different measurements and indignities, and no one had ever measured so many finches. Over the years, in fact, the Grant team’s measurement of live Darwin’s finches have far surpassed the number of specimens in the world’s museums.”
    –  Beak of the Finch

    Eventually, they got to where the veterans could identify each individual finch by sight (they band them).  Then, in 1977, as mentioned in the climate discussion, La Nina occurred and no rains fell.  That’s when the evolution became truly apparent.  That particular event is considered the strongest directional selection known in science.  Despite the heartbreak, the scientists persevered, collecting and recording.  When they were back in Princeton, between visits, they analyzed.  Then they headed out to the field again.

    By geologic time, the Galapagos are new islands.  Colonization is an ongoing battle.    It’s location with its dramatically shifting climate frequently rewrites the rules for survival.  It’s ripe for watching evolution in action.  Which the Grants have done since the 1970s  and I suspect, they’re just arriving now, for the 40th season.

    The work of the Grants has launched an entire sub-discipline in the study of evolution.  Scientists now scour the world in search of further evidence of microevolution.  They’re finding it in the Guppies of Trinidad, in the Sparrows off the coast of British Columbia, to the cotton pests of the American South, and in our war against bacteria and viruses.

    “What a trifling difference must often determine which shall survive and which perish!”
    – Darwin


    • “Beak of the Finch”. Jonathan Weiner. 1995.

    Natural and Unnatural History VI

    I’m traveling in the Galapagos currently.  Hopefully I’m having fun and seeing great birds and other species!  In the meantime here’s a little of what I will hopefully be seeing!

    The Galapagos’s Natural and Unnatural History: Adaptive Radiation

    When we left off, selection was beginning to act on our small band of finches.  At first there was one: one group, on one island.  They succeeded.  Their meager group grew and they established a sustainable population.  The population continued evolving with those individuals who were better at getting food and mates in this new land disproportionately contributing to the gene pool.  Given enough time, this group will diverge enough so that should it encounter the original population, they would not recognize each other as the same species.

    Time continues, as it does.  Eventually, some individuals brave the oceans, either intentionally or not, and reach a new island.  While this island is not 600 miles away and may only be 1/10th of that distance, it is an effective barrier.  Once again, the founder’s effect repeats itself.  These birds change in new ways from their original population.  And so the story goes.

    In some cases, a very divergent group of finches might venture to an already colonized island.  Then, three things might happen.  They are in direct competition and one group perishes (most likely the arrivals due to number).  They are similar enough that they are the same species and they blend their gene pools. They are different enough they occupy different niches and are not in competition with each other.

    For Darwin’s finches, this occurred 13 times.  There are 13 different species of finches in the Galapagos, so diverse in the niches they evolved to fulfill that Darwin didn’t realize they were all finches.  There are other types of birds that have reached the Galapagos.  Some are endemic meaning, they are only found there; others are widespread.  Endemics include the Galapagos Finches and the Galapagos Penguins (can’t forget those!) while the others include some familiar faces to the readership such as the Barn Owl, Vermillion Flycatcher, Great Blue Heron, and Yellow Warbler.

    The Mockingbirds of the Galapagos share a similar pattern of adaptive radiation though not nearly as radiant.  The finches are special.  Their plasticity has allowed them to fulfill niches on the islands that are typically filled by other families of birds: Woodpecker and Warblers spring to mind as one views the phylogenetic tree below.

    Family (Phylogenic) Tree for Darwin's Finches

    Family (Phylogenetic) Tree for Darwin’s Finches. Courtesy University of West Alabama


    Family Photo Album for Darwin’s Finches. Courtesy of RIT

    No wonder Darwin was so perplexed and we continue to puzzle over the story 178 years later.

    Photo Sources:

    Last Morning

    I awake to rain falling. It’s still dark;the sun is not yet here. The night is otherwise silent, but soon the day will be here. I listen to the rain fall on the roof and fall on the tile.the sounds are different. I can’t hear the sounds of rain on leaves because there is so little foliage in Puerto Ayora. Gradually, the rains cease. It’s not Camelot where it rains only at night, nor is it the garua, the welcoming driving rains of the wet season. When the garua comes, the rains fall so determinedly that the drops drive down deep into the ground to be pulled up again to the surface over months. As the rains stop, I hear a finch sing. Probably a small ground finch- they are everywhere, common like house sparrows. The singing doesn’t last for long. It’s not the garua, it’s not the mating season. Not yet, but soon. Hopefully.

    Natural and Unnatural History V

    I’m traveling in the Galapagos currently.  Hopefully I’m having fun and seeing great birds and other species!  In the meantime here’s a little of what I will hopefully be seeing!

    The Galapagos’s Natural and Unnatural History: Founder’s Effect

    In the last missive, I laid forth a hopefully straightforward explanation of  evolution (by natural selection).  Today I’ll explore it’s relevance to the Galapagos.  We have a couple species we could explore: the Mockingbirds, the finches, or the tortoises, or a number of plant species.  But since we’re here presumably due to a shared passion for birds let’s stick with that class.  Did you know, it was actually the mockingbird that inspired Darwin, not the finches named for him?

    Now, the initial post, geology, explored the location of the archipelago, 600 miles from the mainland.  That is noteworthy.  In the third post, human impact, I mentioned that there were discovers before humans and I didn’t mean Doctor Who.   When the volcanic islands first emerged from the sea they were very hot barren rock.  They cooled, but they were still barren rock.   We now know that the invisible air is filled with invisible particles including biotic ones. Dust travels from Africa to become the condensation nuclei in clouds above America; we measured radiation from Japan’s Fukishima reactor in Massachusetts; when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano of Iceland erupted, the aerosol debris grounded flights, stranding people throughout Europe for weeks.   I forget now where I read it, but there was fascinating work done looking at bare rock islands in Iceland after an eruption. The focus was measuring how quickly biotic life reached the resurfaced island through the air.  It was months.  That island was much closer to a biotic source, but it presents a viable mechanism for colonizing the Galapagos.  And thus (we presume) it happened.  Bacteria and algae made their way to the islands where together they formed a symbiotic union and began breaking down the rock to make soil.  They weren’t doing it for any higher purpose; they were only struggling to survive.  After all think of all their fellow travelers who missed landing on any island at all and perished.  After considerable time, soil formed.

    The earliest plants were most likely to reach the island via the airways.  The vast majority of plants on the Galapagos have wind-borne seeds.  A ha.

    Soon (geologically speaking) the animals will arrive.  The birds and the bats (of which there are two species) will also arrive by air, but the rest must make their way by some other fashion.  The fur seals and the sea lions swam, but the reptiles and the insects were likely swept off the mainland on rafts of plant material aimlessly drifting through the ocean.  Mammals, due to their need to eat often, are unlikely to survive the weeks it would take to drift on currents to the islands (but the rice rats did it).  Reptiles, being ectothermic (cold-blooded) and requiring less energy consumption can go extended periods without food; insects can either eat the plant material they’re riding on, or could be transported as eggs or in some stage of torpor, eggs being more likely of the last two.

    It doesn’t take many.  The minimum requirement is a male and a female. These are the founders (think Gilligan’s Island or splinter groups).  Imagine a small flock of finches blown off the South American mainland and out to sea.  As a group, they resolutely fly forward seeing any shelter in a storm.  By great fortune, one might note breaking waves indicating land.  They land.   Though they do not realize it yet, they are home.  There is no going back.  They are the first.   For the earliest arrivals, storm-drenched and dazed, they are fortunate that there are no predators and no competitors to contend with.  A new struggle begins: this time it’s not a battle with the winds, but a battle with the new land.  If they cannot cope, they cannot survive.  Can they find food, can they alter their behaviors to fit this new land?

    If they can find food and begin creating a life for themselves, in essence: if they survive, they can begin reproducing.  Recall the importance of mate choice on evolution as outlined in the fourth article. Whoever it is that landed on the island (and survived) will represent all future genes.  Their genes are the genes that will rebuild the genetic pool.  Because there are so few, the selection of genes is likely to be very skewed.  This is the founder’s effect.   If only small, light-weight birds were blown away from South America, then the gene pool will predominantly feature genes for smaller birds than on the mainland.  Further compounding the Founder’s Effect is that not all arrivals may reproduce.  With the diversity of genes present, some individuals may have traits that make them a very poor candidate for survival on the islands, and they perish.  Gene pool is further diminished.  That is selection.  Of all the small lightweight birds that arrived, imagine some were picky eaters and others were less fussy (generalists).  The fussier eaters, would be less likely to find food, and thus the future generation would be smaller birds than were more generalist in feeding habits than the population on the mainland.

    For now they are the same species.  If reunited, they were merge and mix; the differences separating the two groups would be lost within a generation.  In this scenario, due to the distance, it is improbable.  So each group continues on separate trajectories.  The finches on the mainland continue in their lush tropic climate while the new finches in the arid Galapagos begin drifting, and morphing into something new as a result of their new environment.  Selection is at work.

    Natural and Unnatural History IV

    I’m traveling in the Galapagos currently.  Hopefully I’m having fun and seeing great birds and other species!  In the meantime here’s a little of what I will hopefully be seeing!

    The Galapagos’s Natural and Unnatural History: Evolution By Natural Selection

    No series of vignettes showcasing the Galapagos would be complete without a thorough discussion of Evolution by Natural Selection.  Evolution by Natural Selection, from here forward will be referred to simply as evolution, is the process by which the representation of genes within a population changes over time.  I’m fairly certain that’s pretty close to word perfect the definition I used in graduate classes, but quite a headache to puzzle out for everyone else.

    There is an amazing parallel in the behaviors of individuals and genes explored by Richard Dawkin’s in The Selfish Gene.   Individuals compete for resources in order to reproduce.   Individuals who reproduce, or reproduce more, are represented by future generations.  Imagine the typical high school romance movie plot where the main character attempts to woo away the popular girl from the popular boy a la Can’t Hardly Wait or Mean Girls.  In the main character’s ideal world, he and she reproduce.  Thus, whatever their genes are, are represented in their children.  Now, continue and imagine the rejected suitor pines away forever and never reproduces.  No matter how wonder his/her genes are, they will be lost from future generations forever.

    Now, in most cases, for every athlete that is thrown over for a chess enthusiast, there is a chess captain who is rejected in favor of a team captain.  Everyone pairs up with someone, and the genes are equally represented from one generation to the next.  When you have strong selection events, say all athletes being removed from the gene pool, then the representation in genes for the subsequent generation will be different.  That is evolution (by natural selection).  Even if it only happens for one generation and athletes come back into vogue the following generation. (Cause let’s face it, there are some out there who may be both ardent chess and sport participants keeping the genes alive).  But, if it happens for generations following generations and you have a sustained, directional push favoring chess players over athletes, the ratio of chess players to athletes will diminish and athletes could be lost entirely from the population.  Imagine that.

    As individuals select mates for reproduction, the genes get carried along.  Sometimes the selection is intentional.  Deer selecting for large bucks with lots of points let’s say or cardinals choosing for the brighter red feathers; sometimes the genes aren’t as obvious, but nevertheless they’re carried along into future generations.    It’s the whole package that made the individual desirable (even if there are some poor genes in there). However, through reproduction, the genes get all jumbled up and the offspring are not replicates of their parents.  Hopefully, they’re better.  Because through the union, the hope is the best genes will find representation in the offspring.  Thus, the children will be more “fit”, than the parents.

    This is remarkably relevant for a number of reasons.  First, many credit Darwin’s  visit to the Galapagos with setting him on the path that led him to his theory. Second, the Galapagos is a top notch destination for studying evolution in action.  Third, some really awesome aspects of evolution happened in the Galapagos, and is still happening!  So stay tuned.

    Additional Reading:

    • The Selfish Gene. Richard Dawkins. 1976.