Beyond the Islands by Alicia Yánez Cossío

Beyond the Islands is set in the Galapagos. It’s a novel in the form of a set of eight stories, each about a different character. Each picks up from where the previous one left off, and there is continuity and overlap, but they are somewhat separate stories; eight narrative arcs rather than one overarching one.

The translation, by Amalia Gladhart, is new, but the novel was originally published in 1980. And so, not surprisingly, there is a bit of the old magical realism going on. That term probably now gets used too widely to be helpful — if it ever was — but this is a late C20th South American novel in which magical things occur, so it’s probably fair to use it here.

And although I get annoyed by some of the novels that seem to show magical-realist influence — novels that insert fabulous or improbable events as a rather lazy way of trying to seem more interesting — in this case it works pretty well. Perhaps because it is central to the whole structure and tone of the book: it’s not just being used as a decorative flourish.

Anyway, I don’t have anything very interesting to say (it’s too close to Christmas for thinkfulness), but I did enjoy it, on the whole. Beyond the Islands is my book from Ecuador for the Read The World challenge.

» The picture of the flightless cormorant is by me.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 10: Sword-billed Hummingbird

When I started this advent calendar I intended to just post picture of a bird each day and leave it at that, but I keep thinking of things I want to add. Today, though, I really am just going to post a picture:

That is a Sword-billed Hummingbird, Ensifera ensifera. Not, sadly, one of the hummingbirds I saw in Ecuador.

» Sword-billed Hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera) is © David Cook and is used under a CC by-nc licence.

bird of the year 2006: best performances in a supporting role

Best Plant

All those rainforest plants were nice, and I enjoyed taking wildflower photos while I was in Spain. But, not least because it’s nice to pick a winner that I can actually identify, I’m going for the Galapagos Prickly Pear, Opuntia echios. On islands where there are giant tortoises and land iguanas, they’ve evolved woody trunks and have fierce spines; on other islands they don’t have the trunks and they have soft bendy spines. And I enjoyed taking macro pictures of them, like this bit of trunk:

Best Insect

There were some great butterflies in the jungle – notably spectacular blue morphos – and a particularly striking leaf-mimicking moth, but my winner is the Painted Locust.

Best Invertebrate (other)

The shortlist would include the tarantula I saw in the rainforest – a first for me – the Chocolate Chip Sea Star and Galapagos Slipper Lobster (curious-looking and tasty), but the undoubted star in this category was the Sally Lightfoot Crab.

Best Fish

Piranha deserves a mention, even if I didn’t see one actually in the water, and it was very gratifying to see sharks swimming long with just their fins sticking out of the water, like what they do in the movies. But I had two special fish in the Galapagos this year. For the first, we were anchored off an island at night. Lots of fish had been attracted to the boat’s lights, and they in turn had attracted sea-lions and turtles, so we were watching them splashing around in the phosphorescence. Every so often there would be a splash where one of the sea-lions was swimming and a trail of phosphorescence would shoot off, zig-zagging over the water. It took me a few occasions to realise that they were flying fish. Which was cool.

The other came when I was trying to track down something splashing in the distance — I thought it was probably a dolphin, but I kept missing it or not seeing it well enough to identify. When I finally got binoculars on it, I was stunned to realise it was a manta ray leaping clear of the water. Later on in the trip we saw them a bit closer, and it was an absolute thrill. They don’t look like the most aerodynamic beasties, and it’s extraordinary seeing them launch themselves and twist in midair before crashing back into the water. Manta ray and flying fish are both species I’ve wanted to see for a very long time, but the manta wins the award for best fish of 2006.

Best Amphibian

A teeny-weeny poison arrow frog in the rainforest.

Best Reptile

It’s all Galapagos in this category: the shortlist is Green Turtle, Land Iguana, Marine Iguana and Giant Tortoise. It’s always nice to see turtles, and especially to swim with them, but I’ve seen them before. The three Galapagos specialities are all among the most desirable reptile species in the world. The tortoises are fun, and even bigger than you expect; the land iguana is a striking-looking beast. But it’s the marine iguanas which really stand out.

The fact that they’re lizards which swim out to sea to feed would almost be enough to win them the category, but they’re one of the continual pleasures of visiting the islands; you have to be careful not to step on them, they’re so indifferent to your presence. And you see them in great scaly drifts draped all over the lava, occasionally sneezing out the excess salt or aggressively nodding their heads at each other but mainly spending their time basking in the sun like hungover English tourists. They have a rugged, rock-hewn saurian quality that makes them seem like survivors from a distant epoch, which is misleading since in fact the islands, by evolutionary standards, are relatively young.

Best Mammal

I saw squirrels and monkeys in the jungle, and in another year those might be in contention for Best Mammal. And then there was the dozens and dozens of Bottle-nosed Dolphins and False Killer Whales that turned up unexpectedly one morning and which swam around the dinghy for us to see, or the dolphins that rode the bow-wave of the ship, jumping and twisting. But there can be no doubt that the Galapagos Sea Lion is the winner this year. It’s such a treat to be able to just wander past these animals and have them pay you no attention but just get on with playing, suckling their pups (cubs?) or most often just lying around.

The babies are fantastically cute, and the males are imposing, but the general impression is big furry bolsters — until you’re snorkelling along and suddenly a sea lion swims past underneath and looks up at you, and you realise that they’re sleek, graceful, muscular, and quite large. I found having a sea lion stick it’s nose up to my snorkel mask exciting but just a little bit intimidating. I think that’s a good thing; it’s good to be reminded from time to time that animals are not toys or pets or little furry people, but something quite alien. We tend to see animals in a human context, as food, pests, entertainment, ‘endangered species’; it’s good to feel like the outsider in their environment.

Best Ecosystem

Andalusia in spring was gorgeous. The marsh itself, with nightingales and Cetti’s warblers singing in every bush, and the sun on the water; the dry scrubby stuff with Dartford Warblers and Red-legged Partridge, and possibly best of all, sandy pine woodlands, with the amazing contrast between the glare of the noon sun and the deep shade, and the noise of bees and crickets in the heat.

And the lava fields of the Galapagos are like nowhere else on earth. It’s not a gentle landscape — uneven, sunbaked rock with the occasional cactus or thornbush hanging on as best it can — but the ripples and flows of the lava are endlessly fascinating. It’s geology made ridiculously simple; you can just look at it and see how it formed. And it brings home the endless capacity of life to find a way to live in unpromising places; the cacti colonising the bare rock before soil has a chance to form, the mangroves on the beach, and sea lions, seabirds, iguanas, sea stars, crabs and fish on the little fringe where the land meets the sea. And it’s not just interesting; it has a real beauty to it. It’s dramatic and odd and textured.

But my ecosystem of the year was none of those; it was the Ecuadorian cloudforest. I mean, it’s a rainforest with spectacular mountain views: how can you go wrong? The birds are actually sometimes at eye-level, unlike the lowland forest, and the temperatures are very moderate, even chilly sometimes. The humidity is such that plants just grow everywhere; you get the feeling that if you nodded off up on the mountain, you’d wake up covered in moss. There are trees up there which are so covered in epiphytes, bromeliads, moss, ferns and creepers that you can only roughly tell where the trunk and branches are. And every so often the cloud closes in, and instead of spectacular vistas, the world shrinks right down so it’s just you and the mist and a lot of weird calls from invisible birds.

I don’t have a photo which does justice to the vegetation (my camera batteries died), but here are some mountains:

(my) bird of the year, 2006

While I’m rounding up 2006.

2006 was a pretty good birding year for me, mainly because of my trip to Andalusia at Easter and Galapagos/Ecuador in the autumn. But I did get one lifer in Britain this year, which for a rather occasional, fair weather birder like me was very exciting. That was Horned Grebe (what used to be called Slavonian Grebe), which I saw in the sea off Hampshire when I was visiting my sister last month. But a winter-plumage grebe some way out to sea isn’t going to be my bird of the year, nice though it was (and the grebes are a great family of birds).

The new birds I saw in Spain were particularly exciting because I’ve been using European bird guides for 20 years now, and the birds in the guide which are not found in the UK have a particular glamour for me. However gorgeous the bird, if you’ve never heard of it before you see it, it’s not as exciting as something you’ve wanted to see for decades.

The three best birds on that trip were probably Collared Pratincole, Azure-winged Magpie, and Royal Tern. For once, I can illustrate a bird with a picture of my own. This is a Collared Pratincole:

It’s one of those appealing animals that has rather obviously evolved away from the standard model of its ancestors into a different niche. As I said about this photo on Flickr, “Runs like a plover, flies like a tern.” Pratincoles are waders, like plovers and sandpipers, but at some point in their evolutionary history they took to catching insects on the wing. Perched they look like rather stretched plovers; in flight their long, pointed wings and agile flight make them look like terns or swallows.

Azure-winged Magpie is just a beautiful bird. Like most crows, they have a bit of personality, but it’s those incredible blue wings and tail that make them special. And Royal Tern is a rarity; a basically new world species that also breeds on the Atlantic coast of Africa (Mauritania, I think, but don’t quote me on it) and occasionally turns up on the south coast of Spain, where I saw it. So that was cool.

The Galapagos was full of good stuff, of course. The total list wasn’t that huge (53), but there were some classy birds on it.

Some species worthy of note:

Everyone’s favourite Galapagos bird, the Blue-footed Booby. It has blue feet! And a silly name! Flightless Cormorant – for me, the name says it all. Woodpecker Finch – the least finch-like of the ‘Darwin finches’, and so the most striking example of adaptive radiation. Swallow-tailed Gull- the world’s only nocturnal gull. And frigatebirds, which I’ve seen a few times before but are just one of my favourite families of birds.

It was also just a pleasure to be at sea for a week and be able to watch real marine species, the kind that only come to land to breed: shearwaters, petrels and storm petrels. I’ve seen other shearwater species a few times before, and they’re great things. They ride the air currents just above the waves, whipping along stiff-winged with one wing-tip practically touching the water surface and occasionally swivelling from one side to the other. But to see storm petrels was one of various lifetime ambitions fulfilled on that trip (I have a lot of wildlife-related lifetime ambitions, so I’m not going to run out anytime soon), and they weren’t a disappointment. Whereas shearwaters seem perfectly suited to the rigours of the open ocean — all wing, seeming to travel effortlessly with just the tiniest movements — storm petrels are delicate little fluttery birds. The Japanese call them umi-tsubame: sea swallows. Their cutest habit is ‘walking’ on the water – flying just above the sea with their feet pattering on the surface whille they look for food. I could happily watch them for hours.

And so to Ecuador. Birding in the tropics is just extraordinary: the sheer number of species makes it quite unlike birding up here in the north. And so many of them are colourful (parrots, toucans, hummingbirds, trogons, quetzals, tanagers) or just excitingly different (woodcreepers, spinetails, antbirds, antpittas, tapaculos). The birds that stand out in memory include Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, Yellow-rumped Cacique, Long-billed Woodcreeper, Grass-green Tanager, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, and perhaps the cutest bird in the whole world, the Booted Racket-tail.

But for my bird of year, we’re going back to the Galapagos and the Waved Albatross:

To see albatross was another lifetime ambition. They are the epitome of wildness; breeding on remote rocky islands in the southern oceans and spending most of their time out at sea. And they’re big; Waved isn’t the biggest species, but it still has a 7′ 7″ wingspan. When one of those flies low overhead, as they did when we were on the island where they breed, it’s a special moment. It was great to see them on land and get a really good view of them, and particularly to see them ‘dancing’: the pair mirrors each other movements and go through a whole repertoire of posing, beak-rattling, throwing their heads back, leaning one way and the other. But for me it was especially satisfying that I saw my first one at sea. We were out on deck looking for whales and the albatross went past quite unexpectedly — it was the opposite end of the archipelago from where they breed — and as soon as I was sure I screamed ‘Albatross! Albatross!’; largely, it has to be said, to the bemusement of all the non-birders around me. That moment, when you suddenly see a bird you really want, is such a rush. I’m sure it taps into millions of years of our ancestors’ hunting instincts. But I’m not picking Waved Albatross as my bird of the year just because it gave me an adrenaline hit. It was a special bird.

Stupid instruments

Because I didn’t go all the way to Ecuador to find reasons to be rude about the US, let’s be rude about something Ecuadorian: pan pipes.

The fact that people can produce tunes with them at all is a minor triumph for human ingenuity, but let’s be honest, they’re a rubbish instrument. They make the penny whistle look nuanced and sophisticated. I feel rather the same way about steel bands: I don’t care how typically local and evocative they are, I don’t want to have to listen to them on holiday.

The steel band thing may be influenced by the fact that every Christmas on Oxford Street there are some annoying bastards playing fucking Christmas carols on the steel drums, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a tune played by a steel band that wouldn’t have sounded better on something else. Ditto pan pipes.

Birding in the clouds

Well, I may be back in gloomy England, but I think I’ll return to my thoughts about the cloudforest. Sadly, the cloudforest isn’t a forest made of clouds. That would be like a Disney computer game come to life! You could jump from cloud to cloud collecting candy. Or something.

The lodge was at 2000m, and just enough cooler that all that thick humid air coming up from the lowlands tends to form clouds there. So, much of the time, particularly in the afternoons, you’re walking through thick white mist, which is atmospheric but has slightly mixed implications for birdwatching. Obviously bad visibility is a Bad Thing for a birder; birds which would normally be in easy identification range can be reduced to grey blobs, and even when you can see slightly more than that all the colour and contrast tends to be lost. So it can be very frustrating. But there is an upside, which is that many birds seem to be much more approachable in mist. Perhaps because they simply can’t see you, though it always feels more subtle than that. So you sometimes get remarkable close encounters with birds that would normally be difficult to see — I had great views of Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, for example.

And it is, as I say, atmospheric. Your vision being greatly reduced, you find yourself being more sensitised to sounds. Sound is always important to birding, and especially so when you’re in thick vegetation, but in the mist it almost becomes the primary sense. All the twitterings, rustling foliage and wingbeats seem amplified. In a weird way it makes the world seem more three-dimensional.


Well, here I am, back in Quito from the couldforest.I managed not to get robbed this time. I have all sorts of no-doubt fascinating thoughts about cloudforests but I think I might be too tired to share them. Plus for some reason the text I’m now typing is appearing very very tiny and I’m not sure I can be bothered to work out how to fix it. And it hurts my eyes trying to read it. On the other hand I don’t have anything else to do tonight, so I might be back later.


Having said that I recommend the Galapagos, I have to say that equatorial lowland rainforest may not be for everyone. With the temperature in the 30s and 80% humidity, it’s hard work just walking around. Particularly, once you do get hot, it takes for ever to cool down again because your basic thermal regulation system – sweat – just doesn’t help. The rainforest is also quite superficially boring to walk through: endless dark green foliage everywhere, rather gloomy light, and very little sign of animal life except for birdcalls and the noise of cicadas. There’s a lot of mud underfoot. When it rains, it really rains. And I am smothered in mosquito bites.

But once you get used to it, there are things to see: the most obvious being the butterflies of all colours and sizes, topped out by the morphos – huge flashing sky-blue things that flop lazily through the air. I saw a tarantula, and helicopter damselflies, and mating stick-insects. There are loads of ant, termite and wasp nests in the trees, leafcutter and army ants at your feet. If you’re sharp-eyed (or have a sharp-eyed guide), there are frogs, toads and lizards around the place. I was really pleased to see a little tiny poison arrow frog. And there was one lizard which was so well camouflaged that, even knowing where it was and being able to see its head, legs and tail, my brain still insisted it was a dead leaf. I think I saw only two mammal species, a squirrel and a monkey, but they were cool. For that matter, the foliage itself is interesting: each tree is only like a starting point in establishing the plantlife, with bromeliads, epiphytes and lianas all over the place among other green creeping things I didn’t recognise.

And of course there are lots of birds. Which isn’t to say that it’s easy birding. Most of them are neck-breakingly high in the trees and the dense foliage doesn’t make it any easier. The ones that don’t live in the canopy are generally very secretive and usually have to be located by their calls. Fortunately there was an exceptionally good local bird guide called Jose whose English was limited but included phrases like ‘Rufescent Tiger Heron’, ‘Chestnut-winged Foliage-gleaner’ and ‘in the palm leaves’. With the help of a lot of taped bird calls and a laser pointer, he managed to show those of us in the birding group about 60 species a day.

There was also a canopy tower – a 40 metre high tower to scan the canopy from. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned my fear of heights before, but you’ll appreciate that I found the tower a bit challenging. The first time I tried I only got about halfway up before having to go back down. I did manage to get all the way up the next time, by staring at the back of the person in front and trying not to think, and while I can’t say I was ever completely relaxed up there, it really is a great way of birding the rainforest; in three hours we saw four species of toucan, loads of tanagers, a trogon, parrots, several raptors etc, all at eye-level for once. And a load of sweat-drinking bees, which are irritating but harmless.

Next stop the cloudforest, which will have just as much wildlife but will hopefully be a bit more comfortable for those of us who could afford to lose a few pounds.

High drama on the Rio Napo

We just got back from the jungle lodge to Quito. I saw lots of birds and dripped rivers of sweat. And met a towering blond man called Thor. I don’t think he was the Thor though. No enormous hammers or eight-legged horses. And would a thunder god go in the shape of a Dutch birdwatcher? Perhaps He moves in mysterious ways.

A slight downer was put on the end of our visit when gun-toting balaclava-wearing Colombians robbed the lodge during dinner on our last day. Fortunately they didn’t rob us individually, which would have been really a bit scary. We just lay on the floor of the restaurant while they raided the valuables box in the office, and stayed until we were sure they were gone. And they were mainly after cash, so I’ve still got my passport and credit card; I only lost about sixty bucks.

I actually vaguely thought it was some kind of bizarrely unfunny joke by the staff at first, and by the time I realised it was real it was pretty obvious that they weren’t after hostages or anything, so I wasn’t even scared. I suspect this represents a failure of imagination on my part. I do feel sorry for the staff who had to try and be competent and organised while we were lying under the table quipping. Especially those who were chased by the gunmen and had to hide out in the forest until 1am awhen they were sure it was safe.

Anyway, not the ideal way to end our stay, but it hasn’t actually affected my travel plans at all since I was coming back to Quito today anyway. I’m still planning to visit the cloudforest. And I don’t seem to be traumatised or anything, so that’s good. On my personal scale of unpleasant South American travel experiences I reckon it rates lower than the food poisoning I had in Venezuela.

Quito, the Galapagos and stuff

Well, I’m in Quito. Annoyingly, I can’t log into my webmail for some reason – some horrible bug in IE7 perhaps.

I spent the morning looking at pre-Hispanic stuff at the museum, which I enjoyed, and then took a token look at the glories of colonial Quito before deciding I needed to sit down for a bit.

I was thinking about how it’s slightly odd that the Galapaos have become a premier eco-tourism destination when it is in fact quite biologically impoverished. There are a total of 60 bird species you can see in the Galapagos, including some unremarkable passing American migrants like tattlers. Admittedly, 28 of those are unique to the islands, but by comparison, the record for a 24 hour birding session in mainland Ecuador is something like 470 species. Obviously the Galapagos has an iconic place in natural history because of the Darwin connection, and because it is literally the textbook example of natural selection, but actually there’s very little there – particularly by tropical standards.

Similarly, everyone gets taught about the Dawin finches and their different shaped beaks being adapted for different foods as though it was somehowa unique case. But of course it’s exactly what happened to finches all over the world. There must be about twenty species of finch in Europe, from the goldfinch with a little delicate beak for eating thistle seeds to the hawfinch with a huge beak that can crack cherry seeds. Not to mention the crossbill, with a beak that crosses over to allow it to get the seeds from pine cones. Again, the Galapagos makes a good teaching example not because it’s a particularly spectacular or unusual example, but because it’s such a simple and narrow one. The thirteen species of Galapagos finch are quite cool, especially the ones like the Woodpecker Finch which are least like classic finches in behaviour. But how much cooler and more remarkable are the 131 species of hummingbird in Ecuador. I mean really, how can there be 131 niches for nectar-eating birds in one country?

Though the Galapagos marine iguanas are pretty unique. And the daisies that have evolved into large trees.

In the Galapagos

I´ve got a couple of hours in Puerto Ayora (on Santa Cruz, in the Galapagos), so I thought I´d post a quick note.

I can recommend the Galapagos. For a start, the landscape is more varied and more beautiful than I expected; somehow in my head it was all rocks, but from island to island the colour of the rocks and soil changes, the vegetation varies – I mean it´s mainly pretty arid, and so it´s lots of cactus and thornbushes, but one island will be an expanse of rippled black lava with a few small cacti, and another will be densely covered with bushes. This afternoon we´re going to the highlands for the first time, where it´s actually quite green.

We´ve seen most of the Galapagos specialties now – the two iguanas, the flightless cormorants, the finches (5 of the 13 species so far). Wild giant tortoises this afternoon. I´ve snorkelled with sea-lions and penguins and turtles, I was particularly thrilled wih the penguins.

Actually though, apart from the special Galapagos stuff, it´s been nice just being at sea. I hadn´t really thought about it before I came, but it´s great just being able to watch shearwaters and storm-petrels from the boat. And we´ve had dolphins riding the bow-wave of the boat. But almost my most exciting marine sighting was watching manta rays jump clear of the water and tumble back with a big splash.

The famous tameness of the animals is quite interesting; I expected it of the endemic species that have evolved in an environment without predators, but species like Great Blue Heron, which are wary of people in the rest of the Americas, have been letting us get within about 10 feet. We watched one grab a newly hatched turtle from below the sand.

So it´s all good.

And on to Galapagos

Posted in advance:

Don’t worry, there aren’t going to be a whole string of these posts telling you what I might be hypothetically doing. But having spent the night in Quito, I’m now on my way to the Galapagos. Or perhaps when this post appears I’ll already be there: I don’t have the itinerary to hand. And of course if something has really gone pear-shaped, I could still be stuck in Madrid airport.

Assuming that’s not the case, I’ll be on a boat for the next week. Hopefully seeing fabulous things like marine iguanas, surfing sea-lions, albatrosses and the world’s only equatorial penguins. And hopefully not puking over the side of the boat.

I think that’s probably enough advance postings. When I get back to Quito I’ll find an internet café and let you know how I’m getting on.

Over the Ocean

If all goes according to plan, both with WordPress and my travel plans, this post should appear while I’m somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean on my way to Ecuador. We’re flying London – Madrid – Quito, so it’s a long day, but well worth it, obviously.

I’ve decided not to take my telescope this time, so you won’t be made to see my out-of-focus digiscoped photos of Ecuadorian birds. I found it a surprisingly painful decision, because I know how telescopes can come into their own, and I really enjoyed playing with digiscoping when I was in Spain. But the telescope and particularly the tripod are heavy and bulky, so I think it was a good decision. I should get a lighter tripod, actually.

I have of course packed binoculars. I actually have occasional anxiety dreams about being on my way to the airport and realising I haven’t packed my binoculars, even if I’m just going to Provence or somewhere, so the idea of not having them in Ecuador doesn’t bear thinking about.

Cutting up books

I’m going to the Galapagos and Ecuador on Friday. Or at least, on Friday I’ll only get as far as Quito, but the next day we go on to the Galapagos, and after that, back to mainland Ecuador for a bit. My copy of the ‘field guide’ to the birds of Ecuador was so heavy that I’ve resorted to drastic measures. Especially drastic since those who’ve ever borrowed a book from me could tell you that I’m completely anal about their condition — I like to read them in such a way that afterwards they still look new.

But I cut out the colour plates:

And did an amateurish but hopefully good enough version of re-binding with PVA glue, cardboard and sticky-backed plastic:

I’ll take both ‘books’ with me, but leave the bigger one in the hotel. I should probably point out that the fact the book is really heavy is no fault of the authors, who seem to have done a brilliant job. There are just too many species; ‘nearly 1600’ in Ecuador, apparently, which puts it in competition with Bolivia and Brazil for country with the most bird species in the world.

And cutting out the plates isn’t an original idea to me, either; it’s standard practice for birders travelling to South America. The region is such a wonderland of biodiversity that even birders aren’t OCD enough about it to risk spinal damage.

England vs Ecuador

Sorry, I know it’s been all football all the time here recently. I promise I’ll resume the normal diet of half-baked arts commentary soon.

I seem to be the only person who was vaguely cheered by the Ecuador game and was left with an impression that England are getting better, even if only in teeny increments. Obviously we’ll still need to be much better against Portugal, though.

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