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 8: Swallow-tailed Gull

This is the Swallow-tailed Gull, Creagrus furcatus. It’s endemic to the Galapagos, and as you can see, with that big red eye-ring it’s one of the world’s more striking seagull species.

I use the word ‘seagull’ deliberately because, for some reason, it really winds up a lot of birdwatchers; they insist that the only acceptable term is simply ‘gull’.

This is of course ridiculous. ‘Seagull’ is a perfectly reasonable, normal English word; it’s mildly colloquial, but it’s not actually incorrect, unlike, say, ‘buzzard’ for vulture or ‘hedge sparrow’ for dunnock.  And while gulls aren’t the most pelagic of species — they’re not like albatrosses that only return to land to breed — most species, like this one, are more or less associated with the sea.

But then it’s not really about accuracy: it’s just the linguistic equivalent of pissing in the corners to mark your territory. Insisting that seagull is ‘wrong’ is just a cheap way of asserting your own status as a higher class of birdwatcher than the little old lady who throws bread to the seagulls from Brighton pier. Because if you’re a birder you use the right kind of colloquial words for birds: blackwit, hoodie, sproghawk, bonxie, butterbutt, mipit, sprosser…

Anyway, returning from that detour to our friend the Swallow-tailed Gull (you can see the slightly forked tail in the picture above). The most remarkable thing about the STG? It’s the world’s only nocturnal gull species, which is why it has such big eyes, and it feeds on fish and squid that come to the surface at night.

» swallowtailgull 11 is © zrim/Phil; 090717-F10-8769Swallow-tailed Gull is © Mike Cornwell. They are both used under the CC by-nc-nd licence.

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The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner

This book was recommended to me when I was in the Galapagos; I finally got round to reading it and I’m really glad I did. It’s an account of Peter and Rosemary Grant’s long-term study to measure the effects of natural selection on finches in the Galapagos. When this book was published in 1994, the study had been going for twenty years, but it’s still ongoing.

The choice of Galapagos finches isn’t just because of their iconic status in history of evolution; they’re an isolated population, they’re particularly variable, and a few very similar competing species live together in a very simple environment — only a few species of food plant, and almost no other small birds.

Over that period, they and their students have collected a staggering amount of data; detailed measurements of every finch on the island of Daphne Major, and records of who breeds with who, where their territories are, what songs they sing, what they eat, which territories are most productive, how the food supply varies from year to year and so on. That data has enabled them to show not just that tiny variations (in this case, particularly beak size) can have a measurable effect on the survival and breeding prospects of a bird, but that a change to the environment — a very wet year or a drought — can select for different physical characteristics to the extent of having a measurable impact on the average measurements of the population.

In effect, they have showed that you can observe evolution in action and that in the right circumstances it can happen extremely fast.

I really thought this was an excellent book. The detailed account of a single large research study sets it apart from all the other popular accounts of evolution I’ve read. There’s easily enough material to sustain a whole book and Weiner does an excellent job of communicating all the details with enough human interest to keep the book getting bogged down.

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.

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.

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