One of the most spectacular islands in the archipelago, Genovesa is known as “the island of birds.” Disembark at El Barranco and walk on lava-covered terrain observing the many bird species and the fragrant Palo Santo trees. This is a breeding ground for the tree-loving red-footed booby and the ground-nesting masked booby as well as four species of finch.
It is dark and cloudy this morning, but the air is comfortably warm as we prepare to board the Zodiac.
Our activity for the day begins at a rocky cliff known as the Prince Philip’s Steps. There are swells and the boat operator must time our approach so the Zodiac bumps up against the dark concrete jetty at the top of the swell. In that brief time period, a passenger or two can disembark by stepping up onto the side of the Zodiac and then onto the jetty with the help of the guide. If the timing is off, the jetty is too high to step up to. When it is my turn I am amazed by how smoothly I make the transition – it feels like a dance, the swell lifting me as I lift my foot, I grasp the guide’s outstretched hand, and step up to the edge of the Zodiac. The swell has swept me upward and onto the jetty in what feels like one graceful motion. Of course, like all of the guides, the thin young woman who is our guide today is so strong she could simply lift me right out of the Zodiac one-handed, were she inclined to do so.
The steps are steep and seem to go straight up. I am not afraid of heights, but the thought occurs to me that coming back down is going to be tricky. Even with the aid of a handrail, the steps require a bit of scrambling.
At the top, the ground is flat and barren, with only a single pelican is on hand to greet us.
We enter a low “woods” made up of short leafless trees. There are birds everywhere, both on the ground and in the trees. Most of them are a mix of Nazca and red footed boobies, but there are also a good number of frigate birds too.
It seems as if everywhere I look there is a red-footed booby perched in the barren tree branches. They look incongruous, perched with their bright red feet wrapped snuggly around a branch. There are two types of red-footed boobies here, white and brown, including what appear to be mixed pairs. Both types have beautiful faces with amazing blue bills tinged with pink. And then there are those funny bright red feet!
The boobies do not have the trees to themselves. The loosely formed nests of frigate bird are also scattered about. Many of these nests hold a youngster with a light golden head, but others hold females with elegant glossy dark plumage.
All of the birds are noisy, calling and screeching at each other through the trees. Occasionally the sound level increases further as a fight breaks out nearby.
Next to us a Nazca booby stretches into a rigid posture and lets out an odd whistling call. It settles back slightly, then stretches out to call again. The bird does this repeatedly, swooping it’s head up each time it calls out. Its call a weird, wild whistle.
Meanwhile, other Nazca boobies preen, scratch, or squabble all around.
We find all of these birds in what is actually a quite small area. In a very short distance, we have seen many, many birds sitting in nests, in trees, and on the ground around us. Oddly, we have seen almost none in flight.
At the edge of this wooded area, we come to a small bridge at a spot where the earth drops away into a small, but gaping hole in the earth.
As we walk farther, the trees change and soon we are surrounded by small shrubby red trees with smooth bark. The branches are fragrant and we are told it is an incense tree. More amazing than their rich fragrance is that these colorful trees seem able to grow straight out of the hard volcanic rock.
Of course, rock seems to be about all there is here. The ground is uneven, a mess of broken chunks that appear to have been flowing lava not that far in the distant path.
In many places the smooth hard surface is cracked, exposing the small hollow center of the hardened lava tube below.
There are few birds here and no boobies, but a tiny vampire finch flits about, looking harmless, in the low branches.
As the ground becomes even more inhospitable, the incense trees disappear and the rocky landscape is open, with views of the ocean beyond. The sky is filled with swiftly darting small dark birds: Nervous storm petrels.
After painstakingly scanning the landscape through binoculars, I finally see the reason for the disturbance – a short eared owl keeping watch. Even through the binoculars, at this distance the owl looks like nothing more than a bundle of grass on the ground. Obviously it looks more threatening to it’s potential prey.
We watch the owl and cloud of petrels from one side of a long narrow gash in the rocky ground. A fault line, the guide tells us. This provides roosting areas for the owls.
The guide also points out an unfriendly looking patch of brown and gold lava cactus. She tells that by the golden color we can see which of these rather dead-looking plants is still alive. None of them seem particularly healthy now, at the very beginning of the rainy season.
Behind the lava cactus the hard ground clearly delineates a long-ago lava flow.
We cross back to the area where we began our tour above Prince Philip’s steps. The boobies, frigate birds, and lone pelican are still here.
So to is an elegant swallow-tailed gull.
Very slowly we work our way back down to a waiting Zodiac.
From the Zodiac we can see a male frigate bird perched high above us on the cliff face.
Closer to water level, a sea lion snoozes as we depart.
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