Friday, January 27, 2012

The Land Before Time
By Michael

Eleanor with her lizard friend. This little guy approached
the girls when we landed and he looked a little peaked.
Eleanor fed him water, dried cranberries, and banana
and he perked up and got greener. We had to shoo
him away when it was time to leave. 
At the start of the year, we sailed to this place teeming with birds, mostly blue-footed boobies and frigates. This place is a rugged, nearly deserted island about 25 miles off the Pacific coast of mainland Mexico. This place is a protected national park where Mexican biologists and their grad students camp for months at a time to study the birds. This place is host to migrant Mexican fishing families who arrive by panga to live part-time in the beach-front encampment owned by their co-op. This place is known by cruisers to have a poor, rock-strewn anchorage with little protection from wind in any direction, and where boats are wrecked, but a place that must be visited regardless. This place is Isla Isabel.

Our friends aboard Wondertime used the apt description of Isla Isabel as “the Mexican Galapagos.” Iguanas approached us out of seeming curiosity. Booby couples whistled and honked at us from their nests at our feet, warning us not to step too close to their eggs on the ground. Frigate birds peered down at us from branches a couple feet above our heads, males inflating their brilliant red throat sacks in their bids to court females, undeterred by our wandering and starring.
Isla Isabel is what remains of a volcano. The island’s geography seems young, her features sharp and prehistoric, not smoothed out and tamed by the dulling forces of wind and sea. Rugged, magnificent spires mark the primary anchorage off the eastern shore and underwater pinnacles make the southern anchorage unsafe for more than one vessel at a time.
This guy was all alone, probably because his
feet weren't blue enough. Note the tag on his
leg. This was put there by the biologists who
camp on the island and study the birds.
As the biologists on the island maintain bird blinds on the eastern shore, dinghy landings are encouraged only on the southern beach where the fishing encampment is located. And from this beach are two trailheads, each promising a unique view of this natural wonderland. From behind the encampment, we hiked upward to the low rim of the volcano before descending into a caldera densely covered in low-canopied trees. Here the Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) nests on top of the low canopy, just 8-10 feet off the ground, and generally in clusters of nests that crowd the small trees (the colony here is the largest in Mexico, 35,000 to 53,000 birds). During our visit, fluffy, white-feathered chicks poked over the edge of their nests, watching us pass, in stark contrast to their coal-colored parents.
Anytime we were out from under the dense canopy, we watched a sky filled with soaring frigates. It is a sight to see, hundreds of birds moving through the air in different directions, hardly a bird flapping its wings, all riding invisible currents on their majestic, 7-foot wingspans.
Up over the other rim and across a field of tall grasses is the shore and thousands of blue-footed boobies, the frigate’s inelegant, pudgy polar opposite. Curiously, these birds nest on land--and not under the protection of some scrub brush or on the side of a rocky cliff, just on land. Ironically, they don't move especially well over land, just standing or walk in an ungainly fashion, sort of resembling a diver walking with fins on. But they are swift, strong fliers and good fishermen. The boobies pair up monogamously, male and female, to build, maintain, and defend their nests.
Three of the yong scientists we met who were
a few weeks into a three month stay, studying
the booby population.

The boobies' eyes are non-blinking and expressionless, their feet range from a brilliant pastel blue to a pale green. In the case of the male, their feet color changes with their diet, over short periods of time. The females observe this and pick their mates accordingly. Additionally, mothers check out the foot color of their chicks to determine to which she administers food.

A steeper hike from the beach leads through an area where hundreds of iguanas, in all sizes, wander under foot. From there it is up the rugged slope of the southern rock bluff where a stunning view of the bay and much of the island awaits.
Here is the view from that part of the island, filmed by the crew of Wondertime:


We happened upon this Magnificent Frigatebird in a dire state. He had dropped
down beneath the dense canopy. With his seven foot wingspan, it was impossible
for him to get back up, though the dense foliage. We watched him struggle for a
bit before Windy and Eleanor tag teamed to shoo him through a
gap in the canopy. They were successful, but he seemed pretty tired
or wounded from his ordeal and we left him wondering if he would make it.
I later read that falling beneath the canopy was a death sentence for these
guys and one of the leading causes of mortality. 

This is a couple making their nest on the ground.
Eleanor on the craggy coast of Isla Isabel.

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