Chris Earley is interpretive biologist and education coordinator at University of Guelph Arboretum. He has written four field guides to birds of North America, such as Warblers of the Great Lakes Region and Eastern North America. Chris has led tours for Quest Nature Tours since 1999. I had the opportunity to interview him about his first trip to the Galapagos, which took place over 10 days in February. Our conversation delved into microevolution and the challenge of keeping parts of the islands a pristine environment. Besides himself, the group included 14 Canadian and American travellers. His father and 14-year-old son were part of the tour. Photos are included by kind permission of Tom Chatterton, Chris Earley and Bev Earley (click for a full-size view).
Q: I understand the tour was particularly focused on bird life.
A: Some Quest Nature Tours are bird specific, but they are nature tours, so we were looking at everything: birds, mammmals, reptiles, plants and geology. We try to be broad-based, but you can’t cover it all. The animals grab your attention more than the plants, but we looked at plants, too.
What are two or three of the most exciting things you saw?
One of the best things was seeing Lonesome George at Charles Darwin Research Station, where they raise tortoises and iguanas to release into the wild. Lonesome George is the only member of a subspecies of the Galapagos Tortoise.They have been trying to breed him to morphologically similar females. Two females have produced eggs but they haven’t hatched. It is sort of a weird feeling. It’s: “Wow, this is Lonesome George! But wow, this is Lonesome George. Hi, so sorry. You are the last one. That was my species’ fault.” Hopefully, at some point the eggs might be fertile.
We do a lot of snorkeling on the tour. We were snorkeling with penguins. Even though we were on the equator, the water is cool. The penguins don’t go any further north. This penguin started hunting in front of us. It was keeping a school of fish. It would swim around them near the surface, then come up underneath them to catch one.
Suddenly there was this massive splash and it scared the snot out of us. A pelican was sitting on one of the mangroves and when the school got close to it, it dove. All we heard was this splash and saw this huge pouch.
Later we were watching pelicans hunting. (They filter fish by pushing water out of their bills.) Penguins would swim around hoping for fish to come out of their bills. Both species were benefiting from the hunting strategy of the other.
Tell me about the photo of the birds landing on your camera.
The wildlife there is extremely tame. You are literally walking around them sometimes because they are in the way. There are strict regulations about what you can do: you are not allowed to approach them and must stay at least two metres away. But sometimes the animals approach you.
These were Galapagos flycatchers. Sometimes birds fly at their reflection in a mirror, and we think that’s what was happening. Mine was the biggest camera, and it appeared that they were looking at it. This lens is a little too long for this! Other people had to take the pictures.
When we think of the Galapagos we picture lava fields and cacti, a relatively barren place. Can you describe what kind of habitat you saw?
There definitely were places like that where it was incredibly barren, like lava flows that were only a few hundred years old that didn’t seem to have a lot of life. But then you would come across a lava cactus or a lagoon in a depression where brackish water had collected. It would have ducks, flamingos, dragonflies and all kinds of plants. Little oases in the middle of the lava fields. There was a huge contrast between barren and desolate, and somewhere on the same island where you are hiking up the side of one of the volcanoes and everything was lush and green. It’s definitely a place of contrasts.
The Galapagos are often considered the classic case for evolution. What did you see that impressed you about this?
One thing I really liked was we got to see a lot of Darwin’s finches. Depending on what you find out about Charles Darwin himself, the finches or more likely the mockingbirds were one of the things that got him thinking, “Something is going on here.” It doesn’t really make sense that there would be different species living on different islands within sight of each other.
Research has been able to show over just a few years that the beaks of the finches were changing. The beak sizes changed depending on the weather and the kinds of seeds available. Darwin thought you can’t see evolution happening, but here is an example where you can.
We would be watching these finches: a small, a medium and a large. You can only tell them apart by the sizes of their beaks, but sometimes you can’t tell which species it is.
Some things are really hard for us to categorize. Evolution is plastic. Life is changing, and it’s changing much faster than you think it is.
The Galapagos also has some controversy over land use, particularly the conflict between those who want to preserve a pristine environment, and inhabitants who want access to resources, and people who want to explore the islands. What insight did you have into these questions from your trip?
Most of our exploration was in remote areas where people aren’t allowed to live and there were no settlements. You could see the national parks were doing a really good job of telling people when and how long you could visit. They’re trying to control that so that it’s never overcrowded at one site. Even though thousands of people are going every year, they’re doing a good job of minimizing the impact on the habitat. You have to be with a naturalist guide at all times. They tell you where you can go and where you can’t walk. Historically there have been problems with people overfishing in different areas, but we didn’t come across that.
How can preservation policies also satisfy the basic needs of people who live on the land?
You can exploit a place in different ways. If you’re using a place for ecotours, you can preserve it and also bring income for people who live there. It’s better than planting sugarcane. You have to get the people who live there to realize this isn’t just a special place to them, it’s a special place to other people. It can be a source of income while protecting the environment.
How did it feel for you to entere areas that are so closely protected?
It was nice to see how the naturalist guides are proud of their sites and they want to protect it. It was great to be able to see these animals where they’ve always lived and how they’ve adapted to their environment. We didn’t see any garbage even though thousands of people visit every year. I never got the feeling that there were problems due to the visitors going there. It seems like a great place to get people connected to the planet.