A flight, a gulp, a rookery, a stunning, a swim…of Cormorants

Neotropical Cormorants by the hundreds congregated on barren islands in the middle of the lagoons at Los Pantanos de Villa reserve, south of Lima, Peru.  The various terms for groups of cormorants really don’t do this mass of breeding birds justice.  Instead of a “swim” of cormorants, it should be something like a “swarm”.

Neotropical Cormorants at Los Pantanos de Villa reserve, Lima, Peru

Neotropical Cormorants at Los Pantanos de Villa reserve, Lima, Peru.  This view shows how close the reserve is to the surrounding part of the city.

Neotropical Cormorants at Los Pantanos de Villa reserve, Lima, Peru

Neotropical Cormorant carrying nesting material to the overcrowded conglomeration of nest sites.

Neotropical Cormorants at Los Pantanos de Villa reserve, Lima, Peru

A few cormorants avoided the congestion on the islands by sunning on a nearby dead tree.

Neotropical Cormorants at Los Pantanos de Villa reserve, Lima, Peru

Cormorant  drying its wings and body feathers

Neotropical Cormorants at Los Pantanos de Villa reserve, Lima, Peru

Not the most handsome of birds…

Neotropical Cormorants at Los Pantanos de Villa reserve, Lima, Peru

Crowded conditions for nesting, but safety in numbers perhaps…

A wealth of bird life

Who would have thought you could see so many birds just 7 miles from our hotel in Miraflores and adjoining the industrial district of Chorrillos, south of Lima?

Los Pantanos de Villa ecological reserve, Lima, Peru

Franklin’s Gulls and Black Skimmers were found in huge numbers at Los Pantanos de Villa ecological reserve, on the outskirts of Lima, Peru.

Los Pantanos de Villa is a protected series of brackish marshes and lagoons designated as a RAMSAR site since 1997, meaning it is a wetlands of world-wide importance.  Both migratory and resident bird species frequent the complex of wetlands, along with a myriad of invertebrate, fish, amphibian, and mammal species.

Views of some of the wetland bird species were truly spectacular.

Black Skimmers

Black Skimmers congregated in huge numbers, but were easily flushed into flight.

Black Skimmers and Franklins Gulls, Los Pantanos de Villa reserve, Lima, Peru

Black Skimmers and Franklin’s Gulls take flight together

Black Skimmers and Franklins Gulls, Los Pantanos de Villa reserve, Lima, Peru

Unfortunately, the Skimmers weren’t interested in feeding, but glided effortlessly over the water to a different part of the beach.  When feeding they dip the longer, lower mandible into the water to scare up fish, grabbing them as they attempt to dart away.

Franklin’s Gulls and Elegant Terns, Los Pantanos de Villa

A mob of Franklin’s Gulls and Elegant Terns congregated far out in the water.  Willets foraged in shallow water in the foreground.

Black Skimmer and Elegant Tern

A Black Skimmer and Elegant Tern take off together.

An amazing, if hot and sweaty morning, of birding in the big city.

A good omen

I count it as a good omen that the first animal I saw on this trip to Peru was a Monarch butterfly.

Monarch butterfly, Lima, Peru

Monarch butterflies are probably resident year-round here in this equitable climate.  I hope these populations are healthier and more numerous than the ones that migrate to the U.S. from Mexico.

Walking among the high rise buildings and city industry of the Miraflores area of Lima, the only living things to be seen were people and plants.  So when we stumbled across a park dedicated to the fallen defenders of the city during the War of the Pacific between Peru and Chile in 1881, I was delighted to find a few birds in the trees and a few Monarchs nectaring on the Lantana blossoms.

War memorial Park in Miraflores, Lima, Peru

One of many statues in the park commemorating the fallen defenders, some of whom were apparently young children.  Colorful buildings, too.

Shrike, the impaler

My brother-in-law wondered why there were bumblebees stuck on the barbed wire surrounding a portion of the San Jose NASA Ames facility where he works, so he sent me a couple of photos of them.

bumblebee impaled on barbed wire by shrikes

That’s not a random clump of fur stuck on the barbed wire six feet up in the air.

bumblebees impaled on barbed wire by shrikes

It’s a large bumblebee purposefully impaled on the barbed wire.

I knew immediately what had caused the bee to get stuck there — it was an appetizer snack put there by one of the local Loggerhead Shrikes, a feisty little gray and black bird sometimes known as the Butcher Bird.


A bad photo I took of a Loggerhead Shrike posing while surveying the landscape for his next meal.  Their definitive black mask and dark gray head and back make them easy to ID.

Shrikes could be thought of as tiny raptors, except for the fact that they have delicate perching toes instead of grasping talons.  Strong beaks enable them to snare their prey and powerful wing muscles help them carry it aloft where they then nimbly attach it to a sharp projection, like a thorn, or a broken stub of a twig, or in this case, the barbs of a barbed-wire fence.  The sharp projection holds the prey in place while it is consumed, making up for the lack of talons and strong, grasping toes.  Sometimes they are so successful in hunting, they leave a string of carcasses hanging, to be consumed later.

Almost nothing escapes their attention as potential prey: from crickets and bumblebees, to frogs, lizards, small mice, even other birds.  If they can carry it, they can stash it on something sharp.  The video below by Angie Li captures some of this behavior and illustrates the wide variety of food choices shrikes make. (The narration is interesting but is somewhat redundant and sounds like it is computer generated.)

sharing the space

Sharing the space:  something we often see in nature, where species or individuals divide up the resources in a way that maximizes their gain while reducing competition from closely related individuals.  Some sparrow species seem to be flexible in where they forage, adjusting their resource use based on the presence of other birds.  For example, at the Alviso marina park in the southern San Francisco bay, we saw Song Sparrows, Field Sparrows, and White-crowned Sparrows in the same area of the park, but in quite different micro-habitats.

song sparrow in swamp grass-

This particular Song Sparrow was practicing his song, but only half-heartedly. Just a warm-up before the breeding season gets going.

Song Sparrows were found in brushy areas and dried grasses of the wetland in the park, although they can often be found on the edge of more open, grassy areas in other habitats.

white-crowned sparrow-

Juvenile and adult White-crowned Sparrows foraged in small flocks together. First-year birds have brown and white crowns; adults are a more striking black and white.

White-crowned Sparrows are migrants, overwintering in the lower 48 states but flying as far north as northern Canada and Alaska to breed in the spring.  Some birds may be permanent residents along the California coast, but these particular individuals were not acting territorial.  In the park, the White-crowned sparrows foraged at the base of shrubs and along rocks and logs on the shoreline, picking at the seeds in the litter that accumulates in crevices.  In their higher latitude or altitude breeding sites, they prefer open grassy meadows dotted with small shrubs in which they place their nests.

adult white-crowned sparrow on anise seed-

An adult White-crowned Sparrow perched on a dried wild anise plant gets a better view of where to forage next.

The third species we saw in the park, Field Sparrows, were found in the field (as their name implies), i.e., in grassy meadows dotted with occasional tall annual plants and shrubs.  These birds are typical of “old fields”, areas that are undergoing successional change from cultivation back to shrub and forest.

field sparrow-

Field Sparrows aren’t particularly colorful (except for their pale pink beak), but they sing a song that sounds like a bouncing ball, and are usually easy to spot once you’ve heard them.

These are just a few of the ground-feeding seed-eaters that most likely can be found in the park area:  Golden-crowned Sparrows and Towhees are also seen on occasion.  The variation in habitat throughout the park makes it attractive to a wide diversity of wildlife that can share the rich resources.

What’s in a name?

Some birds have names that aptly describe their physical appearance or a sound they make, or perhaps a name that derives from a descriptor in a language other than English.   The name for these distinctive black and white, long-legged wading birds in the Alviso slough make them easy to identify and remember:  Black-necked Stilt.

Black-necked Stilts

They do look like bodies perched on stilts, with their long pink legs. 

Large numbers of Black-necked Stilts congregated in the Alviso slough, probing in the mud for worms or other small invertebrates.

 Black-necked Stilts

 Black-necked Stilts

Bird lovers are keen to give large groups of one species special names, like a banditry of Chickadees, a swirl of Phalaropes, a college of cardinals, or a convocation of eagles.  What do they call a huge group of Black-necked Stilts?  Nothing quite as novel as those listed above, and in fact, disappointing that this large group of stilts is merely referred to as a “flock”.  Boring!

“get out of my territory”

This is the time of year in California when male Anna’s hummingbirds are staking out their territory and advertising it with their scratchy song.  I heard a male singing while we were walking along the dike at Alviso marina county park, and played a short song on my phone to lure him out into the open.

Male Anna’s hummingbird

From the side view, it doesn’t look like he’s particularly threatened.  The iridescent feathers in the neck look black in the absence of light directed straight at them.

The bird was definitely annoyed by the sound of an intruder, which he would happily have chased away, but he couldn’t find another hummer to chase. So he hovered about 2 feet from us, much too close to capture with my telephoto lens.  After a minute or so, he landed on a nearby shrub to try to intimidate the interloper, with increasing levels of threat display.

Male Anna’s hummingbird threat display

Level 1 of the threat display, gorget and head feathers turned to the light to reflect their magenta iridescence.

Male Anna’s hummingbird threat display

We haven’t vacated his territory, so he escalates to a level 2 threat by flaring the gorget feathers out to the side to create an even bigger display.

Male Anna’s hummingbird threat display

He means business with this level 3 display of gorget feathers erected straight out from his neck, making him seem even bigger and pinker!

It’s time to leave this guy alone, so he can get on with the dating game.

the sally

I always wondered why we call what flycatching birds do to snare their food “sallying”.  So I looked it up:  to sally, from the French verb saillir, means to leap forth.  And that’s exactly what I saw a Black Phoebe do today from its favorite perch in a blue spruce tree.

Black Phoebe

Black Phoebe waiting for some insect to fly by…

The leaping forth was almost faster than I could catch on camera, but I could hear the snap of their beak as they tried to close on their prey.

Black Phoebe flycatching (sallying)

It’s easy to miss the launch from their perch — it happens fast!

Black Phoebe flycatching (sallying)

Black Phoebe flycatching (sallying), beak open, aiming to catch something…

Black Phoebe flycatching (sallying)

Another attempt

The typical “sally” for most flycatchers is a quick dart out from a perch, perhaps followed by a swoop, and then a u-turn back to their perch.

Black Phoebe flycatching (sallying)

And back to the perch…

Black Phoebe

and now we wait for another juicy insect to fly by…

From here to there

Left this scene…

Turkeys in the snow

Turkeys in the snow — my winter landscape of white and shades of brown.

To enjoy a brief respite of color and warmth in sunny California

Magnolia in bloom

Magnolia just ready to bloom

Spring green

The hummingbird visited these jasmine flowers after I had put the camera away — of course.

Winter rains have brought on a flush of new green in the California landscape, my favorite color.

Boldly Invisible

A continuation of the discussion in the last post of why black accent or coloration is so widespread, especially in small birds…there are still more questions to answer.

For example, you would think that a boldly striped, black and white animal would be an easy target to spot against the homogeneous green or gold African savanna.


But how many zebra do you actually see here?

Disruptive patterns of black and white break up the outline of an animal’s body, making it difficult to detect them in a complex background.  Maybe this is why a herd of zebra can be referred to as a “dazzle”?

Looking at a single chickadee against a plain white or tan or gray background makes them standout because of their bold black and white markings.

Black-capped chickadee-

But finding them in their more typical, complex background of myriad tree branchlets and leaves is much more difficult.

chickadee family-no highlights-

How many chickadees hiding in the bushes?  They blend in well with highlights of snow on branches or in the background, deep shade on unlit branches, and the tan of leaves and bark.

chickadee family-with highlights-

Here they are!  Highlighted with a little illumination in Lightroom photo editor.

Birds that live in complex environments like the dappled shade of a forest, or the complex vegetation of a wetland or grassland, often have complex feather patterns (especially dark and light) that more or less blend with their background, or at the least, make them difficult to detect until they move.  Some of the boldest black and white patterns, like the stripes on a Kildeer’s breast, actually distract one’s eye from the outline of the bird’s body.


Until she moves, mama Kildeer isn’t obvious in this marshy wetland. I didn’t even notice her chick standing silently on her right until I was editing the photo for a blog post.

Some birds emphasize camouflage even more by combining spots of white or bands of dark and light on their feathers.


A sleeping Barred Owl has pretty good camouflage in this leafless Amur Maple forest.


Stripes down its breast and spots on the wings and back of the Barred Owl help break up the solid outline of its body.

brown creeper-

The blotchy brown and white plumage of Brown Creepers lets them hide in plain sight on the rough bark of mature trees where they forage in crevices for prey.

So, one of the answers to why so many birds, especially those residents that live in the northern temperate forests all year, adopt splotchy patterns of black or brown and white plumage is that they maximize their ability to hide in plain sight by being boldly invisible.