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”.
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 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.
An amazing, if hot and sweaty morning, of birding in the big city.
I count it as a good omen that the first animal I saw on this trip to Peru was a Monarch butterfly.
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.
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.
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.
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: 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Large numbers of Black-necked Stilts congregated in the Alviso slough, probing in the mud for worms or other small invertebrates.
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!
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.
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.
It’s time to leave this guy alone, so he can get on with the dating game.
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.
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.
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.
Left this scene…
To enjoy a brief respite of color and warmth in sunny California
Winter rains have brought on a flush of new green in the California landscape, my favorite color.
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.
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.
But finding them in their more typical, complex background of myriad tree branchlets and leaves is much more difficult.
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.
Some birds emphasize camouflage even more by combining spots of white or bands of dark and light on their feathers.
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.