140,000 and counting

What a spectacle!  A boat ride out to Bass Rock from North Berwick (silent “w”), Scotland to see the world’s largest breeding colony of Gannets, a long-winged seabird related to the Red- and Blue-footed Boobies.  The entire top of the rock was covered with Gannets, packed together like sardines.

Bass Rock, near North Berwick, Scotland

Bass Rock is a steep-sided, 300 foot tall remnant of an old volcano about a mile offshore of the Scottish coast.  The white color is a result of densely packed white birds perched all over the rock.

Gannets return each year to this spot to stake out a  postage stamp-sized space to lay their one egg and raise their chick.

Bass Rock, near North Berwick, Scotland

From far away, you can barely see the birds on the rock, but numbers of them are continually flying off and landing there.

Bass Rock, near North Berwick, Scotland

Closer up, you can see the individual birds as they crowd onto any somewhat flat surface on the rock.

Bass Rock, near North Berwick, Scotland

Pairs of gannets engage in courtship rituals, clicking their bills together to cement their pair bond.

Gannets are strong flyers, using their 6 foot wing span to generate fast forward flight, but more impressive are their adaptations for diving to catch their prey.  Air sacs in the face and chest help cushion the blow of diving from 100 feet at speeds up to 60 mph.  In addition, forward placed eyes give them binocular vision and allow them to pursue prey underwater.  They use their wings under water just as they do in air, twisting and turning as they maneuver after a school of fish.

Bass Rock, near North Berwick, ScotlandBass Rock, near North Berwick, Scotland

Correction:  the number of Gannets on Bass Rock was estimated to be 240,000!

Prehistoric bird, the Shag

The European Shag looks like a prehistoric remnant, with its almost scaly appearing feather coat, long slender neck, head, and beak, and glaring green eyes.

European Shag

It’s a taller, more slender version of a cormorant, to which it is closely related. During the breeding season, the Shag’s feathers take on a greenish glow, the top crest of feathers becomes more elongated and erect, and the throat patch turns a bright yellow-orange.

European Shag

My, what beautiful eyes you have…

European Shag

Shag nested at the top of rocky outcrops in the Farne Islands, assembling a few sticks and rotting seaweed into a cup that holds the eggs (usually 3).  The breeding season may begin as early as February in the U.K., and may last until young are fledged as late as October.

European Shag

Once the young have hatched both parents take turns bringing food to their chicks which are completely naked and vulnerable to attack.

Shag are among the deepest divers, bringing small fish like the sand eel up from 150-300 feet. Their dives might last less than a minute, but with less waterproofing as well as less air trapped in the feathers, and by using their webbed feet to kick them downwards, they quickly reach the bottom ocean sediments to harvest a resource other seabird divers might not.

European Shag

Unmated Shags “hanging out” on the rocks of one of the Farne Islands, while looking for a mate and a good rocky crevice for their nest.

Puffins, puffins, everywhere

The Farne Islands off the coast of Seahouses, England are Puffin central at this time of year.

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

Puffins are solitary at sea most of the year, but return to favorite nesting areas like the Farne Islands on the northeastern coast of England to breed.  Here they number in the thousands, crowding grassy hillocks where they dig their burrow nests.

We met them swimming in the water fishing for their favorite sand eels (not eels), herring or sprats…

Atlantic Puffin

And we found them on rocky prominances, looking out over the sea below…

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

And we found them all over the grassy mounds in the center of the island where they congregated around burrow holes, and some kind of speed dating process was going on as pairs tried to match up with each other.

Puffins return to the same island, and may return to the same burrow they used the previous year.  They may reunite with the previous year’s partner or search for a new one, forming a monogamous pair bond for the duration of the breeding season.

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

Every now and then, groups would break up, with individuals flying around, joining up with other groups.

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

Puffins have very short wings for their stout body, and flap their wings many times per second to propel them through air. Consequently, they are really challenging to capture in flight.

it was fascinating to watch the pairing up rituals, which involved displays by the presumed male (chest puffing, wing flapping, head tilted back and forth), and some beak-to-beak interactions (billing) in and around their burrow.

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

Pairs form when birds are 4-7 years of age. Prior to breeding juvenile birds remain at sea, perfecting their fishing skills.

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

“Billing” contact between the breeding pair is essential to building and maintaining the pair bond.

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

One or both members of the pair improve the burrow by removing dirt with their webbed feet and adding grassy thatch, before the female lays her one egg, which takes 40-45 days of incubation to hatch.  Nestlings are fed a variety of fish for 35 to 50 days, depending on the food supply parents can provide, and then make their way to the open ocean to feed on their own.

Pretty posers

Some of the many pretty little birds we saw at Titchwell RSPB on our bird walk through the coastal marshes of this important migratory stop-over and breeding site for some rare species.

Eurasian Robin

Eurasian Robins are always a star attraction because they are not at all shy and sit still waiting for us to photograph them.

Blue Tit

Blue Tits are a favorite because of their bright blue and yellow colors and perky attitude.

European Blackbird

Blackbirds, the European counterpart of our American Robin, may not look like them but certainly act like them.

European Goldfinch

Goldfinches in the U.K. are bright little jewels in the green vegetation.

Wood Pigeon

Wood Pigeons “billing” in the park

Down in the mud

The Norfolk coast at Burnham Overy Staithe where we’re staying this week undergoes twice daily low tides that leave boats stranded and large areas of mud for the sea birds to explore.

Norfolk coast at Burnham Overy Staithe at low tide

Norfolk coast at Burnham Overy Staithe at low tide

Low tide seems to be a profitable time to harvest some juicy worms from the mud, as we saw Oystercatchers, Black-headed Gulls, and an assortment of shorebirds doing. These tidal mudflats are a rich source of fuel for migratory birds that pass through here on their way from Africa to northern latitudes in Europe.

Oystercatchers pulling worms from the mud on the Norfolk UK coast

Oystercatchers pulling worms from the mud.  They don’t seem to mind getting their legs and bills immersed in the gooey stuff.

Oystercatchers pulling worms from the mud on the Norfolk UK coast

Probe and pull, over and over. It seems to help if you have a long bill.

Black-headed Gulls hunting worms in the mud on the Norfolk UK coast

Black-headed Gulls talking about hunting worms in the mud…

Black-headed Gulls hunting worms in the mud on the Norfolk UK coast

Pulling the worms out of the mud requires some effort — they are kind of stuck in there.

Black-headed Gulls hunting worms in the mud on the Norfolk UK coast

Success at last

Several non-avians enjoyed the mudflats on this warm, balmy day as well, sliding, rolling, and throwing big globs of the gooey stuff at each other.

Mud bath on the Norfolk coast

Doesn’t that look like fun? (Photo by Debbie Reynolds)

Woodpecker heaven

Peru is a bird watcher’s heaven, a country where more than 1800 bird species can be found (more than the total number in North America and Europe combined), 85% of which are resident (non-migratory), and 117 of which are found no where but Peru (endemic).  This means you might see a great diversity of just one type of bird, for example, woodpeckers, and in fact, there are 39 different species of Peruvian woodpeckers (compared to just 7 species in Minnesota).

woodpeckers of peru - larry mcqueen

Woodpeckers of Peru – Drawings by Larry McQueen, from Birds of Peru

Is the incredible woodpecker diversity due to the number and density of trees with accompanying grubs in the Amazon rainforest?  Perhaps, only indirectly, because 30-50% of Peruvian woodpeckers surveyed eat primarily ants — ground and tree nesting varieties, supplemented with other insects, fruits, and seeds.  It may be the ant diversity and abundance that is partly responsible for woodpecker diversity in the rainforest.

Leaf_cutter_ants_Arpingstone-Wikimedia Commons

Leaf cutter ants would seem to be particularly vulnerable to attack by ant-loving birds, as they march in long columns from trees where they harvest leaves to their underground nest where they feed the leaves to their fungus garden.

termite nest

Termite nests are large, highly visible structures with just a thin exterior shell to protect the millions of termites within.  They would also seem to be vulnerable to ant-loving birds.

In North America it is the flickers that are the ant specialists.  Northern Flickers, for example (Colaptes auratus), are often found in grassy areas or open areas in forests, probing the ground for ants.   Colaptes flicker species are divided into two groups — the more terrestrial foragers, like our Northern Flicker, and arboreal foraging specialists in the rainforest.  Both groups love to dine on ants, but find them in different places.

Andean Flicker pair-

Andean Flickers occur, as their name implies, in open grass- and shrublands of the Andes, where they find not only ants, but other invertebrates by probing into the soil with their stout bill.

Andean Flicker-probing for insects

Andean Flicker-probing for insects, or worms, or ants.  These are large birds (13 inches in length) and I wouldn’t want to get poked with that sharp beak.

Andean Flicker-

Found something good…

Andean Flicker-male

Male and female Andean Flickers look alike, except for the red patch on the back of the male’s head.

The more arboreal members of the Colaptes genus (4 species in Peru) have solid green-brown backs, spots or scales on their breast, and bright red napes.  They are so similar, they are difficult to tell apart without a really good look (e.g., birds in the lower part of the central panel of the first image).

Spot-breasted Woodpecker-Michel Giraud-Audine-

This spot-breasted Woodpecker looks nothing like the Andean Flicker, but it does look very much like the other 3 Colaptes species with which it shares the arboreal ant-eating niche.

Another major consumer group of ants and termites in the Peruvian rainforest are the five species in the genus Celeus.  These are medium-sized birds whose color is more homogeneous (all brown, all yellow, etc.) but usually have a distinctive red mustache or crest (see top row of left and center panels in the first image).

cream-colored woodpecker male-

We could hardly believe this was a woodpecker, with its all yellow body and brown wings. The Cream-colored Woodpecker male has a distinctive red mustache.

cream-colored woodpecker female-

This is one species where the female is just as beautiful as the male.  Both male and female specialize on ants and termites, often foraging near water (which is where we found them).


Chestnut Woodpeckers forage for ants and termites higher on trees than Cream-colored Woodpeckers do, but they often supplement their diet with fruit.

These are just a few of the colorful woodpeckers we were fortunate to see in Peru, and of course, makes me want to go back for another visit to “woodpecker heaven”.

An unwanted invader

The European Hare is one of the most widespread mammals on earth, due not only to its ability to thrive and reproduce in a wide variety of habitats, but also to its intentional introduction to new geographical areas by humans.

European hare, Lake Titicaca, Peru

We saw this European hare in a small farming community on the shore of Lake Titicaca, Peru.

For example, 36 hares were intentionally released in central Argentina in 1888 and just 20 years later, they were so widespread in Argentina, they were considered a major agricultural pest. Another intentional release of hares in southern Chile in 1896 may be the source of animals that have subsequently invaded Bolivia, and more recently, the southern tip of Peru, where they were first discovered as recently as 2002.

European hare, Lake Titicaca, Peru

A dozen or so hares scampered through the brushy fields intermixed with small crops, fleeing as soon as they saw us.

The mixed grassy field-small crop production areas, broken up by thickets and stone walls are perfect for this little invader, which seems to do well from sea level to high altitude zones.  The only barrier to its rather rapid rate of dispersal in South America so far is the humid and complex tropical Amazon region and densely populated urban areas.

European hare, Lake Titicaca, Peru

It’s brown, tan, black and white blotchy fur pattern blends well with rocky areas of the same color, giving the hare some ability hide in plain sight.

The spread of European hares in these small farming communities where plowing, planting, and harvesting is all done by hand on small plots would have a great impact on farmers’ yields.

Mixed vegetable crops on the shore of lake Titicaca, Peru

Mixed vegetable crops on the shore of lake Titicaca are ripe for harvest by fast multiplying European hares.

In Argentina, hares are a favorite prey of Puma (cougar), but top cat predators are absent in this area of Lake Titicaca.  It’s possible that avian predators in this area might take young hares, but adults are large, long-legged, fast runners with great endurance for escaping predators.

European hare, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Run, rabbit, run…

So for now, the European hare has an open niche to exploit, from coastal to high altiplano farms and fields in Peru.

Chilly Chinchilla

Long-tailed furry little mammals leaping long distances between the rocks at Machu Picchu were a surprise.  Their color and body shape hid them well between the rocks.

Chinchilla hiding in rocks

What is this? A picture of some rocks? No there is a chinchilla in the middle of the frame.

Chinchilla hiding in rocks

Long ears, long tail, and about the size of a rabbit, Chinchillas were highly valued for their soft, dense fur.

Two species of Chinchilla are native to the Andes mountains of South America.  Once widespread throughout the higher elevations in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile, they were over hunted for their fur, and now are found only in remote parts of Chile.  Chinchillas have the most dense fur of any land mammal, most likely an adaptation to the cold temperatures of their high elevation habitats.  As a result they overheat very easily at moderate temperatures and are difficult to keep in captivity.

They are highly social, living in large groups or herds, in rocky crevices in the mountains, which makes them difficult to spot as well as capture.  They look like easy prey for raptors, but have the unusual habit of spraying urine and releasing clumps of fur when attacked.

the llamas of Machu Picchu

We were fortunate to see the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu on an almost clear day for at least two hours before heavy rain settled over the area.  I was surprised to find so many llamas wandering through the site, but they created great photo opportunities.

Llamas at Machu Picchu

Llamas are quite social and usually occur in groups. This one must have been entranced with the scenery.

Llamas at Machu Picchu

Llamas come in a variety of colors, from white to brown to black to spotted, probably as a result of selective breeding. Their wild relatives, the vicuña and guanaco, have uniform brown and white color patterns.

Llamas at Machu Picchu

The gestation period for llamas is 11.5 months, but female young develop quickly and are ready to breed in one year, while young males take as much as three years to become fully mature.

Llamas actually originated in North America, and migrated to South America about 3 million years ago when the Panamanian land bridge was established.  Today, there are no wild llamas, since they were domesticated soon after humans reached South America about 10,000 years ago and began to do more farming than hunting and gathering.  Some say the conversion to agriculture would not have been possible without the use of llama dung as fertilizer.

Llamas at Machu Picchu

Like other members of the camel family, llamas are grass eaters and digest their food in a multi-compartmented stomach with the aid of bacteria there.

Llamas at Machu Picchu

Two pair of Incisors on top and bottom help them crop grass close to its roots with a yank of their head as they bite down. Nice long eyelashes too.

Llamas at Machu Picchu

What a beautiful place to live…

River dolphins

The Amazon river is a vast and impressive highway, carrying people and goods to and from Ecuador to Peru to Brazil.  It is also home to hundreds of fish, amphibian, and caiman species, as well as the pink river dolphin.

Amazon river dolphin

A river dolphin breaks the water for a look around before diving back down

River dolphins in the Amazon are the largest of the fresh water dolphins, with males weighing up to 500 pounds and growing to almost 9 feet in length.  There is pronounced sexual dimorphism in this species, but unlike other whales and dolphins, the females are about one-third smaller than the males, instead of larger.

Amazon river dolphin

Unlike dolphins at Sea World, these dolphins did not exhibit any gymnastic leaps and flips for us.  Their heads barely broke the surface and we could barely see their dorsal fin and tails as they dove again.

Males have pinkish bodies and often show battle scars from competition with other males for females during the breeding season.

Amazon river dolphin

A bite out of the dorsal fin indicates this individual may have seen some battles with other males.

Amazon river dolphin- wildlife.net

Males get pinker with age, females and juveniles are gray.  Older dolphins may fade to white.  Photo from Wildlife.net

The huge melon on their forehead is fatty tissue that helps them direct their sonar echolocating beam.  River dolphins emit a small amplitude click that helps them locate nearby objects and prey in the muddy Amazon water.  A longer beam like that emitted by oceanic dolphins would echo back too much confusing information in such a visually obstructed environment.

More than 53 species of fish, river turtles, and crabs are food for river dolphins, with an individual sometimes sharing food with another.  Dolphins may hunt with other species like river otters, putting increased pressure on their prey in a cooperative hunt, but dolphins and otters tend to specialize on different species in the hunt.