Above the rainforest canopy

A series of 14 bridges carry you from big tree to big tree at the Explorama canopy walk just a short walk from Napo lodge on the Napo river, one of the Amazon tributaries.

Explorama canopy walk, Napo lodge, Peru

Successive walkways gain height until you reach a height of 117 feet above the forest floor.

Explorama canopy walk, Napo lodge, Peru

Netting strung between cables provides hand holds for a shaky bridge. The floor of the walkway is two side-by-side boards covering ladders laid horizontally end to end. Longer bridges shake noticeably, but are safe, and checked every day.

Few birds were active in the middle of the day when we did the canopy walk, but the views were magnificent.

Explorama canopy walk, Napo lodge, Peru

Bromeliads covered the top one third of the tree trunks. These “air plants” capture rainfall in the canopy and provide breeding sites for frogs, lizards, spiders, and insects, which the birds then feed upon.

Black-bellied Cuckoo, Amazon, Peru

A Black-bellied Cuckoo rested in the shade at tree top, escaping the mid-day heat.

White-tailed Trogon, Amazon, Peru

A White-tailed Trogon alternately panted and looked around from his high altitude perch in the canopy.

Canopy lizard, Amazon, Peru

This canopy lizard would have made a nice meal for the cuckoo, but the birds were too hot to hunt. And so were we!

Into the rainforest

We left the delightful warm weather in Lima for the steamy jungle in northeastern Peru, where plants thrive, insects diversify to eat them, and birds that eat both the insects and or the plants adopt outlandish colors and decorative feathers to show off.  In other words, we are immersed in DIVERSITY.

Explorama lodge, Amazon river

Explorama lodge on the Amazon river

We headed down the Amazon river about an hour from Iquitos (in northeastern Peru) by motor boat, to Explorama Lodge, where we would stay in non air-conditioned lodging, with cold showers to cool us down after trekking through the steamy jungle. Boat trips out on the river and walks through the rain forest provided opportunities to see some of that diversity.

Passion flower butterfly

Passion flower butterfly

Heliconia flower

Heliconia flowers, a relative of banana, are actually colorful, waxy bracts, in which the actual flowers hide. They advertise their sweet nectar to hummingbirds with bright red and yellow colors.

Scarlet macaw

Scarlet macaw, really up-close, a family pet of river villagers

White-cheeked Jacamar, Explorama lodge, Amazon

The White-chinned Jacamar is shades of iridescent teal and green with a chestnut cap and a white chin of course.

Poison dart frog, Amazon forest

Poison dart frogs are tiny but bright and can be found in the moist forest floor or lower vegetation.

Are you seeing a pattern here of vividly bright colors of tropical flowers and animals?  I wonder why that is?  Your thoughts?

If you protect it, they will come

I was very impressed with how much wildlife was present in the roughly square mile of coastal lagoon and marsh habitat of Los Pantanos de Villa on the outskirts of Lima.  The water is exceptionally clear, filtered through a series of canals from the Rimac River.

Los Pantanos de Villa, Lima, Peru

The refuge abuts the busy industrial district of Chorrillos.

Initial protection, by setting the land aside in 1977, has been steadily upgraded with controls that have finally allowed it to be designated a wildlife refuge. A modest entrance fee of $5 per person allows access to all of the refuge as well as use of boats to float through the waterways in the marshes.  I suppose we could have snuck up on a few more species by taking a boat instead of walking on cattail-lined trails.

American Oystercatcher

American Oystercatchers were numerous on the beach, but this one posed right up on the levee, next to us.


A few whimbrels foraged among the gulls along the beach.

White-cheeked Pintail ducks

A lone pair of White-cheeked Pintail ducks and a Greater Yellowlegs stayed at the edge of the confusion of Franklin’s Gulls.

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

Franklin’s Gulls were by far the most numerous birds in the large lagoon.  Many of them seemed to have pinkish stained breasts, perhaps from swimming in water enriched with clay?

Small terrestrial birds were hard to pick out and photograph in the dense vegetation, but one Saffron Finch gave us his best profile.

Saffron Finch


Where there are large flocks of birds crowding together, there are usually a few fatalities, either from fighting with each other, or from predators.  And where there are carcasses, there are usually vultures, waiting…

Black Vultures at Los Pantanos de Villa

What an advertisement for the wildlife refuge at Los Pantanos de Villa in Lima.

Black Vultures at Los Pantanos de Villa

Dead palms make excellent perches for scouting out carrion, or for early morning basking.

Black Vultures at Los Pantanos de Villa

And they don’t seem to care if you walk right up to them, like this Black Vulture perched on a dead palm.  Dirty feathers are typical of vultures that roost communally and poop on each other overnight.

Turkey Vultures at Los Pantanos de Villa

Turkey Vultures perched near the congregations of Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers in the large lagoon.

Turkey Vultures at Los Pantanos de Villa

Just hanging out, waiting…

Turkey Vultures at Los Pantanos de Villa

There were quite a few dead Gulls and a couple of Snowy Egrets lying on the beach. Some had been picked clean, others looked fresh.

Scavengers, like the vultures, perform essential clean-up, leaving nothing but skeleton and feathers when they have finished with a carcass.

Ugly “duckling”?

Sometimes the very young offspring of otherwise beautiful adults can be surprisingly homely.

Common Moorhen and chick

A Common Moorhen and her chick swam around in the lagoon channels at Los Pantanos de Villa reserve.

Maybe it’s the bald head and unruly bristled feathers that make the chick of the Common Moorhen so unattractive.  The adults are rather striking with their red and yellow facial patterns and lustrous purple-black plumage.  Curiously, we only saw one chick; were the others eaten or just in hiding?

common Moorhen

These and other marsh birds weren’t easy to spot in the lagoons lined with dense layers of narrow leaf cattails.

Trails through the cattails at Los Pantanos de Villa reserve, Lima, Peru

Every now and then, an opening in the cattails allowed us a glimpse of the waterways.

We managed to see a few other species through the cattail barriers, like this Andean Coot, a larger version of our common American Coot.

Andean Coot

Usually seen in large flocks, this lone Andean Coot was patrolling the edges of the waterways. The bill and shield color are highly variable in this species, and are more typically yellow (bill) and chestnut (shield).

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebes seem to be found everywhere. This one is decked out in its breeding plumage, because of course, it’s summer here.

House Wren chick

This little House Wren chick clicked incessantly for its parent to come feed it. The yellow gape at the base of its bill indicates that it has only recently fledged.

Not exactly an ugly duckling in the same way that the Moorhen chick was, but not quite ready for prime time yet either, as its wing and tail feathers are not fully developed.  It’s kind of a teen-ager at this stage of its life.

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.

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!