16 August 2016

Peru!

"Hmm... this doesn't look normal" I thought as I stood in the hotel room staring at the wall, my battered duffel and backpack strewn by my sides.  It was 1:00 am and I desperately needed to sleep.

Just like my plane that coasted into Lima a short while earlier, I landed in bed and was promptly OUT.

The next day started early... too early (if I'm being honest) for the likes of me.  But once I remembered WHY I was getting up... it was all good.  Yes, I was in South America AND I had a day of birding around Lima before our Field Guides tour began.

I trudged down to the lobby where I met up with Dan, Jesse, and a few birders that were ready for our day trip.  Once loaded up in the van, we were off through the streets of Lima.

Our first stop was near Ventanilla just north of Lima.  We hopped out and I was instantly surrounded by new birds.  Although I had been to Peru 10+ years ago, none of that visit included birding along the coast and so this time around, lifers came fast and furious!  We had things like:

Slate-colored Coot
Andean Gull
Gray-hooded Gull
West Peruvian Dove
Many-colored Rush Tyrant
Wren-like Rushbird

Checklist here.

Next we headed to the ocean where the fogged-in beaches were a maze of birds and washed up trash.  Again, I was surrounded by a whole new array of species including 3 species of cormorants, a myriad of gulls, and even a new lifer shorebird:
This guy is a Peruvian Thick-knee (Burhinus superciliaris) and it's only found in Chile, Ecuador, and Peru.  If it looks sleepy... maybe it was (thick-knees are most active at night).  I had seen Double-striped Thick-knee before but that was ages ago and in Venezuela instead.  Being quite partial to shorebirds, this sighting still ranks quite high for me.

Once we paid more attention to scoping the sand, we found a variety of other shorebirds scooting around too including Semipalmated and Black-bellied plovers, Sanderlings, and a few American Oystercatchers.

In a nearby grassy area, a Yellowish Pipit (Anthus lutescens) was displaying, singing and flying up through the mist.  But before long, it was time to load up and venture south.  Checklist here.

We headed south a couple of hours to Pucasana but by the time we got there, I was feeling quite ill.  Maybe it was the lack of sleep or the exhaust fumes (which have bothered me in the past) but either way, I was pretty out of it for a few hours.  Thankfully, I came around after a while and was back in lifer-ville before I knew it.

Our final stop of the day trip was at Los Pantanos de Villa.  The beaches hosted Gray Gulls (Leucophaeus modestus), a new favorite of mine (although I don't often play the favorite game):
These are austral migrants in that they breed farther south but migrate towards the tropics (north) in the nonbreeding season (their winter, our summer).

One can't see Inca Terns (Larosterna inca) for the first time and not mention it!  These rather exquisite terns breed only in Chile and Peru and are limited to the Humboldt Current:
The bright red bill and feet contrast quite nicely with the dark gray body and white "whiskers":
I was no longer in the land of familiar gulls either.  Here, I was looking at dark-backed, yellow-legged, black-tailed gulls known as Belcher's Gulls (Larus belcheri):
Floating by through the pleasant, 65 degree seaside mist, the giant Peruvian Pelicans (Pelecanus thagus) always seemed cool, calm, and collected:
Think they're the same as the pelicans we have back in North America?  Well, think again!  These guys are huge, almost twice the size of the related Brown Pelican.  Impressive indeed.  They're found on the Pacific coast of South America.

Almost on the Inca Tern level of gaudiness was this flashy cormorant known as a Red-legged Cormorant (Phalacrocorax gaimardi):
I couldn't help but remind myself that a year ago I was looking at Red-faced... but now I was looking at Red-legged!  What a year!

This idea of "Wow, I'm not in North America anymore" was hit home the hardest by this flying torpedo:
This, ladies and gentleman, was my first sighting of a wild penguin.  Humboldt Penguins (Spheniscus humboldti) breed in coastal Chile and Peru and I was actually giddy about seeing a species from this new order (Sphenisciformes).  

The Humboldt Current is amazing though.  It's said that it's the most productive marine ecosystem in the world.  Upwelling from this current occurs year-round off the coast of Peru and, trust me, you could tell just by looking offshore.  Birds... EVERYWHERE.  Thousands were streaming by:
One of the most numerous species we saw offshore were Peruvian Boobies (Sula variegata).  Check out this picture I captured of a diving booby just as it hits the water:
The booby is another species that's limited to the Humboldt Current and is only found in Peru and northern Chile.

In the same order as boobies, hundreds of Guanay Cormorants (Phalacrocorax bougainvillii) streamed past:
This species, which breeds on the coasts of Peru and Chile, is considered near-threatened due to habitat loss/degradation and over-fishing.  In fact, the population of this species has declined 30% in the last 30 years.  Hopefully that trend doesn't continue for another 70 years!

The beach and lagoon there at Los Pantanos de Villa hosted a number of other interesting things like this pair of American Oystercatchers (Haematopus paliatus):
... and, ahh, a bird I know... a Green Heron?
Not so fast.  Although related, this is a Striated Heron (Butorides striata).  These are actually quite widespread and reach places like Africa, Asia, and Australia.

A touch bigger (just kidding, WAY bigger) was this Chilean Flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis) we found loafing in the lagoon:
They ARE tall.  In fact, these guys stand more than 4 feet tall.  This is only my second flamingo species ever (the first coming earlier this year in Florida, actually).

Even after we left the lagoon, the commonplace yard birds were new for me.  For example, here's a Scrub Blackbird (Dives warczewiczi) chilling in some yard.  This species is only found in coastal Ecuador and Peru:
This big brute is a Long-tailed Mockingbird (Mimus longicaudatus):
Like the blackbird, this species is only found in coastal areas of Ecuador and Peru.

Anyway, our day trip had come to an end (our final checklist seen here) and I conked out pretty early, trying to catch up on sleep.  We had another early morning ahead of us but I was still looking forward to the next day, our first official day of tour.

We awoke dark and early, met up with our group downstairs, and ventured back across the road into the Lima airport.  Our hour-long flight to the southeast was uneventful (always a good thing) and before we knew it, we were in Cusco.

Cusco sits pretty high in elevation, higher than 11,000 feet (right, like double the elevation of Denver).  I thought Quito (Ecuador) was high but Cusco is nearly 2000 feet higher.  Anyway, we all enjoyed some coca tea when we arrived (to help with the elevation) and then it was on to Huacarpay Lakes.

Here's a picture I really like; a panorama of our group looking out into the marshes at Huacarpay:
Pretty quickly we started seeing some new birds like Yellow-winged Blackbirds (Agelasticus thilius).  Yes, think Red-winged Blackbird but with yellow replacing the red/orange in the wing.  This species is at its northern limit in Peru.

I was rather stunned when this hefty beast soared right over... a Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle (Geranoaetus melanoleucus):
Basically looking like a set of tapered wings (with almost no tail), the silhouette of these are pretty distinctive!

We worked the marsh edges and managed species like Plumbeous Rail, Many-colored Rush Tyrant, and Wren-like Rushbird.  In terms of ducks, we had Yellow-billed Teal, Puna Teal (below on the right), and Yellow-billed Pintail (below on the left) :
We also worked the dry hillsides and saw quality species like Streak-fronted Thornbird (Phacellodomus striaticeps) and this Rusty-fronted Canastero (Asthenes ottonis):
I've always been interested in seeing species that are limited geographically and so this Peruvian endemic (meaning it's not found in any other country) fit the bill.  In watching this bird, I managed to catch it in-between bushes:
If you want to see what else we saw at Huacarpay, you can see the checklist here.  Hint, there are things like chat-tyrants, ground-tyrants, negritos, and seedeaters on the list!

After reaching our lodge in Ollantaytamo, we ventured behind the hotel to bird the grounds and were quite happy with what we saw.  For example, how on earth can it get better than a Peruvian endemic that looks like THIS?!
This stunning hummingbird is a Bearded Mountaineer (Oreonympha nobilis) and it's only found in a small area of southern Peru.  Thankfully for us, it was quite easy to see at the hotel:
They're quite large too, reaching a length of nearly 7 inches!  In fact, that makes it larger than the following species...

This is a Cinereous Conebill (Conirostrum cinereum), a species that's limited to northwest South America:
We also saw this Golden-billed Saltator (Saltator aurantiirostris), a fairly widespread species in southern South America:
However, I think most people agreed that the highlight that afternoon (checklist here) was this little predator, a Peruvian Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium peruanum):
I can't complain, the view over our lodge at dusk was a dandy one too:
The next day we got up early because, after all, we had a train (and bus) to catch!  We took a train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (the town right below Machu Picchu).  However, we were met there with a 2-3 hour wait in line for the buses (when bus drivers go on strike, be prepared!).  No matter, we stood in line and slowly birded our way through Aguas Calientes.

Overhead we had a variety of swifts including White-tipped Swifts (Aeronautes montivagus), a species limited to northern South America:
Also in town, we had our first of many run-ins with a Golden-crowned Flycatcher (Myiodynastes chrysocephalus), a species we'd see often in the area:
Looking down alongside the rushing river, we saw several Torrent Tyrannulets (Serpophaga cinerea).  This distinctive species is, as the name suggests, found along rushing rivers and torrents.  And no, it doesn't eat snakes (like the genus suggests):
If you want to see more of this checklist, click here.

Anyway, we eventually got through the line, boarded a bus, and started up the steep hillside towards the ruins (there are 13 switchbacks, in case anyone is wondering).

Machu Picchu.  The name is even in our tour title.  It was finally time to visit this world-renowned site!  It was a bit surreal to be standing there, looking out over the sight you've seen in pictures a thousand times:
You've probably heard it said that "pictures don't do it justice" and, well, that's correct.  I found the surrounding topography of the extremely steep precipices just.... staggering:

Up close, the rock work of Machu Picchu, which is from the 15th century, is legend.  Such peculiar rock shapes!  You can see here how they were able to shape rocks exactly as needed to fill gaps:
Pay attention to the corner of this building... it's curved.  Yes, some of the individual rocks in this wall were rounded to fit exactly with the curve:
Up close even more, the way that the Incas were able to fit rocks together is quite amazing.  No mortar was used... and yet, you can't even slide a piece of paper between these rocks!
 Symmetry.  They had it down.
Visiting the ruins during the heat of the day really cut down on bird activity though, we saw fewer than 10 species!  Our best flock was waiting in line for the buses, actually.  Checklist here.  Turns out, the Blue-capped Tanager we saw there would be our only on tour.

In the end, it was a successful first couple of days.  We were staying in Aguas Calientes for another night or two and were planning on birding in the Mandor Valley the next day and a half.  Stay tuned for more posts about Peru!

30 July 2016

Calm before the storm

These summer days just continue to roll on by; sometimes faster than you want, sometimes slower.  It seems like the slowest days are hot, quiet, and muggy... funny how that works.  Missouri IS a hot and humid place for this northern boy... although I suppose people who grow up here are used to it.  Though some of the afternoons are unpleasant away from air conditioning, that still leaves the early morning to be out-and-about.

Lately, the mornings have been quite nice with even a touch of coolness to the air (if you can call 66 degrees cool!).  The sunrises have been nice too, sometimes with that foggy ground layer hovering over the damp grass:
Trying to make the most of the cool times of day, I often head out for a drive-about.  Yesterday I ventured westward to Mark Twain Lake.  This severely under-birded reservoir sits in two counties, Ralls and Monroe (which might make listing a bit complicated).  There is a giant spillway below the dam (Clarence Cannon Dam), as you would expect from this man-made lake.  I'm certain it will host a number of gulls come winter but for now, it's a rather tranquil spot early in the morning before all the fishermen show up:
Currently, the spillway is attracting mainly GREAT BLUE HERONS to gobble up dead or dying fish, nesting CLIFF SWALLOWS, and a whole hoard of bored TURKEY VULTURES:
The vultures and herons weren't the only large birds with a hankerin' for some dead fish though; this adult BALD EAGLE did its best to give a regal fly-by:
Elsewhere on Mark Twain Lake, the 7th largest lake in Missouri, I've been exploring lately to find a few access spots.  I'll say it again... this lake will absolutely host a nice variety of birds later in the fall/winter and I'm looking forward to the days of ducks, loons, and grebes.  For now, though, this flock of RING-BILLED GULLS was about the most exciting thing happening:
Mixed in with the gulls have been a couple of FORSTER'S and CASPIAN TERNS.  I imagine later in the fall we'll see things like Franklin's and Bonaparte's gulls.

Anyway, once it warmed up that day, the butterflies came out in force including this WILD INDIGO DUSKYWING:
Now I just wish I could find this species back on the property... it would be a new species there.

There was also this bright orange skipper darting about, I'm pretty sure it's another DELAWARE SKIPPER:
Yet another skipper from Mark Twain Lake, this one being on the other end of the brightness scale, was this COMMON SOOTYWING catching some warming rays:
This is a species I would see in Iowa and Nebraska when I lived there from 2008-2011.  However, I have seen few, if any, since those years so it was fun to see them again.

Back on the property, butterflies are some of the only interesting things flying around these days.  They range from this tiny LITTLE YELLOW:
... to this behemoth known as a GIANT SWALLOWTAIL:
Somewhere in between is this crisp, black-and-orange SILVERY CHECKERSPOT performing well in nice light:
However, the most interesting butterfly I've seen lately is this bright orange monster.  Look familiar to anyone?
This new species for the property is a GOATWEED LEAFWING, so named because when it closes its wings, it's very reminiscent of a leaf.  They're very fast flyers though so it took me a bit of work before I caught sight of where it landed.  Interestingly (for me, at least), I think this is the first time I've seen one since 2008 when I lived in Kansas.

Ok, fine, let's not leave out the dragonflies completely. Here's a WIDOW SKIMMER (Libellula luctuosa) looking pretty sharp out along the field edge:
Just today I headed east to Lock & Dam 22 on the Mississippi River.  This dam sits only 10 miles east of us (as the Fish Crow flies).  Yes indeed, FISH CROWS are findable here; here's one perched near the dam:
Sometimes they literally use the dam.  Here you can see that not only can these crows read, they obey signs:
But seriously, it's neat having this smaller species of crow around (I'm sure some of you are thinking "Woah, I didn't even know there was more than one kind!).  This species is found up the East Coast, through the south along the Gulf Coast, and then up the Mississippi River Basin as far as Missouri.  They've colonized areas farther north as well but Hannibal is pretty close to the northern normal limit of their range.  Speaking of the Mississippi, here she is on a sultry, summer morning.  You're looking northeast and the land on the right/far side is Illinois:
Anyway, so this is the calm before the storm, you ask?  Indeed, I'll be venturing to South America within the week... very unlike this train that was venturing through Hannibal: