Hello everyone and welcome to my blog! To those who have followed some of my previous blog attempts – welcome back! My name is Rick Simpson, and I am finishing my 3rd year of my Ph.D. at Arizona State University. Through this blog, I plan to share my thoughts, opinions, and stories on a variety of topics, such as life as a graduate student, my travels across Arizona and elsewhere, and my research experiences. I may also write about and discuss cool and interesting papers as they arise. Additionally, because I am interested in colorful and exaggerated visual traits in animals, I will be posting as many pictures and other visual media as possible throughout my posts. Some posts will be long, while others will be short. In some, I might rant about something that bothers me, but I will keep that to a minimum. Ultimately, I hope that this blog will be both entertaining and informative! Finally, please give me feedback as I go, so that I can continue to improve.
For this post, I am going to take a break from posting about my Peru travels to talk about hummingbirds and why they are so cool. My Ph.D. is focused on understanding hummingbird coloration and their courtship displays, but I am always asked why I chose to study hummingbirds over other animals. It certainly was not because they are an easy group to study. Quite the opposite – they can be very difficult to work with in some ways. Throughout this post, I am going to elaborate more on why I chose to study hummingbirds, but also in general, why hummingbirds are so interesting and fun to study. I am also going to include lots of pictures of different hummingbird species, as these are such photogenic animals!
Hummingbirds are only found in the New World (North, Central, and South America). There have been hummingbird-like fossils found in the Old World, and it is suggested that the ancestors of hummingbirds moved from the Old World to the New World through the Bering Straight. The ancestors then theoretically made their way down to South America and hummingbirds evolved from there. Hummingbirds are thought to have evolved about 22 million years ago, based on fossil and genetic data. Some of the oldest hummingbird species are pictures below.
There are roughly 340 species of hummingbirds currently, though new species are still being discovered. While we boast around 20-25 species in the United States, hummingbirds are most diverse in the Andes Mountains and Amazon Rainforest. The country with the most hummingbird species is Colombia, which boasts over 160 species!
Hummingbirds span a wide range of body sizes, with the smallest hummingbird (bee hummingbird) averaging around 2 grams (0.07 oz) and the largest hummingbird (giant hummingbird) averaging around 20 grams (0.7 oz). Many hummingbirds range between 3-7 grams overall (0.11-0.25 oz), and most of the species I study range between 2.5-4 grams (0.09-0.14 oz).
Hummingbird flight is also very unique relative to birds. They flap their wings in a figure eight pattern, and unlike many birds, they generate similar forces with their upstrokes compared to their downstrokes. Hummingbirds can also hover, a rare trait in birds, and I believe they are the only birds that can fly backwards. Their metabolism is also very fast. Their weight can change quite a bit over the course of a day as they eat and burn up energy. And hummingbirds hearts can beat over 1000 times per minute. This fast metabolism poses a problem at night, when hummingbirds have to go many hours without eating. Some hummingbirds will go into a hibernation-like state at night, called torpor, to conserve energy. They essentially shut off their bodies, and their heart rate can drop from 1000 beats/min to 100 beats/min. This is especially common in hummingbirds that live in colder places or at high elevations. Some hummingbird species like the Ecuadorian Hillstar can occur up to 17,000 feet (~5200 meters) above sea level!
One misconception about hummingbirds is that they only feed on nectar. While they have definitely evolved many specializations for nectar feeding, such as their hovering, long bills, and fast metabolism, they cannot survive on sugar water alone. Hummingbirds feed on insects, such as fruit flies, in order to obtain essential proteins, vitamins, and minerals. However, hummingbird bills can present interesting challenges to eating insects, such as for the sword-billed hummingbird (longest bill to body length of a bird) or the sickle-billed hummingbird (below). Also, hummingbirds interestingly have forked tongues.
Because many hummingbirds live in the tropics, most do not migrate. There are some high elevation hummingbirds that will migrate to lower elevations during the winter/dry season in the tropics. In North America, we have several species that migrate. Some rufous hummingbirds travel from Mexico all the way to Alaska and back every year. Some ruby-throated hummingbirds fly straight across the Gulf of Mexico, an incredible feat for a bird that cannot store too much fat for the long trip. Interestingly, some hummingbird migratory paths have been changing due to hummingbird feeders. Many rufous hummingbirds are now found migrating to the Southeastern US instead of Mexico. Other species have expanded their ranges due to humans. Anna’s hummingbirds have expanded their range into Canada and Arizona, when they originally occurred in California.
There are several reasons I decided to study hummingbirds. The first reason is their crazy colors. You can essentially find every color under the rainbow in hummingbirds, and some species actually do seemingly have every color themselves (like the fiery-throated hummingbird). Hummingbirds also possess a fascinating type of color called iridescence. This type of color looks different depending on the angles it is observed from and the angles it is illuminated from. Essentially, as the hummingbird moves around, the color of its plumage will change, as shown in this video (link). Because I am interested in how behaviors and colors interact and co-evolved, iridescent coloration provides a great system to study these interactions. Overall, the species I study, while very pretty, are actually quite boring relative to many other hummingbird species. Here are a few of my favorite species:
Another reason I study hummingbirds, is that many of them have elaborate dances males perform to females. This is especially true in the 10- species I study. And the interesting part is that the species I study all have similar variations of two types of displays: 1) the dive display ; 2) the shuttle display (link). The dive display is typically where a male flies high into the air, and then dives down over or near his target. The shuttle display is where a male flies rapidly back and forth in front of their target (usually a female), facing it and presenting their throat coloration. Because these displays are similar across species, I can really explore how evolution shaped each species’ specific display and why they are different from each other.
Hummingbirds are also very charismatic and fun animals to work with and observe. They are so bold and curious. They live such fast-paced lives and are always interacting – mostly fighting. And because they occur all over the place, I have gotten to travel all across Arizona, California, and now Peru. Hummingbird’s reliance on nectar can also make it easy to lure them to feeders, where I can observe and catch them. It is still quite difficult to catch a hummingbird sometimes, but feeders definitely help. Overall, hummingbirds are such unique and interesting animals, providing lots of opportunities to study many aspects of their biology. But hummingbirds also provide opportunities to ask broad questions about color and behavior evolution, which is the key reason I am studying them. I actually just submitted my first chapter to a journal, so when that ultimately gets accepted (fingers crossed!) I will blog about those results. For now, I hope this post taught you a few cool facts about hummingbirds and provided a better explanation for why I study them. If you are interested in learning more about hummingbirds, there are two hummingbird-focused PBS Nature documentaries I would recommend. The first is Magic in the Air and the second is one I helped with called Super Hummingbirds (available for free here).
The costal deserts of Central and Southern Peru, combined with the costal deserts of Northern Chile, are some of the driest places in the world. The Atacoma desert in Northern Chile is, to my knowledge, THE driest place in the world (excluding the poles). These deserts (including Lima, the Peruvian capital) typically get 0.2-0.6 inches (5-15 mm) of rain a year. In comparison, Phoenix gets around 8 inches (200 mm) a year, and Death Valley gets around 2.4 inches (60 mm) a year. This incredible lack of rain in these Peruvian deserts leads to some very, very barren areas. As I drove around the deserts of Central Peru, there was very little growing anywhere. It made the Sonoran deserts around Phoenix seem like a lush tropical rainforest in comparison.
But, despite this dryness, there is life to be found in these deserts if you know where to look. During certain times of year, water filled costal air blows onto land and gets carried upwards by the immediate slopes of the Andes Mountains. At low elevations (~300-1500 ft; 100-500m), this causes dense blankets of fog and mist to form and settle on the land. While it still does not rain, many plants and animals have adapted to secure water from this different source. This has led to the creation of mist oases – called “lomas” in Peru. I visited two of these places, and they were probably the most unique habitats I have visited in my life.
The first lomas I visited is a well known and popular national reserve called Lomas Lachay, which is north of Lima. As I was driving on the Pan-American highway, I was amazed by just how barren the desert was out there. Then I turned off the highway on this dirt road that started going up into the mountains. After a short while, the mist got thicker and the ground turned from sand to a sort of black bio-crust.
Then I hit the lomas, and was completely blown away. Suddenly in front of me was a lush green carpet of vines and bushy plants, shrouded in the densest mist I have ever seen.
I continued driving on the muddy road in the reserve to the beautiful songs of Peruvian meadowlarks, which are red unlike our yellow meadowlarks.
I then hiked around on these very muddy trails (from all the fog). Some of these trails quite steep, and I had some difficulty keeping my footing on the downhills. I spent several hours at this place, looking for hummingbirds, and while I was unable to find any, I was able to deeply enjoy this wonderful reserve and mist oasis.
After Lomas Lachay, I went to another lomas – whose name I am still not sure of but I think it is called Lomas Pachacamac. This was not an official reserve, and I actually had to drive around a wall that blocked the main road into it. This lomas did not have as many trees and the mist was a bit less dense than Lachay, but it was still very lush and green. I tried driving around the area a bit, but the roads were incredibly steep and narrow, so I just walked them. At this place, I found many burrowing owls, which were fun to watch.
Overall, these experiences in these mist oases were just astounding. I am very curious to visit them when I return to Peru in February, because the costal wet season will be over, and they will potentially be dried up. I am not sure what the wildlife does at that point, but I will try to figure out it next time I visit! I hope you enjoyed this post on these unique mist oases, and my next post will be about my wonderful trip to the Central Andes of Peru!
I am currently in the wonderful country Peru as part of a two-trip research venture to study Peruvian hummingbirds. I am expanding my current dissertation from the six species I have focused on in the US to closely related species in Peru. I will talk more about my specific research plans in a later post, but for this first post, I wanted to talk about the incredible diversity of habitats and environments that can be found in Peru.
Peru is a fairly large country, roughly twice the size of Texas or just a little smaller than Alaska. Here is an image from the CIA’s website to illustrate the size of Peru compared to the US.
For biodiversity, in the US and Canada, you can find around 900 species of birds, which is quite a large number. However in Peru, there are over 1800 species of birds, which is one of the highest numbers in the world. And that is just birds. There are over 500 species of mammals, 600 species of reptiles and amphibians, tens of thousands of insect species (including over 4000 butterfly species), and over 20000 species of plants. Those are incredible numbers, but how does Peru obtain such biodiversity? Through a combination of the Amazon Rainforest, Andes Mountains, and the Pacific Ocean.
Peru can broadly be broken down into three distinct regions: 1) the desert coast; 2) the sierra (Andes Mountains); 3) the Amazon. These regions vary from west to east, with the coast on the west and Amazon on the east. Peru can further be broken down from north to south. Northern Peru has some of the lowest mountains in the Andean chain and is close to the Equator, which leads to very different seasonality and the presence of tropical dry forests near the coast instead of just barren desert. Central and Southern Peru are somewhat similar, but the Andes are wider and higher (on average) in Southern Peru.
The Andes Mountains dictate much of the biodiversity in Peru, though the Amazon contributes a ton as well. Peru’s mountains have a very dry west slope, which is fairly close to the Pacific coast, and a very humid and wet east slope. In the middle, there are several large plateaus and valleys, that have their own unique properties, such as the Marañon, or temperate deciduous forests, in Northern Peru’s Andean valleys, and the high elevation, cold and dry Puna grasslands found in throughout the high Andes (over 3500 m or 11500 ft). As you move up in elevation on both slopes, but especially the east slope, the plant and animal compositions change drastically. This can be best witnessed on the east slope, as you start in specialized high elevation humid forests, such as Elfin forests, and then descend into typical cloud forests, which harbor amazing biodiversity, before dropping into the varied and vast lowland Amazon rainforest.
So far, I have mostly stuck to the coast and west slopes of Peru. I have spent most of my time in Lima, which is the capital of Peru, and in the Peruvian coastal desert. Peru’s coastal desert is one of the driest places in the world, but also is home to the spectacular mist oases, called Lomas.
I made two trips into the Andes from Lima, one sticking on the west slopes, and one going into the heart of the Central Andes, where I hit 4818 m (~15800 ft) and explored the Puna grasslands and a high elevation lake named Lago Junín. While I was in the Central Andes, I did take a day-trip to the east slope cloud forests, which allowed me to see a completely different side of Peru. I also took a five-day trip to Northern Peru, still sticking to the coast, but where I explored Peru’s tropical dry forests. Overall, I have only explored a small bit of Peru, but it has been am amazing visit full of many unique experiences for me! Over the next several posts, I will document these experiences, and then next Spring (for us) I will return to Peru to continue my work on hummingbirds!
Wow does time fly! This post is much delayed for two main reasons – lack of internet during fieldwork and a crazy busy travel schedule. In the past two months, I’ve been all over Arizona doing fieldwork and then I traveled to Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and South Carolina! Now I am in Peru. But more on all that later!
This post is a follow up on my earlier post on field work fails (Getting stuck in the mud without pants), but instead of a single story, I will present a series of photos documenting failures and mini stories explaining each one. I hope you enjoy!
#FieldWorkFail Number 1: Centipede in the sink
Whenever you are doing fieldwork, you should expect to have many different encounters with wildlife, whether you want to or not. However, this was something I was not expecting. After washing my dishes at a field station in the Mohave desert of Southern California, this roughly 8-inch long centipede crawled out of the garbage disposal. It scared the s**t out of me! I did not kill it though; I managed to scoop it up in a dust bin and throw it outside. It was only afterwards that I learned this was a Scolopendra, which can have very painful bites that sometimes result in hospital visits. Luckily I was not bit.
#FieldWorkFail Number 2: Hugging a teddy bear cholla
At the same field station, I had the unfortunate luck of running into a teddy bear cholla. In case you do not know what these are, here is a picture of some:
These cacti have a very misleading name. Even though they do want to give you a hug, do not let them because they will hurt and make you bleed. And typically the only way to get the huge ball of spikes out of you is with pliers.
#FieldWorkFail Number 3: The bird who pooped all over my car
When I was down in Southeast Arizona, I was fortunate enough to see many cool and rare birds. In this photo, you can see one of the interesting birds I saw – the hooded oriole. When I first saw it, I got very excited and took many pictures. Then I saw it attacking itself in my car’s rearview mirrors, and I thought it was amusing. However, the next day when I went to check on my car, I found poop all down the sides of my car where the bird had been attacking itself, which took forever to clean off. Lesson learned – when birds get mad, they poop everywhere and it is no longer amusing.
#FieldWorkFail Number 4: When I thought I lost a captive bird
Keeping animals in captivity when in the field can always be a bit nerve racking. What if they get attacked by something? What if they escape? What if they get too hot or too cold? etc. These are some of the many questions that go through my mind when I have hummingbirds in captivity, despite having great success at doing so with many species. But when I saw this roadrunner with something dead in its beak run from the barn I had my captive hummingbirds housed in, I panicked. I raced to the barn only to find all my cages intact and my birds safe. I then zoomed in on the photo and realized it was a dead mouse in the roadrunner’s beak. Heart attack avoided!
Note – when I keep hummingbirds in captivity, they are inside individual cloth mesh cages that are hung inside a large screen tent for double protection. I also check on them regularly and keep them in safe places, such as a barn. And all of my captive work is approved by the US Fish and Wildlife Services, Arizona Game and Fish, Arizona Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, and the field stations at which I work.
#FieldWorkFail Number 5: That time a male acted very odd
When I first started working with hummingbirds, I tried many different things to get them to do their courtship displays. Some species have been known to court hummingbird mounts, and so I attempted to present a mounted hummingbird to a broad-tailed hummingbird male. I expected the male to either display to the mount or attack it, which are two very normal hummingbird behaviors both of which I have observed. Instead, this male flew up to my mount, and used its bill as a perch. And it just sat there, staring at me. This was entirely unexpected and very strange. After this incident, I decided to scrap that method and have never used it again, but at least I got some interesting photos from the situation.
#FieldWorkFail Number 6: I hate the wind
When I am doing fieldwork, my number one mortal enemy is the wind, even above ants! And that is because of moments like the one captured in this photo. Here I was simply trying to trap a male hummingbird using a caged female and feeder as a lure, when it suddenly got really windy, blowing my cage around, and making the nets flap like crazy. All of this movement scared the male away, and I never caught him. I ended up having to stop work early that day too because it was just so windy. So yah, I hate the wind.
And those are some of my #FieldWorkFail captured on camera. I hope you enjoyed it, and I will blog again soon with travel updates and maybe some cool pictures from Peru!
In the beginning of May, I traveled to Michigan to visit my sister, who took us on a great adventure while I visited. I had never been to Michigan and was not sure what to expect, but what I saw was a wonderful surprise to me. We journeyed to the Upper Peninsula (UP) and visited some national lake shores and state parks, all of which were quite beautiful! But as mentioned in the title, it was very cold in the UP – with windchill it was in the 20s F, so that was very different from the 90-100 degree weather from Phoenix! Despite this, I really enjoyed this trip and was able to see some amazing sights of sand dunes, lowland pine forests, and of course the Great Lakes,
Our first stop was Tahquamenon Falls State Park, which was an inland park in the UP along the Tahquamenon River. Along the lovely pine forests the river was full of beautiful waterfalls, with the lower falls being small and the upper falls quite large. We did a few hikes here and enjoyed the riverside forest and sound of the falls as we did.
Then we went to Pictured Rock National Lakeshore. We visited this place twice, once in the evening and once in the morning. Here we found small sand dunes, some blanketed with short and stout pine trees, and other bare or with some grass. After hiking along the dunes for a bit, I was given my first real view of Lake Superior. And wow was it a sight to behold! I still cannot believe that I was looking at a lake and not the ocean.
We also visited some of the more famous points of the lakeshore – namely where the place gets its name: the pictured rocks. These rock walls looked like the product of uncountable years of erosion from the lake’s powerful waves and the strong winds. They were very pretty and had the wind not been so strong (making it very cold) we could have stayed there for a long while. We also visited a few beaches along Lake Superior within the national lakeshore. These were just like those you would find in the ocean; smooth, soft sand glowing blue-green water. It was remarkable, because if the weather had just been warm, I would have thought I was somewhere in Southern California or Florida.
After Pictured Rock National Lakeshore, we left the main part of the UP and visited Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore/State Park. Here we climbed massive sand dunes that seemed to spring out of know where. It was quite strange seeing these massive sand dunes surrounded by temperate forests, but they were very fun to climb. We hiked across them for quite a ways towards Lake Michigan, and after a long hike, we finally made it to that lake’s beach. It was fun to see the different plant and animal life living in the dunes, including trees, which must have a rough time staying put as the dunes shift!
Overall, I had a wonderful time visiting Michigan and was blown away by its beauty and spender, especially with regards to its beaches, sand dunes, and forests. I highly recommend everyone to visit the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, though I would recommend you visit when it is a bit warmer! Finally, a want to give a huge thank you to my sister for showing us the wonders of Michigan and the UP!
Wow, it is amazing how time flies in grad school. It is hard to believe that is has been over four months since the last time I blogged! The main reason for my lack of blogging these past several months has been my work load. I ended up biting off a little more than I could chew, work-wise, this semester, which kept me from dedicating time to blogging. Luckily, I can say with confidence that I now have much more time to dedicate to this blog and it will not just disappear! Plus, I have a lot of exciting prospects in the future to talk about, so there will be no shortage of material to write about!
While most of the work things that kept me from blogging were not to exciting, I still had some very exciting events occur during that time. Firstly, I was awarded the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant for $20,085!!!!! This was an amazing and huge success that will go a long way towards some exciting new research ventures. I was also awarded a United States Agency for International Research and Innovation Fellowship and an Arizona State University Graduate College Completion Fellowship!! Combined these grants and fellowships are allowing me to expand my research to studying hummingbirds in Peru and conduct electron microscopy on hummingbird feathers (both scanning “SEM” and transmission “TEM” electron microscopy). The electron microscopy work will allow me to quantify the surface and internal structures of hummingbird feathers that are responsible for producing the amazing colors hummingbirds exhibit, while the trip to Peru will allow me to study several new species for my dissertation work, such as the Peruvian sheartail and oasis hummingbird. Below are a few photos of some scanning electron microscopy work I have done so far.
In addition to getting these grants and fellowships, I also gave my first set of public seminars on my hummingbird dissertation research. I first gave an hour long seminar to the Maricopa Audubon Society (link) and then gave another hour long seminar through the Audubon’s Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch’s Potluck and Presentations series (link). Both of these talks were great experiences, and they seemed to be met with enthusiasm from the audience, which was very encouraging.
Outside of grants and talks I did some fieldwork in March on Costa’s and Allen’s hummingbirds, visited the Grand Canyon and Sedona, went on some adventures in Michigan, and visited my undergraduate university (Trinity University). I will try to make a post out of each of these, but here are a few photos from each.
I greatly appreciate everyone’s patients with my lack of posting, but I am very happy to be back and excited to start blogging again! I would also like to give a shout out to my old school friends from Houston – Gabe and Carl. Thank you for keeping up with my blog!!
Until next time!
Over the past few weeks I went hiking with our new one year old puppy, Paprika, trying to train her to become a great hiking dog. Luckily she is already a well behaved dog who walks well. We ended up doing two fairly long day-hikes (5+ miles) both on the same trail, but from different ends. We went to one of my favorite getaways near Tempe, the Mazatzal Mountains. In these mountains, there is a trail called the Ballantine trail, which is a really neat trail and it is one of a few where within less than 10 miles you can hike past both saguaros and pine trees.
The first hike we did was from the higher elevation end of the Ballantine trail, which seems to rarely be used. I can definitely understand why few people use it, as we spent 45 minutes on a rough, bumpy road, which Paprika was not the biggest fan of, especially on the way back. Once we got to the trailhead parking lot, I ran into a problem with this trail – I could not find the trailhead. After several attempts at hiking what looked like a trail, we finally found the trailhead. It is hard for me to call the first leg of this trail a trail, because it was more like finding where the grasses were slightly parted. As it turns out, Paprika is a great trailblazer, and she helped me find the trail many times.
After the first 1/2 mile or so, I started to find more cairns which helped us keep on the trail better. The trail was really neat, because we started in a windswept valley, which was mostly grass and shrubby trees, but as we climbed further up into the valley, more taller trees appeared. Paprika did very well even with the increasing elevation. She was always quite a bit ahead, smelling everything she could!
The trail had also recently received a lot of water, which was fun, but also meant someone got really muddy…. Towards the point where we turned around, the trail had pretty much become a pinyon pine/juniper forest, which I always enjoy hiking in. I eventually turned around because we got to a point in the trail where it become really narrow and was flanked by cacti, which I did not want the dog brushing up against. So we turned around and headed back down into the valley, and got to see some beautiful views on the way back. I also learned that Paprika does not have a full appreciation for steep valley walls and would sometimes try to go straight down instead of using switchbacks.
Now the second hiking trip I did with Paprika started at the lower elevation trailhead for the Ballantine trail with our friend Eric Moody (check him out here). This trailhead is right off of highway 87, so it is very easy to get to, but the problem is that you hear the highway for the first 1/2 mile to 1 mile. This trail is very well kept however, so hiking it was very easy. During this leg of the trail, we hiked in mid-elevation Sonoran desert, which was a mix of shrubby trees/bushes and cacti.
The coolest part from this hike was that the Mazatzals had recently received a ton of snow, so we were treated to seeing the high elevation peaks of the Mazatzals, the nearby Mt. Ord, and the famous Four Peaks all covered in snow. This made for some beautiful and juxtaposing landscapes with saguaros in the foreground and snowy mountains in the background. Arizona is pretty awesome like that!
Paprika did really well on this hike too, despite having stepped on a cholla ball. The only other thing that held her up was that some horse riders passed us early on the hike and she seems scared of the horses and reluctant to follow their trail. However with Eric and my encouragement, she carried on and completed her longest hike yet!
Now that I have tested the waters with Paprika and hiking, I plan to continue to hike and eventually camp/backpack with her, so more on that in the future!