I’m in Peru! An overview of Peru’s diverse habitats

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.

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A view near the highest elevation I’ve been in my life (4818 m or ~15800 ft) in the Central Andes.

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.

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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.

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A view of Lake Junín and its surrounding wetlands in the Central Andes (~4000 m or 13,000 ft).

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.

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Looking down into the Santa Eulalia Valley on the west slopes of the Andes Mountains.

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.

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The cloud forests on the east slopes of the Andes, in Central Peru

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.

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A view of the mysterious and spectacular mist oases in the super dry Peruvian desert. This is at Lomas de Lachay.

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!

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A pristine tropical dry forest of Northern Peru (photo a bit washed out). This is at the Santuario Historico Bosque de Pomac.

#FieldWorkFail

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
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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
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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:

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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
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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
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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
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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
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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!

Back to blogging and a brief catch 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.

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A scanning electron microscopy image of a black-chinned hummingbird purple throat feather.
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Another scanning electron microscopy image looking down some barbs of a broad-tailed hummingbird pink throat feather.

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.

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A Costa’s hummingbird perched at Boyd Deep Canyon in California.
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An Allen’s hummingbird I filmed and caught in Riverside, California.
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A view from the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park.
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The beautiful red rocks near Sedona, AZ.
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A sizable waterfall at Tahquamenon Falls State Park in Michigan.
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Looking out at Lake Michigan over the the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes.
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One of the newly remodeled and awesome science buildings at Trinity University.

 

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!
Rick

Conclusion of filming hummingbirds with documentary crew

In the end, things went very well, and the film crew seemed to have gotten all the shots they wanted. But before I get into how everything went, I wanted to give some background on the broad-tailed hummingbirds.

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Broad-tailed hummingbirds are part of a subset (~36 species) of all hummingbirds (330+ species) called the bee tribe. The bee hummingbirds are unique because they are widespread across North, Central, and South America, whereas many other hummingbird tribes are only found in Central and South America. They are also typically very small, ranging from 3-4 grams. The bees are also the group I am focusing on for my dissertation. The reason for this is that most of the species in this group have both colorful throat plumage (also called a gorget) and stereotyped courtship display behaviors. Most species have two types of display behaviors: the shuttle and dive displays. The dive display is when a male flies high into the air, sometimes over 100 ft, and then plummets down towards a female, pulling up near her and flying back high into the sky to repeat the behavior. During this dive display, the male opens up  his tail, which males a sound. The other display is called the shuttle display, which is the focus of my work. During this display a male hovers back and forth in front of the female with his gorget flared and facing her. Across the species in bee hummingbirds, there is a great diversity of coloration and there is quite a bit of variation in their courtship displays, especially the shuttles:
Costa’s – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bdEma-rnS8
Black-chinned – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_Xf3tnQJqg
Broad-tailed – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWWuhbVF_qM

Top - Black-chinned Bottom - Costa's Left - Rufous Right - Broad-tailed
Top – Black-chinned
Bottom – Costa’s
Left – Rufous
Right – Broad-tailed

Like I mentioned above, broad-tailed hummingbirds are part of this tribe, and thus have a colorful gorget and their own versions of the shuttle display (see link above). This species is one of my favorites, partly because they were the first I worked on, but also because they are high elevation specialists, which means I get to do my fieldwork in the mountains! I’ve typically found this species from 5,000 to 7,000 feet, but I know I’ve seen them as high as 9,000 feet. They mostly occur in Arizona, Nevada, and throughout the lower Rocky Mountains (New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming), but they also have footholds in several other states like California. I’ve found them in a range of habitats from alpine meadows to piñon-juniper forests to mixed-coniferous forests, like the following pictures.

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They are common visitors to feeders at high elevation towns as well. Broad-tailed hummingbird males, like some other species in the tribe, make near continuous trill noises when they fly, created by their wing feathers, which is actually quite pretty to listen to. The sound is quickened and amplified during their shuttles, as you can hear in the video. Here is another video, though not the best quality, of a male shuttling. This video is looking at the male over the female’s shoulder, but it is not focused on the male because he is moving too fast for my camera.

This video is also what the film crew was working to capture, though they have a $50,000 dollar camera that films at 4k, so it will be much much much higher quality. They also filmed the male displaying at an angle without the cage in the view. Luckily, on the last day of filming, we found a very cooperative male who shuttled many times for us and in the right spot, which allowed the film crew to get all the shots they wanted.

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Overall, it was a great experience to work with this crew, and I learned a lot about the process to make a nature documentary from start to finish. I really hope to work with the Coneflower Studios again, and I will let everyone know when the documentary will be shown on PBS and out on DVD! Below are some pictures of the crew in action. Coneflower studios producer Ann Prum manned the camera, while associate producer Melanie Quinn was recording audio and helping me with the cage set up. The little camera to the side is mine.

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