About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Chaparrí; a special private reserve doing vital work

Northern Peru has many surprises for the visitor, not least because it far less well known and publicised than the tourist-seething south of the country. One of these is Chaparrí, a community-based private reserve which in 2001 became the first in the country to be formally recognised by government. In fact it was the efforts of the community, culminating in the declaration of the reserve in 2000, which resulted in the new legislation enabling the recognition of such privately owned conservation areas. This community initiative was funded by Peruvian wildlife photographer Heinz Plenge and various conservation groups. 

The community allows the reserve managers to manage their land - totalling 34,000 hectares - in return for them benefitting from entrance fees and income from the simple but very attractive and comfortable lodge. Moreover community members work as guards, guides, lodge staff and on conservation projects such as the Spectacled Bear rehabilitation centre, as well as on construction and maintenance projects.

Set in the dry forests of the Tumbes Bioregion 75km east of the city of Chiclayo, the reserve is firstly very beautiful indeed.
Typical Chaparrí landscape.
The high mountain in the middle of the ridge is Chaparrí iteslf, for which the reserve was named.
It was apparently of great cultural significance to the local Muchik people.
The red arrow is pointing to Chiclayo, near the coast; Chaparrí is slightly inland from it,
near the village (and surrounding community) of Santa Catarina de Chongoyape;
the village is often known simply as Chongoyape.
The importance of Chaparrí however goes beyond its beauty. The Tumbes Bioregion (technically ‘Equatorial Pacific Seasonally Dry Forests of south-west Ecuador and north-west Peru’!) is a biodiversity area of world importance. Indeed it is regarded as one of the world’s three top conservation priorities (along with the Philippines and Brazil’s Atlantic coastal forests), based on the number of both endemic and threatened species present. Birdlife International describes it as "one of the most important and threatened of all Endemic Bird Areas”. Just 4% of the original forests are in good condition; there are an astonishing 65 bird species endemic to the region, 21 of which are threatened with extinction, and nine endemic mammals, of which six are threatened. 60% of the reptiles and frogs present are also endemic. Remarkably, 39 of these endemic birds can be found at Chaparrí. Of these, the 'flagship species' is probably the appallingly rare White-winged Guan Penelope albipennis, whose world population is probably less than 250, a quarter of which live at Chaparrí, stemming from a reintroduction of 16 birds in 2001.
White-winged Guan at Chaparrí; it is very exciting to see this Critically Endangered species here,
as it is very difficult indeed to find it elsewhere.

Mind you, it's almost embarrassingly easy to see here; this bird was preparing to roost for
the night on the roof of the lodge!
Other Tumbes endemics are readily seen around the lodge and on the walking tracks.
Plumbeous-backed Thrush Turdus reevei.
Tumbes Tyrant Tumbezia (or Ochthoeca) salvini.
Tumbes Sparrow Rhynchospiza stolzmanni.This New World sparrow (or bunting, according to some) has a very small range.
White-headed Brushfinch Atlapetes albiceps.Like the sparrow (above) this lovely brushfinch has a tiny range, but is doing quite well within that range.
Pacific (or Peruvian) Pygmy-Owl Glaucidium peruanum.A tiny owl, no more than 16cm long, whose size probably belies its ferocity, as it regularly
attracts a mob of angry small birds when it's found roosting in the open.
Tumbes Hummingbird Leucippus baeri. This plain-coloured species comes (with many other species)
every morning to drink at a pool in the creek just below the outdoor dining room.
It has a tiny range too, barely getting into Ecuador.
Collared Antshrike female Thamnophilus bernardi.Like most of its family, this species stays low and skulking in the understorey, but is
all around the lodge and quite readily seen.
White-edged Oriole Icterus graceannae, just showing (above the intervening branch)
the white edge to its wing from which derives its name.
White-tailed Jay Cyanocorax mystacalis, a spectacular Tumbesian endemic which sometimes
comes to the lodge feeders.
And that is, I think, a fairly impressive collection of endemics for a brief visit. Other more widespread species are also present of course.
Groove-billed Anis Crotophaga sulcirostris gathering sociably after a bath in a pond.
These non-parasitic cuckoos are indeed highly sociable, with up to five pairs laying their
eggs into a single nest.
Golden Grosbeak Pheucticus chrysogaster female. These lovely birds (the males are more brightly
coloured) are widespread in the reserve.
And of course birds aren't the only animals present! The most exciting non-bird present is for most people probably the Spectacled (or Andean) Bears which divide their time between being protected in large forested enclosures, and spending increasing time in the reserve, preparatory to being released into the wild. They are mostly rescued (illegal) pets, abandoned when they got too big, or confiscated by wildlife officers. Many arrive in very poor condition.

Spectacled Bear Tremarctos ornatus, keeping an eye on the breakfast proceedings from the creek below.
Guards keep an eye on them when they approach people, and usher them away if necessary.
The only South American bear (whose ancestors arrived only in the past few million years), Spectacled Bears
are almost entirely vegetarian, with bromeliad shoots forming an important part of their diet.
This dry country population is unusual, in that they are more normally found in cloud forest and
high mountain treeless paramo.
The bear wasn't the only one with an interest in the dining room. This female Collared Peccary Pecari tajacuregularly brought her two piglets around to see what might be on offer.


Guayaquil Squirrel Sciurus stramineus. Despite the name (Guayaquil is a big city in
southern Ecuador) this large squirrel is found through the Tumbes.
Green Iguana Iguana iguana. This impressive big lizard (up to 1.5 metres long) is found
widely in central and South America. They mostly eat fruit and vegetation.
As I've mentioned, the reserve is dominated by dry open forest.
Cactuses are not uncommon in the open parts of the reserve.
One unusual aspect during our visit (last October) was the aftermath of the wet El Niño season earlier in the year. While the rampant growth that resulted had died back by the time we got there, much of the vegetation was covered with dried creepers, making wildlife spotting harder.

Accommodation is scattered, simple, comfortable and solar-powered. Some of the rooms are near to the wonderful al fresco dining room (where local women prepare simple but superb local food), but others (including ours) are across the creek, in the dry forest. (The antshrike photo above was taken from our verandah, equipped with hammock.)
Access via swing bridge to the other side of the creek.
Our cabin, made in the local tradition.

Verandah (the hammock is almost out of sight behind the twisty tree trunk on the left).

Detail of wall decoration.

Traditional woven ceiling.
Visiting Chaparrí is a rare delight; it is isolated along 15km of unsealed, sometimes rough, road and you can only go with a local guide, so your stay will be quiet and peaceful. It feels very remote. It should be an unalloyed success story but nothing's ever quite that simple, sadly. Some of the community seemingly had somewhat unrealistic expectations of the financial benefits, and are becoming dissatisfied with the less than hoped-for (albeit regular) return. One land owner (to be honest I don't fully understand the relationship between community and personal ownership) has been persuaded to sell up to someone who is already clearing the forest for farming - in the middle of the reserve, to the distress of the reserve staff and managers. There is also a sense of unease about threats from squatters from elsewhere, to whom undeveloped land means unwanted land. 

We can only hope that the majority of the community are willing to hold firm and value their precious Tumbes environment as much as their parents did, who made the far-sighted decision 18 years ago. It was inspiring then, and should be inspiring now. One thing you can do is visit if you're in that part of the world; I can promise it won't be a hardship!

Sunset over Chaparrí Lodge - with White-winged Guan on the roof!

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Thursday, 15 February 2018

Ibis and Spoonbills; odd-billed oldsters

Whichever continent you live on, you are sharing it with ibis and spoonbills - though only Australia has more than one spoonbill species. There are just six spoonbills in the world, and 29 ibis (though nothing in taxonomy is ever that clear cut and while 29 is generally accepted, there is of course disagreement over the delimitations of some species). While all spoonbills belong to the same genus, the ibis are divided into about 13 genera.

60 million year old ibis fossils from South Africa are identifiable as belonging to two modern genera - that of the African bald ibises, Geronticus, and African and Australian white ibises, Threskiornis.

While the bills differences between the two groups are very obvious and unambiguous, they are actually very closely related and it's not even clear if they represent separate sub-families.
Black-faced Ibis Theristicus melanopis on the rooftop - a common sight - in Puerto Varas,
southern Chile. An ibis bill is long, narrow and distinctly downcurved.
Royal Spoonbill Platalea regia, Jerrabomberra Wetland, Canberra.
This is the typical spoonbill bill, long, broad and straight, with an expanded tip.
'Ibis' is one of the few common English words to come to us from Egyptian (albeit via Latin and Greek). 'Spoonbill' was consciously coined by the great 17th English naturalist John Ray, when he translated Francis Willughby's Ornithologica from Latin in 1678. In doing so he replaced folk names such as shoveller.

Both groups feed with the bill at least partly submerged, in water or mud or even cracks in the grounds; ibis probe while spoonbills constantly sweep the bill from side to side underwater. They can rarely see their prey, but the bill tip and inner surface of the end of the bill are packed with specialised sensors - of at least four types - which respond to a mix of taste and touch, together forming the 'bill tip organ'. When a food item is encountered the bill automatically snaps shut.

For spoonbills in particular the process is generally slow and methodical, like this pair of Yellow-billed Spoonbills Platalea flavipes progressing purposefully in front of one of the hides at Jerrabomberra. They take very small prey and are a large bird, so must forage all day and well into the night.
Spoonbills hunt by kicking up mud and with it small animals as they advance,
then seizing the animals as they sense them.
However recently I was surprised to see a couple of Royal Spoonbills fishing at Jerrabomberra, dashing about in pursuit of the fish, apparently hunting by sight.
You can get a sense of the energetic, almost frantic, pursuit of the fish in these two photos.
 

All the references I can find refer to very small fish prey, such as mosquito fish Gambusia spp., but the
bird on the left was swallowing something quite sizeable, probably a young European Carp Cyprinus carpio.
There are a couple of further bill adaptations worth mentioning. If you're going to spend much of your time with your bill submerged, you definitely don't want your nostrils perched on the tip of it. Indeed, ibis and spoonbill both have slit-like nostrils at the base of the bill.
This Plumbeous Ibis Theristicus caerulescens, in Brazil's Pantanal, has just had its bill almost
completely buried in the mud, but its nostrils (just visible in front of the eyes -
you may have to click on the picture) were clear.
Moreover the inside edge of the bill of a spoonbill has papillae which are said to act as motion or vibration detectors to assist in locating prey which is presumably away from the bill tip organ. I'm not certain how well-established this assertion is though.
The papillae are quite visible here, though you may again have to click on the photo.
All species have varying amounts of bare skin on the face and even head and neck, again to avoid fouling with mud.
Australian White Ibis Threskiornis molucca, Cairns Esplanade.
Curiously the young of this species has a feathered neck and head, presumably for insulation, but loses the feathers as it forages for itself.
Young Australian White Ibis, Jerrabomberra Wetlands, Canberra, still showing vestiges of its baby neck plumage.
Even younger ibis have straight bills, presumably to facilitate feeding by its parents.
While wading legs would not seem ideal for perching, ibis and spoonbills are regularly found high off the ground in trees, though they tend to move cautiously while so perched.
Yellow-billed Spoonbills, Leeton, New South Wales.
Generally large birds with broad wings, they soar in thermals, especially when migrating or dispersing to seek new water resources.
Straw-necked Ibis Threskiornis spinicollis soaring, Grenfell, New South Wales.
I love the fact that the two birds on the left are carrying out in-flight maintenance.
While in transit they move in long ragged lines or V-shaped flocks.
Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus moving out from roost to feed at dawn,
Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory.
And perhaps it's time to wrap up this brief summary by introducing some of the species, including those who have already modelled for us.
Royal Spoonbill, Jerrabomberra Wetlands. The long head plumes and coloured face patches are
indications that the bird is breeding. Its range is primarily Australian, but it is also found in New Guinea
and nearby Indonesia. During the 20th century it colonised New Zealand.
Yellow-billed Spoonbill preening, Jerrabomberra Wetlands.
It appears an unlikely tool for the job, but seems to work just fine!
The high nostrils are also very evident.
Found only in Australia, it is more solitary than the Royal, and has a longer, narrower bill.
Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus, Coombs, surburban Canberra.
A relatively small ibis, it is the only member of the family to be found across much of the world.
Australian White and Straw-necked Ibises, Kioloa, south coast New South Wales.
They have been probing the oval for beetle larvae; see the depth of the mud on the Straw-necked's bill.
This species nests in colonies of hundreds of thousands.
Both are found mostly in Australia, extending just into New Guinea and nearby islands.
The White Ibis has adapted well to urban living, scavenging at dumps and picnic tables.
Immature African Sacred Ibis T. aethiopicus, Queen Elizabeth NP, Uganda (looking a bit intimidated
among hordes of White-breasted Cormorants Phalacrocorax lucidus).
This ibis gave us the name of the group; the ancient Egyptians saw it arrive with the life-giving
Nile floods, and concluded that the birds had brought the water.
Until recently the Australian White Ibis was thought to be in the same species; they are very similar.
American White Ibis Eudocimus albus, Puerto Jeli, Ecuador. This lovely ibis is found around the Gulf of Mexico
and the Caribbean, and the west coasts of Mexico and of Ecuador. It is very closely related to the
Scarlet Ibis E. ruber and there is some interbreeding where they overlap in Colombia and Venezuela.
Bare-faced Ibis Phimosus infuscatus, Pantanal, Brazil.
Found mostly in swamps (though this one didn't know that, standing in a river) it is found widely in
eastern and northern South America. It is alone in its genus.
Black-faced Ibis Theristicus melanopis, Torres del Paine NP, Chilean Patagonia.
This hefty ibis is ubiquitous and common in the south of the continent.
It and the next species form part of a close grouping of three species in a four-species genus.
Buff-necked Ibis T. caudatus, Pantanal, Brazil.
Like the previous species, this one is mainly found in grasslands, where it probes for a range
of invertebrate and small vertebrate prey.
Plumbeous Ibis T. caerulescens, Pantanal.
This slightly manic-looking ibis is more closely related to the previous two than is immediately obvious;
it is also more aquatic than them. It is restricted to south-eastern central South America.
Puna Ibis Plegadis ridgwayi in the high Andes near Chivay, southern Peru.
A close relative of the Glossy Ibis, the Puna Ibis is generally found above 3,500 metres from
central Peru to northern Argentina, but finds its way to the coast on occasions. I've seen it both in Lima
and at Arica on the Atacama Desert coast of northern Chile.
Hadada Ibis Bostrychia hagedash, Queen Elizabeth NP, Uganda.
This striking ibis is one of the voices of sub-Saharan Africa, with its wild trumpeting laugh, often uttered in flight.
(Here's a sample; I'd suggest the third one of the list - click on the arrow at the left end of the row.)
And it is from this voice that both scientific and common names are derived. 
This was the first bird I ever saw in Africa, from the evening window of my airport
hotel in Johannesburg, many years ago now
I hope this brief introduction to an ancient and intriguing group of birds has been of interest - thanks for reading to the end, if indeed you are still reading!

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