Concluding my Peru trip

With everything that has been going on (defense, moving, etc.), I realize that I have fallen way behind with my blogging! So here is the final update from my Peru field trip, I hope you enjoy!

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Some of the snow-capped volcanoes around Arequipa

For the last leg of my Peru trip, I journeyed to Southern Peru, specifically to the area around Arequipa, which was a Spanish colonial city nested in a valley around several volcanoes. Here I had pretty good success working with two of my target hummingbird species – Peruvian sheartail (video of display, side video) and oasis hummingbird (video of display, side video).

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A male oasis hummingbird (Thaumastura vesper; formerly Rhodopis vesper)

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A Peruvian sheartail male (Thaumastura cora)

I stayed at a wonderful hotel outside of the city, which was great because I could walk to one of my field sites that was just outside of town. At this field site, along many farm plots, wound a creek along some desert hills. It was among these hills and the creek bed where I found both species holding territories and displaying.

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A Peruvian sheartail perching in his territory

My other field site was about 2 hours away from town, along another riverbed, but in a much more desert-based habitat, as you can see from these pictures.

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At this field site, I was looking for the elusive purple-collared woodstar, and while I never was able to work with them, I found some additional oasis hummingbirds. The best part about this field site, is that I caught an oasis hummingbird male with my bare hand!! It was hanging out near the female in her cage, as in the blow photos, and I just quickly pinned it against the cage and was able to capture it. (it was not hurt in any way!) So that was an awesome moment for me in my research.

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Overall, I loved the area around Arequipa. It was a beautiful place, surrounded by these snow-capped volcanoes, and the people were very friendly. I had a great time working with my wonderful field assistant, Carla Llerena Quiroz, and visiting the university/museum of my collaborator, Mauricio Ugarte at El Museo de Historia Natural de la Universidad Nacional San Augustin, where I gave a seminar for them. All in all, this leg of my trip was very successful, and I then returned to the US to begin analyzing those data I collected and wrapping up my dissertation. More on all that in the future, so for now, here are a few additional photos from highlights of my Arequipa trip:

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A Peruvian sheartail nest

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The awkward way we have to drive with our mist-net poles to the field (we drove like this for over an hour).

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The famous giant hummingbird (Patagona gigas), which can weigh up to 25 grams!

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The super barren desert around Arequipa, which makes the deserts around Phoenix look like lush tropical rainforests in comparison.

 

 

Dissertation defense time!

Well its finally time! I am defending my Ph.D. this Friday at 2:00 PM (Arizona time). All are welcome to attend my talk, which will be about 1 hour, and is on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus in Life Sciences E-wing 244 (LSE 244).

My talk will cover my four dissertation chapters on the evolution of hummingbird coloration and courtship displays. I will probably write a summary blog of my dissertation later this summer, but if you want to see the presentation in person, please stop by!

Wish me luck!

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My Oxford University Press blog guest-post about my first chapter!

Well, I’m back from Peru and busily trying to wrap up my dissertation. While I will definitely write a final Peru blog post in the near future, I also recently wrote a guest blog post for Oxford University Press blog about my first dissertation chapter titled, “How do male hummingbird dance moves alter their appearance?” published in Behavioral Ecology. This chapter is titled “Two ways to display: male hummingbirds show different color-display tactics based on sun orientation,” and tests how broad-tailed hummingbirds orient towards the sun as they dance and how their sun orientation alters what they look like. I hope you enjoy the post and paper, and please let me know if you have any questions about the study!

Also check out this .gif they made for me from one of my YouTube videos.

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Machu Picchu, Cusco, and the Sacred Valley of Peru

While doing my fieldwork in Peru, I took a short trip to Cusco to visit Machu Picchu, and the other surrounding Inca ruins/temples, with my sister who visited me from Connecticut! For those who do not know, Machu Picchu is probably the largest tourist attraction in South America, and for good reason – it was spectacular. The Incas were one of the many native peoples that lived in Peru, and they formed a giant empire in the Andes Mountains between 1438 and 1572. The current city of Cusco, was at the heart of this empire, and a very important site for the Incas, spiritually and logistically.

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The city of Cusco.

The Incas also built many temples and complexes near Cusco, with the most famous being Machu Picchu, which was never discovered by the Spanish Conquistadors. While the Inca empire was vast and had achieved many technological innovations, especially with agriculture, architecture, and astronomy, the Spanish Conquistadors unfortunately brutally conquered the Incas and many of their discoveries have been lost. Luckily, modern science has been a great help in uncovering the secrets of Machu Picchu and other Inca sites.

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Part of the Sacred Valley.

During our travels around Cusco, we first visited a place called the Sacred Valley – it is the valley between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Along this valley are many interesting ruins, several churches that the Spanish built on top of Inca temples, and groups of people who still carry out many of the Inca traditions, and I was able to visit many of these places. We first visited the town of Chinchero where we saw one of the Spanish churches that was built on top of an Inca temple.

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The church at Chinchero, which was built upon the foundations of the Inca tempe.

We were also able to watch how people weave alpaca fur together and use many different natural ingredients to dye woven materials into many different colors.

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Women from Chinchero using natural ingredients to dye alpaca fur for weaving.

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All the different natural ingredients used for dying.

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The result of the dyes.

Then, we visited the town of Pisac and went to the Inca complex found there. At this complex, we learned how the Incas built their temples with specific designs that incorporated the movement of the sun and the moon. The Incas were brilliant astronomers and used their knowledge of the sun, moon, and stars to understand seasonal and weather patterns to help their agriculture. Here are a few pictures of the complex at Pisac:

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The many terraces at Pisac, used for farming.

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One of the habitable parts of the Pisac complex.

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The lower part of the Pisac complex.

 

After Pisac, we visited to the town of Ollantaytambo, at which is located the famous Temple of the Sun. This temple is particularly interesting because of the amazing architecture and engineering abilities of the Incas. If you look at these pictures, you can see how they managed to fit different giant stones together, without mortar, almost perfectly.

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The terraces leading up to the Temple of the Sun.

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The ruins of the Temple of the Sun

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Examples of how the Incas fit different stones together like a puzzle.

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Another example of the architectural advances of the Incas.

From Ollantaytambo we took a train to Aguas Calientes to spend the night, before heading up to Machu Picchu. Our visit to Machu Picchu was awe-inspiring. In the morning it was very cloudy and misty, giving it a mystical feeling, and by mid-day the sun came out, which gave us a great view of the entire complex. Here were learned about the significance of the complex and how it was laid out, with brilliant city planning and lots of terraces for agriculture to feed the people.

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Mist-covered Machu Picchu.

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A more clear view of the Machu Picchu complex.

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A view from inside the main square of the Machu Picchu complex.

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A full view of Machu Picchu.

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A distant view of Machu Picchu, showing the many terraces surrounding the complex.

After our tour of Machu Picchu, we took the train back to Ollantaytambo, and then a car back to Cusco. The next day, we visited various ruins around Cusco, including the famous temple Saqsaywaman. We learned about the specific meanings of all the different ruins, and how the Incas used water channels and natural springs to spread water throughout the Cusco area, similar to how they did in Machu Picchu too.

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An example of the water delivery systems of the Incas.

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The ruins of Saqsaywaman.

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Another view of Saqsaywaman.

Finally, we visited many of the museums in Cusco, which were very informative and a great follow up to our tours of the Inca ruins and Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photographs in these museums, so I cannot show much from them.

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A view of Machu Picchu through one of the inner city gates.

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The beautiful mountains and cloud forests surrounding Machu Picchu.

We were fortunate enough to visit these places in the low season, so there were much fewer people, which I would recommend. The high season is between May and October (I believe) and there are huge, huge crowds during that time. Overall, I would highly recommend everyone to visit Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu. It definitely lives up to the hype, and I thought exceeded it.

Finally, given that this post was mostly an overview of my visit, if you are interested in learning more about a specific place/ruin/topic please let me know!

Back to Peru!

That’s right, I am back in Peru right now studying hummingbirds. I know, it is a bit crazy for me to be gathering data the semester I plan to graduate, but I got a grant to travel to Peru, and I am not about to say no to that!

Anyways, this trip to Peru is much more structured than last time. Last time, I was scouting the country and searching for field sites. Now that I have field sites, I am staying those places for longer periods of time. Right now, I am in Northern Peru three weeks. I am currently staying at the Center for the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society (SBC), in a small town called Batangrande. It is a family run field station that is near the Andes Mountains and in the tropical dry forests unique to this region (called Tumbes). It is also a great location to study two species of hummingbirds: short-tailed woodstar (Myrmia micrura) and purple-collared woodstar (Myrtis fanny).

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A short-tailed woodstar male.

So far, things are going well. I have found territories of multiple males for both species, including over 10 territories for the short-tailed woodstar. Now I am working to trap a female of each species and use her to film the courtship dances of the males.

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A purple-collared woodstar female.

The short-tailed woodstar, which is a species somewhat endemic to the Tumbes region, is a tiny hummingbird with a ridiculously small tail (that is actually what it says in the bird guide book). The males have an iridescent purple gorget (throat patch) and sing a song similar to the Costa’s hummingbirds in the US. They live in the tropical dry forests here, which are a very interesting habitat. It is very hot and sunny here, but the habitat is different than many I have visited in Peru. Here are some pictures of the dry forests:

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Another short-tailed woodstar male.

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The dry forests of Northern Peru(can you find the hummingbird?).

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Another photo of the dry forests of Northern Peru (can you find the hummingbird?).

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A dry riverbed within the dry forests.

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A scarlet-backed woodpecker (Viniliornis callonotus)

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A Peruvian meadowlark (Leistes bellicosa).

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A burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) that I scared up into the tree accidentally.

 

The purple-collared woodstar, is much more widespread in Peru, but tends to live at higher elevations. For them, we drive up into the Andes until about 6,500 ft (2,000 meters), and work in the montane scrub and agriculture areas there. I like these sites because they are much cooler than the dry forest below, and the mountains are very beautiful. This species has been a bit weird for me, because we have found many, many females, but only a few males. But the males we found will work just fine, and I have already seen them display naturally to females, which is a great sign! The purple-collared woodstar is especially interesting to me because of the color of its gorget. Most of the species in the group of hummingbirds I study (the bee hummingbirds) have purple, pink, or red gorgets, but the purple-collared woodstar has a greenish-blue iridescent gorget. I do not have any great pictures of the males yet, but here is the habitat in which we have found them, and a photo of the male from the side:

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A male purple-collared woodstar, and you can see his blue gorget at the edge.

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Some of the montane scrub where we find the purple-collared woodstar.

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A riverbed, with some water, up in the mountains.

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Another view of the montane scrub.

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A male hepatic tanager (Piranga flava).

That is all I have for now, but I should have videos of courtship displays and photos of males that I have captured soon!

Why hummingbirds are so cool!

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).

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Museum specimens of a Giant Hummingbird next to a Bee Hummingbird with my hand as a size reference

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).

Life giving mists in the driest deserts

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.

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The dry, barren Peruvian desert.

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The lush (in comparison to the image above) Sonoran desert.

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.

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The black bio-crust I saw on my drive up to the lomas.

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More of the bio-crust, with some grasses or mosses mixed in.

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.

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I continued driving on the muddy road in the reserve to the beautiful songs of Peruvian meadowlarks, which are red unlike our yellow meadowlarks.

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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.

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This is a rufous-collared sparrow. I probably saw about 100 of these guys at the lomas.

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A terrible picture, but an awesome find! These are Andean tinamou

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.

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One of the many burrowing owls that stared at me as I hiked around.

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!

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