Sunday, 17 June 2012

Of penguins and petrels

This morning saw us aboard a boat bound for the Ballestas islands which are part of the Paracas reserve. Having seen most of the available seabirds superbly already we were, almost unbecomingly, hungry for one bird only: Peruvian diving-petrel. This tiny black-and-white bird ticks all the ornithological boxes. It’s rare and sadly declining; it’s one of a small group of range-restricted species; and, let’s be frank, it looks like a pocket penguin. It’s cute and it’s rare and it has Peruvian in its name: what’s not to love?

 Its one unlovable feature as we sped out to the islands was that it wasn’t there. We scanned so hard that we came across two seabirds rarely seen on this tour: sooty shearwater and the very lovely ringed (or Hornby’s) storm-petrel. We were appropriately pleased but there was no changing the fact they weren’t the PDPs we were looking for. Then a distant inky speck whirred across the water like an ectopic little auk and we were even less satisfied than before. Now, although technically we’d seen the bird, in truth we had seen nothing of it at all.

Our mood was soon to be changed, though, as the Ballestas islands are mind-turning in their majesty. Every ledge, every crack, every nook is taken. Humboldt penguins and Inca terns line the lowest reaches, above them on the slopes are uncountable thousands of Peruvian boobies and on the islands’ flat tops are unimaginable hordes of guanay cormorants. Here and there, for theatrical effect, are red-legged cormorants and surf cinclodes, while beneath the water line, visible when the swell falls, are millions of mussels and their predators: shocking orange starfish and dusky sunstars. Limpets are here too and giant chitons, against a background of a billion barnacles.

Oh and did I mention the sea-lions?

Too soon, too soon, we turned for shore and – lo! – a tiny black-and-white seabird whizzed by, closer this time, identifiably a PDP. Then as we approached one of numerous swimming penguins we saw by its side a diminutive counterpart, a Humboldt Current Mini-Me. This was a Peruvian diving-petrel in all its tiny glory.

The day, saved already by the incalculable throng of life on the islands, was crowned.

Before lunch we visited a bay in the park known as Lagunillas. Here a royal tern fished, a wandering tattler flew across the calm blue sea, a snowy plover stood sentinel on a platform of rock and a surfbird picked through the wave-thrashed seaweed with a posse of turnstones.

What a fine place Peru is. Tomorrow we travel to Amazonia and I, for some days, will be out of touch. Rest assured that I shall be marshtitting most diligently and will tell you all about our Amazon adventures when I emerge. Wish me luck.


ringed storm-petrel
Oceanodroma hornbyi
sooty shearwater
Puffinus griseus
Peruvian diving-petrel
Pelecanoides garotii
royal tern
Thalasseus maximus
wandering tattler
Tringa incana
snowy plover
Charadrius nivosus
Aphriza virgata
black-necked stilt
Himantopus mexicanus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 62
Birds: 548
Reptiles: 14
Amphibians: 6
Fish: 6

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