Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) have been identified as a conservation priority in the Atlantic Flyway, with a population that has declined by 50% between the early 1990s and the mid-2000s at key Atlantic staging areas. Manomet, along with the Center for Conservation Biology at William & Mary and many other partners are working together to gather all the information we need to apply conservation action to Whimbrel populations. In April 2021, Manomet’s Brad Winn and I headed to the Gulf coast to expand our recent work in the Atlantic flyway into the Midcontinent Flyway. Our goal for this trip? To delineate key staging areas for Whimbrel in Louisiana and Texas and build relationships with the key conservation players.
Why are we so focused on the spring staging areas for Whimbrel? In the conservation field, monitoring population size and trend is essential to understanding the cause-effect links between management actions and population response. Therefore, one of the first questions we need to ask as we build a conservation strategy is: How many Whimbrel are there, and how do we count them? This, in itself, is quite the challenge. For ¾ of the year, Whimbrel are largely inaccessible. During the breeding season, they are thinly dispersed throughout the vast Arctic and sub-Arctic tundra. During fall migration, a large percentage fly straight out over the Atlantic Ocean, without ever passing through the lower 48 states. During the winter months, they are dispersed along the coasts of the Caribbean and northern South America, a coastline which is remote and difficult to survey. Therefore, the only time to do population-level headcounts of Whimbrel is at spring staging areas, and particularly at their nocturnal roost sites. There may just be a few of these roosts in a region, pooling birds from up to 50 miles away and numbering thousands of birds.
Manomet and our partners have been identifying these sites developing survey strategies in the Atlantic Flyway for the past several years, and we have built a monitoring network for roost sites along the Atlantic coast, including focal areas such as Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia. Our goal in 2021 is to expand this monitoring network into the Gulf coast.
Where to survey
Over the last 10 years, Manomet and our team of partners have deployed over 40 transmitters on Whimbrel at various sites in North America. This mountain of data has vastly improved our understanding of Whimbrel migratory pathways, resource use, and survival. For our trip to the Gulf coast, the information relayed from these transmitters combined with publicly available ebird data helped us hone in on key sites to explore. For example, we analyzed the daily commutes of a satellite tagged bird in Louisiana, as it traveled from a coastal roost site inland to rice and crawfish fields to feed during the day. Those feeding areas happened to coincide with the largest concentrations of Whimbrel reported in ebird over the past decade, some of which numbered over 500 individuals. This allowed us to hypothesize that the coastal roost site identified by the satellite data could be functioning as a nocturnal roost for all those birds.
To test this hypothesis, we coordinated with refuge staff to do an evening survey in Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, the location of the potential roost site. While we knew at least one bird (the satellite-tagged bird) was roosting there, we entered the night of 4/19 not knowing if any other birds would show up. We climbed onto an excavator to gain some elevation and started scanning the horizon for Whimbrels. What started out as a trickle soon turned into a flood, and by the end of the survey, we had tallied over 3,000 Whimbrels arriving onto the refuge. A great discovery! This count alone puts south-central Louisiana on the map as one of the top spring staging areas for Whimbrel on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. We did subsequent surveys the following two nights and were joined by State Ornithologist for LDWF, Robert Dobbs. We were thrilled to share our methods with Robert, and he and Louisiana Audubon have now joined forces to continue the surveys.
During the day, we covered the working lands north of Rockefeller, which mostly include vast rice and crawfish fields. In addition to the roost surveys, we are keen on increasing our understanding of how Whimbrels are using this landscape and finding the resources they need to successfully continue their migration.
After Louisiana, we headed to east Texas and the area surrounding Anahuac NWR. Similar to Louisiana, a combination of historical surveys, e-bird observations, and our transmitter data had clearly highlighted this area as a major concentration point for Whimbrels. We met up with Joseph Marty, the refuge biologist, and once again plotted our survey strategy. We had also received helpful intel from a team of University of Oklahoma researchers, who had been out scouting the previous week. We did four days of dawn and dusk surveys, and also spent the daytime scouting the terrain to find out what areas the birds were feeding on. Our peak count for the roost on the refuge was over 5,000 birds, making this the second-largest concentration of Whimbrels we know of on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
In Texas, we found Whimbrel using a surprising variety of habitats and feeding on a wide array of food items. This covered the spectrum from browsing on dewberries in overgrown pastureland to gorging on ghost shrimp on coastal flats with Willets and Long-billed Curlews.
The best way to survey for Whimbrel is at dawn and dusk when they are commuting from and to their communal roosts, which can be located in coastal impoundments, peninsulas, and islands. They fly in flocks both big and small, with roosts sometimes numbering several thousand individuals. With a total population for the Hudsonian subspecies likely under 60,000 total birds, identification and conservation of these roosts is a major priority.
We met up with USFWS biologists in the area of the mouth of the Brazos River to explore the staging area for Ahanu, a Whimbrel we tagged in Massachusetts in 2018. While we didn’t spot Ahanu, we did see lots of Whimbrels. They were foraging for fiddler crabs and ghost shrimp in the tidal flats and Salicornia, and hopping onto driftwood at the mouth of the river to roost.
Buff-breasted Sandpipers are another priority shorebird species that relies heavily on the Midcontinent Flyway during spring migration. Concentrations of several hundred can be found in shortgrass habitats, including cattle pastures and turf farms. Manomet is one of several organizations working together to put the pieces together to ensure that we are taking the right steps to ensure their survival.
After just 10 days in the field, we left feeling that we had accomplished a great deal. At the same time, we view this trip as just the first step in developing a conservation strategy for Whimbrels on the Gulf coast. In addition, we as an organization are also focused on the big picture, and we are intent on increasing our role as a leader in applied science and conservation work in the Midcontinent Flyway. We want to focus our work on high priority species such as Whimbrels and Buff-breasted Sandpipers, while also expanding our shorebird monitoring across the Gulf coast. We are also focused on laying the groundwork to identify and build coalitions to nominate new WHSRN sites in Louisiana and Texas.
Marcela Castellino, Conservation Specialist, WHSRN Executive Office
Versión en español a continuación
Visiting wetlands, salt lagoons, and salt flats in Argentina in search of phalaropes was, for many years, a dream of mine, fed by a curiosity for learning about how they are distributed and the sites upon which they depend. I have worked with phalaropes for more than eight years; however; I must confess that our relationship has had its highs and lows as, at least on their wintering grounds, working with phalaropes can be quite challenging. For years these birds have put our plans, resources, methodologies, strategies, and budgets to the test. But, we have been lucky enough to have supporting friends and family, who often have found themselves coerced into being field volunteers, and have experienced for themselves the challenges of working with these birds, too.
In 2019, I had been going through a tough couple of months and I was beginning to think that the possibilities of continuing to work with the species were steadily diminishing. I participated in a meeting of phalarope specialists, conservationists, and managers of key important sites for the species, with the aim of sharing what I had learned from my work with Wilson’s Phalaropes in Argentina. I didn’t think that this meeting would represent a significant change in my work with the species. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
During this meeting, I spent two days with people who work in sites where the species is abundant. We exchanged ideas, opinions, experiences and we identified a series of priority actions that would guide the group’s next steps—this was the birthplace of the International Phalarope Working Group. Surrounding oneself with colleagues who share the same passion and commitment for shorebird conservation is the best gift of optimism and energy that anybody can receive. Just like that, the doubts that I was having about continuing to work with phalaropes disappeared.
After that meeting, I had the opportunity to join the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) to work towards the connection and conservation of inland saline wetlands and the shorebird species that depend on them, with my focus being on phalaropes. The priority actions that had been identified during the meeting were important in defining how and on what we would work. Remedying the lack of recent data on global population size and population trends was a priority; without reliable data in these fields, it would be impossible to direct effective conservation actions for the species.
We began to think about how we could conduct censuses in non-breeding areas, visiting the maximum number of possible sites and, ideally, doing so simultaneously. At this time of year, the majority of individuals concentrate in two main areas; High-Andean salt lagoons of Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, and lowland saline lagoons in central and southern Argentina.
Covering these two areas was going to be a considerable challenge. However, an opportunity arose out of another initiative being coordinated by colleagues in the WHSRN Executive Office along with the Alto-Andean Flamingo Conservation Group (Grupo de Conservación de Flamencos Altoandinos – GCFA). The GCFA performs periodic monitoring of the High-Andean wetlands that are of importance to the species of flamingos that occur in South America; the Andean Flamingo, the Chilean Flamingo, and the Puna Flamingo. This involves simultaneous monitoring in more than 200 key sites every five years.
The Sixth Simultaneous Census of Alto-Andean Flamingos was scheduled for February 2020 and this year WHSRN would also participate, carrying out the First International Simultaneous Census of Shorebirds. It was now going to be possible to gather data on the importance of these sites for shorebirds in areas that had never been monitored previously. If we were able to coordinate a census in the lowland saline wetlands of Argentina during the same period of time, this would give us the kind of coverage that we had never before achieved for Wilson’s Phalarope. We immediately began to work on making it a reality.
Argentina is a country of considerable size, the fourth biggest in the Americas, so covering the maximum amount of possible sites would require a large-scale effort. The selection of census sites was based on previously established criteria related to this species’ habits. To ensure the maximum possible coverage of more than 300 potential sites, we coordinated with Aves Argentinas, a national NGO, to reach out to volunteers through their network of birdwatchers clubs to help conduct surveys. We contacted volunteers, assigned them to sites, and encouraged them to census all of the wetlands they could to make the area of coverage as comprehensive as possible.
The counting methodology was based on the protocol of the International Shorebird Survey (ISS). This is a simple method that many of the volunteers were already familiar with, but it was also chosen because it was the method that had been used in the previous High-Andean censuses, thereby allowing us to later combine the results into a single database.
After several weeks of coordination, we were finally ready to start. During the ten days of the census, more than 110 volunteers participated from 17 provinces across the country – from Formosa to Tierra del Fuego – donating their time and collecting the data to address the proposed objectives.
As the days went by, information began to arrive from the different points across the country about the obstacles that volunteers were facing. For example, simply accessing many of the sites was a challenge in itself because of blocked roads or lagoons being located on private properties. Other challenges included traveling long distances and poor road conditions. Patagonia, with its tablelands and extensive and inhospitable steppes, proved to be the most difficult region to survey. Luckily, we were able to count on committed and adventurous volunteers, some of whom traveled more than 2000 km across the steppes in their own vehicles to reach the designated sites.
Many sites were found to be dry, including some that had previously hosted considerable numbers of phalaropes. The drought season had a visible effect on these kinds of environments, reducing habitat availability and potentially resulting in concentrations of greater numbers at fewer sites.
Only a couple of site locations—Laguna Mar Chiquita and Lago Epecuén—showed high abundances of phalaropes. The less fortunate volunteers returned from their journeys without recording a single individual. But all of these observations are important; the datum ‘zero’ is equally valuable information that helps us to better understand the distribution of the species within the study area.
In the list of sites to census, there was one that stood out from the rest: Laguna Mar Chiquita. This is an extensive saline wetland located in Córdoba province in Argentina that covers more than 600,000 hectares. On average, half a million Wilson’s Phalaropes use this site during the austral summer, where they concentrate in the northwestern part of the lagoon. The shallow waters and the high salinity at this site contribute to a high density of their invertebrate prey, and the area is practically unreachable both by land and by boat. As a result, the phalarope numbers for Mar Chiquita during the 2020 census were obtained from one aerial survey of the entire lagoon. The counts were performed by an observer with more than 20 years of experience in population estimates at this site, accompanied by two photographers who captured images of the flocks to support the estimates. The crew also estimated flamingo numbers during the aerial survey, as Mar Chiquita is also an important site for flamingoes, particularly Chilean Flamingos. For this reason, the lagoon is also included as a regular survey site for the GCFA.
The ten days of censuses flew by, and before we knew it the project that we had put so much effort into making a reality was complete. The next step was to collate and analyze the field data. Right now, we are working on an updated phalarope estimate based on the data obtained in all of the surveyed sites, including both the High-Andean lakes and the lowland wetlands. We are also researching historical information for some of the key sites in order to evaluate population trends. All of this information will contribute to updating the Wilson’s Phalarope Conservation Plan and will be useful in guiding effective conservation action for Wilson’s Phalarope on their wintering grounds.
This census would not have been possible without the participation of volunteers. Attempting to monitor the entire population of a species with such a large geographic range is a task that can only be achieved with an “army” of volunteers. Besides generating databases that would be impossible to obtain by any other means, the participation of volunteers in initiatives such as this helps to involve communities in nature conservation, to increase the perception of the value of their natural heritage, and to bring more people into contact with the species so that they may learn about it and, directly or indirectly, help to conserve it.
The quantity of information generated was very important and we are pleased with the results. Thanks to these data, we have more and better information than ever before, with which to orient our future actions. Coordinating this census was highly enjoyable, with plenty of challenges and lots of lessons learned. We hope to do it again in the future; perhaps in five years, when we will again be joining efforts to count phalaropes of the altiplano and lowlands of Argentina, with the hope of confirming that the conservation actions that we are now implementing for the species have been effective.
Contando Falaropos en Argentina: el desafío de conocer más acerca de esta especie
Visitar humedales y lagunas saladas y salobres de Argentina en búsqueda de falaropos fue durante muchos años un gran deseo personal, alimentado por la curiosidad de saber cómo se dispersan en el país y de qué sitios dependen. Hace más de ocho años que trabajo con la especie, por lo que los falaropos ya son parte de mi vida. Aunque debo reconocer que nuestra relación ha pasado por altos y bajos, ya que al menos en sus sitios de invernada trabajar con falaropos representa todo un desafío. Durante años pusieron a prueba planes, recursos, metodologías, estrategias, presupuestos…y mucha paciencia, principalmente por parte de familia y amigos, que muchas veces han sido mis voluntarios de campo forzados y han experimentado en carne propia los desafíos de trabajar con estas pequeñas aves.
En junio de 2019 participé en una reunión que convocaba a especialistas, conservacionistas y manejadores de sitios importantes para falaropos en Mono Lake, California. Yo había atravesado un par de meses complejos, en los que sentía que las posibilidades de seguir trabajando con la especie eran cada vez menos. Fui a la reunión con el objetivo de compartir todo lo que había aprendido durante mi trabajo con el Falaropo Común (Phalaropus tricolor) en Argentina, pero debo reconocer que tenía pocas expectativas. No pensaba que participar en esta reunión representaría un cambio significativo en cuanto a mi trabajo con la especie. No podría haber estado más equivocada.
Durante ese encuentro compartí dos días con personas que trabajan con la especie o en sitios en los que es abundante. Intercambiamos ideas, opiniones, experiencias y definimos una serie de acciones prioritarias que guiarían los próximos pasos como grupo. Así nació el Grupo Internacional de Trabajo de Falaropos. Rodearse con colegas que sienten la misma pasión y compromiso por la conservación de las aves playeras es la mejor inyección de optimismo y energía que cualquiera pueda recibir. Así, las dudas sobre la posibilidad de seguir trabajando con los falaropos fueron desapareciendo.
Un tiempo después de esta reunión tuve la oportunidad de unirme a la Red Hemisférica de Reservas para Aves Playeras (RHRAP – WHSRN por sus siglas en inglés) para trabajar por la vinculación y la conservación de humedales salados interiores y de las especies que de ellos dependen, enfocándome en los falaropos. Las acciones identificadas como prioritarias durante la reunión fueron importantes a la hora de definir cómo y sobre qué trabajar. La falta de datos actualizados sobre el tamaño de la población global y su tendencia poblacional eran prioritarios; sin datos concretos sobre estos puntos es imposible dirigir acciones de conservación efectivas para la especie.
Comenzamos a pensar en un censo en áreas no reproductivas, visitando la mayor cantidad de sitios posibles e idealmente, en simultáneo. Durante esta etapa, la mayoría de los individuos se concentran en dos áreas principales: lagunas saladas altoandinas de Argentina, Chile, Bolivia y Perú, y lagunas saladas en tierras bajas del centro y sur de Argentina.
Cubrir estas dos áreas era un enorme desafío. Sin embargo, la oportunidad llegó de la mano de otra iniciativa que estaban coordinando colegas de la Oficina Ejecutiva de la RHRAP junto al Grupo de Conservación de Flamencos Altoandinos (GCFA). El GCFA realiza periódicamente monitoreos en humedales altoandinos de importancia para las especies de flamencos presentes en América del Sur: el Flamenco Andino, el Flamenco Chileno y el Flamenco de James. Esto incluye monitoreos simultáneos en más de 200 sitios claves, cada cinco años. En febrero de 2020 se llevaría adelante el Sexto Censo Simultáneo Internacional de Flamencos Altoandinos.Este año, la RHRAP participaría llevando adelante el Primer Censo Simultáneo Internacional de Aves Playeras.Gracias a este proyecto se recopilaría información sobre la importancia de estos lugares para las aves playeras, en una zona que por su complejidad no es monitoreada frecuentemente. Si lográbamos coordinar un censo en humedales salados de las tierras bajas de Argentina durante la misma ventana temporal, eso nos daría una cobertura nunca antes obtenida para el Falaropo Común. Nos pusimos a trabajar para hacerlo posible.
Argentina es un país con una extensión territorial considerable, quedando en el cuarto lugar dentro de los países americanos, por lo que cubrir la mayor cantidad de sitios posibles requería un importante esfuerzo a gran escala. La selección de sitios a censar fue a partir de una serie de criterios previamente establecidos con base en los hábitos de la especie. Con una lista de más de 300 sitios en la mano recurrimos al apoyo de Aves Argentinas y su red de clubes de observadores de aves para asegurar la mayor cobertura posible. Contactamos voluntarios, les asignamos sitios para ser visitados y los alentamos a que censaran todos los humedales que encontraran en su camino, para aumentar el área cubierta.
La metodología de conteo se basó en el protocolo de Censo Internacional de Aves Playeras (ISS por sus siglas en inglés), por ser una metodología simple y ya conocida por muchos de los voluntarios, pero también por ser la metodología que se iba a aplicar en los censos altoandinos mencionado anteriormente, lo que permitiría luego unificar todos los conteos en una única base de datos.
Luego de varias semanas de coordinación, finalmente estábamos listos para comenzar. Durante los diez días que duró el censo, se movilizaron más de 110 voluntarios de 17 provincias de todo el país, desde Formosa a Tierra del Fuego, aportando su tiempo y recolectando datos para responder a los objetivos propuestos.
A medida que pasaban los días comenzaban a llegar novedades desde diferentes puntos del país. Por ejemplo, llegar a muchos de los sitios fue todo un desafío. En algunos casos, por la presencia de candados y la ubicación de las lagunas dentro de propiedades privadas. En otros casos, por las distancias y la ausencia de caminos en buen estado. La región patagónica, con sus mesetas y estepas tan extensas e inhóspitas fue las más difícil de cubrir. Por suerte tuvimos equipos de voluntarios comprometidos y aventureros, algunos de los cuales recorrieron más de 2000 km. atravesando a la estepa en vehículos propios para llegar a los sitios asignados.
Muchos sitios se encontraban secos, incluso algunos que en el pasado habían tenido registros considerables de falaropos. La temporada de sequía tuvo un efecto evidente en este tipo de ambientes, disminuyendo la disponibilidad de hábitat para la especie y posiblemente favoreciendo su concentración en unos pocos sitios.
Sólo desde un par de puntos del país, Laguna Mar Chiquita y Lago Epecuén, llegaron datos de abundancias muy grandes de falaropos. Los voluntarios menos afortunados regresaron de sus viajes sin registrar ningún individuo. Pero todas estas observaciones son importantes; el dato cero es información valiosa que nos ayuda a entender mejor la distribución de la especie dentro del área de estudio.
En la lista de sitios a censar había uno que se diferenciaba de los demás: la Laguna Mar Chiquita. Se trata de un extenso humedal salado que cubre más de 600.000 ha y está ubicado en la provincia de Córdoba, Argentina. Medio millón de falaropos en promedio utilizan este sitio durante el verano austral, en donde se concentran en la región noroeste de la laguna. Las aguas poco profundas y la salinidad más alta favorecen la presencia de invertebrados presa en esta zona que es prácticamente inaccesible tanto por tierra como por agua. Los números de falaropos para Mar Chiquita durante el censo simultáneo 2020 se obtuvieron a partir de un sobrevuelo durante el cual un observador con más de 20 años de experiencia en estimaciones en el sitio realizó los conteos, acompañado de dos fotógrafos que registraron las bandadas para respaldar esas estimaciones. Durante este sobrevuelo también se estimaron abundancias de flamencos, ya que Mar Chiquita también es importante para ellos (principalmente para los Flamencos Australes). Por esta razón, la laguna también está incluida dentro de los sitios censados regularmente por el GCFA.
Los diez días de censo pasaron rápidamente, y antes que pudiéramos darnos cuenta el esto por lo que tanto habíamos trabajado había terminado. El paso siguiente fue la recolección de datos tomados en campo y su análisis. En este momento, nos encontramos trabajando en una estimación actualizada de la población de la especie con base en los datos obtenidos en todos los sitios censados, tanto lagos altoandinos como de tierras bajas. También estamos recopilando información histórica de algunos sitios para poder evaluar tendencias. Toda esta información alimentará al Plan de Conservación de la especie y será útil para guiar acciones de conservación efectivas para el Falaropo Común en su área de invernada.
El censo no hubiera sido posible sin la participación de voluntarios. Intentar monitorear la población completa de una especie que se extiende en un territorio tan amplio requiere trabajar a una escala que solo es posible cubrir con la movilización de un «ejército» de personas. Además de generar bases de datos que serían imposibles de obtener de otra manera, la participación de voluntarios en iniciativas de este tipo ayuda a involucrar a las comunidades en la conservación de la naturaleza, a aumentar la valoración del patrimonio natural y facilita que más personas aprendan sobre la especie, aumentando el interés por la misma y favoreciendo, de manera directa o indirecta, su conservación.
La cantidad de información generada fue muy importante, y estamos muy conformes con el resultado. Gracias a estos resultados tendremos más y mejores datos para orientar nuestras acciones a futuro. Coordinar este censo fue para mí una experiencia de disfrute, de desafíos y de mucho aprendizaje. Sin lugar a duda espero que podamos repetirla en el futuro. Quizás en cinco años, uniendo nuevamente esfuerzos para contar Falaropos en el altiplano y las tierras bajas de Argentina, con la esperanza de encontrar que las acciones de conservación implementadas para la especie están siendo efectivas.
Arne Lesterhuis, Conservation Specialist and International Shorebird Survey (ISS) coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean
In 2019, the Neotropical Migratory Shorebird Conservation Act (NMBCA) of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service financed a comprehensive survey of shorebirds in Altiplano Wetlands of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. The project was implemented in February 2020 by the WHSRN Executive Office in collaboration with the High Andean Flamingo Conservation Group (GCFA). One WHSRN staff member, Arne Lesterhuis, went on a road trip from his residency in Asuncion (Paraguay) to join the surveys of project partner BIOTA in the Altiplano of Bolivia. He was accompanied by Garry Donaldson of Environmental Canada. Here is a brief report of their eight-day adventure. Enjoy!
An Altiplano lagoon at over 4200 m a.s.l. (13,700 ft), Sajama National Park. ©A. Lesterhuis.
Although I have lived next to Bolivia for over 15 years, I’ve actually never had a chance to visit. For many years, I have been conducting fieldwork in the Paraguayan Chaco, west of the large Paraguay River, and got close to the Bolivian border a couple of times, but never further. So a road trip to Bolivia to implement shorebird surveys was a perfect opportunity to get to know the country, its nature, and its birds.
Bolivia, being a landlocked country like Paraguay, might not sound like a place where you would go for shorebirds; but you might be surprised that no less than 38 species have been documented there (nearly 40% of all regularly-occurring shorebirds in the Americas!), including 21 Nearctic migrants and 17 resident species.
Foraging Wilson’s Phalaropes at Lago Poopo. ©G. Donaldson.
The saline lakes in the Altiplano of Bolivia (and also Argentina, Chile, and Peru) are known to hold high importance for significant numbers of migrating and wintering Nearctic shorebirds. These High Andean wetlands encompass the core wintering range of Wilson’s Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor), with numerous wetlands representing flocks of 100,000 individuals or more! For that reason, Wilson’s Phalarope was one of the focal species of our project. We implemented surveys simultaneously during the first days of February 2020 throughout its winter range (in all four countries) to be able to set an updated estimate of the species’ population. Currently, this is set at 1,500,000 individuals but has not been revised for over four decades. Numbers of several other Nearctic shorebirds also occur in high numbers in the Altiplano, including the Baird’s Sandpiper (Calidris bairdii), and both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca and T. flavipes). Apart from increasing our knowledge regarding shorebird abundance and distribution in the High Andes, we also hope to trigger increased interest in monitoring these interior wetlands more regularly and recruit new volunteers for the International Shorebird Survey (ISS).
But, I’m already pretty familiar with most of these Nearctic species…and, to be honest, I was much more interested in finding some of the Altiplano specialties like the Puna Plover (Charadrius alticola), Andean Avocet (Recurvirostris andina) and Andean Lapwing (Vanellus resplendens). I was also excited to find the more cryptic species like snipes (Gallinago sp.), seedsnipes (Thinocorus sp.), and the curious Diademed Sandpiper-Plover (Phegornis mitchelii). Information on these species is scarce; some are quite common, whereas others are much harder to find.
It would take us about two days and just over 1,700 km (1,050 mi) to get to our destination: Oruro, Bolivia.
My travel companion, Garry Donaldson, who had enthusiastically signed up for this adventure, arrived in Asuncion on January 28, 2020. We would travel in my 2011 Nissan Frontier, which had endured many field trips already, so I trusted we would be fine. Our travel destination was Oruro, where we would meet up with Sol Aguilera and Magali López of partner organization BIOTA. Oruro lies approximately 1,700 km from Asuncion and we calculated that, in theory, it would take us about two days if all went smoothly and without much stopping.
We set out on the morning of the 29th and headed directly towards the Private Reserve Cañada el Carmen of Guyra Paraguay, the national Birdlife Partner in Paraguay. This reserve is 700 km (430 mi) from Asuncion near the Bolivian border. We arrived without problems; unfortunately, though, due to heavy rains the night before, the remote Paraguay-Bolivia border control had a blackout and we were stuck for approximately five hours. We took this time to enjoy the local fauna (stray dogs and House Sparrows). When we finally were able to cross and continue our adventure, it was already noon on our second day…so it would be hard to get to Oruro that same day with over 1000 km (620 mi) to go.
The first mountain range we saw shortly after crossing the Paraguay-Bolivia border. ©A. Lesterhuis.
To my surprise, it was only after just a couple of kilometers over the border that the terrain already started to elevate; we could even see the first mountain range! But then, when we were close to the first town, Villamontes, where we could get gas, we stumbled upon a roadblock made of a pile of rocks. Right in the middle of the road. We learned that it was set up by locals unhappy with the government. Fortunately, the locals were kind enough (after being paid) to show us an alternative road next to the main road. When we finally arrived at Villamontes, we learned that it would not be easy to get diesel for a foreign truck, as there was a limit on liters per gas station and even a higher price for foreign vehicles. This meant we needed to remain vigilant and think creatively to keep the tank full; and, thankfully, we didn’t run into any gas-related problems the entire trip.
After Villamontes, the landscape changed completely. Still a ways away, and only at 388 m a.s.l. (~1,300 ft), the climb towards Oruro (3,700 m/12,700 ft a.s.l.)had started. We drove on all types of roads (tarmac, pebble, dust) and each turn had an even more spectacular view than the last. The photos speak for themselves but know that these are just a few of all the photo-worthy views out there. It’s a pretty amazing world.
The changing landscape: impressive views on our way to Oruro.
Due to the blackout at border control, the roadblock, and the fact that the truck was not used to steep climbs (forcing us to make occasional stops to cool off the engine, but who cares if you are being kept entertained with impressive landscapes?), we weren’t making much progress so we had to stay in a town called Tarija (1,866 m/6,100 ft a.s.l.). On the third day, we had to make the biggest climb all the way up to Potosi at 4,067 m a.s.l. (13,300 ft). You can imagine that did not go very fast either, so when we arrived at Potosi, we called it quits and would continue the next day. It was on this day when I started feeling the elevation; just climbing the stairs in the hotel was like running a marathon!
Finally on day four, our first Andean shorebird: the Andean Lapwing. ©G. Donaldson.
Although we had seen great birds along the road—Mitred Parakeets (Psittacara mitratus), Yellow-collared Macaws (Primolius auricollis), Bare-faced Ground Doves (Metriopelia ceciliae), and Mountain Caracaras (Phalcoboenus megalopterus)—the fourth day finally brought us the first Andean shorebird; a pair of Andean Lapwings sitting near the road. Although they look and sound quite similar to the widespread Southern Lapwing (Vanellus chilensis), they are a completely different species (and a lifer for me)!
At Potosi, we had more or less reached the elevation of Altiplano, so we were pretty much done with climbing and finally reached Oruro early in the afternoon on February 1. It was still early, so we picked up Sol and Magali and went to our first lagoon next to Oruro, Lago Uru Uru, to start counting shorebirds. It was a great spot and we immediately started surveying. It was quite a busy start; over 2,000 Wilson’s Phalaropes feeding and flying among thousands of Chilean and Andean Flamingos (Phoenicopterus chilensis and Phoenicoparrus andinus). It was tough counting and we probably missed a number of individuals but, overall, we identified a total of 12 shorebird species, including Lesser Yellowlegs, Stilt Sandpipers (Calidris himantopus), Pectoral Sandpipers (C. melanotos), and Baird’s Sandpipers.
Although the highlight probably should have been the four Least Sandpipers (C. minutilla) and two Semipalmated Plovers (Charadrius semipalmatus) we saw, both being rare species in Bolivia, it was really the two Andean Avocets that I liked the most. These large, mostly white shorebirds with black wings and their characteristic black upturned bill are just stunning.
The stunning Andean Avocets. ©G. Donaldson.
Flocks of Wilson’s Phalaropes were moving constantly around at Lago Uru Uru. ©G. Donaldson.
Over the next couple of days, we drove around the large Lago Poopo, a huge lagoon south of Oruro which, together with Lago Uru Uru, is one of Bolivia’s eight Ramsar sites. The lagoon was quite dry so there were not a lot of shorebirds, nor flamingos, but the vast, short-vegetated plains surrounding Lago Poopo do attract many Baird’s Sandpipers and we counted a total of about 400 individuals—the most I have ever seen at one site.
The author monitoring Baird’s Sandpipers at Lago Poopo, vast plains typical of the altiplano. ©G. Donaldson.
Baird’s Sandpiper, the most common species after Wilson’s Phalarope. ©G. Donaldson.
Again I must confess that it was not the Baird’s Sandpipers that got most of my attention at Lago Poopo, but my very first Puna Plovers! A total of nine of these relatively large Charadrid plovers were scattered around in the area, easily overlooked as they blend in very well in their habitat. While driving on a dirt road to the next lagoon to count, we also saw some other resident species, including a Tawny-throated Dotterel (Oreopholus ruficollis) and the Grey-breasted Seedsnipe (Thinocorus orbignyianus). The seedsnipe was an especially great find; I had seen the similar but smaller Least Seedsnipe (T. rumicivorus) before in Patagonia, but never the Grey-breasted, which is much larger. Almost like a cross between a quail and a dove, seedsnipes truly are shorebirds as strange as they appear—and stunning ones, at that!
The Puna Plover. ©G. Donaldson.
Grey-breasted Seedsnipe, my second ever seedsnipe (of four that exist).
The survey team at one of the lagoons. From left to right: Garry Donaldson, Magali López, Sol Aguilar, and Arne Lesterhuis.
The highest altitude at the lagoon was Laguna Huayñakhota situated in the Sajama National Park at over 4200 m a.s.l. (13,700 ft) (see header photo). Upon arrival, the elevation got to me and made me feel pretty bad for a while. Luckily, I acclimatized by the following morning and was ready to get back at it. It turned out that the night before had been very cold, so we needed to scrape ice off my truck’s windshield—a new experience for the Nissan—and I’m glad I had Garry as my companion as he seemed to be a seasoned windshield scraper. Laguna Huayñakhota did not have a lot of shorebirds but it did have a nice collection of High Andean waterbirds like the Giant and Andean Coot (Fulica gigantea and F. ardesiaca), Chilean, Andean, and James Flamingo (P. jamesi), and Andean Goose (Oressochen melanopterus), as well as some other great landbirds like the Lesser Rhea (Rhea pennata).
My travel companion Garry Donaldson was of great use in the field! ©A. Lesterhuis
One of the final lagoons we visited was the remote Laguna Saquewa, situated relatively close to the Chilean border. We were surprised by the large number of flamingos and Wilson’s Phalaropes at this site. Surrounded by heavy clouds, we counted all the birds hoping we would stay dry; fortunately, it rained all around us, but not at the lagoon where we counting. A total of 15,216 Wilson’s Phalaropes was the final count, enough for the site to be declared a WHSRN Site of regional importance. A great count before starting to head back towards Oruro and then home to Paraguay.
Dark skies around Laguna Saquewa. ©G. Donaldson.
Flocks of Wilson’s Phalaropes like these were scattered over the area, totaling more than 15,000 individuals. ©A. Lesterhuis.
The trip was epic, better than I could have imagined; having Garry, Sol, and Magali with me was a great pleasure, and we had a lot of fun. The views were impressive, the wildlife was astonishing, and the shorebirds were numerous, all reasons to go back and do it all over again at some point in the future. Perhaps I’ll visit some lagoons that are even higher, like Lago Titicaca. And, for a birder, there is always a species that gets away, a species that will make sure you come back. In my case it was the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover—we did not find it on this trip but I trust I will get it on the next one.
After eight days of driving, we were back in Paraguay (less than 100 m/328 ft a.sl.) and Garry and I visited some saline lagoons in the Central Chaco where came across a few more Wilson’s Phalaropes. A nice way to end this great adventure.
Wilson’s Phalaropes with Lesser Yellowlegs and White-backed Stilts. ©A. Lesterhuis.
Currently, all data gathered in the four countries we visited is being analyzed. This includes additional data from a large region covering the lowlands of Argentina where many Wilson’s Phalaropes winter. With all the data combined, we will have a better idea of the abundance and distribution of this and other Nearctic migrants that use the interior lands during the non-breeding season.
For more information on WHSRN please visit: www.whsrn.org
For more information on ISS please visit: https://www.manomet.org/project/international-shorebird-survey/ or https://www.manomet.org/iss-map/