Shiloh Schulte, Manomet’s senior shorebird scientist, recently spent four weeks in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, continuing several studies delayed by COVID-19. Working closely with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, Shiloh deployed GPS tracking tags on Whimbrel, American Golden-Plovers, Pectoral Sandpipers, and other species as part of an ongoing study of local movement patterns and long-distance migration pathways and stopover sites. In addition to the tracking work, Shiloh collaborated to develop methods for remote monitoring of shorebird nests and mentored new USFWS technicians and volunteers.
Shiloh recently shared his experiences on Alaska’s Katakturuk River tagging Whimbrels to study local movement patterns and long-distance migration pathways and stopover sites.
I have been lying flat in the sedge, hiding behind a tundra mound for the last 20 minutes. A cloud of frustrated mosquitos is whining all around but unable to reach me through my bug shirt and headnet. One hundred and fifty meters away, a male Whimbrel is slowly making his way back toward his nest, head up and on high alert. It is the morning of June 23, and it’s our last morning in the Katakturuk River valley in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Our trip has already been a huge success, with five Whimbrels tagged with GPS transmitters in the last three days. But, we have one last transmitter to put out, and we really want to catch this bird. Two hundred meters along the slope, I can barely see the tan camouflage of Kirsti Carr’s bug jacket as she also lies flat in the sedge, watching from another angle and ready to radio the moment the Whimbrel gets back on the nest.
Kirsti and I arrived in the Katakturuk Valley on June 20 to find any Whimbrel nests in the area and hoping to catch up to six adults for tagging. Kirsti is a volunteer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and working with me to catch and tag sandpipers because of her previous experience GPS tagging Red-headed Woodpeckers in Minnesota. The Katakturuk is about 35km to the Southeast of the USFWS Canning River Delta Camp, which is only about 25 minutes away by helicopter. Eric Lane, our pilot from Pollux Aviation, dropped us off and even helped set up our spike camp before heading out.
The Katakturuk River valley is a patchwork of dry tundra covered in Dryas flowers and lichen and hummock wetlands dominated by a mix of sedge species. After a couple of weeks of daily walking on the wet, uneven ground of the Canning River Delta, the good footing and stunning landscape were a welcome change. The last time I was here was in June 2019. Manomet and the USFWS had a small joint camp in the Katakturuk Valley that year. We conducted Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring surveys (PRISM) for breeding shorebirds; estimated shorebird nest survival across the Arctic coastal plain; and deployed tags on Pectoral Sandpipers and American Golden-Plovers to assess their use of the coastal plain and migration pathways and strategies. 2020 was supposed to be the second year of all of these projects, but like so many other things, COVID shut those plans down at least temporarily. We had hoped to resume fieldwork in 2021, but we again had to postpone most of the work with the uncertainty around COVID rules and vaccine availability. Fortunately, I was able to get vaccinated in time to join the USFWS team going to the Canning River Delta camp in June. My goal was to deploy transmitters on Pectoral Sandpipers, American Golden-Plovers, and Whimbrel, and assist the USFWS team with their work at the Canning River camp.
Back in 2019, the Katakturuk Valley held several surprises for us. We discovered a high density of nesting Whimbrel in the area, which led to questions about the importance of the Refuge coastal plain for this species. We were curious to learn if these birds were part of the Mackenzie Delta group that migrates east and crosses the Atlantic to South America, or if they were associated with the rest of the Whimbrel in Alaska, which migrates down the west coast. In 2019, we tagged one bird with a GPS transmitter and discovered that he went the Eastern route and ended up in Brazil by way of the Hudson Bay flats and an impressive multi-day flight over the Atlantic Ocean. This year, we hoped to expand the project with six new GPS tags that would track the Whimbrels over multiple years.
Watching through my binoculars over the top of the mound, I see the Whimbrel dip out of sight very close to the nest and not reappear. After a couple of moments, I radio to Kirsti:
“Can you still see him?”
“No, he just dropped out of sight, but I think he is on the nest.”
I wait several more moments before seeing a slight movement through the sedge as the bird turns his head. He is definitely on the nest now. Holding my breath, I give a hard pull on the trigger line and then immediately start sprinting toward the nest. The traps are very reliable, but there is a chance the bird can escape given enough time. Whimbrel are so wary that we have to hide quite a distance from the nest. Speed is of the essence. Hurdling mounds and avoiding mud pits, I somehow make it to the trap without falling on my face. Bird in the trap!
Moments later we add a USGS metal band with a unique code and then complete a series of measurements to confirm sex and assess molt and body condition. Next, we add a field readable leg flag (EY5) and a solar-powered GPS transmitter that should last several years and allow us to track this bird through his incredible annual journey.
After a final check, EY5 is ready for release. He launches into the air with a hard beat of his wings, rising up and out towards the river, giving a loud alarm call. His mate has been standing nearby and leaps up to follow. We quickly gather our supplies and move out of the area so they can return to their nest as quickly as possible. Elated with the morning’s work, we head back to camp to finish packing and wait for the helicopter to pick us up. In three and a half days, we found three nesting Whimbrel pairs and one pair of American Golden-Plovers and managed to catch all eight birds and fit them with GPS tags. When we return to the Canning Camp, we will complete the tagging work for the season with 13 tags on female Pectoral Sandpipers. We will track all these birds through the fall and winter, and these Whimbrel tags should keep providing valuable data for several years.
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.