Wednesday, November 14

Tracking a Marathon Migration: Churchill's Whimbrels

Flagged Whimbrel, "JM"
It’s been a crazy semester this fall, and the Churchill season that I never finished writing about feels incredibly far gone now.  It’s late at night in the middle of a busy week, but physics homework was easier than I thought, so what better time to recall a great summer?

After Alaska, I had a few days back in Ann Arbor to regroup and gear up for the 2012 field season.  I was particularly excited, as this was my first season with my own project, studying the migrations of Whimbrels and filming the process (not to mention the 25 beautiful little geolocators that had just shown up in the mail).  After gathering hip waders, knee boots, other boots, clothes for everything from 0-80˚F over the next two months, tripods, camera equipment, and the scattered notes I would need to finish up my last final term paper en route, I was off.
A light-level geolocator, weighing just 0.65 grams!
After a flight to Winnipeg and a night in a sketchy hotel, I was boarding the train on a rainy morning, headed for Churchill with nearly fifty hours of tracks ahead of me.  The train, ViaRail 693, comprised three passenger cars, a dining car, and a sleeper; all this for about four passengers and as many crew.  I found myself loving the solitude of the train – long hours to sit watching the scenery fly past, to think, to read, and to write the lingering term paper that grabbed at my ankles like a skeleton reaching out of a grave as a frightened protagonist frantically grasps for a tree root.  But I got a good grip on the root, soon freed myself from the zombie paper’s vice grip, and found time to jot down some notes on this new adventure:

May 30th --
“It’s wonderfully quiet now, with the whole car practically to myself, and the tracks’ uncertain condition curbing our pace.  The car sways gently, like a big Cadillac on rolling back roads; the soft creaking between cars and the muffled rhythm of the tracks add weight to my eyelids, still reluctantly open as my eyes jerk right to left, following the passing scenery.  Surely I’ve scanned many treetops that have known the touch of a Hawk-owl’s feathered talons, and the blankets of spindly spruces, peppered with creeks, ponds, and boggy clearings certainly suggest that these predators are plenty.  Nevertheless, none revealed itself today as this enticing landscape flew past my panoramic window. It’s nearing midnight, and still a pale blue lingers between the chaotic fingers of silhouetted spruces filing past in the west, and in the east, a gibbous moon is peeking in and out of otherwise invisible clouds.” 

The landscape began to take on the familiar (and deeply missed) look of the far north, with dense walls of short, spindly spruces lining the tracks, shading a rich understory of lichens and Labrador tea.  A few shorebirds here and there, as clearings in the forest became more frequent – small groups of what were probably Pectoral Sandpipers, the occasional Lesser Yellowlegs, and as we passed a large open stretch of tundra, a Whimbrel stooped to a landing near the tracks after declaring the bounds of his new territory.  Churchill was close.
Hudson Bay, breaking free of ice in early July 
I won’t try to describe my fascination with Churchill’s subtle landscape yet again, but it is just as striking every year, and every day (and surely the train’s careful pace only heightened the anticipation).  After settling into the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, I had a chance to wander the study sites on foot, scoping out a few old Whimbrels in the immediate vicinity (I resighted JX about 50 meters from his 2010 nest cup). 

This year I was working with Johanna Perz, a masters student at Trent University.  We teamed up in the field to work on some common objectives, but each of us has our own project.  Johanna is focusing on demographics and habitat use: resighting flagged individuals to determine whether Whimbrels’ longevity can make up for the high predation and low nesting success typical here, and whether different habitats have different nest success.  My focus is on migration, so I was eager to find enough nests to deploy all 25 geolocators before season’s end.  These tiny data loggers, attached to the Whimbrel’s legs, record ambient light levels to determine the timing of sunrise and sunset each day of the following year.  From these data, we can calculate the daily latitude and longitude of the individual carrying the logger, and trace their exact routes to the wintering grounds (typically the northern coast of South America).  Identifying the specific stopover sites and wintering grounds these birds use will be a crucial first step towards protecting this species, already seeing significant population declines.

Whimbrel at a nest.

To my surprise, we deployed our last geolocator on June 26th, and had found 52 nests by the middle of July (far exceeding my optimistic hopes of 30-40).  So for the last few weeks we kept busy with detailed habitat surveys at each of the nests, and trying to film any last footage I would need before heading south. 

After the field season in Churchill concluded, I spent August in Ithaca, working on an internship at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Multimedia Department to compile all the footage and produce the short film.  It was an awesome experience to plan, write, design, and edit the project, from start to finish – something I’d only casually experimented with on my own before.  I learned a ton from the Multimedia group, and am very grateful for their help and feedback – the final version can be viewed here:

A Whimbrel takes flight; these wings will carry her more than 10,000 miles in the coming year.
And after all this time reviewing the season through video, and now a few stressful months removed from Churchill, I can’t wait to go back next year to retrieve the geolocators and see where “my” birds have gone.  North American Whimbrels’ wintering grounds are well mapped, but perhaps not as precisely as we’ve previously thought.  Some flocks linger along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States, and many winter in the islands of the Caribbean, or in northern South America; the western breeding group (Alaska & Yukon) winters along much of the Pacific coast, from Oregon to southern Chile.  But recent satellite tracking studies of Whimbrels have shown some birds from the western arctic flying out over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, en route to Brazil, sometimes flying closer to Africa than the Americas!  With these surprising findings coming out now, it’s especially exciting to speculate about the Churchill birds, which have not yet been specifically tracked to their wintering grounds.  Beyond the universal intrigue of following any individual bird’s international migrations, there is plenty to learn about the specific ranges of these populations (and plenty to look forward to filming in the coming years!).  

A male Smith's Longspur, neighbor of the Whimbrels in Churchill.

Sunday, June 17

Hovering Around 60˚

Early May is always a long time in coming.  Between the last of autumn’s migrants and the lingering snow drifts of March, the landscape truly thirsts for birds.  Sure, there are birds in the winter, and cool ones, too, but in Ithaca or Ann Arbor, the emptiness between them looms larger than the birds themselves.  Early April lends a few new birds to the mix, like Phoebes, Hermit Thrushes, and a spattering of icterids that are only sufficiently appreciated in these few days of limbo, when even their ubiquitous summer presence has been missed—but really, April just enjoys toying with us.  She brings the spring migration fever to a boil, but doesn’t deliver too much to satiate the cravings.  So these cravings have festered since the first snowfall, and by mid April, the yearning is tangible.  It drips from the trees where warblers ought to be, and where a deceitful mind detects the phantom movements of such would-be, wayward warblers. 

This year was the same…save for a few big differences.  The anticipation was growing, with promise of good birds, but this time, I wouldn’t be seeing many warblers, and the balmy weather that brings so many migrants would have to wait; instead of hovering around 60˚F, I’d be hovering around 60˚N: Anchorage, Homer, Beluga, and finally Churchill – so no qualms about the weather this time.  This winter I heard that I was the recipient of the Tim Schantz Memorial Scholarship, courtesy of a foundation established by Mike and Tom Schantz in honor of their late brother, Tim, who at the age of 36, had died guiding a birding tour to St. Lawrence Island, Alaska.  Tim loved Homer and the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, so fittingly, the scholarship brings a college student each year to give a presentation there at the festival in Homer.  But before heading for Anchorage on May 8th, I had four exams in as many days, another to take with me to Alaska, term papers, and of course, a presentation to prepare for.  So in that first week of May, the amount of stress embedded in my head didn’t leave much extra space for the volumes of excitement that normally accompany May.  But that all changed when I boarded a flight for Alaska – a flight many years in wait.

I met Mike Schantz at baggage claim late the following night, and headed to our host for the night’s beautiful home, situated on a small rise overlooking Cook Inlet—at least, that’s what I had heard, and I was excited to see the view for myself the next morning.  We would be driving from Anchorage, southeast around Turnagain Arm—a finger of the Inlet with sharply rising mountains on either side and the prospect of Dall Sheep clamoring among the high rocks—and then back along Highway 1, eventually travelling southwest the length of the Kenai Peninsula to reach Homer. 

As the road crested a hill and banked left, a view of the mouth of Kachemak Bay panned across the windshield to the south, its entrance guarded by the long, narrow peninsula of stony beach and quaint restaurants and charter offices known as the Homer Spit.  A drive along the Spit ends at a hotel and restaurant known as “Land’s End,” and from here, one can walk along the point’s rocky shore, perched halfway across the bay, looking out to the Kenai Mountains.  Following a winter with twice the average annual snowfall, May still gripped these mountains with snow down to their coniferous feet, until they plunged abruptly into Kachemak’s frigid waters.  The sky above these cold mountains was similarly bleak, but its smooth, deep gray was in stark contrast with the mountains’ rugged, gleaming walls.  On this overcast evening, as I walked along the beach past weathered driftwood, smooth stones grinding under foot, I watched thousands of Common Murres flying towards open water on rapid wings, hugging the waves in tight flocks of a few dozen to a few hundred.  This exodus of hardy birds seemed endless, headed for what seemed an uncertain fate as they disappeared on a foggy horizon.  But this daily flux of Murres in and out of the Kachemak Bay is far from uncertain; sunrise would witness an equal and opposite movement when the birds returned to these protected waters for the day, as predictably as the sunrise itself. 

Common Murres
Common Murres coming in to Gull Island
"Land's End"
A Red-faced Cormorant shared a rock with his Pelagic brethren at Gull Island

Where we were staying on a hill overlooking the bay, this particular sunrise revealed several inches of fresh snow blanketing the lawn and the broad arms of the conifers that ringed the yard, reminiscent of a clear day in January.  A red-breasted nuthatch bleeped from the tops of these firs, a fox sparrow sang from the very top of another, a song as rich, full and sweet as any; and a varied thrush uttered its dissonant, even-pitched whistle from the shaded recesses of a fir’s heavy trunk, in thorough concealment, as if tired of sharing his good looks with the world.

While shorebirding along the Spit that morning, a call came in reporting a bristle-thighed curlew at the Anchor River mouth, just a 20-minute drive to the north.  Tom Schantz and I immediately left for Anchor Point, willing it to stay while we drove.  The light was fading fast, and when we arrived, Tom and I were alone.  Given the bristle-thigh’s considerable rarity and incredible life history, I was expecting an exodus of festival participants to converge on the reported curlew (the first here in about a decade), but inexplicably, the task of refinding the bird lay solely with us.  These large shorebirds, tawny brown with a striped head and a distinctive patch of bright buff on the rump, breed solely in the lower Yukon delta and Seward Peninsula in remote western Alaska.  As its Latin name Numenius tahitiensis suggests, this high arctic breeder is equally (if not more) familiar with tropical beaches and atolls of the South Pacific, where it was first described in Tahiti during James Cook’s expeditions in the 18th century.  But it was not until more than one hundred and sixty years later that the curlew’s nest was first discovered in 1948, during an expedition led by Henry Kyllingstad, Warren Peterson, and Arthur Allen.  On a tundra plateau outside of Mountain Village, the team had arguably one of the most rewarding experiences any human has even had under any circumstances, and it’s worth reading a full account here (   But since this well known discovery, representing one of the most recent discoveries of a North American bird’s nest, recent work with surgically implanted satellite transmitters has revealed a more detailed picture of the birds’ incredible journeys.  From Alaska, they fly at least 2,500 miles (4,000km) nonstop to Laysan and nearby islands in the western reaches of the Hawaiian archipelago, and may continue south to winter in Fiji, Tuvalu, Tonga, and other island nations of the South Pacific. 

As we hiked north, we came to a low ridge, with the river snaking to its mouth on our right, running parallel to the shoreline on our left.  Here, at a small oxbow in the river was a large patch of thick beach grass, matted down by wind and rain, a perfect spot for a curlew to nestle down for the night.  Sure enough, nearly the first thing my binoculars met was a good-sized, brown bird, hunkered low in the grass, sitting still.  The scope revealed a bird very similar to a whimbrel, but with a slim bill and buffy scalloping on the back.  But without any whimbrel present to compare with, I was worried that my hopes of seeing this wanderer en route to his remote summer home were making me too quick to call it a curlew, especially in fading light and without any views of the diagnostic rump.  Soon, and to our relief, several people who had had previous experience with this species were making their way down the beach, and the eager but cautious conversation that made its way through the maze of scopes and tripods was leaning towards a bristle-thighed curlew – it looked good, but notes and photos would need to be reviewed against references. 

Bristle-thighed Curlew 
So the next morning, our first stop was the Anchor River mouth – it would be hard to leave Alaska without being completely convinced of this bird’s identity.  As Tom and I walked out the beach, we were again alone.  I heard a whimbrel calling as it flew up from the oxbow where we had watched our so-called bristle-thighed curlew last night – and just like the “curlew,” the whimbrel was alone.  I was quickly beginning to doubt, as painful as it was, that our sighting the evening before had been anything out of the ordinary – save for extraordinary levels of probably unwarranted excitement.  But then another whimbrel flew up from the beach ahead of us, among others, and I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I had heard a soft “piu-weet,” the clear flight call of a bristle-thighed curlew.  Then Tom’s arm flew up as he exclaimed, “There! That one’s got a bright rump!”  I snapped a few record shots as it fled further down the beach, and then, as another whimbrel flew past, I thought I’d get a comparison shot – but as I found it in my viewfinder, I realized this second bird also had a pale rump!  There were two bristle-thighed curlews, and here we were with no one to share them with – one for each of us!  We followed them slowly down the beach to the river mouth, where they crossed and foraged comfortably within a short distance.  In this new day’s light, and with a flock of whimbrels to compare them to, there was no question this was a very different bird.  The buffy scalloping on the upperparts stood out plainly compared to the whimbrels’ even, brown tones; the bills were thin at the base, and seemed to curve more sharply downwards.  I was ecstatic, and when I spotted a bar-tailed godwit joining the flock along with a small group of long-billed dowitchers, I simply couldn’t believe my eyes.  The godwit is another bird usually only seen in remote western Alaska in North America, aside from rare records along both coasts, and this bird had probably just flown from New Zealand and Japan or Hokkaido.  Shortly after, a group of birders made their way down the beach, and we rushed them onwards to share this incredible spectacle that lay in wait at the end of a long walk.

The bristle-thigh's buff rump patch, which Whimbrels lack
Bar-tailed Godwit with two Bristle-thighed Curlews and a Whimbrel (front) 
Throughout the next two days, I was able to spend several hours with these birds, including another lonely evening where a flock of eleven whimbrels, the two bristle-thighed curlews and the bar-tailed godwit landed a few dozen yards in front of me, with soft “piu-weet”s floating over the beach among the melancholy tremolos of the whimbrels.  On this calm evening, there was no wind to stir the ocean or ruffle the birds’ tired feathers, feathers which had just carried them thousands of miles over the open water whose cold fingers were now lapping softly at my feet.  I looked out past these purpose-driven globetrotters, toward a horizon of snow-capped peaks extending to the right and hazy emptiness to the left.  These three birds – the godwit and his curlew companions – had certainly seen worse days over that ocean, now as docile as it was when it was named.  But here they were, alive and breathing, readying for their last quick jaunt to the breeding grounds, and here I was, sitting in the sand not twenty feet away as they settled in to sleep for the night.

*         *         *

That Sunday I left Homer for Anchorage, where I would take a Cessna 207 to Bleuga, a small settlement west of Anchorage, built chiefly around the Chugach Electric power plant, situated over a gas reserve and powering about half of Anchorage.  I was here to visit another field site for Nate Senner’s Hudsonian Godwit research, the project I’ve spent two summers in Churchill working on.  On our way there, we dropped into a viallge called Tyonek, a few miles past Beluga.  We dropped casually into a dirt landing strip, where the pilot promptly began handing out packages to locals: “Is Joe here? This is his.  Maria? Here you go. Grandma?” and so on…certainly a small town feel, to say the least.  He hopped back in, closed the door, and we were immediately bouncing down the runway again, gaining speed – no taxiing around to gates or waiting for fuel trucks.  This is the way to fly!

I could write plenty about Beluga, but given that you now represent the maybe 5% of readers who have made it this far, I will refrain.  It was, however, a very cool experience to see this disparate breeding area for the godwits, especially after seeing them on wintering grounds in southern Chile and working with them in the eastern arctic – I have been incredibly fortunate to have followed so much of this far-flung species’ annual cycle.  By the end of their season this year, the Beluga crew had recaptured 24 geolocators, a truly incredible number (as compared to our abysmal 2 from Churchill in 2011)!  Hopefully, I can have a small fraction of that success in the summer of 2013, when I return to Churchill to recapture some of the 25 geolocators I will be deploying this summer on Whimbrel (more on that in a later post).

And last, but not least, after visiting Beluga, Hope Batcheller, Nate Senner, John Fitzpatrick and I drove back to Homer, once again, to attend Chris Wood and Jessie Barry’s wedding – an awesome event that brought together some of the country’s most ridiculous birders, all sweeping the Kenai peninsula, undoubtedly with centuries of collective experience behind their eyes, affording many great looks at the lingering bristle-thighed curlews, yellow-billed loons, Kittlitz's murrelets, and so forth.  Many thanks and huge congratulations to Chris and Jessie! 

After a quick drop to some 42˚N, I’m now back at 58˚, in Churchill, Manitoba, starting work on a project with Whimbrels – birds with an always-pleasant resemblance to a certain pair of neatly patterned Pacific wanderers.  More on them soon! 

Sunday, March 4

Chile Expedition - Part II

The Yeso Valley has to be the most incredible place I’ve ever seen.  On this late January evening, the sun drew its last sharp rays across the peaks encircling us, and Andean Condors made their last rounds before going to roost.  At over 8,000 feet of elevation, our campsite was on a flat, alpine meadow, nestled among several snow-covered peaks, some of them reaching another 8,000 feet higher still.  We were just a few hours’ drive east of Santiago, a dense, smoggy metropolis of over 7 million people – but it felt a world away.  Because here, we were in the company of one of the world’s most enigmatic and captivating shorebirds, the Diademed Sandpiper-plover (Phegornis mitchelli).  Restricted to peat bogs and alluvium in the high Andes, the Sandpiper-plover is considered near-threatened, due to its small, declining global population and restricted range. 
Our Yeso abode, frequently grazed by goats, horses, and cattle
But our lack of knowledge about the basic ecology of this species compounds their vulnerability – and that’s what had brought us here.  We met up again with Jim Johnson and a crew of Chilean biologists, this time to help out with and shadow their research on this amazing bird.  Jim, an Alaskan shorebird biologist who’s been studying migratory Whimbrel and Godwits on their Chilean wintering grounds, and Chilean master’s student, Andrea Contreras, are working to better understand this species’ life history and develop a proactive conservation plan. 
Diademed Sandpiper-plover 
This study began last January during the austral summer, when the upper reaches of the Yeso Valley are spared from constant snow and wind.  In this second field season, Jim, Andrea and crew would continue work to find nests, band birds, and evaluate breeding success, all the while hoping to glean something of the refined taste Phegornis has for Andean bogs – and exercising their own for Chilean wines.  The particular habitat requirements of the Sandpiper-plover are poorly understood, and the birds inexplicably shun many bogs that appear suitable to the human observer; even their seasonal movements and winter havens remain uncharted.  There is however, the suspicion that these birds overwinter in the Valley, contrary to earlier hypotheses that they migrate north and join other populations.  This would be a crucial discovery for the species’ conservation, as it would indicate very small, isolated populations at even greater risk of local extinction.
White-browed Ground-tyrant
Earlier that day, we awoke before dawn to traipse the valley, recording and filming the bird life here: Ground-tyrants, Earthcreepers, Hillstars, Cinclodes and Condors, a menagerie of high elevation specialists.  These former figments of my imagination were now flitting before my lens, alive and breathing.  And all this, contained within a most stunning and humbling fishbowl between mountains: the Yeso Valley, a product of many millions of years of geology, was towering over me in its apparent permanence, reminding me that all I’ve ever known is contained within a mere snapshot of time.  But of course, this snapshot I was living had another 12 hours of daylight, and we were here to make the most of it. 
White-sided Hillstar
The crew had split into a few groups and dispersed throughout the valley, revisiting productive sites from the 2011 season in hopes of resighting banded birds and finding new nests.  Luckily, one of the first pairs we encountered was kind enough to lead us to the goal – two splotchy, olive eggs nestled atop a small, grassy mound.  Spending some time with this pair, I was able to film an adult returning to the nest to incubate, a sequence I had been visualizing over and over since we began planning the expedition months prior. 
Spreading out in search of a nest
Throughout the remainder of our all too brief three days in the Valley, we had many amazing opportunities to shadow this project, filming and participating in the capture and banding of chicks and adults, and searching for nests.  We were able to capture some of the first high-definition video of this species, a diverse portrayal of their life histories: adults vocalizing and foraging, incubating nests, brooding chicks, and accompanying fledglings.  In the week following our departure for the Altiplano of northern Chile, the team went on to find a staggering 18 nests.  The Sandpiper-plover crew’s research is just beginning, but already yielding invaluable information that will help direct the conservation of this fascinating denizen of the high Andes.

The early days of Sandpiper-ploverhood

Friday, February 3

Chile Expedition - Part I

I've tried and failed to understand how extremely fortunate I've been to be one of many undergraduates involved in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's vast array of research and outreach.  Most recently, this past January, I had the amazing opportunity to carry out a video and audio expedition to Chile that another sophomore, Hope Batcheller, and I proposed this Fall.  We would join Nathan Senner, a Ph.D. student studying the migrations of Hudsonian Godwits, to resight some of our banded birds on their wintering grounds in south-central Chile.  But noticing a dearth of recordings and videos from Chile in the Lab's Macaulay Library collection, we figured it would be worthwhile to extend our stay and visit an array of Chile's unique habitats to remedy the situation.  Luckily, the Lab (and generous donors) agreed, so there we found ourselves, in a little cottage on Isla Chiloé, along with a team of Alaskan biologists to resight flagged shorebirds.  For the past few years, the team has worked here resighting birds from Alaskan and Canadian study sites, as well as cannon-netting and banding large numbers of wintering birds there on the island.

Cabañas de Llau-Llao
On Jaunary 6th, Hope and Nate picked me up from the Puerto Montt Airport and we drove south to the ferry for Chiloé.  It was a balmy 60-70 degrees most of the time there, but my first two days were full of rain - enough rain to put our resighting work on hold.  Birding in the rain is fine, but when you have to read a three-letter code engraved on a small plastic flag on a bird's leg from a few dozen yards, a little rain on your scope's lens can go a long way.  Thankfully though, our last couple days on the island were more than productive enough to make up for it, as the team ended the week with more than double the number of resighted birds as in previous years!  Essentially, we drove around the island to a select series of mudflats preferred by the birds at different times of day, slowly approaching any flocks we could find.  While this was mostly a leisurely, therapeutic task, it sometimes involved pulling our boots through dense, silty mud up to our knees, only to watch the apparently threatening silhouette of a Southern Caracara fly by and spook the feeding flock across the bay.

Putemun, one of our primary study sites 
A large flock of Hudsonian Godwits and Whimbrel, in the Pullao inlet 
Chimango Caracara, a ubiquitous raptor, often seen feeding
on mussels alongside shorebirds
Hudsonian Godwit, in "winter" garb 
It was fascinating, too, to watch some of the current proceedings of the team's on-the-ground efforts to conserve the areas most important to these birds.  When imagining birds built to endure the arctic tundra spending their winters on a beach, feeding endlessly under blue skies, and a light breeze, it's easy to imagine they've got it pretty good– that they're getting a wonderful taste of a Florida retirement each and every year, without a care in the world.  But it would certainly be an illusion.  First of all, consider the 10,000 miles they cover to get there, and even more astonishing, the fact that most will accomplish 6,000 of them in one, non-stop marathon, with the next 4,000 chomping at the bit.  I've known these numbers and been amazed, but when I experienced just how excruciatingly long it took for a 757 (Aeroplanus boeingii) to fly to Chile, I realized just what little of that magnitude I could really comprehend.  But beyond their journey, these seemingly elysian mudflats are rapidly losing their ability to harbor large concentrations of shorebirds.  Much of this is due to direct human traffic and interference with the birds' feeding and roosting patterns.  Everywhere we set foot, dozens of Chiloé residents were following the tide, busily hunched over collecting seaweed for the production of algae-based biofuels.  The island's aquaculture trade is also continuing to expand rapidly, filling many of the inlets with hundreds of cages for fish and mussel farming.  The waters there are a shared resource, and with Chile's growing economy and drive for energy independence, that's not going to change anytime soon.
Algae collector passing by Whimbrel 
Dark-bellied Cinclodes, a common inhabitant of Chiloe's shorelines
In turn, the island is rapidly developing in other sectors as well, as evidenced by the beginnings of a new airport (Chiloés first, with service direct from Santiago) in the city of Castro, and large new neighborhoods springing up next to previously undisturbed inlets.  It's a daunting pattern that's become all too familiar.  Fortunately, however, a collaborative effort by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, WHSRN (Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network) and CECPAN (Centro de Estudios y Conservación del Patrimonio Natural) is underway to acquire the land needed to protect the sites most critical to these birds' delicate populations.  Of course, it's always a much more complex and volatile process than meets the eye...especially the American eye.  It's Chile's rapid development and energy initiatives that have made it unique among Latin American countries on track to join the "First World."  So the notion of Western organizations buying up foreign land for conservation, but also in opposition to "renewable" practices, such as biofuel production and wind farms, is an extremely intriguing practice, and it's history and current state in Chile will hopefully be one of my research focuses this coming summer...but that's another story.

Stay tuned for Part II, the portion of our expedition devoted to filming the breeding biology of the unique Diademed Sandpiper-plover and other Andean specialties, like Flamingos!

Thursday, January 5

To Chile...

A: Isla Chiloé, B: Santiago / Valle del Yeso, C: Arica / Lauca NP
Tomorrow I leave for two weeks in Chile, and that falls into the "holy dear God this is not real" category of fun facts, despite the nearly 24 hours in planes and airports standing between me and the great Bird Continent.  I will be travelling with Hope Batcheller and Nathan Senner, spending the first few days on Isla Chiloé, resighting the Hudsonian Godwits Nate banded in Alaska (unfortunately, this won't include any of the birds we banded in Churchill– but we'll cope).
The view down the Valley

    Afterwards, we'll be heading back to Santiago, giving a quick Spanish (i.e. the foreign language that none of us really's good for stories though, and as you can see, I'm preemptively milking it for all its worth).  We'll then be camping a few nights in the El Yeso Valley, at about 9,000 feet.  Here we officially embark on a video/audio expedition for the Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library, where we'll be joining a field crew studying Diademed Sandpiper-plovers to intimately document this species' breeding biology and spectacular bofedal habitat (high elevation cushion bogs).

    From there, we'll grab a 1:00AM flight a little over 1,000 miles north to Arica, near the Peruvian border.  We'll be driving east from there, toward Lauca National Park, abutting Bolivia.  The snowy cone of the Parinacota Volcano dominates this barren landscape, jutting almost 20,000 feet above sea level,  but we'll be after the flamingoes, sierra-finches, and ground-tyrants populating the foreground.
Volcán Parinacota and Lago Chungará, the highest lake in the world.
After a quick jaunt back to Santiago for another long series of flights back to the Not-so-birdy Continent, we'll get a chance to sleep before classes start again!  So stay tuned for updates from the field and hopefully many photos and videos to show for it.