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!


  1. After reading this, Chile immediately elevated up on my list of most wanted places to visit. Looking forward to the Diademed Sandpiper-Plovers…

  2. Wow, Andy--amazing! Can't wait to read part 2! --Jennie D