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

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