From the Cornell Blog of Ornithology in the USA:
Sandpiper or plover? Or both? A field report from Chile
In early January, two Cornell undergraduates, Andy Johnson and Hope Batcheller, visited Chile to help with some shorebird research and to gather audio and video for our Macaulay Library. One of the places they visited was the Yeso Valley, where they checked in with a research project on an unusual and declining shorebird. Here’s Andy to tell you more …
On a late January evening, the sun drew its last sharp rays across the peaks encircling the Yeso Valley, and Andean Condors made their day’s last rounds. At over 8,000 feet of elevation, our alpine campsite was nestled among snow-covered peaks, some of which reached another 8,000 feet higher still.
We were just a few hours’ drive east of Chile’s smoggy capital, Santiago. But it felt a world away, because we were here to seek the company of one of the world’s most enigmatic shorebirds, the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover (Phegornis mitchelli). A small bird of muted brown and red, with a finely barred breast and bright-yellow legs, the sandpiper-plover is named for a striking white ring that adorns its dark head.
In the few days I watched them, they were often in loose pairs, probing montane streambeds and bogs with their peculiar long bills, and they frequently paused atop a cushion plant or rock, suddenly dipping their bodies forward every few seconds in a motion opposite that of a typical plover. These singular birds held a charisma that truly set them apart, in part born of their precarious existence.
The Diademed Sandpiper-Plover is considered near-threatened due to its small and declining global population and restricted range: a few high-elevation sites of peat bog and alluvium in the Andes. Our lack of knowledge about the basic ecology of this species greatly compounds its vulnerability, and that’s what brought Jim Johnson, an Alaskan shorebird expert, and Andrea Contreras, a Chilean graduate student, to the Yeso Valley. I tagged along as part of an undergraduate expedition from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to collect high-definition video and audio.
The study had begun only a year earlier, in January 2011, when the austral summer spares the Yeso Valley from constant snow and wind. Johnson and Contreras wanted to learn what makes for good sandpiper-plover habitat. The birds live exclusively in high-elevation bogs among cushion plants and shallow streambeds, but they’re true connoisseurs, shunning many bogs that a human observer would deem suitable. It was surprising then, to find the birds nesting on dry, grassy mounds, dozens of meters from running water, as well as on small, stony islands in the midst of rushing streams.
So there’s more at play in this system than the plant communities and geology that meet the eye. What is causing this species’ decline, and why are they absent from other habitats that seem suitable? Andrea, Jim, and their crew are here to gradually chip away at this enigma.
Earlier that day, we had awoken amidst ground-tyrants, earthcreepers, hillstars, cinclodes and condors—a menagerie of high-elevation specialists.
Controversial Chilean dam project faces suspension threat: here.
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