Field Journal: Flamingos in a Family Way

From the Field posts

Dr. Felicity Arengo is the associate director of the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation. This month, she is conducting a census of flamingo populations in remote regions of South America. Read the first post in the series here. 

Laguna Grande is one of the most important sites for Puna Flamingos throughout their range. We counted over 15,000 Puna Flamingos during this census. ©F. Arengo 

Laguna Grande is one of the most important sites for Puna Flamingos throughout their range. We counted over 15,000 Puna Flamingos during this census.

©F. Arengo 


We are standing at the edge of Laguna Grande, surrounded by snowy peaks and magnificent volcanic rock formations that seem almost cartoonish. From here we can see most of the lake, covered with pink dots. Two hours later we have an estimate for this section, but will have to count at three other points to cover the whole lake. 

When we are done we tally our results for the whole lake: over 15,000 Puna Flamingos are present. We also counted 50 Andean Flamingos and a single Chilean Flamingo small numbers in comparison. We’ve counted up to 18,000 Puna flamingos here in past years, but our lower count this year is not necessarily alarming.

Flamingos are itinerant, so they search for ideal areas to feed or nest over a large landscape. Birds that were here in past years may be at another lake this year, which is why our census covers the entire population range during the same time period, giving us a snapshot of the population in time and space. We’ll compile the results from the different teams to estimate the total population and look at how flamingos were distributed this year compared to previous years.

While there were fewer birds overall, we are thrilled to find an active Puna flamingo nesting colony again at Laguna Grande this year. They were first recorded nesting here in 2003, and the High Altitude Flamingo Conservation Group has been monitoring this emerging colony since 2009. Results are mixed: the colony was lost for three years, probably due to flooding during two of those years, while disturbances from tourists and people taking eggs caused the colony to fail another year. 

Flamingo chicks are gray and fluffy, lacking the pink pigmentation of their parents. ©F. Arengo 

Flamingo chicks are gray and fluffy, lacking the pink pigmentation of their parents.

©F. Arengo 


This year we find around 160 chicks, some around a month old: gray and slightly larger than the fluffy, white two-week old chicks, and there are still 100 flamingos sitting on eggs. Timing for different groups of mated pairs is slightly offset, occurring in several waves over the breeding season. We also count around 520 abandoned nests with eggs. Flamingo eggs and chicks are very vulnerable, experiencing high mortality, which is why our work with communities near these sites is as important as collecting data. 

Last week, in the nearby town of El Peñón, we organized a festival for International Wetlands Day on February 2, with activities for school children. We also organized a workshop on developing best practices for tourism in these important wetlands with participation from municipal and provincial authorities, tour guides, educators, and other stakeholders.

To celebrate World Wetlands Day on February 2, we worked with school children in El Peñón who created artwork featuring flamingos. ©F. Arengo 

To celebrate World Wetlands Day on February 2, we worked with school children in El Peñón who created artwork featuring flamingos.

©F. Arengo 


With our work in this area finished, we come down off the altiplano to a valley, dropping from over 13,000 feet in just four hours. We’ve taken counts at 15 wetlands in the northern section of our circuit. We’ll replenish food and fuel, check email and phone messages, and head up another mountain range to finish counting populations at our last five wetlands in the southern section. 

Read the last post in the series here