Field Journal: From Snow To Summer

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From the Field posts

Dr. Felicity Arengo is the associate director of the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and ConservationThis week, she is heading out to conduct a census of flamingo populations in remote regions of South America.

Laguna Saquewa
Puna Flamingos forage in Laguna Saquewa in Bolivia. In the background is Nevado Sajama, an extinct volcano and the highest peak in Bolivia.
© F. Arengo

While my flight this week was one of many delayed by winter weather, I’m packing for summer. I am heading to Argentina to join a group of scientists, conservationists, students, and other volunteers on the 5th international simultaneous flamingo census, coordinated by the Grupo Conservación de Flamencos Altoandinos (GCFA)

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be counting flamingo populations in remote areas throughout southern South America. There are six flamingo species in the world and half of those are found in in this region. The Chilean Flamingo has a broad distribution throughout the region, while Andean Flamingos and Puna Flamingos are mainly restricted to wetlands in the Andes Mountains of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru, though some disperse to lowland wetlands in Argentina in winter. It’s these last two species our counts focus on, as population numbers are cause for concern. Its estimated that just 38,000 Andean Flamingos exist worldwide, making this bird the rarest flamingo species on the planet. 

Every five years, our crew of more than 80 trained volunteers split into smaller teams that set out to reach as many wetlands within the flamingo range as we can during a brief 10-day window in summer. My team will leave from Salta, a lovely colonial city in the northwest corner of the country, where temperatures have been close to 90 degrees for the past few days. But within a half-day’s drive we will reach the altiplano, the high plateau which is home to the shallow saline lakes that are ideal flamingo habitat. This is a land of extremes, where temperatures can drop below freezing during summer nights, rocks are sculpted by strong winds, and the sun beats down on one of the driest deserts on Earth. It’s an inhospitable landscape, but the flamingos are supremely adapted and thrive here.

An Andean Flamingo forages in Laguna Saquewa in Bolivia. Flamingos stir up the mud and filter food through teethlike structures in their bills. © O. Rocha
An Andean Flamingo forages in Laguna Saquewa in Bolivia. Flamingos stir up the mud and filter food through teeth-like structures in their bills.
© O. Rocha

While most of the wetlands are remote and difficult to access, the landscape is not without intense human impacts. The area is rich in metals and minerals, and the global demand for these is expanding. The lakes where flamingos feed are rich in lithium, the element that powers batteries in our laptops, phones, and other mobile gadgets. Demand for the element is expected to skyrocket in the coming years, which could increase pressure on these fragile systems. It’s not only industry that threatens these fragile habitats, as some isolated communities will take flamingo eggs from nests for local consumption, disrupting the breeding cycle.

As we make our count of flamingos in the coming weeks, we’ll monitor population trends and document the conservation status of the wetlands as part of a regional strategy aimed at securing the future of these flamingo populations. 

Read the next post in the series here.