Field Journal: How to Count 18,000 Flamingos

by AMNH on

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

Six Andean flamingos standing and feeding in shallow water.
Three flamingo species are found at Laguna Purulla, a lake in Argentina that is one of our first stops, but Andean Flamingos are the most abundant. 

Our Land Rover is packed with camping gear, scopes, tripods, GPSs, fuel, food, and water. It’s further packed with the four members of our team. There’s myself and Patricia, my local counterpart and partner on this project for over 15 years; we’ll be in charge of counting flamingos. Ricardo, a world-class professional bird guide and naturalist, will take point on identifying and recording all other waterbirds we encounter. And Amelia, our social psychologist, will be leading workshops with communities close to the flamingo sites.

There are at least 15 similar teams departing from other locations in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru, heading to their assigned areas to count flamingos. Our section of the map is high in the Argentina’s Catamarca Province, in a part of the Andes mountain range where five of the 10 highest peaks in the continent are found. These towering, snow-capped peaks frame the wetlands where we’ll be working.

And will we ever be working. We’re scheduled to visit around 20 lakes over the next 10 days. Our goal is to do a direct count, which means we try to visit every wetland in the distribution, and count every flamingo. Each wetland has points that give us good panoramic views and minimize the possibility of double-counting birds from the different vantage points.

Observing Salar de Incahuasi
Looking for a good view of flamingo habitat as we cross the salt flats en route to Laguna Purulla. 

While we want to be far enough away for a good view, we also need to be close enough to tell the three species of flamingo present—Andean, Chilean, and Puna—apart. While all flamingos have the characteristic qualities of a curved bill, long neck and legs, and pink color, the differences among species are subtle and take some practice to recognize.

Andean Flamingos have yellow legs, bigger bills, and black on their primary feathers that can be see towards the back of the bird when the wings are folded. Puna Flamingos are relatively small, with a smaller bill and red legs. Chilean Flamingos have gray legs with red joints, and no black showing on folded wings. There are differences in the pink hues of the birds’ plumage, but these are too variable for us to depend on as species indicators.

Andean Flamingo Wikimedia
Andean Flamingos are among the rarest flamingo species in the world.
via Wikimedia Commons/Arpingstone
Puna Flamingos Wikimedia
Puna Flamingos boast a brighter yellow beak than other South American flamingo species.
via Wikimedia Commons/Pedro Szekely 
Chilean Flamingo Wikimedia
To spot a Chilean Flamingo, look for their mostly grey legs marked by distinctive red joints. 
via Wikimedia Commons/Tragopan

When we arrive at our census point, we set up our spotting scopes and sweep them across the surface of the lake, carefully counting individuals of each species with the same sort of tally counter used by ticket-takers. When finished, counters compare numbers. If the final tallies are within two percent of one another, they’re acceptable and we can move on. If not, we have to begin again to ensure an accurate count. Some wetlands can have as few as four or five birds, but at others they number in the thousands—in one previous count, we saw as many as 18,000 flamingoes at one location. When they are mixed flocks, identifying the different species and counting takes concentration. Those long, careful counts can become tedious, but generally we’re just excited when we see so many birds.

Read the next post in the series here.