Field Journal: New Heights at the Last Stop

by AMNH on

From the Field posts

Dr. Felicity Arengo is the associate director of the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation.She has just returned to the Museum after two weeks spent conducting a census of flamingo populations in remote regions of South America. Read the first post in the series here

Six flamingos feeding in grass. They have light pink body feathers, darker pink necks, black beaks, and black tail feathers.
Laguna Negra, at the base of Mt. Pissis, has an important vega where we found all three flamingo species, mostly Andean Flamingos like those pictured above.
© F. Arengo

For our last stop on the flamingo census, we journeyed to an area featuring some of the highest peaks in the Western Hemisphere. The scenery is breathtaking, literally, with the thin air of higher altitudes requiring more caution in the field than usual. At the higher passes close to 5,000 meters, even carrying the spotting scope to an overlook takes more effort, but the view is worth it.

From our perch, we saw three appropriately named wetlands: Azul (Blue), Negra (Black), and Verde (Green), pooling at the base of Mt. Pissis, the third highest mountain in the Americas. The colors of the lakes reflect different biochemical properties that ultimately determine whether they attract flamingos: we saw two Chilean Flamingos in Azul, two Puna Flamingos in Verde, and around 156 Andean Flamingos in Negra, in addition to a handful of the other two flamingo species, many Andean geese with chicks, and several shorebirds and ducks. 

Ojos del Salado
Ojos del Salado, the world’s highest active volcano, looms over the wetlands that flamingos call home.
© F. Arengo

In the distance, Ojos del Salado, the highest active volcano in the world at a height of 6,900 meters, juts out of the landscape. There is a proposal to create a protected area called “Los Seismiles” (The Six Thousands) because of the number of peaks over 6,000 m. This area, popular with mountain climbers, is increasingly being developed for tourism, and declaring it a protected area would help to protect both cultural artifacts and biodiversity that includes mammals like guanacos, vicuñas, and chinchillas, birds including flamingos and rheas, and native flora. Several wetlands where we find flamingos would be included in this protected area.

Laguna Aparejos
Adobe walls provide some shelter from the strong winds at our Laguna Aparejos camp, where temperatures drop below freezing at night.
© F. Arengo

At sundown, we finished up our count of flamingos at nearby Laguna Los Aparejos and set up camp there. Adobe structures, the remnants of an abandoned mine, provided shelter from the high winds as we settled in for a cold night—temperatures here drop below freezing. On the last day of our trip, we finished up with a roadside count of wetlands at Paso San Francisco, the international border crossing to Chile, and headed back to our base in the Argentine city of Salta.

Over the next couple of days, news from the other teams trickled in. Happily, the preliminary results of this flamingo census are promising! Rough totals of Andean and Puna flamingos show an increase of 45 percent and 48 percent over previous counts, respectively.  

In addition, it appears to have been a good breeding year, with record numbers of Chilean Flamingo chicks reported at the salt lake Mar Chiquita: 60,000 breeding pairs were recorded and 26,000 chicks hatched. At another site, Laguna Colorada in Bolivia, at least 20,000 chicks were reported.

It will take more time to examine all the data, consider the breadth of this latest census and the number of sites visited, and compare these numbers with those from previous years. There’s also work to be done to closely monitor the success of new chicks, but the trend we’re seeing is one of increasing numbers of individuals and more active nesting colonies producing chicks—certainly encouraging signs from a few weeks of work in the field.