After a Wet Winter, Tracking Flamingo Populations in the Andes

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Research posts

Four people stand near the water's edge to set up equipment.
The expeditionary team sets up scopes near the edge of the water at Laguna Azul, one of several sites visited in 2018.
F. Arengo

Felicity Arengo is the associate director of the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation. Each year, she travels to the high-altitude plateau of the Andes in Argentina to survey the shifting habitats of its flamingo populations. This year, her annual trip followed a particularly wet winter.

I usually travel to Argentina in February to study flamingos in the wetlands of the high-altitude plateau of the Andes. But this year, January was unusually rainy—so our expedition shifted to late February and early March. On a flat plateau, increased precipitation can make a big difference in water levels, and areas that are normally dry, like salares or salt flats, can hold standing water. These changes affect the availability of habitats for waterbirds, especially flamingos, who feed by stirring up bottom sediments and filtering water through their bills.


Flamingo paws the water with it's foot to stir up sediments.
Flamingos feed by stirring up the sediments at the bottom of shallow pools.
F. Arengo

This year at Laguna Grande, where in the past we’ve counted up to 18,000 Puna Flamingos, we counted just over 13,000 birds. This may be because the water was deeper than usual, excluding flamingos from bottom-feeding in some areas. And while flamingos have been breeding consistently here, this year the water flooded over the nesting flats.


Flamingo crouches over its nest, which is a raised area built above shallow water.
A flamingo sits on a nest at Laguna Grande. With high levels after a wet winter in 2018, the lake didn’t host a colony—we observed just a lone bird nesting.
F. Arengo

In contrast, in Salar de Antofalla, an area that is usually a dry salt flat, a thin film of water formed—enough that flamingos were able to breed. Flamingos have nested in that spot once before during a wet year, in 2015.

After this season’s heavy rainfall, we suspected we’d find a flamingo nesting colony in Salar de Antofalla once again. We set up our spotting scopes near the water’s edge, and sure enough, in the distance, we could see nesting activity and estimated over 100 chicks.

Our vantage point—at ground level looking over the reflection of the water and through the heat shimmer—did not afford the best view. In situations like these, we can use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, to observe the birds with little disturbance.

I flew the drone towards the colony and was able to get excellent aerial photos, not only of the nests, some with eggs and chicks, but also of the habitat surrounding the colony—information that was impossible to get from the shoreline. Observing the colony from above, we were able to identify adult Chilean and Andean flamingos, and accurately count the number of chicks (137), active nests, and eggs.


Aerial view of salt flats and colonies of flamingos.
A drone captures flamingos from above, allowing researchers a unique perspective from which to observe a nesting site.
F. Arengo

Our challenge as conservation biologists is to safeguard not only individual wetlands and their distinctive wildlife communities, but the larger wetland complex and its diverse landscape.

Flamingos in the Andes move from one wetland to another tracking resources, effectively connecting these wetlands as a network of habitats. But as conditions change, the subset of wetland patches with available resources shifts in the landscape. Observing new nesting colonies, like the one found in Salar de Antofalla, allows us to study how the region’s biodiversity adapts to life under changing conditions.