puna flamingo

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.

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.

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. 

Read the full Field Journal on the Museum blog. 


James’s Flamingo (Phoenicoparrus jamesi)

Also known as the Puna Flamingo or the Bolivian Flamingo, James’s Flamingo is a species of flamingo endemic to a small area in the Andes which ranges from southern Peru to western Bolivia and northern Argentina and Chile. Like most flamingos James’s flamingo feeds solely on plankton using its modified bill to filter them out of the water. Unlike their Andean relative the bill of James’s flamingo is shorter and more rounded. They are often found gathered in large nesting colonies where they raise their young.



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

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 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.

Read more on the Museum blog.

New Field Journal: Finally finding flamingos in remote regions of South America

The last few days have been good but tough, and mostly spent bouncing around on dirt roads above 4,000 m (13,000 ft). We visited Salar de Hombre Muerto, a big salt flat where the one of the world’s longest-running and highest-producing lithium mines operates. While lithium is plentiful here, water is in short supply. The “gold” of the altiplano, water is the lifeline of all species, and it’s also required for any industry. So this scarce resource is key to both flamingo populations and local economy.

We usually find a couple hundred flamingos here, representing all three South American species. They’re at home in the extensive vegas, green spongy areas that form when freshwater streams pool near salt flats. These bog-like expanses support tremendous biodiversity, but are very sensitive to changes in hydrology. Mining activity, thirsty for the fresh water, frequently impacts these areas, forming dams that interrupt water flow, essentially killing everything downstream. Unfortunately, that is what we find at the Trapiche River near the Salar. The Trapiche vega looks like it was burned, the result of having been cut off from its water source by a dam.

It’s a sharp contrast to Laguna Purulla, 200 km south but a seven-hour drive away guided by a GPS track indicating “only 4x4.” Laguna Purulla is one of our most remote sites and has been protected within a larger provincial reserve since 2012, mostly because of the work spearheaded by Grupo de Conservación de Flamencos Altoandinos-GCFA.

Our long, dusty drive is rewarded with the sight of around 400 Andean Flamingos, 200 Puna Flamingos, and a handful of Chilean Flamingos. Five years ago we found 200 nesting pairs of Andean Flamingos here, the first ever recorded for this site. No such luck this time, though it is not uncommon for long-lived birds like flamingos not to breed every year, or for colonies not to establish. These satellite nesting sites, though they are not used every year, are very important. They act as “insurance policies” under widely changing climatic conditions that can impact regular nesting sites, putting them out of commission suddenly.

We packed our scopes when the wind started to pick up, announcing rain. As it happens, we were just in time. As we hurried along the mountain landscape towards a wide rainbow, some of the most spectacular lightning I’ve ever seen chased us down the sandy track.

Dr. Felicity Arengo is the associate director of the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation. She is currently conducting a census of flamingo populations in remote regions of South America and sending back dispatches from the field. Read all of her posts so far

Field Journal: New Heights at the Last Stop

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.

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.

Read the rest of the post on the Museum blog

Field Journal: How to Count 18,000 Flamingos

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.

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. 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.

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.

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 full story on the Museum blog