El Yeso and Atacama, Diademed Sandpiper-plover and Markham’s Petrel

Getting connected, the birders network

Before we left home we had tried to book a couple of tours with local bird guides to help us understand habitats and find birds that we might otherwise have missed. One such guided trip was to El Yeso, a national park some hours drive from Santiago. The purpose was to set eyes on a Diademed Sandpiper-plover, a near threatened species, restricted to the Andes, in bogs between the frost line and snow line between 4 and 5000m of elevation.

Andy sent out a series of emails to Chilean bird tour companies and we heard back from a couple but the cost, 300USD each for a one day excursion, was prohibitive. However, the word was out. Not so long after, Andy had a message from Ivo Tejeda, executive director of Red de Observadores de Aves y Vida Silvestre de Chile—the Chilean Bird and Wildlife Observer Network, ROC. Chile’s top birders and wild life conservationists all wear multiple hats and work as freelance guides for all the bird touring companies. If Andy (former director of the British Trust for Ornithology) would commit some time to meet with Ivo and his team, they would be very glad to take us out for a day of birding at El Yeso free of charge. How could we possibly decline?!

El Yeso

The road to El Yeso

We left Santiago in the dark, bagged a siting of a Torrent duck en route, and eventually piled out of the cramped car deep inside the national park.

Every bird we saw was a first for me, some iconic others that ought to be. Condor, Fire-eyed Diucon, Seed Snipe, Grey-hooded Sierra Finch, Andean Goose, to mention just a few.

Left to Right: Ivo Tejeda (Executive Director ROC), Andy Clements (former CEO BTO), Erik Sandvig (ROC), Heraldo Norambuena (ROC)

We spent some time trudging along boggy ground but much of it was too dry and places where the Diademed Sandpiper-plover had been seen previously were void of the bird. We drove further up the valley where the road became submerged in snow and were dismayed that motor bikers were skidding around destroying hope of finding any birds let alone the prize for the day.

We retreated down the valley having all but given up until someone in the car (it might have been me) caught a movement on the side of the road. The habitat was completely right. Out we clambered and scanned the surrounds. Not far away we spotted first a bird on the nest and then its partner. Beauties!

Diademed Sandpiper Plover. Photo credits: Peter Kennerley

The Atacama

But this is not where our wonderful relationship with ROC ended. From Santiago we travelled north first visiting the northern most Chilean town of Arica, just a few kms from the boarder with Peru. From there we travelled up onto the Altiplano and Lauca National Park, bordering Bolivia. While there, Ivo Tejeda messaged to say that ROC had a team monitoring the nest site of Markham’s Storm Petrel in the Atacama desert and would we have time to go and meet with them. We changed our plans to divert south, to the Atacama, of course we did!

leaving the Altiplano
farming the desert

For centuries it was unknown where Markham’s Storm Petrel, sea fairing birds, nested. 10 years ago this changed. How the search unfolded is told in an article by Sarah Gilman. ROC were centre stage to this wonderful story.

The birds lay their eggs in hollows under the thick salt crust of ancient lakes, 50km inland in the Atacama desert. Using a fibre optic camera and microphone we were able to see and hear inside dozens of nests. Now the nesting whereabouts has been discovered, ROC has set up a local campaign to protect their habitat and breeding success. Street lights attract the newly fledged birds, causing them to congregate in urban areas rather than heading out to sea. Education programmes on how to recognise and rescue the birds from roads, as well as changes to street lighting are beginning to have beneficial effects. Much of the nesting area is owned by the military. ROC has been working with them to raise awareness and ring fence the nest sites so that fewer tanks now plough through. Funding for the continued protection of these birds has now been provided by the power company who’s pylons and cables stretch through the landscape.

Good things do happen! 

Important site- nesting of the black swallow of the sea, aka Markham’s Storm Petrel
Presencias Tutelares, public sculpture close to where we left the road
Following the team from ROC into the desert
Fibre optic camera being used to see inside the nest and monitor the size and number of chicks L to R: Pablo Gutierrez Maier Miranda, Benjamen Gallardo
Photo credit: Benjamen Gallardo
Tank tracks across the nesting site, the flag marking an occupied nest.
Markham’s Petrel in the hand! Photo credit: Pablo Gutiérrez Maier