January 10, 2015, El Yeso Valley, Chile -- I am in Santiago for a couple days with a birder named Fred Homer, who kindly agreed to show me a few Chilean specialties this week. We set out at dark-thirty this morning on a special mission to find one of the world's most enigmatic and least-known shorebirds, the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover.
The DSP, as birders call it, is an oddball animal. It lives high in the central Andes, mostly in inaccessible bogs, and its total population is thought to be fewer than 2,000 individuals. No other bird looks much like it--the DSP has a dumpy body, fat yellow legs, a droopy beak, a deep reddish collar, and an upturned white mark behind each eye which gives a quizzical expression. The bird looks like it doesn't mind being stared at, but wonders why anyone would bother.
To help with this quest, Fred enlisted a local birder and biologist named Fernando Diaz Segovia, who has spent years tracking sandpiper-plovers (by color-banding them) to try to learn their secrets. Fernando picked us up in a freshly washed SUV, and the three of us headed for the high Andes. We drove up the El Yeso Valley, stopping for various other birds along the way as the sun came up. The dirt road deteriorated until it became a single lane hacked into a cliff (several times, we had to carefully back up to a wide spot to squeeze past oncoming traffic), and, as we climbed, roadside vegetation dwindled to dust. At about 10,000 feet above sea level, hours after leaving Santiago, with glaciers and sky dominating the view, we arrived at the DSP's stronghold.
For all that, it was an easy bird to find. Within minutes Fernando had us faces-to-beaks with a pair of sandpiper-plovers and their fuzzy chick. Score! They didn't seem to mind our presence, and I was able to scoot really close to one of the adults. I spent a long time staring into its beady black eyes, but the DSP gave nothing away.
By day's end, I had added 39 new year birds, upping the total to 132. Meanwhile, today was the first day I have had real Internet access this year (I've been using a satellite email account), and I was excited to see this blog myself for the first time just now! I am blown away by all the comments that have stacked up since New Year. Thanks everyone, and keep it coming. (To answer a couple recurring questions: Audubon is working on attaching a running bird list to this blog, as well as a more reader-friendly format... stay tuned.)