Unexpected Dividends: Migratory Sandpipers in a Bolivian Reserve

A Buff-breasted Sandpiper foraging in the grasslands at Barba Azul, which is an important stopover site for these migrant shorebirds. Photo by Ed Schneider.

By John Nielsen

First and last, save habitat. If you had to pick a single rule for bird conservation groups to follow that would probably be it. Nobody ever looks back and says, “I wish we had saved less bird habitat,” for one thing. For another, the rewards for preserving these wild places can be greater than expected.

As a case in point, take the land deals that created Bolivia’s wondrous Barba Azul Nature Reserve in 2008, and then doubled its size in 2012. Asociación Armonía, a Bolivian conservation group and longstanding partner of American Bird Conservancy, made those acquisitions with help from ABC, Rainforest Trust, and a host of other groups.

Both acquisitions have been hailed as godsends for one bird in particular: the Critically Endangered Blue-throated Macaw from which Barba Azul (or in English, “blue beard”) got its name.

The critically endangered Blue-throated Macaw occurs only at the Barba Azul reserve. Photo by Paul B. Jones

The critically endangered Blue-throated Macaw occurs only at the Barba Azul reserve. Photo by Paul B. Jones

Other Rare Animals Conserved

People who read news reports about the creation of Barba Azul may remember seeing references to other rare creatures found in the reserve —everything from maned wolves, pumas, and jaguars to a wide range of declining native birds, including Greater Rhea, Long-tailed Reed Finch, and Streamer-tailed Tyrant.

One bird that was barely mentioned in the early news reports was the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, a long-distance migrant that breeds in the Arctic and winters in Argentina.

Bennett Hennessey, Director of Asociación Armonía, said the reason for that was simple: when Barba Azul was created in 2008, researchers rarely visited the area during the rainy season, which is when the “buffies” are around.

“At the time it was assumed that Buff-breasted Sandpipers rarely stopped here while migrating south to Argentina,” Hennessey said. “Basically, because we did not know that they were out there we did not go looking for them.”

Accidental Sightings

Hennessey says he got his first inkling that more than few Buff-breasted Sandpipers were stopping in these grasslands in the fall of 2008, when he and a colleague were surveying the then-private ranchlands that became Barba Azul.

“We were driving through a wetland area when the vehicle got so badly stuck that somebody had to drive a tractor to the site and pull the vehicle up onto firm ground, which took several hours. While waiting for the tractor to arrive I went bird watching, and saw an unexpectedly large group of Buff-breasted Sandpipers foraging in a dried-up lagoon.”

Hennessey saw more foraging buffies while bird watching with his son a few weeks later. “These observations suggested that the Beni grasslands of Barba Azul could be an important stop-over site for Buff-breasted Sandpipers in particular and boreal migrant shorebirds in general,” he said.

“We took that idea to Gary Donaldson of the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), which funded a study of the migratory shorebirds that use Bolivia’s tropical grasslands as wintering grounds or stopover sites.”

The Rio Omi winds through the flooded grasslands and palm islands that make up the Barba Azul Reserve. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik, ABC.

The Rio Omi winds through the flooded grasslands and palm islands that make up the Barba Azul Reserve. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik, ABC.

That research, begun in 2009, continues today. “In that time, we’ve learned that Buff-breasted Sandpipers are very common in the fall in Barba Azul,” said Hennessey.

“They arrive here weak and hungry after crossing roughly 1,000 miles worth of largely inhospitable forests of Amazon basin. They rest, they eat, they build up weight and strength, and then they leave, finishing their long journey south to pampas grasslands in Argentina.”

First and last, save habitat. It’s always a good idea and there’s no better way to save the treasures that have not yet been discovered.

John NielsenJohn Nielsen is Senior Writer/Editor at ABC and a former Environment Correspondent at National Public Radio. In 2006 his book Condor/To the Brink and Back/The Life and Times of One Giant Bird won the National Outdoor Book Award for Natural History Literature.

2 responses to “Unexpected Dividends: Migratory Sandpipers in a Bolivian Reserve

  1. Thank you for this story–you said it in the first sentence: “First and last, save habitat.” As a longtime supporter of ABC and Rainforest Trust, I’m happy to learn from you and from them of the successful collaboration together with Asociación Armonía, and to have been a part of this habitat acquisition and expansion–for all its inhabitants, for the migratory sandpipers, and with hope for life on Earth and the Earth who sustains us all.

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