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Open Mic: Waderquest Mountains to Sea in South America

At the Mic: Rick Simpson

Rick Simpson of Newport Pagnell, UK, is a bird guide, illustrator, author of Confessions of a Bird Guide, and a Birdlife Species Champion. 

He previously wrote about Wader Quest at the ABA Blog in Thailand, the UAEFlorida, Washington, California the UK, and previously in South America.

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Wader Quest was heading for new heights, over 4,000 meters to be more precise! We headed up from the coastal lowlands and, after an enforced overnight stop to acclimatise to the altitude,  pressed on for the Puna valleys at the top of the Andes.

There are a number of waders that can be seen at these heights and only at these heights and it was those that we had come to see.

The first we came across was the noisy, but attractive, Andean Lapwing. Similar in many respects to the Southern Lapwing that is more widespread at lower altitudes, this bird is just as boisterous as them. We stopped the vehicle at the head of a small valley with a boggy area running down it. Walking up hill was not an option, so we were going to head down – past the bog – with the vehicle to meet us at the bottom. Sounded good to me; both Elis and I were in fine fettle thanks to taking the climb slowly.

Andean Lapwing, photo by Elis Simpson

Andean Lapwing, photo by Elis Simpson

We set off in eager anticipation and quickly flushed a seedsnipe. It looked large and rufous. Probably Rufous Seedsnipe, but as we couldn’t relocate it and only one of us saw it, we forgot about it and moved on assuming we’d come across others. Indeed we did come across another seedsnipe very soon afterwards, this one though was Grey-breasted and much more obliging allowing us to watch and photograph it before it flew off displaying its characteristic black underwing.

Gray-breasted Seedsnipe, photo by Elis Simpson

Gray-breasted Seedsnipe, photo by Elis Simpson

We strolled steadily downwards when quite suddenly a bird flushed from in front of me. It circled around and alighted in front of Elis, who began to burble incoherently in obvious excitement. She might have been too; before us was the jewel in the crown of the Andes’ waders, the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover!

We couldn’t quite believe our luck. This had been, above all others, the bird we had most hoped to see, but we knew many who had not been successful so were prepared for the worst. This individual allowed us prolonged and close views and when it did eventually fly up the valley (a shrewd move on its part, no way were we going to follow it up hill!) we turned back downhill and plodded on.

Diademed Sandpiper Plover, photo by Elis Simpson

Diademed Sandpiper Plover, photo by Elis Simpson

It wasn’t long before we flushed another bird, but this was indeed a snipe. We reasoned that this was Puna Snipe and looking at the photographs later we thought that we had got it right, the identity being confirmed by Renzo. Many of these birds flushed up from in front of us, but only saw one on the ground. Exhausted, but deeply content, we joined the vehicle and headed to Junin for the night.

Puna Snipe, photo by Elis Simpson

Puna Snipe, photo by Elis Simpson

The next day broke far too early.  A bad night’s sleep meant we didn’t feel well rested and this put me in grumpy mode, an emotion that the morning’s events were not about to cure. There were still two very appealing and exciting waders to find. Andean Avocet, a real beauty, and Puna Plover, maybe not as stunning, but with a name that makes it exciting alone.

We drove along the edge of Junin Lake, scoured the water’s edge for these birds at every stop, but try as I might I couldn’t find them. The longer we went without seeing them, the grumpier I got. In mitigation I’d like to blame the altitude, but it all came to a head when a misunderstanding among the three languages being spoken simultaneously meant that I was the only one of the party who didn’t see highly localized (as the name suggests) endemic Junin Grebe, which had unusually appeared close to shore. It was only when we had finished birding and we had descended several thousand meters that I came out of my curmudgeonly haze and started being more affable, but it was still a bitter disappointment to miss the two waders. I felt that much more than the grebe, which in all honesty I had not expected nor craved to see.

So it was then that we returned to the coast and to the airport and headed back to Brazil. There we had just one aim, to see Pied Lapwing. A long drive into the interior of Minas Gerais to a site where we had seen them several years ago proved fruitful and our South American tour was over as far as waders were concerned. It was back to the UK for us and a Spotted Redshank at Titchwell in Norfolk rounded off our month.

Pied Lapwing, photo by Elis Simpson

Pied Lapwing, photo by Elis Simpson

The prospect of visiting South Africa for the first time, with a road trip to include Botswana and Namibia was what kept us going while at the British Birdwatching Fair, where we gave a talk. We raised a fair amount of money through donations and sales of our merchandise including my book, Confessions of a Bird Guide.

But that’s a story for next time.

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