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Cover Photo: Buff-breasted Sandpipers flying over the Barba Azul Nature Reserve. Teodoro Camacho, Armonía.

Many species of shorebirds migrate thousands of kilometers from the Arctic, passing through Central America, to their winter grounds in South America. During these migratory cycles, they need to reach important stopover sites to rest and regain strength before resuming their flight. The Bolivian territory becomes a temporary but crucial destination for hundreds of thousands of travelers. Tjalle Boorsma, Conservation Program Director for Asociacion Armonia, emphasizes the importance of concerted conservation efforts among multiple countries to conserve shorebirds and their habitats. 

“These shorebirds play a vital role during their stopover in the Beni Savannas also known as Llanos de Moxos of Bolivia. They arrive from Texas, having flown over the Amazon rainforest, and replenish themselves in the natural grasslands of the Beni Department before continuing their journey to Argentina, Uruguay, and southern Brazil. The Buff-breasted Sandpiper (Calidris subruficollis), in particular, is an emblematic and threatened species that Armonía actively protects through the creation of suitable stopover habitats like river-edge short grass at Barba Azul Nature Reserve to secure sufficient feeding grounds ” Boorsma reports. 

During the summer, many shorebirds live in the Arctic, where they breed and raise their chicks. But when winter comes, they must begin their journey. They can’t fly continuously; they need stopover sites. Thanks to this natural phenomenon, it’s possible to observe shorebirds even in a landlocked country like Bolivia.

Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA)

To protect these species, the Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA) program helps identify the most important places used by many species, including migratory shorebirds. KBAs are a complement to the existing protected area system.

Historically, the KBA was developed from BirdLife Internationa’s Important Bird Areas (IBAs) program in the 1990s, identifying key locations for many endangered birds or those requiring vital sites for survival. BirdLife International is an organization dedicated to protecting the planet’s birds. They wanted to protect the most threatened species. So, they began identifying where these species can be found, whether they are in danger of extinction or have restricted geographical areas. One of the key criteria was the existence of important sites for migratory birds because this group is vulnerable as it migrates through so many countries. Many of them may not be locally threatened, but studies show a consistent trend in population decline,” recounts Rodrigo Soria, Executive Director of Armonía.

Soria was leading this initiative in Bolivia when the IBA program started. From firsthand experience, he describes how the IBA concept expanded into what is now known as the Key Biodiversity Program program, involving many more species and gaining support from many more organizations with a common purpose, safeguarding Bolivia’s biodiversity.

“If you have a large wetland that is used by many shorebirds to rest for multiple days during their migration, and if that wetland disappears, an important foraging site is eliminated which directly affects the survival of these individuals. If they don’t find nearby foraging sites, shorebirds can end up exhausted and die from fatigue,”  warns Soria.

Shorebirds perform multifaceted functions within their ecosystems, including insect control. Monitoring their populations is highly important to measuring the overall health of an ecosystem. Boorsma warns that if shorebirds decline in Bolivian wetlands, it signals negative impacts of human activities on these vital ecosystems.

“In the Andean region, there are various high-altitude lakes that are used as stopover sites for species that migrate along the highlands. Even though these are very isolated sites away from most human populations, these lakes can be affected by unsustainable mining that results in the drying of these crucial sites. In some areas you can find a chain of multiple lakes where shorebirds can stop and rest for a few days,” says Rodrigo Soria.

Photo: Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) Teodoro Camacho, Armonía.

Why are shorebirds important?

Shorebirds are associated with high-value wetlands such as bogs, lagoons, lakes, and more. These are  essential aquatic ecosystems for overall biological diversity as well as the well-being of humans. That’s why Bolivia signed the  Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals agreement for the protection and conservation of migratory birds. As a result, the Central Government committed to carrying out conservation efforts  that benefit migratory birds.

“There is a  close relationship in preserving wetlands that provides important ecosystem services and habitat for shorebirds,” explains the director of Armonía. He emphasizes that by protecting migratory birds, indirectly, many other species and important ecosystems for human well-being are being conserved.

Unfortunately, many of these stopover sites are being lost due to a wide range of causes. “It is really depressing to see how today in Bolivia we coexist with aquatic ecosystems that are in deplorable condition. A perfect example is  Lake Poopó (Oruro). Not only has it dried up, but it’s also highly contaminated with minerals. There is a lot of mining activity that impacts Lake Poopó.” states Soria.

Soria also points to semi-urban areas, like Cochabamba’s Alalay Lagoon. While “migratory birds still arrive,” pollution has caused the lagoon to emit an unpleasant odour. There are also lagoons being filled with soil to build houses, ignoring the damage this causes to aquatic ecosystems and watersheds. Another significant factor  is climate change, which causes wetlands to practically “disappear.”

Even irresponsible or unregulated fishing can be a threat to shorebirds and other native species. For example, the Titicaca Grebe (Rollandia microptera), an endemic bird of Lake Titicaca, often gets trapped in nets and drowns. This bird species also used to inhabit Lake Poopó.

These are just a few cases of threats to shorebirds. It is hard to provide clear data due to a lack of research. “Research and population evaluations are important because they provide fundamental information that then allows us to decide where and how conservation or management efforts are needed,” explains Soria.

Photo: Hudsonian Godwit (Limosa haemastica) Teodoro Camacho, Armonía.

Five key actions of Armonía to conserve shorebirds

Tjalle Boorsma emphasizes that protecting Buff-breasted Sandpipers  in Bolivia alone would be insufficient if other countries along its migratory route did not do the same. Hence, Armonia actively participates in the Midcontinent Shorebird Conservation Initiative , working collaboratively with numerous partners and countries. This joint effort aims to identify and address threats to shorebirds within the mid-continent flyway, developing comprehensive conservation strategies to ensure the preservation of these avian species. Preserving these birds is a hemispheric effort, and Bolivia’s role is crucial for their survival. Armonía’s efforts in 2023 are structured around five key actions:

In the Barba Azul Nature Reserve, primarily established to protect the Blue-throated Macaw (Ara glaucogularis), Armonia discovered that several species of migratory shorebirds use the grasslands. Armonía initiated a long-term monitoring program within the 11,000-hectare Barba Azul in 2014 providing data on habitat requirements and population trends. Barba Azul has been officially designated as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) for regional importance in 2015. It stands as the sole WHSRN site recognized in Bolivia

They are also mapping key habitat areas for Buff-breasted Sandpipers  in the Llanos de Moxos landscape to understand the importance of this ecosystem for migratory shorebirds.

In a pioneering effort, Armonía is investigating whether migratory shorebirds also use the shores of the Amazon rivers, collaborating with organizations in various countries. They will study bird populations along the Mamoré and Madre de Dios River.

Likewise, Armonía and Fundesnap launched the second open call to participate in the Conserva Aves Bolivia program, which aims to protect shorebirds as well as endemic and threatened bird species in the country.

Armonia, in collaboration with Manomet, conducted the first-ever Diademed Sandpiper-Plover (Phegornis mitchellii) census in the high Andes, simultaneously spanning Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. Preliminary findings from Bolivia reveal a concerning scenario for this species, as their vital habitats, specifically the bogs, face substantial challenges from a combination of factors, including intensified llama activity, increased human presence, and the desiccation caused by mining activities. These early observations underscore the urgent need for conservation measures to mitigate the impacts on the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover’s fragile ecosystem. 

Armonia’s shorebird efforts are supported by the American Bird Conservancy, Environment and Climate Change Canada, International Conservation Fund of Canada, Manomet, Tareen Filgas Foundation, US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act grant (NMBCA), and the US Forest Service. While the evaluation and valuation of the Key Biodiversity Areas across the Tropical Andes is funded by the Bezos Earth Fund to BirdLife International and its partners, being Armonía its Bolivian partner.


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