Careful Counting in Nine South American Nations Can Help Aquatic Birds and Threatened Wetlands

The handsome red knot ( Calidris canutus ) was once one of the most common North American shorebirds. But the small birds, striking stand-outs on summer beaches with robin-red plumage on their faces and bellies, were slaughtered by the thousands in the 19 th century, and their populations have never fully recovered. To escape northern winters, red knots may fly many thousands of miles, as far south as Tierra del Fuego, to coastal wetlands they share with other migratory as well as resident birds. Conservationists in nine South American nations are now working together to monitor these water-loving birds along with the wetland ecosystems they need to survive.
After nearly a decade of only sketchy data collection, this year the Waterbird Monitoring Program of the Neotropics, an initiative of Wetlands International with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service, relaunched an ambitious regional bird census in South America. Participating countries are Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay.

Daniel Blanco, coordinator of the program in South America, says that birds are a “link between people and wetlands, and they also serve as indicators of wetland health.” If a census shows that the number of birds is declining, he notes, there’s a strong likelihood that their wetland habitat is degraded, and conservation action is needed.

A coordinator in each participating country determines the priority sites for the bird counts and recruits volunteers from throughout the nation. Counters include students, bird-lovers, NGO staff, and ornithologists; more than 750 volunteers are involved. Blanco says that local residents also participate, which has encouraged them to place greater value on their natural resources. In each country, detailed information is collected on populations of water birds and sites that are important for conservation. The census takes place during months when the birds are less active — when they are not migrating and are easier to observe. The first census of the whole region was done in February 2004, and the total count exceeded 33,000 species. In July, a second census was begun.

Blanco notes that one objective of the nine-nation census is to use the results to influence sound decision-making for conservation, such as designating wetlands as official Ramsar sites — meaning they have international importance — creating new protected areas, or encouraging regulations to protect rare or endangered species and habitats. There are 59 designated Ramsar sites in the countries participating in the Waterbird Monitoring Program of the Neotropics.

A unified effort in South America should lead to more effective, integrated measures for the protection of ecosystems and migratory birds, explains Blanco. He points out that many migrants, such as the rare Hudsonian Godwit ( Limosa haemastica), which was once heavily hunted for food throughout its North and South American range, may disappear completely if its habitats are not protected in both continents. People threaten American wetlands through contamination, draining and disruption of natural hydrology, and farming, construction, or other development. At risk are wetlands that provide important benefits for local populations by protecting them from hurricanes and floods, supplying them with fish, and attracting ecotourists who boost local economies.

Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay have collected bird census data for more than a decade. According to Luis Espinosa, coordinator of the census in Chile, the compiled information has heightened knowledge about the kinds of birds that frequent the ecosystems of central and southern Chile, their abundance, distribution, and population status. The challenge, he says, is to ensure that this valuable information is used by policy makers. He notes that the country has eight Ramsar sites totaling nearly 250,000 acres.

Thanks to information gathered during the bird counts in Uruguay, that nation is about to win a second protected Ramsar site, according to Francisco Rilla, the national census coordinator. The status will be given to the Farrapos Estuary, a freshwater wetland. Uruguay now has just one Ramsar site, the Bañados del Este y Franja Costera, or Eastern Marshes and Coastal Strand, in the southeast near the border with Brazil. It protects the nation’s largest watershed, providing fresh water to thousands.

Rilla says the waterbird monitoring program has helped alert local populations to the importance of wetlands. By gathering valid, scientific information about waterbird populations over the long-term, he believes it will be easier to respond with conservation measures and “identify which populations are declining or increasing, because of problems such as global climate change or habitat destruction.”

Further, he adds, many of the wetlands in Uruguay, as in the rest of the continent, are rich in biodiversity and have high ecotourism potential, an activity that is becoming increasingly important as an economic alternative to farming, which often directly threatens wetland habitats.

— Katiana Murillo


Daniel Blanco, general coordinator, Neotropical Aquatic Bird Census, 25 de Mayo 758 10 I (1002), Buenos Aires, Argentina, tel 54 11 4312 0932, .

Manuel Nores, Argentina coordinator, .

Susan Davis, Bolivia coordinator, .

Joao Menegheti, Brazil coordinator, .

Luis Espinosa, Chile coordinator, tel 56 65 232517, .

Fernando Castillos, Colombia coordinator, .

Sandra Loor-Vela, Ecuador coordinator .

Rob Clay, Paraguay coordinator, .

Víctor Pulido, Peru coordinator, .

Francisco Rilla, Uruguay coordinator, tel 5982 481 11 21, .

Read more about this project on the Eco-Index:


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