The many flamingoes of the Atacama Desert

After a long wait, David Attenborough's magisterial Planet Earth 2 finally premiered Stateside.*

I watched the Mountains episode last night, where the short section on flamingo courtship brought back memories of the many trips I made into the Atacama Desert for these birds.

However, what Attenborough neglects to mention, but what is one of the most amazing aspects of this natural history spectacle; all 3 southern cone flamingo species can be seen congregating together in these Andean saltpans.

I can't think of another such dramatic example of sympatry among such ostensibly specialized and ecologically similar species.

Indeed, as late as 1957, the James' Flamingo was thought to be extinct:

A James' flamingo works the edge of the saltpan

That the James' flamingo went unseen was perhaps testament to the difficulty of accessing the altiplano more than its rarity, though it has the most restricted range of any of the 3 species. Salt lakes 15,000 feet above sea level on the border between Bolivia and Chile were not well-travelled regions in the Fifties!

However, compared to its congener the Andean flamingo, the James' is now thought to approach 100,000 birds and has been listed as Near-threatened. The Andean, with a global population under 40,000, is deemed Vulnerable by the IUCN.

Two Andean flamingoes in the shadow of Volcan Licancabur

This is the driest desert in the world, so this water is a critical resource.  

These two sympatric species presumably benefit from some ecological separation, but from my observations they pretty much share the same feeding strategy and habitat requirements. The breeding behaviours differ slightly, with the James concentrating into a very few large colonies, the biggest just over the Bolivian border - not that far as the flamingo flies (there are no crows in the neotropics ;)

A rare side by side comparison of the two Phenicoparrus spp, with James' on the right 

Otherwise known as the Puna Flamingo, and named for its British discoverer, the James' flamingo has finer lamellae than its congeners, enabling it to feed on smaller diatoms and algae. You can almost intuit this in the side by side bill comparison. 

A line-up of Chilean flamingoes

The third species in this otherworldly lake, the Chilean Flamingo, is trans-Andean - with a range that spans 5 countries. But its heartland is here, and it still concentrates in these mixed species flocks with its competitors. After returning back south after my trips to the Atacama I would typically catch up with these guys again in the windswept, glaciated steppe of southern Patagonia - a habitat transition that really shows off their ecological flexibility:

A pretty dramatic contrast! This shot was taken by my brother - the photographer Ben Hall - the first time I took him to Torres del Paine. I think it's been one of this better-selling images, most recently appearing in Attenborough's Planet Earth 2 book accompanying the TV show, as well as cleaning up a few awards. 

Flyout is pretty spectacular in the Atacama too (even if the photographer isn't as good...)

Lest this feels like flamingo overload, other migrants make use of the water resources that are so scarce in this high desert.

Nearctic species are represented by large numbers of Baird's sandpipers, and neotropical species by puna plovers and Andean avocets.

One of these things is not like the others.... Can you find it?

 Striking Andean avocets tumble from the sky - I recorded record counts of this sp. in 2007, but they were one of the more unpredictable inhabitants. 

Up close & personal with a BASA. (I still need this bird in North America!)

One of my favourite waders, the puna plover - this one is a juvenile

Another puna plover, an adult, work the same edges as the flamingoes, albeit with an entirely different strategy

Not wanting to be totally outdone by the avifauna, there are also some pretty cool mammals and reptiles adapted to this extreme xerophytic environment. Here's a very cooperative Liolaemus species.

I really need to improve my herping skills to pin some of these down to species!

Liolaemus sp. (fabiani or andinus?)

A side note on Planet Earth 2; whilst we didn't have to endure Sigourney Weaver usurping the grand master's narration duties, there was some serious misuse of sound design and 'imported' bird calls. It was most noticeable in the Fairy Tern segment, unless you believe the Seychelles were experiencing an unprecedented influx of Nearctic vagrants. Other elements of the sound design were also pretty overblown - I doubt a millipede makes an audible crunching sound when chewing. Of course, this is all in service of transporting the viewer into the life of the subject, but it was pursued with more subtlety in Planet Earth 1. 

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I work in NYC and own a wildlife and wilderness agency specializing in the southern cone of South America. I still do some guiding down there, especially looking for Fuegian and Patagonian avifauna. I'm particularly interested in the wintering ecology of neotropical migrants, and in avian biogeography in general. You can follow me at - @domhall And find me at - AventuraArgentina.com