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The craft of birdwatching and the luck of finding American Golden Plovers on their journey to the south

The American Golden-Plover makes one of the longest migratory journeys. In an odyssey that begins in the Western Arctic of Alaska, it travels to South America via the Atlantic and passes through Colombia. If you are fortunate enough to find them, it is certainly an unforgettable experience.

Fernando Ayerbe Quiñones is one of the people who have seen most birds in Colombia, considered the country of birds with a record of 1,954 registered species. And in 2022 he published the third edition of "An Illustrated Fied Guide to the Birds of Columbia," a must-have in the libraries of bird lovers. 

Man standing on hillside
Colombian ornithologist Fernando Ayerbe Quiñones, author of the Illustrated Guide to Colombian Avifauna. Photo: Courtesy

During his time at university, he worked as a monitor of the bird collection of the Natural History Museum of the Universidad del Cauca and published several scientific papers on Colombian birds. Since completing his undergraduate degree in 2008, he has worked as a research associate with the Colombia program of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in research and conservation projects of birds in various regions of the country.

Quiñones remembers that the first time he saw an American Golden-Plover was in Popayán, a Colombian municipality in Cauca department. It's located in the Pubenza Valley, between the Western and Central Cordillera in the southwest of the country, with an average altitude of 1,760 meters above sea level. 

He saw it at a time, 30 years ago, when there were many more pastures and extensive livestock areas, where it was common to see migratory shorebirds arriving.

The Pluvialis dominica, as he calls it, could be said to be a usual sight, but never in large numbers, and not every year. To be more exact, Quiñones assures us that it is a species that he has seen every other year since that time 30 years ago, but unfortunately, its presence has been impacted by the urban development of the country, so they are seen less and less.

During his university days, in work done with Calidris, in Colombia, he did a two-and-a-half-month sampling, and only saw one individual of that species. Unfortunately, it was sick, seemed to have a cold, looked weak, slow, and did not allow itself to be caught. Two weeks later they found it again, but it had already died. 

Since then, he has had better luck. “Once I was on a plane in Bogota and saw him on the side of the runway.” Migratory birds generally move at night and must pass the Andes Mountain range. In their journey, they visit different regions—even when it seems that they are far away from their usual places—as long as the conditions of availability of food and shelter are appropriate, which is generally more abundant in low areas. But it is not impossible to find them in high-altitude areas such as Bogota, the Colombian capital, located at 2,625 meters above sea level.

Two shorebirds in flight
American Golden Plover in flight during its passage through Colombian skies. Photo: Luis Espinosa Gómez.

One lucky day, in Valle del Cauca, one of the Colombian regions with more birds recorded, with almost 1,000 species in the inventory, he saw five individuals on the same day of birding. Generally, and according to his experience, American Golden-Plovers are seen alone, between one and two. They don't travel in very large flocks.

This year, with a group of young ornithologists in the department of Huila, located in the southwest of the country, he proposed they make weekly excursions to look for migratory birds and raptors. But he said they should also be paying attention to migratory scolopacids and caradrids, which are also known as plovers or shorebirds, because Quiñones knows that the Magdalena River Valley, considered the main river artery of the country, is a very important bird migration route.

"We did it since the end of August, knowing that the first baltramias and tringas start arriving in those days and the surprise was to see the Pluvialis. The people at the Betania Dam were also able to see three individuals," says Quiñones. "Pluvialis I have seen from late September to early November. Always in migration from the north to the south of the continent, in the boreal autumn. Looking at some records, some species have been reported between February and April on the Eastern Plains sides."

The habitats where migratory shorebirds are found are the edges of dams, with sand or mud, also in rice fields with a good amount of water, but in areas where the grass is not very high when the plant is just growing.

"The main threat these birds face in this region is habitat destruction," adds Quiñones, who is also concerned about the spraying of rice fields, especially in the departments of Huila and Tolima. 

"We know that there is fumigation, but we don't really know how these affect the shorebirds, and all the birds that pass through there and depend on these rice fields, in the different stages of these, which offer four types of habitats: first as soil, then as mud, then with small plants and later with larger plants,” he says. All stages of cultivation are beneficial for different types of birds and biodiversity. 

Quiñones doesn't know of any cases of hunting, but he knows of an individual that was collected by an ornithologist in the north of Popayán and is in the collection of the city's Museum of Natural History. 

Shorebird standing in a rice field
On land. Rice field El Juncal, Palermo, Huila. Photo: Mario Enrique Suarez, Ornithological Association of Huila, Colombia.

It could be said that one advantage that the Colombian coasts have, in terms of the threats faced by shorebirds, is that most don’t nest there. However, one issue that seems to be recurrent on all beaches is dogs and the lack of control over them—which is not only a threat to shorebirds, but also to turtles and their nests.

But the fact that they don't nest in Colombia is also a disadvantage to follow up with techniques such as banding to track them.

"We don't have the same possibility as in the north to access the chicks or juveniles that are not yet flying. In regions like Colombia, we depend a lot on the densities and the sites where they arrive. Here it is practically impossible to catch any because since so few arrive and in such extensive habitats, it is an almost impossible mission. If we knew of a corner in a wetland where they arrive, it would be easier, but we don't know," explains Quiñones, who assures us that experience is the key to identifying birds, and with time, hearing.

Quiñones also wants to add some pointers for those first starting out in the craft of birdwatching.

"The first thing to do is to know the habitat to know where to find them. Aerial images are very useful to find grasslands, rice fields, or very large wetlands. Dams, for example, have many banks, but you have to discard the ones with rocks and look instead for flat, muddy grasslands, where you are sure to find some species," he explains.

"With the animals in front of you, you have to pay attention to behavior, because identifying by color is more complicated, especially in shorebirds that look very similar. There is also the shape. Caladris, has a much shorter beak, Pluvialis, is larger. Scolopacids can be a nightmare for someone just starting out," he says. "I would say, pay attention to proportions, beak length, neck length, and then general coloration. Hearing is very important, especially at night. Knowing the vocalization of the animal is key to not miss the opportunity to see it. With some time, you will become more skilled.”

Fernando Ayerbe Quiñones can be found as @ferayqui on X, a social network where he shares a lot of information about birds in the country.


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