The Glacier Bird of the Andes

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Doug Hardy founded and runs the Norwich Vermont Birds & Beans Coffee Club. Since November 2012 the Club has purchased nearly 6,000 pounds of our Smithsonian certified shade grown, Organic and Fair Trade ‘Bird Friendly®’ supporting migratory birds and family coffee farms.

By Doug Hardy (Norwich Vermont Birds & Beans Coffee Club founder)

The Second Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas got underway in the spring of 2003. With my then 8-year-old son Spencer I went through the Atlas training, and together we elevated our observational skills for a new challenge of participating in the Atlas survey.

Several months later, I joined an expedition to drill an ice core and install an automated weather station on a glacier in Peru - the Quelccaya Ice Cap. Within days of arriving, I noticed a cluster of grass high on an ice cliff which looked curiously like a birds nest. Searching along the glacier margin during my limited free time, I found other similar nests; all were abandoned and had fallen down due to melting. Which birds built these, and when, on a glacier at an elevation of 18,000 feet?

With each return to the glacier since new observations were made and local birds were photographed. As I brought these home, Spencer gradually converted observations into evidence, with help from local ornithologists and a Smithsonian feather expert. By 2007, we had enough information for a scientific paper, published the next year by the Wilson Journal of Ornithology. Our findings were certainly unique, and co-authorship by a grade-school student really stimulated media coverage. Spencer subsequently received several small grants to visit the glacier during 2009 and 2011 school vacations. Each trip brought new understandings, yet no observations of active nests - until my guide Koky and I visited at a different time of year. The two nests we found in April 2014 were the first active bird nests ever observed on a glacier, by the only species known to routinely do so. As we hypothesized, the breeding season for Diuca speculifera was revealed to be after the wet season but before the colder, dry season; we dubbed them the Glacier Bird of the Andes.

The following year, BBC's Natural History Unit began researching extraordinary animals living in the Andes. Our Glacier Bird caught their attention, and despite considerable uncertainty about the timing of nesting and whether we could find a nest suitable for filming, we returned to Quelccaya with a crew for 2 weeks in April of 2016. With a major El Niño just wrapping up, we estimated our likelihood of success at 50:50. Luckily, Spencer and Koky found at least 7 active nests, and one was perfectly situated for a remotely-operated camera, ~40 m up the ice cliff. Working 10-hour days the entire time, we departed with the first-ever footage of Diuca nestlings and new insights into the species affinity for glaciers. We also gained valuable information about the breeding behavior of other high-elevation species. This will be helpful should a Breeding Bird Atlas ever be undertaken for the Andes – and I hope Spencer and I will be able to join such a project.

[NB - Diuca speculifera was very recently renamed Idiopsar speculifer, which has not been changed here to maintain consistency with information on the PBS website.]

Diuca speculifera near "2014_ds-active-1".