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Essay From Chile: Censo de Aves / The Bird Census
Josephine Howitt, 17 Dec 08

688839202_4151d0c394.jpgLast week, I was fed up with the city. The crowds of people, the hours spent on the subway, and the time wasted in front of a slow computer. Don't get me wrong; Santiago de Chile is a beautiful place with more green spaces than I had previously imagined and a view of the Andes that is enough to revive any spirit feeling dulled by the urban bustle. But I knew it was time to get out of this basin of contrasts: relentless development and new apartments, framed by mountains and traversed by the River Mapocho that first gave life to settlement by the indigenous peoples.

Many other city dwellers are familiar with this claustrophobic feeling. The remedy is, more often than not, spending time outdoors, experiencing what we like to call "nature." My much-needed weekend escape came in the form of a bird census. I carpooled with twenty or so enthusiastic volunteers to the coast, where beach soccer and swimming in the brisk Pacific Ocean were pleasant side attractions to our main purpose. The evening we arrived, we gathered around a campfire and our guides introduced us to the history behind our project.

The story began in 2004 when CELCO, Chile’s largest paper pulp manufacturer, set up a factory on the banks of the Rio Cruces nature sanctuary, near the town of Valdivia. The corporation took advantage of the economic opportunity afforded by their riverside location, and discharged waste into the river. The pollution heavily impacted the area, whose ecological significance was internationally recognized and protected by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. The previously clear water became so contaminated that the waterweeds, on which wildlife feed, could no longer grow.

The black-necked swan became the symbol of the destruction. Images of birds too weak to fly, or floating dead on the contaminated cesspool, provoked international outcry. The damage was severe, with what was probably South America’s largest black-necked swan population almost completely wiped out within a year. The people of Valdivia set up an action group for the swans supported by a swift NGO response. While it was obvious that the black-necked swan population was suffering an unprecedented decline and thousands of swans had been killed, the lack of baseline data meant that nobody could accurately quantify the impacts.

In 2005, the Unión de Ornitólogos de Chile (AvesChile) organized an initiative to bring ornithologists, university students and other interested parties together to ensure that this dark history would not be repeated. The group agreed that they needed to document and provide a continuous record of bird communities in wetlands nationwide, in order to recognize and prevent adverse human impacts. The idea of the bird census arose from these meetings. Volunteer trips, such as the one I took, now happen four times a year.

Our site included the estuary and adjacent wetland where the Ligua and Petorca rivers converge, an important habitat for numerous species of avifauna. Guidebooks and binoculars aided us in identifying the endemic Chorlo chileno through the mist. We also spotted the Gaviotin sudamericano (South American Tern), the Pilpilen (Magellanic Oystercatcher), common throughout the Americas and species whose distribution covers four continents like the Playero blanco (Sanderling). Fifty eight bird species have been documented nationwide by the census – an eighth of all the bird species in Chile.

The student-led group from Santiago has a social purpose as well as an environmental one. In addition to bird experts, they encourage people who may have limited experience with biological pursuits to join them on the quarterly census expeditions. This gives Santiaguinos a chance to learn about the project, and also to learn to recognize bird species, a skill that enhances their future trips to the coast.

Tomás Altamirano, one of organizers responsible for our site and a Masters student at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, explains, “We try to create an opportunity for people who are not normally in direct contact with nature, those who may often experience nature through television or lectures. It is important to have direct experiences with other species in the wild, to learn about the balance of humans and nature and understand that our actions can have an impact of the wider environment.”

The group has also given talks about the ecological importance of the wetland for migratory birds to residents, fishermen and holiday home owners in the Salinas de Pullally area. Census participants and community members support this educative objective because they believe that in order to protect and conserve an ecosystem, they must deliver both research and environmental education. AvesChile hopes one day to give talks at local schools and get children involved in the project, to publish the findings from the censuses more widely, and to contribute to the Wetlands International database.

The tragedy of the black-necked swan has inspired action to prevent further such environmental calamities that disrupt important wetland ecosystems. Altamirano articulates his wider vision for the bird census, stating, “We'd like to raise awareness of wetlands, birds and the importance of nature for human well-being. By trying to be conscious of and responsible for our actions in our daily urban lives, we can show respect for other living beings with who we share this world.”

Tired, slightly sunburnt, yet reinvigorated, I am ready again to face the city of Santiago. Much as I treasured my time away, within the city lie boundless eco-opportunities, from helping directly with environmental projects to choosing where I purchase my food. While we can't all get away to the mountains or the beach whenever we want, living more ecologically within the city provides a way to reinforce our much-needed positive relations with the environment.

Photo credit: flickr/pablo caceres, Creative Commons license.

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