Ice weighed heavily on the tent flap as I pushed it to one side and gingerly poked my woolly-hat covered head out into the rarified and frigid morning air. Fifty yards in front of me, each perched on one leg, stood a baker's dozen of Chilean flamingos. They had spent the night balancing precariously in the shallow, icy water with their bills tucked neatly under their shocking-pink wings. There was not a palm tree in sight. Camping at over 14,700 feet in the stark Bolivian altiplano, surrounded by permanently snow-capped peaks and wind-polished rocks, I feel justified dispelling the popular myth that flamingos are tropical birds. Although it is true that some flamingos live in the tropics, three of the five species in the world are actually found entirely outside of the tropical habitat.
Here, high in the Central Andes, is the only place on earth where three flamingo species can be seen feeding side by side: the James's, Andean and Chilean flamingos. In present times, conditions are harsh, with very high UV and solar radiation, strong winds, low precipitation, and huge diurnal temperature variations ranging from -13[degrees]F to more than +77[degrees]F. (That is excluding the wind-chill factor of the characteristic, strong afternoon westerly winds.) It may not always have been so, however. Judging from seven-million-year-old fossil flamingo footprints, flamingos first found the shallow lakes (brimming with a rich food resources) back in the Tertiary period when neither the lakes nor the Andes were as high as they are today. As the young Andes Mountains continue to be lifted upwards, the flamingos cling to their resources, adapting to the ever more extreme conditions.
Renee and I were staying there overnight, en-route to Laguna Colorada (named after the often deep red color of the water, which is caused by a mixture of blooming diatoms, bacteria, and invertebrates). Deep in the southwest corner of Bolivia in the province of Sud Lipez, the lake is set in the heart of the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Andean Fauna and was declared Bolivia's first Ramsar site in 1990. The lake lies at 14,000 feet above sea level, has an extension of approximately 23 square miles, yet averages only about 20 inches deep.
Laguna Colorada is the main breeding ground for the world's rarest flamingo--the James's or Puna flamingo, Phoenicoparrus jamesi, which was at one time considered extinct until "rediscovered" in an expedition led by a team of scientists in 1957. This was our second visit to the lake and the fifth visit to the region. Each time we have marveled and been awestruck by the undeniable beauty of the harsh environment. We have also been continually surprised at the diversity of species surviving under such conditions. While the occasional Andean condor can be spotted soaring overhead, Andean geese, puna teal, and giant coots, or waders such as Wilson's phalaropes, Andean avocets, and puna plovers are commonly found in the lakes below. Seedsnipe and Andean gulls hug the lake edges and mossy bogs while diminutive hummingbirds like the Andean hillstar and the mountain parakeet are perhaps the most surprising denizens of the region. On the mammal front, vicuna (the smallest of the camelids), viscachas, and Andean foxes are also commonly seen. We have even found a species of Liolaemus lizard basking on a rock in the middle of a snowfield at an incredible 18,300 feet above sea level!
We were to meet up with biologist Omar Rocha and his team at Laguna Colorada. Having just left the directorship of the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Andean Fauna, Omar is currently the coordinator of the "Flamingo and High Andean Wetlands Conservation Project" sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Joining us was a Chilean team of flamingo biologists and park guards. Our mission was to attempt to ring as many juvenile James's flamingos as possible to aid in the understanding of their biology and future movements. …