The day of the Diademed Sandpiper-plover


It was ten o'clock in the morning, and Ian Puckrin and I were making slow but steady progress in the direction of one of the most wanted birds of my entire three-month trip to South America. Here we were, 3,000 metres above sea level, bump, bump, bumping along at less than 20km/hour, the stark, steep Andean mountainsides glistening in the burning sunshine all around us. We'd had an excellent start to the day, since rising at six from our campsite beneath the small stand of eucalyptus where we'd chanced upon a magnificent Magellanic Horned Owl the previous evening. Already this morning, we'd seen four new species of hummingbird darting between the small patches of flowering shrubs lining the dusty, single-tracked road that Ian was now negotiating, with no little skill, in the 4x4 hired from the Peruvian capital, Lima. We claimed not to be in any particular rush to reach our intended destination, yet we knew neither of us would settle until we got there.

For both of us - and for a number of our contemporaries at the time - in 1986, one of the first birds to jump out of the plates of the newly published Shorebirds: A Guide to Identification by Marchant, Hayman and Prater was the Diademed Sandpiper-plover; a distinctly unusual-looking wader, in a family of its own, found only at a few select sites in boggy marshes 3,000-4,500 metres up in the Andes.

Diademed Sandpiper-plover
Diademed Sandpiper-plover, Chile (Photo: Marcus Lawson)

We were heading for one of those sites right now; Milloc Bog, one of the most famous and most accessible places for the species in the world, a place I'd fantasized about several times in the weeks and months leading up to my departure for Peru. As, indeed, no doubt had Ian. The look of determined concentration on his face as he outsmarted what must have been our hundredth pothole of the morning said it all.

And then suddenly in a moment came the realization we weren't going to make it. Not today anyway. My job from the passenger seat was to look out for any bird movement left and right while Ian kept his eyes firmly on the road, trying to ignore the 500-metre drop on either side of us. I heard his groan of disappointment and a shout of bitter frustration before I registered the appearance of a couple of tons of fallen rock blocking the road in front of us. You don't see many cars on some of these high Andean passes, but this morning had been exceptionally quiet. No wonder. This was a landslide of quite considerable measurement and there was no way we would be getting past there today. We got out the car and stopped and stared at it with some disbelief for several minutes but it didn't make it go away. We would have no option but to turn and retrace our route back to the main road, some four and a half hours away.

We were lucky really. There are two routes to the Milloc Bog Diademed Sandpiper-plovers, and though we wouldn't make it in time today, we were reasonably sure we could get up through the longer, alternative route into the mountains sometime tomorrow. It made accepting our fate for the moment considerably easier, but it didn't make turning the car round on the narrowest of roads over the edge of a giddying drop any simpler. For a particularly unnerving moment, I had to place a foot one step down the side of the abyss, in order to steady myself while guiding my friend backwards to a position of relative safety. The things we do for birds!

High Andes (photo: Graham Gordon)

The next day we drove for an hour and a half due east, along the Central Highway connecting Lima to the Peruvian Amazon. The road was choked with one heavy goods vehicle after another impeding the traffic behind it, and dozens of loco drivers, weaving in and out of the minute gaps between lorries, overtaking on blind bends, and generally acting as if they'd prefer the afterlife to this one. At almost exactly 4000 metres, it was a relief to turn off on a narrow dirt track, just 15 km from where - we hoped - our birds were still awaiting us.

As each kilometre rolled around on the clock, a mounting expectation crept up upon us.

We stopped a couple of times to check out birds glimpsed from the car and add a few ticks to our list, but inside, a tense drumbeat was beginning to sound in my mind. It's a strange sensation to describe. Yet once we got the distance down to less than 5 km, I knew that nothing now could stop us from seeing Diademed Sandpiper-plover: no landslide or anything connected with a malfunctioning of the car because now we were within walking distance. Again, the sun was shining, as it had done continuously for three weeks since I'd left the rains behind in the cloud-forests of northern Peru (more on this to come in two forthcoming articles on the BirdGuides webzine). Going to see a bird like this in its breeding territory, a non-migratory, open-country species, there's not the same tension as in your British or Irish twitch where your quarry can disappear at any minute; and none of the really exciting birds of a cloud-forest are ever going to be so reliable that you can safely anticipate their appearance before you've even got there.

It was now mid-morning. Ian shared my growing sense of confidence, and a rather delicious pre-emptive taste of imminent pleasure. We came around one final bend - the road was much less rugged and dangerous than yesterday's had been - and there in front of us was the magnificent Milloc Valley. There was a stunning row of jagged, multicoloured peaks to our right - some snow-capped - and below us, stretching off to the distant horizon, was a rare sight at this elevation: boggy tussock grass; home of the mythical wader.

Llamas (photo: Graham Gordon)

So relaxed now and confident of success, we stopped for ten minutes for a bit of a photo shoot: Ian with the lamas; me with the mountains in the background; Ian with the mountains; me and the lamas... I suppose as a hardcore birder you might say go and see the bird and then think about photos, but in essence, this moment was the epitome of everything we'd imagined about Peru and we were certainly going to enjoy it.

Off to our left were two Andean shepherds in traditional colourful clothing. They were herding a mixed flock of alpacas and sheep, and upon seeing us, they stopped for a moment to wave back and smile. Throughout my travels in Ecuador and Peru I was continuously humbled by the friendliness of the Andean people, and at the same time pleased that they were never as intrusive, or as over-inquisitive, as peoples from other cultures I've visited elsewhere.

At 4,400metres, a strange sense of giddy wellbeing invades the human body. This, of course, can easily develop into the undesirable condition known as Acute Mountain Sickness (or soroche in local parlance) but both Ian and I found ourselves lucky enough to escape the headaches, dizziness and sickness that overcomes some people at this altitude. Personally, I put it down to this desire to take our time over proceedings. I once was a Type A birder of the most blinkered variety (I called it being 'totally focused' at the time), and I suspect that old persona of mine would have run into trouble in this rarefied situation. But today, everything was in deliberate slow motion, and my thoughts and feelings, call it my soul if you will, absorbed the full extent of the glory of the situation.

Dressed in several layers of clothes, and wearing the hat and scarf and gloves I'd carried for two and a half months in my backpack just for this one day, we walked steadily into a bracing Andean wind.

Again, we saw several exciting new birds, which I won't mention - apart from the few I think may be of interest to the general European reader. A pair of Grey-breasted Seedsnipe (another bird you can find in Shorebirds) shuffled off at our feet, and a Puna Snipe - the first South American Snipe of any kind either of us had seen in a combined total of six months on the Continent - allowed close approach and study. A flock of thirty-odd, unexpectedly impressive, black-and-white Andean Geese grazed in the fields below us, and among them, a bird we'd seen before but one which I hold a lot of affection for: two pairs of Andean Lapwings.

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At this elevation, a particularly common bird is the Bar-winged Cinclodes. We first saw it a year earlier in Ecuador, and I was impressed then by its somewhat 'familiar' look of a European passerine amongst a continent of exotics. I can't say which passerine in particular - perhaps I'm thinking of a combination of two or three, though if I had to choose one I'd say a female Bluethroat, with its supercilium, habit of running along the ground, and frequently cocked-tail. Basically what I'm saying is that they are of a fairly earthy-brown colouration and that they wouldn't look out of place on the Shetlands, or perhaps in some of the more barren sections of the Scottish Highlands.

In the same family, but bigger and slightly more colourful, is the White-bellied Cinclodes, a species thought to be down to just 200 birds, all of them in this small area of central Peru.

About three-quarters of an hour after stepping out of the car, Ian and I found ourselves scanning a large area of bog from a vantage point some 100 metres above. Almost immediately, I picked up an individual of this last species, White-bellied Cinclodes, and not long afterwards we found ourselves watching four. This is about par for the area as - despite their great rarity - they are pretty much guaranteed at Milloc Bog. I didn't linger long on the birds at this point though. Just to the right of them, rather more distantly, I'd noticed a slightly Dunlin-like figure crouching in the grass. Though little more than a speck in the binoculars, we knew that this was the bird we had come here for.

This Peru trip we were on, I'd deliberately planned to coincide with my fortieth birthday (on the fourth of July). At one point in the proceedings I'd tried to arrange a schedule such that I'd be ticking Diademed Sandpiper-plover precisely on my birthday, but it never quite worked out that way. We were a week late. Still, the mere fact that the trip had been intended to peak with this one, single, emblematic creature leant a touch of ceremony to our scramble down the scree slope and subsequent march across the tundra-like plain to meet with our quarry. It is as close as a birder gets to a religious experience; indeed I believe they are one and the same. We had come to pay homage, no question about it.

White-bellied Cinclodes
White-bellied Cinclodes, Peru (Photo: Steve Huggins)

It is a strange thing, I find, to type these words six months after the Day of the Diademed Sandpiper-plover. Two friends for twenty years, one having travelled from Ireland, the other from Australia, meeting at this point in time, in this place, to witness this fabulous bird. As I believe Mark Cocker has said before in Tales of a Tribe, it is these moments of intense recognition of where we are and what we are doing, right at this moment, which allow us to be able to go back there, in memory, and recapture the moment. Psychologists call them 'peak experiences'. And at 4,600 metres up in the Andes, they don't come much more 'peaked' than that!

Stalking (photo: Graham Gordon)

The silence, and the vast beauty of the landscape, were much in my mind as I inched my way along the turf on my belly to get as close as I could to my first Diademed Sandpiper-plover. The wind ruffled the stalks of grass by my ears. Ian, less prone to want to crawl through damp grass as I was - though I didn't actually notice it was wet at the time - hung back at a respectable distance, snapping photos. The bird - or birds, as there were now three of them, a pair and a fully fledged juvenile - seemed to regard me with some curiosity: this strange human-creature prostrating itself before them; what on Earth were they thinking?

For several minutes I was able to look into the eyes of the male bird standing just ten yards from me. Adjusting my position slightly to counteract the pins and needles creeping up on me, I caused the bird to run away another ten yards. But then, as I realized the dampness of the grass had soaked through four layers of clothing at the elbow, and that my knees, too, were soaking wet, I sat up straight, and all three birds flew off a short distance. What a remarkable flight - it was more a low, skimming motion across the land with something of the flickering undulations of a Hoopoe about it, nothing like the escape flight of a similar-sized Calidris wader, and with barely any wing-patterning whatsoever, just a plain, pale silvery upperwing that put me in mind of a Snow Bunting! The call was a rippling trill with a Sanderling-like pik at the end.

Diademed Sandpiper-plover
Diademed Sandpiper-plover, Chile (Photo: Marcus Lawson)

Quiet contemplative satisfaction reigned. Punching the air and leaping about would not only have been inappropriate to the mood, it would have been inadvisable at such altitude. A brief discussion ensued with Ian as to our plans for the afternoon. He wanted to drive another 22 km into the mountains to tick off Giant Coot at one of the high Andean Lakes - I wanted to spend my afternoon right here in this moment. (I'd seen Giant Coot elsewhere earlier in the trip which made my decision a lot easier.) "Pick you up in a couple of hours then," said Ian, and we parted awhile.

Giant Coot
Giant Coot, Chile (Photo: Marcus Lawson)

There were two different pairs of Diademed Sandpiper-plover out on that bog, both with single fully fledged juveniles. I spent some time watching another White-bellied Cinclodes that wandered into view, but mostly, I concentrated on the little waders. So often in the forest birding I'd undertaken in the past two months, it's the birds themselves who dictate how long you may look at them before skulking back into cover. It's easy, I find, to fall into a habit of spending just a few minutes with each bird. But when the opportunity presents itself, as it did now, for me to decide when the show is over, I like to gorge as much as I can.

I spent an hour and a half (until I got too cold from sitting in one place) scanning back and forth across the land, moving my binoculars from one Diademed Sandpiper-plover to the next, imprinting it on my mind. Occasionally, I would stop and look back up at the mountains; not only was I experiencing a unique bird, but after the endless forested hills I'd seen thus far in Ecuador and Peru, this landscape in itself was the most stirring I'd seen for years. To have the two combined was almost painful in its beauty.

High Andes (photo: Graham Gordon)

Two distant figures appeared on the horizon and began scrambling down the scree towards me. Birders, I assumed. But no - thirty minutes later when at last our paths crossed, I found they were two gap-toothed, wild-looking Peruvian men of about fifty years. Had they come to hassle me, perhaps 'chuck me off'? Wrong again.

The reason I knew they were gap-toothed was because their mouths were stretched into broad, beaming smiles. It transpired they'd already trekked twenty miles across the mountains that day and they had another ten to go before dark, and they simply wanted to share their joy with me. The language of the Andes is Quechua, but most speak Spanish with a heavy dialect, too. My command of Spanish is not great, yet somehow - as other travellers before me have discovered - it is sometimes better to be poor at it, but at least make a go, rather than to be proficient. In fact, in a way, words themselves could not express properly what the three of us were feeling at that moment anyway and it was best simply to nod and grin, and wave our arms and make sweeping gestures across the landscape as these guys did continually while they spoke. I lent them my binoculars to look at the Sandpiper-plovers but they were more interested in scanning the distant hills. More nods and grins and pats on the back as they returned my optics to me, and a warm handshake as they left abruptly and set off, at a frightening pace, down the valley, never looking back.

A cloud of dust from the slopes to my left signalled the return of Ian in the car, Giant Coot now safely under the belt. We stood for five minutes there, in the late afternoon, watching snow clouds drift across the purple peaks, a last look before setting on our way. Unlike the two new friends I'd just made, I couldn't help but look back, pressing my face against the window to take in every last second of this breathtaking view. My 'friends' might be back again some day. I probably never would.

Written by: Graham Gordon