The Birds of Sibinacocha

Peru contains more species of birds than nearly any other place on the planet (Dyer, et al. 2007) and the Andean Mountain Zone of South America, which includes the Sibinacocha watershed, is designated as one of the world’s 25 biodiversity hotspots by Conservation International (Doyle, et al. 2003). Though the Andean Mountain Zone only covers 1.3% of the earth’s surface, 17% of all bird species on earth exist there, and 40% of those species exist nowhere else (Fjelda and Krabbe 1990). The number of these species found at high altitudes in the Sibinacocha watershed is truly remarkable. Without exhaustive surveys, over 50 species of birds have already been documented at or above 16,000 ft (4900m) in the watershed (Doyle, et al. 2003; Gibbons, et al. 2011; Webb 2009; Sowell 2014), and several of them are found there at record altitudes. These include the:

– Puna Teal (Anas puna);

– Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis);

– White-tufted Grebe (Rollandia Rolland);

– Chilean Flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis);

– Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca);

– Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes);

– Slender-billed Miner (Geositta tenuirostris); and the,

– Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus magellanicus).

Crested duck with babies
(Lophonetta specularioides)

Giant coot
(Fulica gigantea)

High Elevation Adaptations

The species richness of bird life in the Sibinacocha watershed is extraordinary, but the abundance of bird life is surprising as well. Yet little is known about these high-altitude populations. Understanding how they live there and how high they can actually live is critical for understanding how the rapid climate change occurring in the region will affect them (Tingley et al. 2009; La Sorte and Jetz 2010). They have little room to move higher. One species of bird, the White-winged Diuca Finch (Diuca speculifera), has actually been observed nesting in the glaciers at 17,200 ft (5200m) above the north end of Sibinacocha (Reider 2013). This behavior was first documented at the Quelccaya Ice Cap (Hardy 2008), approximately 20 miles (32km) to the southeast. This is the only documentation of a bird regularly using ice for nesting sites, besides the Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri), and the White-winged Diuca Finch is the only one known to use glaciers. This phenomenon is virtually unstudied and we have no idea how dependent these birds are on the disappearing glaciers of the Vilcanota range.

Our team hopes to recruit an ornithologist to follow these observations with detailed studies to address the question of how important the Sibinacocha watershed is to these high-altitude bird populations.


Doyle, K.L., P. Zahler and C. Aucca Chutas. 2003. Biodiversity and the Case for Preservation of the Sibinacocha Watershed. Lyonia 4(1): 43-48.

Dyer, D., D.F. Lane, L. B. McQueen, J. P. O’Neill, and N. J. Schmitt. 2007. Birds of Peru. Princeton University Press.

Fjeldsa, J. and N. Krabbe. 1990. Birds of the High Andes. Zoological Museum, University of Copenhagen.

Gibbons, R. E., P. M. Phred, and J. M. Maley. 2011. Notes on birds of the high Andes of Peru. Ornitoligia Colombiana 11: 76-86.

Diuca Finch (Dirca speculifera) Nesting on Quelccaya Ice Cap, Peru. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology. 012(3): 613-617.

La Sorte, F. A. and W. Jetz. 2010. Avian distributions under climate change: towards improved projections. J. Exp. Biol. 213: 862-869.

Reider, K. 2013. Personal communication between Kelsey Reider and Preston Sowell.

Sowell, P. 2014. Personal observation. 2009-2014.

Tingley, M. W., W. B. Monahan, S. R. Bwissinger, and C. Moritz. 2009. Birds track their Grinnellian niche through a century of climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the U. S. A. 106:19637-19643.

Webb, J. 2009. Personal observation. August.