Chilean Coastal Bird Faces Extinction

Time appears to be running out for the Gaviotín Chico, a small bird whose coastal habitat extends from northern Chile to southern Peru.

Gaviotín Chico

Time appears to be running out for the Gaviotín Chico (Sterna Lorata), a small bird whose coastal habitat extends from northern Chile to southern Peru.

According to the organization BirdLife International, the birds – also known as Peruvian Terns – nest on broad sandy beaches and dunes. But as houses, hotels, industries and even shanty towns continue to set up shop along the Chilean and Peruvian coastline, the birds are being displaced, leading to a precipitous population decline. BirdLife International, which reports a 70 percent population decline in the past decade, red-listed the species as "endangered" starting in 2005. At the time the organization estimated its total population at 1,000-2,500.

Chilean ornithologists fear the total population may be smaller still – maybe even as low as 200. "The way that people use the beaches make then unattractive to the birds. A lot, therefore, can’t nest and thus they have a very low population," says Juan Aguirre Castro, president of the Union of Chilean Ornithologists (AvesChile).

After studying the coastal area between northern Chile and southern Peru, AvesChile associates identified just three breeding grounds north of the border. In each of the sites they were able to identify no more than a few nests. Their findings were similar on the Chilean side with the one exception being the beaches just north of Mejillones, in Region II. Considered the world’s last sizeable Gaviotín Chico breeding ground, Mejillones could be home to approximately 80 percent of the remaining birds, said Aguirre.

"These birds are so specialized. They only nest on certain types of surfaces, not just on any beach. And it can’t just be any kind of sand, but rather small stones of a very specific size… There are only a few places they can breed, and (Mejillones) is one of those places," says Aguirre.

Unfortunately for the birds, Mejillones is also what the AvesChile president describes as a "development pole," i.e. a hot spot for residential and industrial growth. Located some 45 miles north of Antofagasta, the coastal town is home to a large port and is a popular debarkation point for goods coming not just from Chile, but from Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil as well.

Mejillones is also home to a huge, 591-MW thermal-electric power plant that produces a good portion of the electricity for Chile’s Northern Power Grid. Much of that electricity is used by the area’s numerous copper mines, whose energy needs continue to climb from year to year.

As a result, at least two more power plants are planned for Mejillones. Construction on one of those plants, Suez Energy International’s Central Termoeléctrica Andina, began this past October. The 165 MW plant is scheduled to begin operating in 2010. An even bigger plant, the 600-MW Central Termoeléctrica Angamos, owned by NORGENER, is still awaiting approval by Chile’s National Environmental Commission.

"We’re taking over the places that they normally use, especially in Mejillones, with the construction of the mega-port and with all the companies that are moving in. They’re obviously going to cover up the space where the Gaviotín used to nest… We don’t think they’re able to adapt very quickly, to find another place to nest, meaning it’s possible the species will just disappear. It’s in serious risk of extinction," says Aguirre.

AvesChile recently sent a letter to Environment Minister Ana Lya Uriate urging the government to protect the endangered bird. Among other things, the organization pointed out how the government itself recently included the Peruvian Tern on its first ever list of endangered native species.

Aguirre, however, is less than optimistic about the future of the species. "At the political level, these types of considerations aren’t taken very much into account…It’s not a scenario that’s very favorable for the Gaviotín," he says.

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