Perú’s Quelccaya Ice Cap is the largest tropical glacier on Earth (~50 km2), located at 14°S in the eastern Peruvian Andes (Cordillera Vilcanota). With a summit elevation of 5,670 meters (18,600 feet), the glacier has been a foci of high-elevation climate and paleoclimate research for more than 30 years (esp. Ohio State). Beyond Quelccaya’s current ice margin, recessional moraine complexes have formed extensive wetlands (bofedals). Today, the area is ecologically vibrant, diverse and productive, maintained by meltwater runoff from the glacier – but rapid environmental change is underway as the ice cap recedes.
In the course of 2003 fieldwork, our curiosity was piqued by finding an apparent bird nest attached to the near-vertical ice margin, at 5,180 m (17,000 ft). Ornithologists were also puzzled by this observation, so in subsequent field seasons we investigated further. This website presents images and information to supplement our paper “White-winged Diuca Finch (Diuca speculifera) Nesting on Quelccaya Ice Cap, Perú” published September 2008 in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology. A PDF version of the paper is available here (or here in very high resolution). The Encyclopedia of Snow, Ice and Glaciers (Springer, 2011) contains a synopsis, available here.
Two elements of White-winged Diuca Finch nesting are particularly noteworthy:
1. They are among the highest-elevation nesting birds of the Western Hemisphere, if not the highest nesting
(to at least 5,300 m at Quelccaya - see paper).
2. Their lives at Quelccaya Ice Cap are intimately associated with the glacier (i.e., nocturnal roosting, nesting). Among ~10,000 other bird species, only the Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) is also associated directly with glacier ice (and does not construct nests per se).
In both cases our observations are not the first (cf. Niethammer, 1953 [in German]; Johnson, 1967), although details and photographs have not been documented previously, to our knowledge.
Additional Images and Information
Diuca speculifera nests
Glacier roosts ("Nachtquartiers")
Other Birds observed near Quelccaya
Animals of the area - wild and domestic
Paleoclimate Research at Quelccaya
Environmental Change in the Quelccaya area
More - media interviews, Diuca vocalizations
Fieldwork in the Quelccaya Ice Cap area is supported by the National Science Foundation and NOAA Office of Global Programs, Climate Change Data and Detection Program (Grant No. 0402557, awarded to DRH), and by the U.S. Global Climate Observing System. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors (D.R. Hardy and S.P. Hardy) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation or NOAA. Fieldwork support in 2009 was also provided by the Explorers Club and the Wilson Ornithological Society, through awards to SPH. We gratefully acknowledge the able field assistance of Mathias Vuille, Carsten Braun, and D. R. Dockstader, along with Mountain Guides Felix Vicencio, Koky Castañeda, and Vicencio Expeditions staff. Initial discussion of the glacier nests with Jon Fjeldså, Alvaro Jaramillo, Manuel Plenge, and George Clark was helpful and encouraging. Carla Dove at the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C.) undertook feather identification in her laboratory and provided considerable enthusiasm. We love Mountain Hardwear tents, clothing, and packs!