Science for a Blue Planet

Featuring cutting-edge work, discoveries, and challenges of our scientists, our partners, and the larger conservation science community.

Una Mujer con Mucha Fuerza en Buena Compañía /A Powerful Woman in Good Company

An Interview with the South American Lead of the Migratory Shorebird Project

by Lishka Arata, Senior Communications Coordinator,

Diana Eusse, South American Lead Partner in the Migratory Shorebird Project,
GIS coordinator / Researcher with Asociación Calidris, Colombia. Photo credit: Lishka Arata/Point Blue.

I didn’t expect to be moved to tears when I sat down to interview Diana Eusse. Diana is the South American Lead of our Migratory Shorebird Project partnership and Biologist with Asociación Calidris. I met with her in early March 2022 during one of her visits to the United States. Her perspective and approach to collaboration is palpable. It’s clear that she is here to uplift those who have not historically been included in conservation–women and working class community members, for example–as part of driving impactful shorebird and wetland conservation science. And she does it with a joy that you can feel when you are around her.

The Migratory Shorebird Project (MSP) is the largest coordinated survey ever of wintering shorebirds on the Pacific Coast of the Americas. It was initiated in 2011 and is a cooperative effort of conservation science organizations and agencies led by Point Blue Conservation Science. The overall goal is to conserve shorebirds and wetlands from Alaska to Chile by connecting communities, standardizing data, and applying science across the Americas. The project now includes 13 countries that stretch along the Pacific Americas Flyway from Alaska to Chile.

Diana plays an integral role in MSP. She is one of five steering committee members who implement MSP with communities and countries across the Americas. She currently oversees partners in South America, which include those in Colombia (where she is based), Ecuador, Peru, and Chile.

I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.

Let’s start with a very important question: Who is your favorite shorebird and why?

I love this question. I have two. One is the Black-bellied Plover. When it is in Colombia, it doesn’t have a black belly. It’s white. But they have these big, amazing eyes. When you are near them they start to walk and look at you with those big eyes. They don’t have a local name in Colombia, so with communities I call them Chorlo ojon (Plover with big eyes)! People are starting to call them that now.

My other favorite shorebird is the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, a grassland shorebird. The special thing about this shorebird is that we’ve spent at least 5 years in Colombia trying to understand when they use grasslands in our region. We started in 2009 looking for these shorebirds in rice fields. Five years later, we went into a grassland and we saw some shorebirds with plumage that looked like Buff-breasted Sandpipers, so we carefully snuck closer and we confirmed that they were! We were able to document that they used grasslands in Colombia. When we recorded them on that day, partners and I were so excited. Due to this discovery, we now have a WHSRN site – Sabanas de Paz de Ariporo y Trinidad in the Orinoco River basin. I have a picture of that day and I cherish it.

MSP South American Lead Diana Eusse in the field in 2014 with her colleague the day they first detected a Buff-breasted Sandpiper!

Tell me about your organization, Asociación Calidris, and how you all became involved with MSP

We implement actions on the ground to maintain habitat for birds and we work with people who live near the biodiversity regions. We invest in strengthening the capacity of local communities, government, or other stakeholders to help with these actions. We work in two lines, nature and people, and we help them to work together.

“It’s not enough for migratory birds if you only work within your country.”

Calidris is part of the Copper River Delta Migratory Bird Initiative, which is managed by the US Forest Service International Programs. We worked with shorebirds for about 20 years before joining MSP and because of that long history and expertise, we were invited to be part of MSP in 2010 when the program started. We were super happy to be invited because our vision in that moment was to go abroad of our national boundaries in order to have more impact in the region. It’s not enough for migratory birds if you only work within your country. At that moment, we said, OK, we want to be part of MSP and we’re willing to lead or coordinate actions. One of the  first meetings with leaders of South America and Panama was in Panama. This meeting was in Spanish and English, and one of our first actions was to ensure that all MSP materials were available in both languages.

What is an example of a significant accomplishment or achievement that was made possible or enhanced by the partnership with MSP?

In Colombia we work in a National Park, Parque Nacional Natural Sanquianga. For many years we were trying to figure out the best way to monitor the mudflats. When we saw the MSP protocol, we said to the Park staff, “What if we applied this standard in the monitoring program?” Now we have 10 years of data using this standardized protocol in a big National Park and it’s so nice because for Calidris, shorebirds are important, and for the National Park the mudflats are the key habitat for management. So many interests can be met with the same protocol.

Diana Eusse, MSP South American Lead, leading a workshop on National Park management in Colombia.

Another achievement is that El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras are gathering information  About the Gulf of Fonseca, a place they share–and it’s very important for shorebirds and other migratory birds. They realized that some birds cross the continent from the Caribbean Coast and go to the Golfo de Fonseca. The Nicaragua partner, Quetzalli, led the designation of the Delta de Estero Real–as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN), because they recorded a high percentage of Wilson’s Plover in the area. This designation gives it extra support for conservation action and policy. The information recorded during MSP surveys support that designation.

What aspects of MSP excite you the most?

Diana Eusse (L), MSP South American Lead, with Catherine Hickey, Point Blue Pacific Coast and Central Valley Group Director, at Point Blue’s Petaluma, CA headquarters.

It’s nice to realize how being part of MSP impacts the different partners. Three weeks ago, one person said this program changed her life. She was a manager, not a shorebirder. When MSP came, she ended up stepping in to lead part of it and now she’s in charge of the program and loving it.

“…we’re so proud that MSP is known as a program that is led by women at the national level.”

Another aspect, that we didn’t plan, is that in Latin America, the people who are MSP leaders in most countries are women and it’s so nice. Catherine Hickey from Point Blue, part of the MSP, is not a hidden figure either in the shorebird world. This was not done on purpose to “uplift women” or out of charity to them, it just happened and we’re so proud that MSP is known as a program that is led by women at the national level. The countries where MSP is led by women conservationists are: Colombia, United States, El Salvador, Ecuador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, and Panama. In my career there have been many women who study biology, but at some point along the way the big picture ends up being led by men. I think it’s changing now and MSP is part of that change.

Who is missing from the MSP partnership?

It’s different for each country, but in Latin America more government involvement would be helpful to elevate the data to policy and conservation actions. Also, more participation from Academies and Universities would help us to elevate the research aspect of MSP. We have so much data to analyze! During the pandemic, when no one wanted to go into the field, we said, “Hey we have 10 years of data. Who wants to analyze it?” We got one person who was interested, but we need more.

What’s your vision for the impact that MSP can continue to have?

We have built a community that has collected a lot of knowledge and created a strong partnership network through MSP. The next step will be applying the learnings on the ground and evaluating what is happening with shorebirds and habitats so that we can influence conservation policy and action even more. The shorebird population declines are still happening, but it’s possible to reduce the rate of declines at the local level. We need to evaluate that and we now have data to do it. We need to apply the data to make better decisions for shorebirds, habitats, and people’s livelihoods while maintaining the monitoring program and the network across the countries.

What is an important quality to bring to shorebird and wetland conservation?

Local communities have valuable perspectives as well that I want to know about. All kinds of knowledge must come together to make decisions. This type of relationship, where knowledge is being shared in both directions between biologists and community members/producers, is happening across MSP. People are trying to understand each other’s needs to achieve shared goals that will help all involved.

“All kinds of knowledge must come together to make decisions.”