Expedition to Tierra del Fuego – February 4, 2001
We took most of the day making our way from Punta Arenas to Bahia Lomas. Preparations for an expedition of this kind required all 12 people of our group. We had to ensure that we had all we needed, from pots and pans to sleeping bags, in one shot because once there it would be very difficult to re-supply. There are no Wawa’s in Tierra del Fuego. Transportation presented our most difficult problem. Through Jorge we arranged for two vehicles, a large van that could hold up to ten people and a double-cab pickup truck. With gear, we still couldn’t all squeeze in so we were forced to rent a third vehicle, a small passenger car. It was still a tight fit.
The road out of Punta Arenas to Cerro Sambrero winds along the Straits of Magellan ending at the first narrows and a ferry crossing. The new vessel carried about 30 cars and five tractor trailers across a wind-tossed sea and a raging mid-tide current. We estimated the wind at about 40-50 miles/hour, and no one on the boat looked the least bit concerned. Children played in the high bow of the boat while crashing waves rolled the trucks from side-to-side and the wind kept us leaning to stay upright. On the other side of the narrows, we negotiated the gravel roads of the Island of Tierra del Fuego for another three hours, finally reaching the Estancia Catalina in late afternoon.
The Estancia, owned by Julian Gallareo, spreads across this golden landscape just at the junction of the Atlantic Ocean and Bahia Lomas. Julian raises sheep for wool just as most of the residents of the Tierra Del Fuego. Our original intent was to rent Julian’s migrant sheep shearer quarters, but his wife Flora died this year in a tragic car accident and he invited our entire group to stay in the rooms of his home. We met Flora last year. She was a lovely person and a gracious host. The colorful home sprawls with small rooms but it has no heat or electricity. The heart of the home is a large natural gas stove in the kitchen.
Shortly after arriving we jumped out onto the gravel road leading to the shores of Bahia Lomas. With some difficulty, we found the small two path beach access road, only to be stopped dead by a freshly dug, deep ditch full of water. The ditch, apparently cut to help drain the marsh on its flank, kept us about four km from the beach. We spent the rest of the evening trying to gain access with no luck. This was unfortunate. We had hoped to get out to the bay to reconnoiter and locate a site to set just a few mist nets. The nets have to be set at night and it’s best to figure out the vagaries of the tide before setting. On top of the normal difficulties, we will have to contend with the gradual raise of the tide due to the waxing moon. We had to head back to the Estancia and figure out a new tack. Without access we will have to wait to trap until at least tomorrow night.
Rick’s mapping will help us. Scanning satellite imagery on his laptop, we found several other roads leading to the bay front. We will have to spend part of the day tomorrow trying to find them and securing permission.
Ken and Guy put together the data from yesterday’s aerial survey and the results are disturbing. The red knot population on Bahia Lomas fell by at least ten thousand birds to about 30,000 birds. This presents a potentially serious situation but we will have to do more ground work. Allan Baker, Mark Peck and Patricia Gonzalez led a group to Rio Grande in Argentina last November and found about 5,000 birds there. This is close to previous counts. The last important red knot wintering area in Tierra Del Fuego is Bahia San Sebastion, also in Argentina. Last year we counted less than 3,000 birds; we will try to organize a survey there this week.
Lawrence J. Niles, PhD
Chief, NJ Endangered Species Program