Expeditions and Travels, Tierra Del Fuego

Expedition to Tierra del Fuego – February 3, 2001

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After 22 hours of flying we arrived in Punta Arenas at about 3:30 on Friday the 2nd. Our southward flight of about 8,000 miles approximates the northern flight of the red knots taken in March. They fly under their own power, of course, and at about 40 miles/hour not 400 miles/hour. Our flight took us inland though the North American and South American continent while the knots fly north along the eastern coast of South America then make a fantastic jump from northern Brazil to the Delaware Bay. That flight probably takes over 40 hours of continuous flying costing the birds half their body weight in stored fat. We may have gained some weight on ours with full meals on each of the four legs of our southward journey.

Punta Arenas startles the North American eye with vibrant color. From rich to poor most houses have accents of red, blue or yellow that contrast sharply with the ornate Spanish colonial buildings. One of the most beautiful is the Jose Noqueira Hotel where we spent two nights under the gracious hospitality of Jorge Jordan the owner. The luxury of the hotel will be a pleasant memory after we embark on the field portion of our work. Jorge has helped us immensely, from arranging the aircraft for survey flights, to assisting with renting the truck and van that will take our crew to Bahia Lomas. This help is invaluable in an expedition in a foreign land.

Our two jobs on the first full day in Chile were to outfit for our week in Bahia Lomas and to conduct the aerial survey of the Straits of Magellan, including Bahia Lomas. Our outfitting was made much easier with the help of the Chilean biologist Ricardo Matus. Ricardo joined us at the airport and will be with us throughout our trip. Like Jorge, he speaks fluent English and has guided our crew, most knowing little Spanish, throughout Punta Arenas to pick up critical supplies and equipment. We bought our mist net poles at Jorge’s hardware store which was originally established by his grandfather.

Our pilot, Jorge Bencich, took us from Punta Arenas nearly to the Atlantic coast mouth of the Straits of Magellan, then across to Bahia Lomas. We followed Bahia Lomas to the Atlantic coast and to the Argentine border, back to the other end of the Strait near Punta Arenus. The contrast in habitats struck all of us, but there is one overwhelming common element, a tide that rises and falls nearly 30 feet. The Atlantic Coast rises in bluffs against a crashing sea. Below these headlands lie stoney beaches that practically fall to the low tide line. Bahia Lomas in contrast spreads out over 40 miles of shoreline with a gentle slope of three to four miles or more ending somewhere in the depths of the Straits of Magellan. The currents here are fearsome. The Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean meet in the Strait and all of this water must pass through a narrows just west of Bahia Lomas. The currents rip through the Narrows at up to 8 knots. By comparison, the current through the Delaware Bay of three knots, scares most sailors away to the Chesapeake Bay, which flows at less than two knots. With the strong winds of the Andes, which are within sight, and the strong currents, these waters have struck fear in the hearts of mariners since the 1500’s.

Unfortunately, our count conducted by Ken Ross, Guy Morrison and myself was equally alarming. It took over four hours as we included all of the areas that have been previously surveyed for red knots. In the past, most of the red knots occurred on Bahia Lomas. In 1986 there were about 45,000, last year the number was a bit lower at 42,000. We won’t have the final tally until tomorrow, as Ken and Guy recorded the survey on tape and must transcribe it. However, we all judged that the numbers of knots are much lower than previous counts. We will make the numbers available tomorrow.

Lawrence J. Niles, PhD
Chief, NJ Endangered Species Program