Expeditions and Travels, Tierra Del Fuego

Expedition to Tierra del Fuego – 2003: Introduction

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On our fourth trip to the southern-most tip of South America, our team will focus once again on the condition of the wintering red knots (summering knots for South Americans). These are the same birds that stopover on the Delaware Bay each May to refuel before flying to nest in the Canadian Arctic. After leaving the Arctic in late July, red knots make a journey that nearly spans the globe to the shores of Chile and Argentina where we will do our work. When they leave in late February they will slowly work their way up the South American coast and then boldly lift off for a direct flight of 4,000 miles to the Delaware Bay. After rebuilding depleted energy they complete the final leg of their epic journey in late May to begin nesting in the Arctic.

Most of our team has followed the birds from Delaware Bay to the frozen Arctic and finally to windy shores of Chile and Argentina. Our work has proven successful although our results disturbing.

  • Horseshoe crab numbers continue to decline, falling by as much as 70 % in the last 12 years.
  • The ability of red knots and other shorebirds on the Delaware Bay to gain weight (and rebuild energy) has declined by as much as 75%. The decline is so drastic that many birds may no longer reach the Arctic.
  • The number of birds on the bay has fallen from a high 12 years ago of over 100,000 birds to less that 33,000 last year. In just the last three years numbers of birds have fallen by over 20,000
  • Concurrently the number of red knots on the Patagonian wintering areas have dropped 70% in the last 15 years. Most of that decline has taken place in the last three years
  • A preliminary projection of the total number of knots coming through the Delaware by estimates extinction in the very near future.

So the primary purpose of our trip is to continue the research that underpins many of these studies. First we will continue the count of wintering birds along the southern Atlantic coast of Argentina and coasts of the Straits of Magellan in Chile. These counts will be compared to those done in the last 4 years as well as that done in 1986 by the same surveyors Guy Morrison and Ken Ross in 1986.

On the ground our team will continue capturing red knots, hudsonian godwits and whimbrels, all birds that migrate to the Arctic. The godwits and whimbrels don’t fly through the Delaware Bay so they provide a useful comparison with the knots that do. Our captures will also help provide a useful indicator of juevenile production, or the yearly production of birds fledged from the nests in the Arctic.

We have expanded the scope of our project this year with an effort to gain international recognition for Bahia Lomas, the main wintering site for both the red knot and hudonian godwit in Patagonia. Ricardo Mateus and Lisa Garrison will meet with representatives of the National and local goverments to help create support for a United Nations desingation called RAMSAR.

Additionally we are fortunate to have a team from the University Santo Tomas led by Dr. Carmen Espoz, Universidad de Santo Tomas, who will survey clams and other invertebrates living in the intertidal flats of Bahia Lomas. These species are the prey of all the shorebirds so the study provides a useful addition to our work. We will also host a second team of biologists from Argentina working with the Allan Baker of the Royal Ontario Museum on a project.

We owe thanks to many people for the 2003 Expedition. Marty Mchugh Director of the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife, Linda Tesauro of the Conserve Wildlife Foundation and Bill Weber of Wildlife Conservaton Society and all helped develop the finacial support for all our projects. Our sources of funding include the Conserve Wildlife License Plate conservation fund, the Dodge Foundation, the Wildlife Conservation Foundation and the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservaton Act. Ricardo Mateus, Olivia Blanh and Jorge Jordan has once again provided solid support in Chile, this trip would have been impossible without them. Jeff Smith will put all our reports on the Division of Fish and Wildlife’s web site.

Larry Niles 2/25/03