Expeditions and Travels, Tierra Del Fuego

Expedition to Tierra del Fuego – February 9, 2001

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Sherry, Brad, Ricardo, Steve and I drove in search of a new access to the bayshore. We knew the birds roosted between Punta Catalina and our mid-bay access. So we wound our way on a two path road down to the bluffs that form the western corner of the bay before it climbs north to the point. The wind began to howl again gusting to 45 mph. The two path ended at an old abandoned farm standing desolate in a vast pampas-like grassland.

We saw many abandoned farms in this area. It’s appears that farming constantly changes in Terra Del Fuego. Up until the seventies wealthy landowners, mostly from Punta Arenas, owned much of the land. Then a reform movement swept this land and the government divided the farms and deeded them to petitioners. But the farms were too small to be profitable and the new landowners started cooperatives. The new co-ops also failed to turn profits and they too went under. New owners emerged and Julian, our host, was one. He has worked this farm for the last 18 years. He lives with few amenities and his farm, though neat and well organized appears just able to turn a profit. New owners appear to be emerging yet again. Rene Ratamal, the landowner of the western access point, lives in Punta Arenas, and slowly accumulates the acreages of smaller farms, leaving some of the houses vacant and abandoned.

We passed the abandoned farm and quickly found a bluff overlooking the northeast corner of the bay. Below a tidal river separated us from a nearly flat island of salicornia marsh and low dunes. In the distance, a steep bank of pebbles rose above a vast mud flat and arced around to the east toward Punta Catalina. The tide fell as we watched and we tried to guess where the birds might roost. The island, surrounded by tidal water was the safest for the birds. Patagonian fox sign was scattered everywhere obviously lured by the concentrating birds.

The tides seemed to be forcing all birds to higher ground. Yesterday we watched the tide rush to cover all of the beach that had remained dry just the night before. Since we had come to Bahia Lomas, the normal tide of 7.9 meter (about 25 ft. ) had climbed to 10.5 meters (34 ft.) an increase of 2.6 meters (8.5ft.). The entire normal tide range on the Delaware Bay tops out at about 6 ft. by comparison. The sand flats on Lomas now flooded completely and all the birds, Artic Terns, Magellanic oystercatchers, Kelp Gulls, sanderlings, white-rumped sandpipers and the red knots had to seek refuge that was both dry as well as safe from the marauding foxes.

We decided to travel around to the point and search the stoney beach for signs of a roost. It took some artful cross-country exploring, but eventually we parked our vehicle at the foot of a vast field of stones. The small pebbles undulated like waves with the peaks about 5 feet higher than the valleys. The landscape stunned us. For a brief moment we thought we stood at the edge of the rocky terrain of Southampton Island in the Canadian Arctic and the nesting ground of the red knot. This rocky area stretched for several miles along the waterfront and at least 0.5 miles wide. We agreed that this had to be the red knot roost we sought.

That night the whole crew returned and spread out along the stone beach. Unbelievable, the tide still appeared to be falling even though it should have be rising. The wind still howled as it had all day now much colder because of the setting sun. Storm cells drifted across the sky, sprinkling us with a cold drizzle that left as soon as it arrived. We waited for the tide to rise and move the birds, hoping they would before the sun set. When the tide came, it came in a rush. All of a sudden, a small wall of water forced it’s way up the channel in front of the beach and behind it the tide. Within minutes the tide engulfed all the flats before us and we search hopefully for roosting birds. We watched for an hour and half, but the darkness fell upon us and still we saw few birds. We had to leave. Back at the house we felt grateful for the warmth of Julian’s stove, but couldn’t escape the feeling of defeat.

We weren’t sure what had happened. The tide rose to its highest point that night perhaps the birds left the bay altogether? Did they roost in a different location on the bay? We had hoped to trap at the roost and now with only one day left we knew we would not. We were discouraged, but to the team’s credit, no one wanted to give up. We planned to start early the next morning and figure out what had gone wrong.

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