Expeditions and Travels, Tierra del Fuego 2018

Tierra del Fuego – An Island of Contrasts


 Seven years ago in Tierra del Fuego

Seven years ago we finished our last expedition to Tierra del Fuego, Chile, the wintering area of the red knots and other Arctic nesting shorebirds. We expected to return. Instead, an 11-year-long investigation aimed at understanding and protecting an ecologically important and fragile place ended.

For a field biologist, ending a long-term study is like ending a long-standing personal relationship. A good field biologist not only understands the ecology of a place but loves it by seeking more protection for its fragile parts. Once the connection ends, one longs for the beloved land, wonders how she gets along without you, imagines how things could have been different, what more could have be done? Chile deserves care, and I loved it like my homeland.

chile mountains

Andes Mountain just north of Tierra del Fuego

Dramatic Contrasts

We worked mostly in Tierra del Fuego, an Island of dramatic contrasts. It’s about the size of NJ and Delaware but at the opposite end of the scale of wild places. Low dry hills border the Straits of Magellan along the north side of the island, while the majestic Andes rim the Beagle Channel in the south. We spent most of our time on Bahia Lomas, the Bay of Low Hills, that once supported the majority of red knots in this hemisphere. But the island unfolds going south into lush cold weather rain forests composed of the wind-twisted evergreen beech known locally as Langa. Impressive mountains thrust up from deep fiords within a vast protected wilderness called Karokinka, a national reserve supported by Wildlife Conservation Society.

Beyond the island of Tierra del Fuego to the north, Chile ultimately becomes a verdant California-like landscape. We also worked on Chiloe Island, a lush, dreamy place of fine wine, seafood and immense flocks of hudsonian godwit and whimbrel. Furthur still is Santiago and beyond that vast deserts. It’s a country to love.


Lago fagnano southern chile

Lago Fagnana, a bay that ultimaty opens to the Straits of Magellan along Tierra del Fuego’s southern side.



Disaster and Collapse

Our study ended, but the ecological disaster wrought by the collapse of horseshoe crabs, 4000 miles away in Delaware Bay continues. In Delaware Bay has the world’s largest population of horseshoe crabs, one of the most precious natural resources on the East Coast. Its being slowly bleed to death by multiple greedy industries. None are concerned about the crab’s long-term survival, let alone the once immense flocks of shorebirds that depend on them.

The knots from Tierra del Fuego rely on the eggs of horseshoe crabs. Birds fly six days nonstop to the Bay. They fall from the sky desperate to feed on high energy horseshoe crab eggs. They need them to make the next and most dangerous part of the trip – the flight to the Arctic breeding grounds where the ill-prepared often fail to survive or breed. ( see this new paper on the importance of Delaware Bay). As a result of steep declines in the availability of eggs, red knots numbers fell, and the once ubiquitous knot of Tierra Del Fuego declined from 65,000 to 13,000.

This year was especially nasty on Delaware Bay. Cold weather delayed the anemic spawn of horseshoe crabs, and most TDF knots left the bay with insufficient reserves. As I write this piece, I don’t know the condition of the red knots of Bahia Lomas, but we fear a severe decline.


red knot beach chile

Red knots feeding on the shorebird of Bahia Lomas Chile

shorebirds eat horseshoe crab eggs

red knots, ruddy turnstones, sanderling and semipalmated sandpipers gobble up the last of horseshoe crab eggs at low tide near Reeds Beach NJ


The Work Did Not End

But the work did not end. During the period of our absence, a team of Chilean biologists moved conservation forward. Foremost was the creation of Centro Bahia Lomas, a conservation group headed by Professor Carmen Espoz of Santo Thomas University. Carmen carried out extensive work on the invertebrates of the complex intertidal zone of the Bahia Lomas, while we pursued our red knot studies. She, with help from Ricardo Matus, a well respected Chilean naturalist, and Manomet Center for Conservation, overcame many obstacles to create this center now located along the lovely waterfront of Punta Arenas. She molded the center like an old-fashioned Bird Observatory. Its an outpost of grassroots education and rugged field research dedicated to the conservation of Fuegian shorebirds and marine wildlife.

The center is tiny compared to the economic forces commanding this place. Sheep graze nearly the entire landscape of rolling grassland hills, and they represent the area’s most important resource. They are everywhere and mow vegetation like uptight suburbanites.. Furthur to the south, Langa brings wealth, and as the son of a carpenter, I enjoy the wood’s strength and rich grain. But Langa forests are mostly virgin, so the harvest comes at a tremendous ecological cost. Nevertheless, the real money comes from under the ground.

Oil and natural gas flow from the golden hills of Bahia Lomas. ENAP, the state-owned oil company, has always peppered this landscape with pumps both on and offshore without serious consequence. But now a fracking boom sweeps this land, just as it has in our country’s wildlands. In our pre-trip mapping, we found a more extensive and dense network of pumps and pipes. In the US fracking has ruined watersheds, caused earthquakes, left many people without safe drinking water. One hopes ENAP proceeds with greater caution.

Our shorebird team at Centro Bahia Lomas. From bottom  left to right Antonio Larrea, Ross Wood, Stewart Mackensie

The network of oil and gas facilities in the area surrounding Bahia Lomas has grown and become a potential threat to the bay because of it 5 mile wide intertidal flat


A New Conservation Tool

At any rate, we have restarted our work here with what we hope will provide Carmen, the Chilean agencies, and conservation groups a new tool. Rick Lathrop, Director of Rutgers Center for Remote Sensingm and I will lead an effort to bring new GIS mapping layers to an existing GIS map developed by Carmen and her team at the University of Santo Thomas. We will conduct intensive shorebird surveys in Bahia Lomas to create new GIS mapping linked to the mapping of the bay’s intertidal habitats. Other layers representing the most severe threats will be added to determine the most critical and threatened shorebird habitats.

For example, we can ask the question – where will an oil spill most likely impact the shoreline of Bahia Lomas? These new data can help shape an effective oil spill response. We will also address another severe threat – how will sea level rise and Climate Change alter this bay of 30 ft tides and a 5 mile wide intertidal flat?

Our second goal is to tag knots with tiny transmitters that will be tracked by a new network of 4 monitoring stations. With this, we can better understand how knots use Bahia Lomas and how they change through the wintering period. And when the birds leave Bahia Lomas in late February and early March, on their long journey to Delaware Bay and ultimately the Canadian Arctic, a network of over 1000 stations will track them. Stu McKenzie from Bird Studies Canada and the manager of Gabriella Garrido Centro Bahia Lomas have already set up the towers. Data will flow from these transmitters like an incoming tide on the bay’s flats.

The weight of this part of the project effects us the most. Catching knots in Bahia Lomas has always been a challenge, and we have failed to capture knots in previous trips. With this trip, failure will multiply. Now as we feel the happiness that comes with the first glimpse of this beautiful

Next Post Choosing Extinction


A satellite image of Bahia Lomas showing the wide inter tidal flats. Map by R Lathrop CRSSA


A motus receiver station and the tower on Papita, one of the rolling hills surrounding Bahia Lomas . Photo by Joe Smith



Read more about Tierra del Fuego and red knots

Read Joe Smith’ blog on our mapping  and monitoring work