Tierra del Fuego Tales (November 2001)

Deborah M. Buehler – Travel Chronicle

I started the trip off in style thanks to my supervisor’s Elite Aeroplan status. With his card we through first class check-in and then into the Air Canada Elite members lounge. It was very posh with complimentary drinks, snacks and reading material. It certainly made the wait for boarding the aircraft more enjoyable.

The flight from Toronto to São Paulo, Brazil took 10 hours and was uneventful. Much to my delight the in flight movie was “Bridget Jones’ Diary” (Kristin you were right I loved it). I was quite excited to fly into São Paulo as I was wondering what a city of 16 million would look like. As it turns out I didn’t see much. Apparently a city of 16 million with a temperature of 30 Celsius looks like brown and murky. The smog was so thick I could barely make out the buildings. Happily the view of Buenos Aires after another 2.5 hours of flight was crystal clear. Buenos Aires has at least 12 million people but was only 24 degrees and was having favorable winds when we flew in.

We spent one night in Buenos Aires and it was spectacular – a huge city filled with culture and vibrancy. We were there on a Wednesday night but the streets were alive all night long and the activity looked more like Toronto on a holiday weekend than on a Wednesday. During my short stay I was able to see La Casa Rosada where Eva Peron (Evita) gave her ground-breaking speeches and where thousands stood to watch when Juan Peron brought her dying body out onto the balcony for the people to say goodbye. I also strolled through La Plaza de Mayo (after May 10, 1810 – the start of the revolution against Spain) where every Thursday a groups of mothers meet to protest and mourn the loss of their loved ones during the dictatorship. Later in the evening we walked down Via Florida, which is a long pedestrian shopping district lined with cafes, shops and street musicians. On the way from the airport we also drove along the famed Avenida 9 de Julio (the widest street in Buenos Aires, named for the anniversary of Argentina’s independence from Spain in 1816) where we saw the Obelisk (very reminiscent of Paris).

The next morning we took one final flight to the island of Tierra del Fuego (affectionately called the “end of the world”). The flight took 3 hours (for a total of 15 hours air time Toronto to Tierra del Fuego) and as we landed I got my first glimpse of the barren and windy Patagonian Steppe and the town of Rio Grande (base camp for our work). The landscape was made up of golden brown grasses dotted with scrubby bush vegetation including Calafate and Michay shrubs. There was a complete lack of trees due to the cold, dry and windy climate. It looked and felt like a cold desert.

Our first few days at the “end of the world” were filled with activity as we prepared equipment for catching birds and began the catches themselves. We made our first catch using canons and a large net on Nov 4th. It was a large success and we were able to get re-trap data on a umber of birds as well as measure, bleed and flag over new birds. All in all over 200 birds were processed. Unfortunately, after the first catch it seemed that our luck for catching had dried up. We were out smarted by the birds for 4 days before our next successful catch. Scanning birds on Atlanitc beaches and extensive tidal flats occupied the unsuccessful days. Generally we looked for flags first (colors representing the countries where each bird was banded – Orange=Argentina, Blue=Brazil, Red=Chile, Blue=Brazil, Green=USA and White=Canada). After seeing the flags we looked for color band combinations that would tell us the year and place of capture. Our next successful catch came on Nov 10 after days of planning strategies and following the bird’s movements. We set the net on a sandy outcrop called Punta Popper and using a team of visitors and locals on foot and on ATV’s herded the birds into the catching area. A group of us waited, shivering in the firing position (where the firing box which activates the canons is located). I was on the box was the one who got to push the button after hearing; “Arm the box! Switch in the canons! 3-2-1-FIRE!” It was quite a rush. That second catch trapped ~370 birds and our team processed 299 of them. It was a much deserved success.

On Nov. 11th I got a day off and took the opportunity to go to Ushuaia (the southern most city on the planet). The drive alone was spectacular, beginning with swaths of barren steppe habitat where I saw my first Guanaco (a large land ungulate related to llamas) and a vast variety of steppe birds. As we drove further south the golden brown grasses of the steppe gave way to shrubby and then full sized trees which made up a forest much like the beech forest found in New Zealand. This forest was made up primarily of trees in the genus Nothofagus and included Lengas, Guidos and Ñires. The trees were covered in a variety of mosses, the most striking being “old man’s beard” (Usnea barbata). We drove through the town of Tolhuin (know as the heart of Tierra del Fuego) and were presented with the stunning vista of the lower Andes towering over the huge fresh water Lake Fagnano. In Tolhuin we lost the pavement and began our ascent into the Cordillera on a road of winding gravel. The mountains were craggy and majestic with the tree line coming approximately halfway to the summits. The peaks were covered in snow and glaciers could be seen. At the height of the mountain pass we stopped to take pictures and were rewarded with a glimpse of the spectacular Andean Condor gilding gracefully through the peaks on a stunning 3 meter wingspan. The road then wound past stomach tightening turns with steep drop offs and the utter lack of guardrails taking us down into vast peat valleys whose floors were a rusty red from the deposition of Sphagnum mosses. Finally after 4 hours of postcard vistas, the road descended to the waters of the Beagle Canal and the town of Ushuaia.

In Ushuaia I took a 3 hour tour of the Beagle Canal (named after Fitz Roy’s 1826-1830 voyage of the Beagle– he was joined by Charles Darwin on his second expedition through the canal in 1831-1836). On the water I met a variety of back packing travelers and saw colonies of nesting Antarctic Terns and King Cormorants. Chilean Skuas and Giant Petrels soared overhead and on the rocky islands fur seals and sea lions sunned themselves. To my left and right on either side of the canal mountains towered (Argentina to the north and Chile to the south). It was a spectacular day. The type of day that reminds me why I love to travel and replenishes my wonder at the magnificence of the world we live in.

The day after our return from Ushuaia we piled into a car and headed for the border. The crossing was uneventful and by mid morning I had a Chilean stamp in my passport. Our work in Chile was centered on Bahia Lomas, a huge tidal bay with mud flats 7 to 10 kilometers long. The work was cold and windy but I was in field heaven. The landscape was spectacular. Each day we drove a 4X4 overland into the steppe past herds of guanacos and a plethora of birds – it was like being on safari! The beaches were littered with hundreds of nearly complete skeletons of False Orca (Pseudorca) dolphins, the remains of a mass beaching in 1989 and we hiked kilometers out over Salicornia fields ribboned with tidal canals, and slick mud flats in search of Red Knots. It was cold, windy and dirty – real fieldwork!

At the end of our trip to Chile I talked my way into a road trip to the mainland – Continental Patagonia. The overnight excursion included a return crossing of the Straits of Magellan (named after the first expedition to the southern latitudes by Hernando de Magellanes in 1520 – he actually coined the name Tierra del Fuego most likely in reference to the fires lit on the island by indigenous peoples). Along the way I saw tiny Commerson’s Dolphin’s frolicking in the ship’s wake and two Magellanic Penguins! On the continent we took a detour to see a colony of nesting Rock Cormorants and hit the Patagonian Steppe just as the sun was beginning to set. At this time of year in the southern latitudes sunset seems to last forever and the steppe was golden under a big blue sky for hours. The landscape opened up in all directions, the Strait glistening to the south and the ridged and rolling steppe to the north. All along the drive on the mainland Lesser Rheas (related to Ostriches) grazed in fields. What a magnificent site.

After returning to Argentinean Tierra del Fuego (an 8 hour bus trip from the town of Punta Arenas on the mainland). Our team again attempted to catch Knots. We were foiled twice before making a successful capture the morning of my flight home. A mere hour and a half before I was to be at the airport I was lying down in a hide on the beach waiting for a call to fire. We captured over 500 birds that day and had them safely extracted by the time I left for the airport. For the safety of the birds many were set free without processing but as I flew north over the beach I could see the team working. They successfully processed over 140 birds that day. All in all it was a very successful expedition both from a scientific data-gathering standpoint and from my own sightseeing standpoint. For those of you with a travel bug (and I know there are many) I highly recommend Tierra del Fuego. It is a wonderful place to see a variety of rugged landscapes and interesting flora and fauna. During the austral summer the days are very long (the shortest night in December being a mere 2-3 hours) allowing for maximum touring and working time. My only caution – dress warm and be prepared for high winds daily in what may be the windiest place on earth.
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