Tierra del Fuego: 1/12/08
Our Seventh Expedition to Tierra del Fuego: 1/12/08
Our seventh expedition to Tierra del Fuego began with an early evening arrival at Punta Arenas Airport. This small city has either grown more attractive over the last 7 years or we have gradually awakened to its often subtle qualities. Chile has grown more integrated into the world economic system in the last seven years, even establishing a free trade agreement with the US. There are a few chain stores, but even those give a cosmopolitan feel as they are Chilean or European rather than US. I don’t remember coming across a McDonalds. Gone are the days we needed a satellite phone, cell phones are used widely and at least in Punta Arenas broadband internet access pops up everywhere. All of this has made the preparation for our expedition less difficult and our field work more comfortable.
(Looking out over the shore of the Strait of Magellan towards the Andes on our approach to Punta Arenas Airport)
That said we are still about to face off with one of the most infamous bodies of water in the world. The Straits of Magellan still strikes fear in the heart of serious mariners with its often violent wind storms and fearsome 8-knot currents. This may not sound bad but if you are sailing a sailboat with hull speeds of 7 knots, it mean you go backwards. Even modern tankers with speeds of 15 knots must wait for favorable tides. On the ground we must always keep our eye on the barometer. A sudden plunge forecasts wind storms that can blow down tents or render mist nets useless. Last year a sudden storm at night created a truly harrowing experience as we dealt with a big catch in the mist nets over wind blown tide that threatened birds and biologist alike.
(70 mph winds sweeping the Strait in 2007)
What can be said about the improvements in Punta Arenas cannot, unfortunately be said about the red knot populations. Although last year’s count during northward migration on the Delaware Bay remained unchanged, recent counts on the wintering areas suggest much lower numbers. In November, Dr. Allan Baker, Patricia Gonzalez and Luis Benegas reported a big drop in numbers at Rio Grande in the Argentinian part of Tierra del Fuego with the count dropping from around 3,000 birds to 1,500. The count our team conducted over the New Year on the west coast of Florida proved equally disturbing. Where two years ago we counted over 2,000 knots, we found only 550. Therefore the count in Tierra del Fuego will be critical.
(Knot flock landing on the shores Bahia Lomas in 2007 ( photo by Mark Peck))
So the first goal of our work this year is to continue our surveys of knots. Guy Morrison and Ken Ross from the Canadian Fish and Wildlife Service will carry out an aerial count of red knots in the entire area and we will conduct ground counts in our Bahia Lomas study area. We will also trap knots to top-up the proportion of the population carrying bands in order to support our re-sightings program which is designed to help develop estimates of population-size, survival, residency periods etc. All of this work is only possible because of financial help from the US Fish and Wildlife Service through Brad Andres. Third we will team up with the US Department of Agriculture and its Chilean counterpart Servicio Agricola Granadeiro to catch birds to for the surveillance of avian influenza. We will also train the Chilean biologists to catch birds.
(Cannon net firing in 2007 over red knots at Bahia Azul with camouflage kelp in air.)
An interesting new goal of our trip this year will be to catch Magellanic oystercatchers and band them with color bands to distinguish individual birds at a distance. The “Magic Oystercatcher” aroused the interest of many of our colleagues after Dr. Allan Baker presented a paper on the “Definitive Phylogeny of the Oystercatchers” at the International Wader Study Group conference in France in October. He described three main ancestral groups: the old world oystercatchers, the new world oystercatchers and the Magellanic oystercatcher”. Biologists in both Chile and Argentina intend to focus on this most distinctive of the world’s oystercatchers, so our plan to catch and mark a sample is a contribution to this new study. Similar studies take place in the US on American oystercatchers.
Finally and most importantly we will continue to pursue our plan to build “The Tierra del Fuego Bird Observatory”. Much has been accomplished in the last year. With the help of Charles Duncan of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network at Manomet Center for Conservation Science, and the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ we now have sufficient funds to start building. Jorge Jordan in Puntas Arenas has used his business expertise to help develop a new non-profit foundation with a board of directors that will oversee the building of the new observatory. The mayor of the Primavera Municipality Senor Ricardo Olea and his deputy, Senor Herrera, will contribute by arranging to move an existing house to the Bay that will be renovated with the project funds. All the elements will soon be in place to start moving dirt, a dream soon to become reality.
(Site of the Tierra del Fuego Bird Observatory)
To the same end, we have invited the participation of NJ Audubon Society to help create a meaningful link to the US. Dr. David Mizrahi will participate in this year’s expedition for the purpose of exploring a role for NJ Audubon in relation to the TdF Bird Observatory. He too is sending blogs to the NJ Audubon website
This year’s teams includes Dr. Amanda Dey, Senior biologist with NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife, Dr. Humphrey Sitters of the International Wader Study Group, Steve Gates a volunteer who has participated and supported our expeditions to the Arctic and TdF as well as our work in the Delaware Bay, and Jerry Binsfeld a retired railroad man from Canada and a volunteer on our Arctic and Delaware Bay expeditions.