OSARA Volunteering in Cape Horn

I arrived in the country a little over a month ago, flying from Quito to Punta Arenas, and, following a brief stint in Tierra del Fuego, have since been volunteering for Omora on Isla Navarino, in sub-antarctic Chile. I plan to be here for five or six months.

My arrival in Punta Arenas coincided with Dr. Christopher Anderson’s trip to Karukinka, a wildlife reserve in Tierra del Fuego owned by the Wildlife Conservation Society, so I went along. We spent about five days tramping around in peat bogs and lenga forests and up the sides of mountains collecting water samples from streams, lakes, and beaver ponds in order to evaluate the impact of invasive beavers on aquatic invertebrate diversity. Being late spring in southern Chile, the weather was wildly erratic, featuring hail, snow, wind, rain, and brilliant sunshine, not infrequently all in the same day.

Beavers were introduced into Tierra del Fuego for the fur trade in the 1940s, and have spent the intervening years generally wreaking havoc on the native forests. Their dams flood the surrounding area, drowning the roots of the trees, over time creating a patch of waterlogged ground and still standing, dead, decaying snags. These patches, scattered over the landscape, are clearly visible from the air.

I flew to Puerto Williams, my home for the next several months, on the 7th of November, riding in a tiny little plane over what I have heard are breathtaking views of Patagonia, the mountains, glaciers, etc. We, however, were enshrouded in a clouds almost the entire flight, so these allegedly majestic vistas remain to me a subject of myth. Puerto Williams is very, very small, a town of about 2,500 people on Isla Navarino, just across the Beagle Channel from Argentina. Easily more than half of the inhabitants are families with the Chilean Armada, only posted here for a few years, so the actual, permanent population is smaller yet.

A group of three bryologists arrived a couple days after I did to work on Tayloria, a genera of moss in the family Splachnaceae that grows obligately on animal feces and emits unpleasant odors from its mature sporophytes in order to attract spore-dispersing flies. I spent the next several days with them and two students from the University of Magallanes looking for moss populations in the Parque Omora and in local peat bogs. There are three species of Tayloria reported on the island, of which we were only able to find two, one, T. mirabilis, which grows in the lenga-coigue forests, and the other, which grows in the sphagnum bogs. The U. Magallanes students continued working with the moss after the bryologists headed back north, both trapping the flies attracted to the moss for identification and analysis and working on a study of the moss phenology.

Other than that, I’ve mostly been involved with birds. Omora spends six days every month banding birds caught in mist nets at two sites in the Parque Omora, one site in so for a week in November I left the house every morning at five with Rina, the research assistant, in order to open the nets by six. We band the birds, and then measure and weigh them before releasing them. Omora has amassed about 6,500 capture records over the last six years of regular banding.

The Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity, based at the University of Chile, has a couple hundred nest boxes in and around the park in order to study rayaditos (Aphrastura spinicauda). I worked for a couple days with two researchers from Santiago, banding and taking blood from the nestlings and parents, and running exploration and predation experiments with the adult birds. The data can be compared with similar data collected in Chiloe and Tierra del Fuego, in order to evaluate latitudinal differences in nesting behavior.

I’ve also spent a fair amount of time with Elke Schuttler, a PhD student studying the impact of invasive mink, a very recent arrival to the island, on ground nesting birds. She locates and monitors the nests of several species of coastal birds, as well as placing artificial nests, in order to observe predation and the impacts of that predation on native birds. We put out 150 artificial nests early last week, at six sites, and five days later ninety percent of them had been predated. The sites on rocky coasts seemed to have a much higher rate of predation by mink rather than native birds of prey such as caracaras. This is possibly significant considering that the number of kelp geese (Chloephaga hybrida), a species which nests obligately on rocky coasts, seems to be decreasing.

Yours, Clare