Showing posts with label Parque Nacional Juan Fernández. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Parque Nacional Juan Fernández. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Birds of Chile: An Ornithological Extravaganza

When adventurous birders think of travel, they often head to the tropical rain forests of Asia, Africa and the Americas, with their celebrated abundance of species. It’s an axiom of biodiversity that the low latitude tropics, especially the forests, are home to large numbers of species, even if individual numbers of those species are relatively few. By contrast, higher latitudes have fewer species, but larger numbers of individuals of each species.

Chile has no tropical rain forests – in fact, its own sizeable sector of the tropics, between the Peruvian border and the Tropic of Capricorn, running just north of the port city of Antofagasta, is among the world’s driest regions, if not the driest (see the semi-ghost town of Pisagua, pictured above). But the country’s “crazy geography” (a term popularized by geographer Benjamín Subercaseaux), stretching to the tip of Cape Horn, provides enough diverse habitat to support nearly 500 species of breeding or visiting birds (Subercaseaux’s Spanish title Una Loca Geografía has been less literally translated into English as “A Geographical Extravaganza”).

According to Álvaro Jaramillo, author of Princeton’s newly published Birds of Chile, this makes the country an ornithological extravaganza. There have been several field guides to Chilean birds, but most of those cover restricted areas, such as Enrique Couve’s and Claudio Vidal Ojeda’s bilingual Birds of the Beagle Channel/Aves del Canal Beagle, or are difficult to find, such as the English version of Braulio Araya’s similarly titled The Birds of Chile. Jaramillo’s is by far the most current, with illustrations and distribution maps for every species.

Birds of Chile accurately describes all the country’s avian habitats, starting with the northern deserts and altiplano (high Andean steppe). It continues south through the Mediterranean matorral and sclerophyllous (glossy-leaf) forest, resembling the chaparral of California, through the temperate rainforest of Patagonia’s islands and fjordlands. It ends at the Magellanic tundra or moorland at the South American continent’s tip, home to the rare striated caracara (pictured above). Jaramillo also covers Chile’s coastline and islands, including Easter Island and the Juan Fernández archipelago, as well as offshore waters and even the Antarctic Peninsula, the Falkland Islands and South Georgia.

For birders, one of Chile’s underappreciated gems is Parque Nacional Lauca (pictured above), where flamingos fly above cobalt blue lakes and verdant wetlands that are home to nearly a third of all species found in the country. At the city of Arica, on the Pacific coast, the Atacama desert is at its driest, but its highlands near the Bolivian border get ample summer rainfall that make species such as the giant coot, Andean goose and Andean gull abundant. For birders from the northern hemisphere, of course, just about everything is a new addition to their life list.

Jaramillo, whom I know slightly, is Chilean-born and still has family there, but lives near Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco. He operates his own birding tours of Northern California, Argentina, Chile and Easter Island through Alvaro’s Adventures, and also leads occasional trips through Uruguay.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Crusoe's Tsunami

I have just returned to Buenos Aires from Santiago, where I spent two-plus days exploring Chile’s post-quake capital and barely had time to sleep, let alone write any extensive blog posts. Within a few days, I’ll have a summary up, but for the moment I’ll just note that things are returning to normal - despite a brief Sunday night blackout that extended from the Atacama desert town of Taltal in the north to the archipelago of Chiloé in the south - and that flying out of Santiago’s Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benítez was utterly routine, even if the main international terminal building remains closed.

At present, I would not hesitate to visit Chile’s top destinations - San Pedro de Atacama, Easter Island (Rapa Nui), and Torres del Paine. These sites were left totally untouched by the February 27 quake, and intending visitors should have no qualms whatsoever about traveling there. The southerly lakes district, just beyond the quake zone, is up and running as well, but overland transportation is slower than usual because of highway damage between Santiago and Temuco. At the moment, flying into Temuco or Puerto Montt and then traveling far shorter overland distances to popular towns such as Pucón and Puerto Varas would be a better option.

One place I would not recommend visiting, though, is one of my favorite destinations in the country. On Isla Robinson Crusoe, the biggest island in the Juan Fernández archipelago, the post-quake tsunami swamped the immediate shoreline of San Juan Bautista, the island’s only settlement. For a community of only about 600 people, the loss of just a few lives was devastating, and several if not most of its tourist facilities were destroyed, as can be seen in the FACh (Chilean Air Force) aerial photographs provided me by a Santiago friend, conservationist Hernán Torres. To enlarge the before-and-after photos for more detail, just click on the image.

According to spokesman Miguel Díaz Gacitúa of CONAF (Chile’s national park service), with whom I spoke on Tuesday in his Santiago office, the island’s airstrip is undamaged, but San Juan’s tiny port facilities will need an emergency replacement. Presumably, all rebuilding in the village will take place beyond the line of tsunami damage.

Díaz Gacitúa adds, by the way, that there has been no noteworthy damage to any of Chile’s national parks or other protected areas - even in the hardest-hit regions - and they are open for business as usual.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Massive Earthquake (8.8) Hits Chile

In 1960, the Chilean city of Valdivia, about 800 km south of the capital of Santiago, suffered the greatest magnitude earthquake ever recorded - 9.5 on the Richter scale - and much of the country suffered from a subsequent tsunami. Early this morning, the city of Concepción, about 500 km south of the Chilean capital, came dangerously close to that number, being hit by a temblor measuring as high as 8.8 hit. In this region, where many city inhabitants still use wood for cooking and heating, the danger of fire is as great, or greater, than that of falling buildings.

Fortunately, so far at least, the death toll of 78 is far lower than might be expected in other, more densely populated parts of the world - Santiago, Chile’s only megacity, is distant from the apparent epicenter. Nevertheless, Santiago’s Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benítez (pictured above) suffered enough damage in the passenger terminal - fallen walkways and many broken windows - that it’s closed until further notice. Authorities are diverting flights to other Chilean airports and to the Argentine city of Mendoza, just across the Andes from Santiago.

Likewise, several overpasses have collapsed along Ruta 5, the country’s main north-south highway, and other roadways have bent or buckled - the television network TVN has shown cars hitting unexpected bumps at high speed but, to this point, none of them has lost control. Over the past couple decades, the quality of anti-seismic construction here has improved, but there are vulnerable older buildings in neighborhoods such as Barrio Brasil, where the Basílica del Salvador - damaged in a 1986 quake - has been propped up by a bulwark that collapsed yesterday and demolished automobiles parked alongside it.

Apparently the quake has had a lesser impact on tourist-oriented areas such as the southern lakes district, around Puerto Varas and Puerto Montt, though it was felt there. Other major destinations, such as San Pedro de Atacama and Torres del Paine, are well beyond the damage zone.

Because of the epicenter’s depth, there appears to be little chance of a tsunami along the Chilean coast, but the quake could trigger big waves in North America and across the Pacific. On the Juan Fernández archipelago, about 600 km off the Chilean coast, a mini-tsunami has apparently forced the inhabitants of San Juan Bautista, the only town, into the nearby hills.

The United States Geological Survey has just published an online summary of the quake, which has been followed by aftershocks as high as 6.9. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has issued a tsunami advisory for coastal California and Alaska, and a tsunami warning for the state of Hawaii.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Paine's Birthday, Crusoe's Road

On the 50th anniversary of its creation, Chile’s most famous national park - Parque Nacional Torres del Paine - has a new commemorative postage stamp in its honor. Every year, the park gets nearly 150,000 visitors, many of them foreigners who come to gaze at what might be the world’s single most scenic mountain range. According to Montevideo-based MercoPress, it is also getting a substantial budget increase - Chile’s agriculture minister says the park is responsible for seven percent of the southerly Magallanes region’s GDP - and a high-tech fire-monitoring system to help avoid the sorts of blazes that damaged its forests in 1985 and 2005.

Meanwhile, according to the online Santiago Times (subscription only), the future is less certain for Parque Nacional Archipiélago Juan Fernández, some 650 km off the coast of Valparaíso. On its Isla Robinson Crusoe, where the 18th-century Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk’s solitary four-year exile helped inspire Daniel Defoe’s famous novel, Chile’s Ministerio de Obras Públicas (MOP) is proposing a road to connect the island’s airstrip with the village of San Juan Baustista.

At present, an hour’s sail or a four-hour walk - one of the most scenic and solitary I’ve ever done - is necessary to reach San Juan from the airstrip. It passes from the island’s arid south side - as dry as the Atacama desert - to the temperate rainforest on the north side, crossing the divide (pictured here) at the point where Selkirk watched every day in hopes that a ship would arrive to rescue him. As part of the park, the trail passes through forests rich with endemic plant and bird species, and passes a huge colony of the rare Juan Fernández fur seal at Tierras Blancas. A road would not only eliminate this stunning hiking route, but would do incalculable damage to the flora and fauna of an island that has (and needs) few motor vehicles. There is no real need for a road through this rugged, unique terrain, on a route that would not be significantly faster than the boat.
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