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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Puñihuil: penguins - and much more!



After the domestic dramas of last week (and my Night Parrot posting attracted more interest in a few days than anything else I've written!) I thought it was time to focus on Somewhere Completely Different. And while Puñihuil is in the southern hemisphere, it couldn't be much more dissimilar to the arid desert home of the Night Parrot. For a start, the island of Chiloé is lush and wet; while much of the Night Parrot's world gets well under 250mm of rain a year (and it is very irregular), Chiloé gets close to ten times that - reliably! At 42 degrees south it is about the latitude of Hobart (for those who know Australia), it can be very cold, and its west coast faces the mighty Pacific, so winds are a fact of life. 
Chiloé indicated by the red arrow.


Some 25 kilometres south-west of the town of Ancud lies the little sandy bay of Puñihuil, with volcanic islets just offshore, accessed by a narrow winding country road (though perfectly safe and comfortable).
 
Puñihuil indicated by red arrow.

It is the little islets which are the main attractions, supporting important seabird nesting colonies which are both easily accessible to people wanting to view them, and largely safe from people going ashore. 
Puñihuil islets from the cliffs above the bay.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia; somehow in five visits I've omitted to take this shot!
The beach at Punihuil, with Kelp Gulls Larus dominicanus overhead.
The seafood restaurant at the end of the beach is also a feature!


When I first went there in 2006, boat trips from the beach to view the wildlife were run by the Alfaguara Project, dedicated to marine conservation (and especially Blue Whales). Since then the Project has worked to coordinate local tour operators - including the local fishermen - to run the tours cooperatively, thus helping their incomes and giving them a greater incentive to protect the values of the bay. Since 2009 the number of visitors permitted daily is capped, to further protect the animals.
 
Boat trip on the bay - a very calm day! When I first went, trips were run in inflatable zodiacs,
but the embarkation and landing are still 'wet'.


I mentioned the penguins as an attraction, but the key point is that two species breed together there; this is the only place where Magellanic Penguins Spheniscus magellanicus (a cold water species found as far south as the Gulf of Magellan and the Falklands) are found nesting alongside Humboldt's Penguin S. humboldti, here at the southern limit of its range, which extends north into the tropics in Peru. Nonetheless, it is a penguin, and it can only live in the tropics within the cold Humboldt's Current.
 
Magellanic (above) and Humboldt's (below) Penguins, Punihuil;
please bear in mind that all these shots are taken from a small boat in heavily swelling seas!
While very similar (and closely related), Humboldt's has only one breast ring, while Magellanic has that plus a collar.
 



Another feature is the pairs of lovely Kelp Geese Chloephaga hybrida, also found from here south on wild rocky shores. These South American 'geese' are in fact apparently most closely related to the shelducks (though at least one of my Chilean birding friends sees that as something of an affront!).
 
Strongly dimorphic, the male Kelp Goose is white, his mate almost black.


Another fascinating and very South American group of ducks is also in the shelduck group (though this relationship is currently being revisited), and is also found at Puñihuil. The steamer ducks are so-called from their habit of churning up the water in powerful courtship rushes; two of the four species are flightless, and here was my first encounter with the fascinating Flightless (or Fuegian) Steamer Duck Tachyeres pteneres, a powerful swimmer at home among the rocks and sea-swells.
The almost ridiculously small wings of the Flightless Steamer Duck are evident here.

Additionally four cormorant species breed here.

Imperial Cormorants Phalacrocorax atriceps (left) and Neotropical Cormorants Phalacrocorax brasilianus (right), Punihuil. Imperials are found south to the Antarctic Peninsula, while Neotropics range from the Gulf of Magellan to the Amazon basin.
Rock Cormorants Phalacrocorax magellanicus are striking marine cormorants
found all along the southern coasts of the continent.
Red-legged Cormorants Phalacrocorax gaimardi are surely among the most beautiful of all cormorants; sadly they are also one of the scarcest of South American cormorants, though doing well on Punihuil.
(And I did mention it rained a lot here!)
Southern Giant Petrel Macronectes giganteus on unusually flat seas, Punihuil.
The tubular nostrils that are a feature of this major seabird family are very evident here.


Finally, there is one star of the show that isn't a bird. Marine Otters Lontra felina are rare almost everywhere, but there is a small and apparently stable population at Puñihuil. These are not to be confused with Sea Otters Enhydra lutris, a much bigger animal of the north Pacific. Lontra is a genus of American river otters, of which only the Marine Otter has taken to the sea; and from my observations at Puñihuil it  has done so very well indeed. It will emerge from the surf with a crab or other prey, and effortlessly skip onto the rocks to eat it.
Marine Otters, Punihuil, hunting (above) and dining.
 

Chile is an overlooked part of South America by many visitors. That, in my opinion, is a mistake. Chiloé, in turn, isn't on the route of most of those who do get to Chile - also a mistake, though the general absence of tourists means it remains generally unspoilt, so maybe I should keep quiet! And Puñihuil- well, if I've not yet persuaded you of its charms, I should probably give up this blog!

BACK ON THURSDAY


 

2 comments:

Flabmeister said...

I have been browsing Google Earth trying to identify Punihuil from space, but failing as there are too many pretty beaches in the area!

I am intrigued by the term "perfectly safe" being applied to any road on that Continent. Is it a relative term - compared, for example, to the one portrayed in the classic film Wages of Fear??

Ian Fraser said...

Yes, you need a fairly detailed map before it shows up. As for the road, no, it's like an English country lane! In many ways Chile is unlike the rest of South America; I certainly feel it's the country there that is most like Australia in some ways.