About Me

My photo

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. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Tierra del Fuego; the national park at the end of the world

Until recently, all I knew of Ushuaia, on Argentinian Tierra del Fuego, was that it claimed to be the world's southern-most city, and that it is the jump-off point for most of the Antarctic cruises. (I'm now convinced that their claim is justified; Chilean Puerto Williams, just across the Beagle Channel on Isla Navarino, is indeed just further south, but with only 2000 inhabitants can hardly claim to be a city; Ushuaia, with 60,000 people, certainly is.) 

Recently however I was going to be 'in the area' (really!) and decided we should extend our Patagonian trip to see what was there. It was one of the best decisions I've made. The town itself, facing the Beagle Channel, is a real surprise and a worthwhile destination in its own right, but you don't read these posts to hear about towns; just out of town is the world's southern-most national park, Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego and we spent a delightful day there.
Ushaia is at the end of the red arrow and Tierra del Fuego National Park is immediately to the west,
bounded to the south by the Beagle Channel and the west by the Chilean border.
Don't think this means it is tiny however - the whole island covers 4.8 million hectares,
and the park is 60,000 hectares, extending inland (north) for 60 kilometres.

In a day we saw nowhere near the whole of the park - indeed you need to be prepared to do some serious mountain hiking for that - but we absorbed some beautiful Nothofagus (southern beech) forest, alongside the lovely Beagle Channel.
Zarathiegui Bay, Beagle Channel, above and below.
The channel separates the main island of Tierra del Fuego (the 'Isla Grande')
from the many smaller islands immediately to the south.
It runs 240km from the west (where it is entirely in Chile) to the east, where it forms the boundary between
Chile and Argentina - see map above. It was named for the survey vessel commanded by Robert FitzRoy (after the suicide of Captain Pringle Stokes) during the expedition of 1826 to 1830.
(It was on the follow-up survey, beginning the following year, that Charles Darwin joined him.)

Wind-shaped Magellanic Beech Nothofagus betuloides, on the shores of the channel.
Across the channel the mighty Andes emerge from the sea to extend for 7000 kilometres to the north.
The beginning - or end, depending on your perspective - of the Andes, across the Beagle Channel
from Tierra del Fuego National Park.
The old beech forests are superb; with a growing season of perhaps only a few weeks a year, they are venerable indeed. 
Looking through the Magellanic Beech to the Beagle Channel and the Andes beyond.
This is a very beautiful place (and no, it's not always sunny!)
The understorey is quite open; here there are mosses, ferns and saplings of Canelo (see below).
In these Gondwanan relics, you could easily be in Tasmania or New Zealand - and of course
they once all formed part of the same temperate rainforests.

Old beeches growing over mossy boulders.

Ancient beech bases, draped in mosses, with Fishbone Ferns Blechnum penna-marina
and Canelo seedlings.
Canelo or Winter's Bark Drimys winteri, of the very old Gondwanan family Winteraceae -
it is often described as close to being the oldest living flowering plant family.
The Australian native peppers Tasmannia are very closely related, and indeed until recently
were included in the same genus.
Until relatively recent times when citrus was identified as a source of Vitamin C to combat scurvy,
ships rounding the Horn would take on loads of Canelo bark as an antidote. The first to do so was
John Winter, captain of the Elizabeth, accompanying Francis Drake in the Golden Hind in 1577 - hence the
scientific name and English common name. (But how he knew, I can't imagine.)

Clearings such as this one can be carpeted with orchids in summer.

Dog Orchid Codonorchis lessonii, above and below.
This is a very common Patagonian orchid, supposedly named for its scent, though I've not noticed it!

Beech Orange Fungus, or Pan de Indio (Indian Bread) Cyttaria harioti.
Darwin collected these and when Joseph Hooker of Kew Gardens recognised them as being very similar to
beech fungi from New Zealand and Australia, they began to postulate a former great southern continent.
As the Spanish name suggests they were indeed eaten, in considerable quantities, by indigenous
Patagonians, who also brewed an alcoholic beverage from them. 
I've tried the fungi (though not, sadly, the beverage) and it's not too bad.
The fungus uses a chemical to form the massive gall in which the fungus lives and feeds,
and from which it produces the spore bodies (the 'oranges') in summer.

Holly-leafed Barberry Berberis ilicifolia Family Berberidaceae, is one of many barberries found in Patagonia.
The berries of many are used for jams and liqueurs.
Rainberry Rubus geoides, Family Rosaceae.
Birds are fairly prominent in the forests and on the channel.
The Southern Giant Petrels Macronectes giganteus in Zarathiegui Bay, above and below, were as
numerous as I've ever seen them anywhere.

The South American 'geese' that dominate many Patagonian landscapes are actually closer to the shelducks.
These Ashy-headed Geese Chloephaga poliocephala are among the most striking of them.
Two old passerine groups, the sub-oscines, dominate in South America, though are barely known elsewhere in the world; representatives of both the funariids (oven birds) and tyrant flycatchers are present in Tierra del Fuego National Park.
Dark-bellied Cinclodes Cinclodes patagonicus, a common funariid.

Tufted Tit-tyrant Anairetes parulus, a tyrant flycatcher which, unlike the cinclodes,
is found along the entire 7000km of western South America.
Mammals are certainly present, though not readily encountered. One species however, the North American Beaver, has become a serious problem since being introduced in the 1940s to try to start a fur trade. Numbers in Tierra del Fuego have been estimated at tens of thousands, and huge areas of native forest are under threat as trees fail to recover from being felled (the local species tend not to coppice), and are drowned by raised water levels from beaver dams. Control measures have begun, but it's a huge job.
Beaver lodge (no longer occupied) with drowned trees, Tierra del Fuego National Park.
But we need to end on a happier note, and this magnificent weevil seems appropriate for the role.
Weevil, Lago Roca. We were told that local people had regarded it as sacred, but I can't find any information on that.

Yes, I know it's a long way to the end of the world, but it's worth it! And if you find yourself in the vicinity of Ushuaia, do drop into Tierra del Fuego National Park too - it'll be well worth your while.



Susan said...

I love that ending on a weevil is a happier note for you :-)

I'm curious about the dog orchids -- in English the word 'dog' attached to a plant name usually means the plant has no scent and is generally good for nothing, but looks like a plant that is valuable. For example, you get dog violets and sweet violets here; and dog's mercury and Good King Henry.

Flabmeister said...

The use of goose as a vernacular name for Shelduck is not constrained to Tierra del Fuego. In beautiful out-of-town Essex (Bradwell, a fair bit East of Rainham) the Common Shelduck is known as a Bar Goose. Translating to English that probably means "a big duck with a chest-band".

Can we look forward to a post about urban Ushuaia sometime?


Ian Fraser said...

Susan - yes, weevils always make me cheerful! Very interesting re usage of 'dog' for flowers, but I don't know where to go with it now - these orchids don't deserve to be dismissed thus!

Martin, also interesting, and perhaps something like that gave rise to the SAm 'geese' (though they are pretty goosey in appearance). It didn't come from Spanish, which allocates each of them a distinct one-word name.

Ian Fraser said...

PS, sorry about urban Ushuaia Martin, but I realise I didn't actually take any pics in town - I tend to be pretty single-minded I fear! Happy to fill you in verbally some time... (I'll see if Lou's got any pics too.)

Les Mitchell said...

Thanks Ian. Wonderful insight to a part of the world so remote and probably one I'll never see

The happy wanderer. said...

We were in Ushuaia early December last year, and even just walking along the harbour was great for birds. We had real difficulty getting Argentinian money so couldn't go into the National Park. I gather some Antarctic companies are moving the "pick up point" to Puerto Williams so it may well grow.

Ian Fraser said...

Les, it's also pretty cold, which isn't you either!

HW, good to hear from you. I agree re the harbour front - I reckon that Dolphin Gulls are one of the most beautiful. And yes, Argentinian money can be a bit of a mystery until you get the hang of the 'blue market', the parallel, unofficial but fully in-the-open money exchange. For future reference, the place in Ushuaia which gives the best rates is the big teddy bear shop in the main street!