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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.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Chepu: a hidden corner of Chile

The island of Chiloé lies off the coast of Chile, roughly a thousand kilometres south of Santiago. It is wild and wet (more than two metres of rain a year) and not really part of the tourist trail, but it is well worth spending time there. One of my favourite parts of the island is the Chepu district near the north-west coast, named for the Chepu River which flows through it.
Riverside forest along the Chepu River; behind the lower streamside forest is the distinctive
taller Nothofagus (Antarctic Beech) which dominates the island's forests.
The red arrow points to Chiloé, south of the port of Puerto Montt.

Chiloé, with the arrow indicating the approximate location of Chepu.
There are no state-run reserves in the immediate vicinity, but some local landholders have forest on their property and are willing to take people into it. One even boasts a little homemade 'railway' down the hill to the start of the forest!
Ingenious, but I'd not want to try it at any speed!


Tracks have been cut through dense high stands of bamboo, 'quila' locally; Pudu (diminutive deer) and skulking Magellanic Tapaculos flit across the openings. 
Quila towering over visitors.
In the forest it is dark, with 'Spanish moss'  and other epiphytes festooning the trunks, trying to get nearer to the light.
Bromeliad growing on Nothofagus trunk.
A climber, the lovely Luzuriaga polyphylla, family Philesiaceae (or possibly now Alstroemeriaceae).
The genus has a Gondwanan distribution, with three species in Patagonia and one in New Zealand.
Rubus geoides, family Rubiaceae, grows in wet situations - not hard to find in Patagonia!
Birds are hard to photograph in the dim light, but one bird stands out - the magnificent Magellanic Woodpecker is huge and its 'chopping' is unmistakable. Not for nothing is he known as 'el carpintero', the carpenter.
Male Magellanic Woodpecker Campephilus magellanicus; she has a black head.
This one was near the farmhouse.
Unidentified, but very impressive, cryptic grasshopper.

Painted Tree 'Iguana' (though it's not really!) Liolaemus pictus,
making the most of the facilities of the farm's greenhouse.
At the mouth of the Chepu, conditions are very different. The beach is accessed by a very steep rough track at the end of the road, and the Pacific winds seem rarely to sleep.
The huge-leaved of Gunnera tinctoria - more usually associated with wet banks - seems quite at
home in the sand.
Austral Negrito Campephilus magellanicus female on the beach; this little tyrant-flycatcher
(one of the numerous ancient South American sub-oscine passerines)
is found across the southern cone of the continent.
Which brings us to the river, my personal highlight of a visit to Chepu. Boat trips are available from local fishing people, though you don't want to spend too much time trying to decipher the sign...
The Spanish at least is unambiguous - it just says 'boat trips'!
Somewhat more of a shock however is the sight of dead trees stretching across the valley.
These trees died 57 years ago, in the aftermath of the great earthquake of 1960, still regarded as
the most powerful earthquake ever recorded (somewhere around 9.5 on the moment magnitude scale).
Thousands of people died in the quake and the subsequent tsunami, in Chile and across the Pacific.

The tsunami came right up the valley, drowning the forest in seawater.
From the river however, the damage becomes less evident as we head upstream.
Ringed Kingfisher Megaceryle torquata, always an exciting bird to see, not least because of its size (40cm).
It is found from the southern tip of South America to the Mexico-US border.
One of the features of the trip is watching for Coypu Myocastor coypus, a big semi-aquatic rodent (the only member of its family) which is native to this part of the world, but has been widely introduced elsewhere by the fur trade, usually to the detriment of the local environment. In many other places it is known at Nutria, but this is Spanish for otter, so is very confusing!
I confess that Coypu often look more than a tad grumpy, but I guess they get fed up with uninvited visitors.
They can be up to 60cm long and weigh up to nine kilograms.
The Chiloé population is regarded as a separate sub-species.
Eventually the river opens out into the lovely Lago Coluco, which has resident pairs of the very handsome Great Grebe Podiceps major.
The Great Grebe wears its title with justification; at up to 80cm long it is the world's largest grebe.
The star bird attractions on the lake however are the Brown-hooded Gulls Chroicocephalus maculipennis, which breed here in huge numbers in the reeds.
A small part of Lago Coluco's Brown-hooded Gull colony.
This gull is found only in southern South America.


Brown-hooded Gull nest; the nest is floating, but held in place by the reeds.
They really are a most attractive gull, on water, land or air.


With Coypu.

Chepu is not likely to be the highlight of any trip to South America, but I'd expect that, like me, you'll remember it fondly long afterwards.

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2 comments:

Susan said...

Coypu. Hurrumph! Here in France they get trapped and bopped on the head as they are declared a pest species. Sometimes they get turned into terrine de lièvre des marais.

Ian Fraser said...

Yes, but hardly their fault! I'm sure they'd much prefer to have been left in South America... (How does swamp hare terrine taste, by the way?)