Studying wild Ñandú on the Chilean frontier

This post was written for my abroad program, Round River. I’m sharing it here as a window into a couple of days in the beginning of the program.

It takes us the better part of a day to wind north from our base camp in Cochrane, then east through the Chacabuco Valley, to reach the stark landscape on the other side of the mountains. We pass through Patagonia National Park, then across land owned by the Carabineros (Chilean police) and into parcels owned by the Chilean military. The sharp mountains open up to pampas- land well loved by wind. We roll over a hill and glimpse a few cozy red and white buildings tucked among poplars. This outpost– Predio Militar– is our destination.  A few horses graze quietly and a tiny bit of smoke streams from the largest building. Until a couple of years ago, the military maintained a sheep ranch on these pampas. Now Predio Militar is only occupied to maintain Chile’s sovereignty in the region near the Argentine border. A lone soul, Sebastian, is stationed out here. No one told him we were coming, but he welcomes us with smiles and the invitation to use the buildings as our home. After we settle our belongings among two cabins we go for a quick evening nature walk and learn to identify Festuca grasses, Neneo plants, Caiquen (the Upland Goose) and the Austral Negrito (a black and red flycatcher) before a strong storm blows us back indoors. Even though the cabins don’t have running water, electricity or thermostats, being invited to sleep indoors feels like a privilege. As wind screams outside, some of us share stories and mate in the dark. The skies are clear, it’s the night of the new moon. After a bit of dinner we sleep soundly on real mattresses.

The following morning, I wake up early and see a vast blushing sky, the perfect cue to put on my running shoes and see what I can see. I jaunt towards a laguna I stumbled upon the night before. The exposed bedrock is the color of stale blood. The lake is rimmed with mud and early birds. Fifty strikingly pink Chilean flamingos wade on the far edge. One flamingo flies right over my head, and I notice its strange shape in the air- the bird has long heron-like legs and a curved black beak used to sift through lake substrate. At 7:15 a globe of warmth crests over the bumpy Argentine horizon and a huge rock that looks like a canine tooth spreads the first rays. Neneo thorns and bleached sheep skeletons snag the golden light. This is a special place. I already feel tethered to something here as I watch dawn pull across the mesas and Utah-like desert of the East towards the sharp and snowy peaks to the West. This landscape is on the cusp of a mountain range, a little bit like parts of Wyoming I visited this summer. Devoid of sheep, the land is being grasped by wildlife. I find caiquén feathers and footprints of plover. When I return to the cabin, we whip up a hearty breakfast of eggs, toast and onions. Then we prepare for a day of field work.

The pampa around Predio Militar is home to the Ñandú, the Lesser Rhea. There are only a couple of tiny populations in Aysén so being able to observe these ostrich-like birds is quite special. One special fact about the ñandú is that they are polyandrous- the males make the nest and protect the bright green eggs that the females lay. Round River’s goals at Predio Militar are to monitor the ñandú population as it expands in this new habitat, find opportunities to increase the species dispersal ability, and diminish threats like dogs and fences. Every February or March, Round River conducts a ñandú census by doing area sweeps. September falls within mating season, so instead of roaming around and potentially disturbing ñandú nests, we’re sticking to other projects. Our first objective is to check camera traps that were set up over the winter by Katie Adaze, a Round River student. The camera traps take photos and videos when they detect motion, and are a useful tool to observe wildlife without a human presence staked out in the steppe. We locate three camera traps positioned along a fenceline, and change their batteries and download months of images. Fences are the biggest remaining impediment for wildlife like guanaco and ñandú. For a guanaco, jumping a fence involves the risk of getting snagged by barbed wire and dying a slow death strung out on a metal clothesline. We watch a video of a condor eating the eyes of a guanaco mother whose life ended up with such a fate. It’s gory and impressionable, to say the least. Ñandú rarely find their way through the fence, so when they’re threatened they can only run parallel to it. By documenting the wildlife present along the fences, we’re building a case to take them down. Since the sheep have been moved off the land, we only need to convince the landowners to let us take down unneeded fences and open up new habitat for a couple of pretty unique species.

The first two camera traps are located near the road, but the third takes us over rolling hills and across grasslands. The terrain is far more intricate than it looks at first glance. Hidden within the rolling steppe are gulches, rocky outcrops and muddy creeks. We spot the broad tracks of ñandú, grazing guanaco, small prints from a fox, and a swooping Cinerious Harrier. Mid-afternoon, we startle an adult ñandú. The flightless bird flees on foot, spreading its wings wide to look bigger than it is. I can’t help but laugh out loud at the bouncing feathery blob ahead of me. Long legs carry it quickly–the species can run up to 65 miles per hour. After checking the last camera trap, we walk back to Predio Militar. On the way, Shay leads us to anarchaeological site, a cave evidently used by the Tehuelche/Aonikéènk people. There are old blue markings on the walls. The color is unique and we ponder which minerals are present in the paint to make it so. Hunkered in the cool, windless depths it is easy to tell why the Tehuelche lingered here. Outside, everything is constantly swept by sun and wind. In here, there is a little bit of quiet. One side affect of this is that sheep seem to have spent a lot of time here too. Mikkel jumps on the bouncy manure-caked ground of the cave and exclaims that it is quite audible how much sheep poop there is. Gabe Kayano adds “I’ve never seen so much poop.” We leave the cave with some unquestionably excellent quantifiable data about sheep poop.

When I wake up on our second morning at Predio Militar, my first glimpse is a freshly snow-dusted landscape outside the window. I visit the laguna, and it is crusted in a thin layer of ice and the flamingos are absent. At 9 am, we begin a twenty-minute point count of bird species on the edge of the laguna. We form a ring, facing outwards towards different slices of habitat. I sit in the center and take notes of every species we observe, how many individuals there are, their behavior and which habitat type they’re spotted in. We make a total of twenty sightings, including Upland Geese, Southern Lapwings, Andean Condor, Crested Duck, American Kestrel and Buff-winged Cinclodes. Shay even spots a Two-banded Plover, the first recorded Round River sighting of this species in Patagonia. The data from our point count is added to a multi-year database of counts that have been conducted from this same spot. As we walk back towards the cabins, we see a Least Seedsnipe. For our first two days in Patagonian steppe and pampa habitats, we encountered a great variety of species and experienced some new field methods. We also covered a couple of lectures about the birds and mammals of Patagonia. To round out our introduction, Shay read us several Tehuelche myths. We learn about Allal, the first boy, who was carried to this land by birds. Kiuse the plover came up with the idea for the swan to put Allal on its back and help him cross the ocean to come to this land.

Before heading back to the Chacabuco Valley, I take one last look around the pampas. The light keeps striking new peaks, drawing out new moments of awe.

Time feels altered here. Rocks take odd shapes and tell different stories in every direction. Layered upon the landscape are the footprints of Tehuelche people, sheep ranchers and modern day wildlife biologists. We’ve only passed through, but learning about the local human histories and the wild plant and animal inhabitants has lent me a sense of place that feels special.