Travel: Goodbye to Chiloé isle

Posted: Friday, January 08, 2010

After an overnight flight to Santiago, the capital of Chile, and another couple of hours flying to Puerto Montt, one can drive or take a bus to Chiloé Island. Chiloé is a Spanish version of an aboriginal name for the island: Chilhue, meaning place of the gulls. It's a big island, roughly the size of Admiralty here in Southeast. Over the past five or six decades, agriculture has expanded, and the forest in the northern part of the island is now fragmented. Salmon farms clog most of the bays but most of them are now inactive, thanks to a virus that infected the dense aggregations of fish in the pens.

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Courtesy Photo
Courtesy Photo

Along the highway from the northern end of the island to the town of Ancud, there is a road sign pointing to Estación Biológica Senda Darwin. Here is a small research station, whose name in English means Darwin's Trail. A narrow, bumpy gravel road leads down the hill to a tiny parking area.

One crosses a wooden footbridge over the little Rio Huicha. Here the great Ringed Kingfisher hunts small fish and crawdads and tiny lizards bask in the sun. The Plumbeous Rail, with its green bill and red legs, saunters through the shallows, in search of invertebrates, trailed by a couple of fluffy black chicks.

Then up the hill between the thickets of ferns and fuchsias, one emerges into the pasture area, dotted with white and brown sheep that help pay the owner's taxes. The caretaker's house lies behind a windbreak to the right, and the education building, with classrooms and a small museum, is on the left. This building is called The Beagle, after the ship on which Darwin sailed when he visited Chiloé for a year beginning 1834. Classes are held here, for local school-age children, teachers and visiting university students. The land is on the national registry of private conservation areas, and tours on the property are available to interested visitors.

Continue across the pastures to a low, rustic building that acts as home base for the area's research programs. Originally consisting of a kitchen and three bunkrooms, it has now expanded to include several more bunkrooms (and bathrooms), a dining area, a minuscule library and a sizable laboratory. Behind this main building is a greenhouse for seed germination tests and raising young trees for forest-restoration projects.

New this year is a storehouse for equipment and a small veterinary clinic, which is not yet completed. The clinic is part of a program to encourage the neutering of domestic dogs and cats, heretofore a foreign concept in these parts. The vets also care for injured native animals, such as the tiny deer called pud , that are brought to them by the police or other agencies.

Ownership of the farm and research station now belongs to a nonprofit foundation, which has run the place since its inception. Research based at the station has produced over 200 scientific publications and about 30 theses in the past 15 years, contributing to numerous outreach programs to local agencies and schools.

When I arrived for a visit in early December, their late spring was just turning to summer. The gaudy notro trees were still flaunting their flamboyant red flowers, which are pollinated by hummingbirds and small flycatchers. Some birds already had juveniles out of the nest, while others tended eggs.

To reminisce, I spent some time in the forest, following my old "friends" through the fern and bamboo thickets and over fallen trees. It's a one-sided friendship, I suppose. I love these little birds that I (with teams of field technicians) studied for about 15 years. But it seems they don't love me. Called chucaos, they scuttle rapidly over the ground, disappearing behind tree trunks only to emerge into sight, magically, 90 degrees and 25 yards to one side. Contrarily, they are sometimes so curious (or hungry) that they'll follow a hiker's footsteps, looking for bugs in the disturbed leaf litter.

Because it is unlikely that I'll be returning to this "home away from home," I cruised around and visited some favorite spots. I saw that several patches of forest are now recovering from the previous owner's mistreatment. I checked for the presence of invasive shrub species known as gorse and scotch broom, which are plaguing the whole region (they're also a problem Washington and Oregon).

The forest here is so different from our Southeast Alaska forests. Close to 20 kinds of trees grown here, many of which produce lovely, insect-pollinated flowers all over their canopies. One of the common pollinators is a huge, rust-colored bumblebee. Some conifers, despite their name, make a kind of fruit instead of cones, and the understory is mostly bamboo. However, because it's a rainforest, the mud is the same!

No trip to this part of Chiloé Island would be complete without a visit to Puñihuil. On the sea stacks in the bay, Magellanic and Humboldt penguins trundle up the dirt cliffs to nesting burrows under dense vegetation then slither down again to dive after fish. Red-legged Cormorants nest on ledges, and Kelp Gulls nest atop the stacks have occasionally been known to raid the nests of other birds. The Kelp Goose is spectacular - the male is white, but the female is gray-striped and black. Here also lives a little "sea otter" or chungungo, which looks like Alaska's river otter, but it behaves more like local sea otters, except that it does come ashore at times. We watched a Kelp Gull repeatedly steal prey from a chungungo, snatching it away as the otter rolled onto its back to eat. Sightings vary here: A southern sea lion, a porpoise, a giant petrel (which makes everyone else cower in fear), or some peculiar fish hauled out by local fishermen.

The ferries, by which one arrives and leaves the island, are a naturalist's delight, especially if the tidal currents in the channel are running strongly. There are penguins, shearwaters, sea lions, pelicans, occasional orcas, several kinds of cormorant, southern terns and gulls, and other birds to be seen. The ferry ride is a great "hello" and "goodbye" to Chiloé.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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