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Photos – Grand Finale

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February 25 – 26, 2012. Back to Canada.

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We arose at a most luxurious hour of 8:30 and had a very pleasant breakfast at the hostel (Estrella de Belen) with our hosts Miguel and Sandra, after which we descended into town for a few hours to have coffee at cafes along the shore of Lago Llanquihue or in the Puerto Varas town centre. The weather had cleared from the previous day and made for a lovely few hours before the two bus rides (one to the local Pto Montt airport and the other from Pearson Airport in Toronto to Kingston) and two flights (Pto. Montt – Santiago, and then Santiago – Toronto) that we needed to take to get back to Kingston. An uneventful egress from South America but a certain wistfulness at having to depart this beautiful part of the world and return to the hurly-burly of our academic lives.


Friday February 24, 2012. Back to Pto. Varas.

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Today was our last morning to wake up in Argentinian Patagonia.  Tucked deep within Valle Encantada (The Enchanted Valley), amongst the cypress trees and heavily eroded rock spires, I couldn’t have imagined a more magnificent landscape to take in while reflecting on the course of our journey over the last couple of weeks. After trading hugs and goodbye’s with our gracious hosts at La Confluencia, Leo and our guide Lorenzo, we boarded our buses and headed west, leaving the Patagonian steppe for what will be the last time for many of us. The upshot of this somber occasion was that the days’ journey back to Puerto Varas, Chile would take us through all of the ecotones we had studied over the last two weeks. The dry Patagonian steppe would give way to the slightly wetter eastern foothills of the Andes, at which point  we would climb into the spectacular southern beech forests (Nothafagus spp.) making our way into the alpine and above the treeline, at which point we would descend into the much wetter Valdivian rainforest of the western Andean slopes.

Appreciating such marked ecological transitions demands an understanding of  oceanic trade-winds and the orographic influence of the Andes. In the southern Pacific (barring El nino events), the prevailing winds sweep from the Australian continent eastward toward South America. As the clouds pass over the ocean, they wick up moisture off the warm ocean surface and upon contact with Chile, the moisture-ladden clouds condense as they are forced upwards. Rain prevails as the clouds climb over the mountains leaving only a violent wind to descend down the eastern slopes which then sweeps across the Patagonian steppe, only to terminate upon contact with the Atlantic Ocean several hundred kilometers eastward.

As we climbed up over the mountains, the deadly effects of the hot volcanic ash from the recent eruption became ever more apparent. As far as the eye could see, only dead trees remained as a sort of dusty ash plume lingered over the landscape. In some areas the ash looked to be over a foot deep on the forest floor, with only the hardiest of plants trying to eek out an existence. The entire landscape was cloaked in a blanket of ash, and the bus driver remarked how stunning the views had once been. But perhaps most interestingly, the Usnea lichens draped over every branch of every tree appeared to thriving; perhaps giving promise that all was not lost and that the forest would eventually recover.

That evening we arrived in Puerto Varas, Chile, under a steady rain. Without much hassel we checked into our Hostel (Hostal “Estrella de Belen”). The host and hostess were wonderful and provided us with excellent rooms and hot showers. We then quickly dispersed out upon the lakeside town and some of us found pizza while others discovered a local seafood restaurant where trout, salmon, and conger were the meals of choice. Afterward we made our way into the square to listen to a local band perform a sort of jazz-funk infusion. This was to be our last cultural experience in one of the world’s most beautiful places. I think many of us will leave as intrigued by Patagonia as when we departed, and I think maybe its because we try to understand the natural world by organizing observations into neat compartments. But down here, the immensity of the landscape makes it difficult for the mind to classify it into a discrete object, and so it can only marvel at its beauty.

Chris Baird. El Gaucho Canadiense

Thursday February 23, 2012. The Bariloche Shopping Spree

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Today we went to the local city of Bariloche to spend a day of leisure. There were a few police checks on the way in, which slowed our trip a bit but we made it in by mid morning. We scattered for a an hour or so and then reconvened at a local parillada called El Refugio del Montañes where those who like such things ordered many different cuts of meat and different sausages including morcilla (pig blood sausage) and chorizo (spicy sausage). Soporific after this large lunch we split into various groups and dispersed through the town to purchase souvenirs and gifts, explore the town or walk along the waterfront. A group of us headed down to the harbour where we sun-bathed on the pier and watched the pumice (volcanic rock) float into  shore.  We wandered around town, exploring the “gaucho-themed” stores and the local artisan markets. Dante taught some locals how to “footbag” (aka to some of us as hacky sack) as the famous Bariloche St. Bernard dogs watched (the Civic Centre has many St. Bernards whose owners make money taking pictures of their dogs with tourists). We will not reveal the list of booty lest we give away any surprises but suffice to say that it was an excellent day.

El Profesor Gaucho y Equipo Numero 2

Wednesday February 22, 2012. Our Penultimate Argentine Patagonian Day.

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Our day began bright and early.  The infamous Patagonian winds had calmed and the volcanic ash was absent from the skies.  The first group took the van past La Confluencia (so-named because it is at the confluence of two rivers, the Limay and the Traful) towards the rock formations and the condor roosts on the other side.  We hiked an hour up the steep and slippery ash-covered slopes in search of condor feathers and a glimpse of the condors themselves.  We reached the base of the rock formations and traversed along, bushwhacking and being “attacked” by various thorny bushes as we went.  We found our way up to a ridge which opened up to a magnificent view of the surrounding area.  Unbeknownst to us, we had traversed into a white-throated hawk (Buteo albigula) family’s territory.  As we climbed up to the ridge, the hawks began dive-bombing us and shriek insults.  We perched on the rocks as  our valiant TA, Chris, sacrificed his well-being for science and walked out onto the exposed ridge, feather sticking out from his hat, to get a closer view.   The feather was supposedly to direct the aggression of the hawks away from his head, but it appeared as though Chris had “gone native” and become a gaucho pategonico.  A juvenile Andean Condor appeared in the sky and came to investigate. The condor and the hawks swooped overhead and the hawks eventually dive-bombed the condor and drove him away.  After coming down from the ridge, we began our decent in earnest.  Unfortunately we got a little sidetracked from our original route and ended up climbing through steep gullies and thorny bushes but eventually found our way safely down.  Meanwhile, the rest of the group spent the morning collecting data for their group projects, hiking up the ridges, or hanging out by the river.

Eventually, everyone met up and headed back to the hosteria to hear a guest lecture from biology professor, Dr. Richard Sage.  He gave a very interesting talk about how the unique life cycle of the bamboo plant of Argentina (Chusquea sp.) influences the ecosystem of the region.  This plant grows vegetatively for about 60-70 years, flowering only once right before its death.  The surfeit of seeds produced after a flowering year results in sudden population explosions of species of seed eaters particularly mice like Oligoryzomys longicaudatus, raton cola larga.  This is relevant to public health issues in Patagonia because one particular species of mouse is a vector for Hantavirus that carries a 50% mortality rate.

After the lecture, some of us went for another swim in the river, while others showered, napped, went bird-watching, or identified plants.  Then, it was time for dinner, dessert, and bed, so that we would have plenty of energy for our upcoming day in Bariloche.

February 21, 2012 – Collecting data for research projects

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The day started off great with a nice personal wake up call at 6:30 am in order to get up and see a Patagonian sunrise. It was beautiful to say the least (although very cold in the early morning). Only one group awake at this point in time, the avian diversity research group under the command of whip man Leo, to maximize their bird watching hours. Today’s breakfast was slightly different from the usual white bread and cornflakes with the addition of Tang and cocoa puffs. After we all had more than our fair share of coffee, the herd was rounded up to discuss our plan of attack for the day. We started off as one big group to head over to a ranch on the south bank of Rio Traful, and everyone quickly dispersed into their respective research groups to continue our data collection for the new few hours.

Our group (#5) in particular has been looking at the effects of gaps (openings in a forest canopy due to disturbances such as fallen trees, rock slides, etc.) on flora diversity and composition. We hiked up through the treacherous terrain of various prickly plants to reach our destination of study in the cedar forests. We were able to identify several more gaps and ID any new plants found.
At 12:30, it was time to pack up and meet up with the whole group at our lunch destination at the top of a small ridge. We enjoyed some delicious schnitzel sandwiches and fresh fruit! After the main group departed, Scott (being the nature boy that he is) decided to start flipping rocks and discovered, to his delight, a small scorpion and a Darwinian gecko (some new species for our list!). A Pleurodema thaul, a frog usually found near water  but in this case was discovered on a ridge under a rock and partially burrowed in the ground. There is always something exciting to see when in Patagonia!
After playing many rounds of our invented game “rock or not”, it was time for our 3pm guest lecture. Dr. Felix Cruz, who travelled from Bariloche past various police checks, to tell us about his ongoing research on the natural history and environmental physiology of the Liolaemus genus (lizards) – a very interesting and relevant topic for our time here in Patagonia. He also helped us identify some species from previous days that we had taken pictures of such as: Liolaemus pictus and Liolaemus lineomaculuatus (see picture below).
As is the norm in Argentina, dinner is served at 9 pm, so to pass the time a few of us went for a short hike. Always keeping an eye out for another organism, we managed to scrounge up some road metal for Leo’s friendship bracelet, and also saw some breathtaking rainbows. Another successful day in Patagonia.

Signing off,

Team Baird: Erin, Jamie, Amrit & Scott

Monday February 20, 2012. In Transit to our Final Location

Group 4: The Bilologists (Scientificus comicus. Linnaeus)
Dante Diotallevi, Heidi Geyer, Howard Kuang, Ron Lau

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Monday (Feb. 20th) was a travel day.  After eating our final breakfast at Los Rapidos, we packed our bags and filled 2 buses en route to our next destination.  We drove into S.C. Bariloche to spend an hour picking up food and drinks from a supermarket along with whatever else we needed for the next few days.  The centre square of Bariloche was bustling with activity because of a local carnival holiday.  A large Argentina flag waves in the middle of the square as tourists, buskers and vendors cover the streets.  We will be spending a full day in the city on Thursday (Feb. 23rd)

After finishing our business in town, we headed off on a beautiful 1 hour drive down a busy highway cutting through the Patagonian mountains.  Coming from the wet, temperate forest of Los Rapidos, it was obvious that the vegetation and humidity were resembling the steppes we visited earlier in our field course.  Instead of dense forests and muddy soil, many small, dry shrubs and prickly plants dot a very dry landscape.  Patches of native cedar and pine (introduced) forest thrive at the base of rocky outcrops and in sweeping patterns at higher altitudes.  A large river of glacier water runs along the highway, cutting a path through the sandy valley.

Our new lodging is a small but well furnished restaurant/motel situated above the highway.  Once we arrived, we went on a hike down a nearby road which ran along the river.  Our group was paying special attention to the vegetation in this area, since we are working on measuring plant diversity in relation to river proximity.  Below is a shot of Ron during our hike.

This new location is a wonderful mix of the arid steppes of our first location and the temperate forests of our second location.  The mountains are grand but are covered by only a sparse distribution of trees, shrubs and grasses.  This leaves the topography of the landscape quite visible with many boulders, cliffs and caves adding interesting textures to the land.  The glacial river is the final touch on this pristine, rustic part of Patagonia.

February 19, 2012 – Starting group research projects

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Today we began working on our group research projects. Our group has decided to look at differences between plant species diversity in burnt and unburnt forest. We have spent the past few days in Nahuel Huapi National Park, where a large forest fire swept across much of the landscape in 1998. Some careless campers had left a campfire burning, with disastrous consequences. On our hike yesterday, we had an excellent view across the lake of a large patch of burnt Nothofagus forest, which contrasted strongly with the lush green vegetation around it.

Early this morning, we set out to try to reach this patch of burnt forest in order to take samples of understory plants. Unfortunately, there was no clear trail to this area. We spent about 3 hours bushwhacking through the dense cane understory trying to find a way to scale the steep, rocky ridge. Eventually we admitted defeat and returned to camp for lunch.

Our wise TA, Chris Baird, gave us some excellent advice over our meal of soggy tuna sandwiches… “Why don’t you just walk up into the burnt forest?” … Easier said than done, Chris!

After traipsing around for another hour or so, we finally found a way up into a burnt area on the other side of the lake. We managed to sample five quadrats along a transect in the burnt area, then another five in the unburnt area on the same slope. The differences in plant diversity and species composition were striking. All of the large trees in the burnt area had died long ago, leaving much more sunlight available for small herbaceous plants to thrive. The decomposing trees also provide an enormous amount of nutrients for these shrubby plants. We hope to take further samples in another burnt area at our next site.

Although we spent most of the day frustrated and soaking wet, covered in burrs, it was quite an adventure and a great group bonding experience!


The Bushwhackers (Ayla, Amanda, Caitlin, and Ishanee)

Other group projects include:

1.  A comparison of avian diversity in disturbed versus undisturbed forest

2. A comparison of riparian versus more distant forested vegetation

3. Species composition of vegetation under forest canopy gaps and closed canopy

4.  Plant diversity along a gradient of forest canopy cover

February 18th, 2012 Day 8 – Chasing Waterfalls

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8 the number of days since we left Canada
2000 the number of millimetres of precipitation in Los Rapidos
22 the number of beds in our bunkhouse
4 the number of people who snore
0 the number of hours of sleep we got

After a less than refreshing sleep, we all embarked on a hike with our local guide Lorenzo in the pouring rain. The hike included sightings of two variable hawks, Buteo polyosoma, and a woodpecker, Campephilus magellanicus. The variable hawk (a close relative of the Canadian red-tailed hawk) acquired its name from the visible sexual dimorphism between the male, which is grey, and the female, which has a red back. To our surprise the torrential rainfall that had been putting a damper on our activities for the last few days had not completely washed out the roads, thus allowing us to trek up to the famous glacier within the confines of the National Park Nahuel Huapi. Looking through the telescope at the icy glaciers on Mt. Tronodor was reminiscent of the frigid Kingston winter we had fled. Mt. Tronodor, whose name is derived from the Spanish word for thunder, houses the Manso Glacier (the mountain peak glacier) that supplies the Black Glacier that lies beneath when it crumbles. Sadly, the glaciers are receding due to global warming (Lorenzo suggested some 30 cms per year). This is evident by the lagoon at the base of the mountain and the waterfalls at the peaks. On average the glaciers recede by 30cm a year. After observing the glaciers we climbed up to Garganta de Diablo or the Devil’s Throat to see one of the larger waterfalls supplied by the glacier. By the waterfall we found several lizards characterized by their black backs and yellow colouration. Later that evening when we returned to our humble abode at Los Rapidos we broke up into our independent study groups to contemplate our research project that we will be working on for the remainder of our trip.

Gossip Girl XOXO Team Leonardo

February 17, 2012 – Livin’ It. Lovin’ It. Los Rapidos.

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We woke up to our last breakfast at the El Desafio estancia. In contrast to the hot and dry conditions of the previous days, a torrential downpour began as we waited for our transportation to arrive. We loaded our packs and we headed into Bariloche (province of Rio Negro) for a brief stop and internet access. Bariloche started as a small Swiss-German town and has grown into a large town in excess of 100,000 people the economy of which depends largely on tourism. It is the self-proclaimed Chocolate Capital of Argentina. In town, we foraged for snacks, drank some good coffee, and tried the famous chocolate of the town. An hour later we were back at the vans, ready to continue our journey. Our drive from Bariloche took us from dry steppe habitat into the temperate rainforest. Upon our arrival at Los Rapidos, a campground within the bounds of Nahuel Huapi National Park, we dropped our stuff in our communal bunkhouse and went for a short rainy hike, glad for the opportunity to wash the ash off our clothes. Walking down to lake, seeing great grebes, and having no ash underfoot was a good introduction to our new environment. The trees were a different species of Nothofagus than what we had seen at El Desafio (N. dombeyi or in local parlance the Coihue), the only evergreen Southern Beech species in Argentina. Their tall stature created a cathedral effect overhead. The undergrowth of the forest at Los Rapidos was also different from the sparse vegetation growing beneath the lenga trees at El Desafio; here, the understory was much thicker and composed largely of “bamboo” in the genus Chusquea . After dinner, the weather cleared, so we sat outside enjoying mate (pronounced mat-eh), a traditional Argentine tea, that tastes somewhat bitter. We also played cards and Bananagrams and looked forward to the next day which — weather permitting– could include a trip to a glacier!

Los Liolaemus Locos