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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

February 16, 2012 – The Plant Hunters

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Today, our group went on a 3 hour hike in search of plant specimens.  We ascended a steeply inclined mountain east of our base camp, climbing 300 metres to reach a beautiful lookout point.  We stopped here to snap photos of our group and surrounding landscape.  The prominent cliff in the background serves as a landmark for our camp and has been affectionately titled ‘pride rock’.  The arid valley between us and pride rock is where we have studied other microhabitats, and included such activities as bird watching and lizard hunting.

During our hike, we acquired 14 plant samples including the striking orange flower (Mutisia decurrens).

We also saw many small lizards (Liolaemus) and a pair of Chilean flickers (Colaptes pitius).  Our descent from the ridge down to base camp brought us through a variety of microhabitats covering isolated areas of the slope.  Over the course of about 1.5 kilometres, we hiked through shrubs, thickets and pine forests before arriving in the horse pasture near our base camp.  As we approached our camp, groups of horses greeted us on their way to graze at the foot of the mountain.

This rugged trek turned out to be our group’s most memorable experience at Estancia El Desafío!  It was especially interesting to see the lush pine forests contrasted against the nearby barren steppes we traversed in the days prior.  This particular area of Argentine Patagonia stands out because of its rocky ridges, dusty valleys and mosaic of microhabitats hosting flora and fauna of many varieties and densities.

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

February 15, 2012 – Learning about avian natural history and diversity

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Today, in celebration of National Flag of Canada Day, we reconvened into our five groups to test our bird watching skills.  After strapping on our binoculars and attaching our telephoto lenses, we set out to our assigned destinations to observe the diversity of ‘aves’ of Patagonia.  A disappointing first hour with very few bird sightings was followed by a successful end to our expedition by

seeing a variety of species such as: Black Chested Buzzard eagles, Andean Condors, Rufous Collared sparrows, Austral finches, Elaenias, Mourning Sierra finches, and many more!
Later on, we ascended to the Nothofagus forest (the same as yesterday) to view an Austral Parakeet nest.  The Parakeets (feathers of bright greens and red) nest in preformed cavities in tree trunks, and this particular one contained four nestlings… AMAZING!
After a quick picnic lunch, we returned to the wonders of this old growth forest to learn some basic measuring and data collection techniques.  Our group estimated tree heights using a clinometer, the other groups measure DBH (diameter at breast height) and the density of the canopy using a densiometer.  These are all useful skills that we hope to apply in future classes and research projects.
As the day dwindled down, the majority of the group was packed into the van to return to the ranch.  As for the few of us remaining, we made the two hour trek back down on foot with the winds blowing volcanic ash into our eyes and mouths – an adventure indeed!
Thanks to our generous hosts, a dinner consisting of 14 kgs of beef with sides of potatoes and salad was awaiting our return.  Exhausted and covered in ash, our day ended with some casual frog catching lit by a swarm of headlamps and finally some late night star gazing in the majestic Southern hemisphere.

We can’t wait for what is yet to come in the next week!

Hasta luego!

mucho amore,

Erin, Jamie, Amrit & Scott


February 14, 2012 – First day at El Desafío

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The weather was sunny with a bit of cloud cover and a cool breeze. Half of the group began the walk up to the “Honeymoon Suite”, while the other half drove up in the van. When we arrived, we observed a female black-chested buzzard eagle circling above us. It

had a white underbelly, broad wings, and a very broad, short tail. We also saw three adult condors – two males and one female. A pair of buzzard eagles often nests with the condors on the rocky peaks, according to our guide, Lorenzo. We observed the condor nesting site at the top of the rock cliffs. The adult condors are characterized by a more slender profile than the buzzard eagles, with long, thin, tapered wings. The males are completely black except for a white ring around their head, while the females are brown. We saw one juvenile as well, distinguishable by its grey colouration. The juvenile males develop the white ring around their head at 6 to 7 years of age,  and turn completely black at 8 to 9 years. The females develop red eyes when they mature, which is thought to indicate sexual maturity. Condors usually head out to the steppe to feed, and roost up on the cliffs where they are safe from predators. We saw them as they were heading out to feed.

Afterwards, we walked out along the ridge to where the condors were nesting. During the hike up, we saw several lizards. They were greenish grey-brown with two white stripes down the back, and alternating brown and black spots. They also had very pale underbellies. When we reached the top, we saw red and blue mountains in the distance. The red colour is due to iron oxide in the rocks. This mineral was often used in paint by indigenous peoples. The aqua colour on the side of the mountain was due to copper.

Finally, we headed back downslope towards the “lengua” forest, which is an old-growth forest of Nothofagus trees. Recently, some researchers cored one of the trees and determined that it was over 600 years old. The locals have named this tree “El Abuelo” (Spanish for “The Grandfather”).

In the evenings, we set up mist nets to catch birds, and we caught a white-chested elaenia soon after.

– Caitlin, Ishanee, Amanda, Ayla

February 13, 2012 – Over the Hill

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We left Puerto Varas early in the on Monday morning expecting a 15 hour bus ride through the Andes mountains. The landscape started out with rolling hills covered in farm animals, surrounding the Pan-American highway. As we gained altitude, we saw more and more mountains with intermittent lakes. We came to an area where the eruption of the volcano, Puyehue Caulle, in June of the last year had killed the forest by covering it in so much ash. We passed through two border checks: one in order to exit Chile and one to enter Argentina. We stopped at the middle of the trip for photos at a mountain pass that was covered in ash. As we drove further into Argentina the amount of ash slowly diminished.  We arrived in Bariloche at a bus depot where we met our guide, Lorenzo. After a short jaunt around a local grocery store, we loading into vans and continued to our ranch, El Desafio. The landscape was Patagonian steppe, which is quite similar to the Okanagan Valley in BC; rolling hills and desert-like. Upon arrival, our excitement led us to all split up to go for hikes, where found our first lizards!   We all became obsessed with catching these reptiles as they are much more prevalent than Ontario’s 5-lined skink. For dinner our hosts cooked us 16 whole chickens! We couldn’t possibly eat that much but we tried our best. After dinner we observed the Southern Cross and many more constellations that can only be viewed in such a secluded area. After star gazing, we caught and identified our first Patagonian organism, the Pleurodema bufonina; a frog.  Then, we all crashed into our lovely beds, pleased to have finally arrived after 48 hours of travel.

– Lindsay, Rachel, Elli and John