Popular Science Monthly/Volume 77/July 1910/A Naturalist in the Straits of Magellan

1579387Popular Science Monthly Volume 77 July 1910 — A Naturalist in the Straits of Magellan1910Charles Haskins Townsend




JULY, 1910




IT was in January and February of the misty Antarctic summer that we lingered for a month along the seven hundred miles of Magellan Strait and Smythe Channel. The delicate flowers of a December springtime were passing out of bloom giving place to flowers of longer duration, and young land birds were all out of their nests.

The uneven plains of eastern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego were green with grass and low shrubbery and the mountains along the western channels dark with unbroken forests of evergreen beech. Our course along salt-water passages was marked by somewhat gustier weather than would have been found a short distance inland, but it was not uncomfortably chilly for explorations ashore in daytime, and days are long in summer at fifty-three degrees latitude, both south and north. It was in fact pleasanter in the straits than we had found it shortly before at Montevideo and Buenos Aires—a thousand miles nearer the tropics—where "pamperos" had been blowing wildly along the great river.

It was pleasant to escape from the unfriendly South Atlantic and enjoy the easy progress of a vessel on even keel. Still more agreeable was the panorama of passing shores and the abundant animal life of the channels and their islands. Best of all were the intimate observations of the aspects of nature, permitted by our daily explorations on land, the Albatross always within reach as a home camp, anchored in some protected harbor.

To the naturalist a voyage of exploration through the Straits of Magellan is a rare privilege, not only on account of the strangeness of its animal and plant life and the wonders of its scenery, but also because of the records of scientific discovery associated with it. We were following in the wake of Darwin and the Beagle, although more than half

U. S. S. Albatross in Borja Bay. Straits of Magellan.

a century later, and had read the quaint descriptions of the region by Magellan, Drake, Cook and the hardy sea explorers who followed them.

Out in the straits whales, porpoises and seals made their presence known at times, but sea birds were more constant objects of interest. The nesting places of cormorants were marked by masses of black backed, white-breasted birds, acres in extent. From low island levels Cassin terns rose in clouds of protesting thousands when our boats grounded.

"Steamer" ducks[2] kept well ahead of the active oarsmen, their flightless wings aiding their webbed feet in a manner suggestive of paddle wheels used as auxiliaries to screw propellers, trailing a foamy wake a hundred yards behind. The species belongs exclusively to southern South America and is altogether the most notable bird of the straits region. It is said to weigh over fifteen pounds. While it can not, or at least does not, fly, and is seldom inclined to dive, the rapidity of its progress over the surface long ago attracted the attention of explorers and navigators. Most observers are of the opinion that the wings move alternately when in motion. An occasional penguin—that flightless, burly diver, peculiar to Antarctic seas—only showed himself above water in porpoise-like leaps and was seldom easy to get.

The diving petrel,[3] also Antarctic in range, was by special request a mark for all guns, but no specimens were taken. As a quick diver it is a little brother to the northern auklet, which it resembles in appearance and to some extent in habits. When at large there is nothing in its actions to suggest the petrel. It strikes down into the water from full flight, emerging farther on, fairly bursting forth into the air with wings in rapid motion.

There were also gulls, jægers and grebes along the great waterway. Albatrosses and Cape Horn pigeons did not follow us into the straits, but we found them awaiting the ship when we emerged into the Pacific a month later.

About the marshy places, ducks, geese, plovers and snipes of unfamiliar kinds afforded sport as well as ornithological specimens on our trips ashore. The Paraguay snipe proved a good substitute for the Wilson snipe of North America. Most striking in appearance were the large kelp geese, the males of which are snowy white and the females dark.

The barred Magellan geese, however, are more important on account of their abundance. This bird is a resident of the region throughout the year. It is an inhabitant of the open plains and mountain slopes and is a land rather than a water species. It occupies the open country of Tierra del Fuego in enormous numbers and has contributed more to the food of the white settlers now establishing sheep ranches in that country and in Patagonia than any other wild creature.

With few exceptions both land and water 'birds were species of the southern hemisphere and of Antarctic distribution.

The Magellan robin would have passed for the North American bird but for its gray tones and its disinclination to sing. There were

Natives. Straits of Magellan.

wrens, swallows, finches, flycatchers and hawks to be seen daily, but all in unfamiliar guise.

The Great Magellan owl was enough like our great horned owl to be taken for the same bird. The same might be said of two pygmy owls shot at Laredo Bay, which closely resemble those of our western states and are among the smallest of known owls. The Magellan pygmy, notwithstanding the abundance of its fluffy plumage, is a mere featherweight of less than four ounces. The burrowing owl and sparrow-hawk

Glacier Ice. Ayre Sound, Straits of Magellan.

did not differ appreciably from home species. In these latitudes the burrowing owl inhabits excavations made by the "viscacha," a rodent of the chinchilla family which lives in communities after the manner of our northern "prairie dog." Lacking the viscachas' burrow, it digs its own. The common barn owl and short-eared owl of worldwide distribution were both present.

Kingfishers, woodpeckers and goldfinches were masquerading along the straits in strange garb, and best disguised of all, a meadow lark with bright crimson breast.

A courageous species of humming-bird[4] penetrates southward into the chilly wilds of Fuegia, and we procured specimens within a few hours of a snow squall which greeted us in one of the western channels. The Patagonian burrowing parrot we found within a few miles of Punta Arenas, where it seemed as much out of place in the driving mist as it would in Alaska.

In the dense forests along Smythe Channel we heard and obtained the "barking bird,"[5] a thrush-like ground bird whose sharp notes suggest the presence of a small dog. The condor and buzzard were frequently seen.

One of the most interesting of the birds is the quail-like Attagis, a species of the Limicolæ inhabiting the open uplands. Darwin refers to their rising and flying like grouse and says they occupy the place of ptarmigan of the northern hemisphere.

The most familiar bird of the straits is a species of creeper[6] which follows the hunter constantly through the forest. The Cape Horn wren is as saucy as a wren can be, and the marsh wren creeping through the grass like a mouse, is almost familiar enough to be caught with a butterfly net.

Of the hundred or more species of birds to be found along the straits we obtained about seventy, three of which belonging to the family of "wood-hewers"[7] were new to science. Our bird collection numbered one hundred and seventy specimens in all. The variety of migratory birds was greater than we had expected, but South America has a wonderfully varied bird fauna, and why should not the migrants fly southward in springtime if summer is to be found in that direction? One has but to get used to a reversal of the seasons.

The natives had skins of puma, guanaco, deer and Patagonian ostrich, but none of these were observed alive, as our shore trips did not permit of extended journeys inland. The Magellan fox, otter and little striped skunk were easily obtained, the last going whole into a tank of alcohol sent ashore for the purpose, no one being sufficiently self-sacrificing to skin it. We could only hope that the alcohol would have a deodorizing effect, but I never had the courage to inquire of the curator of mammals of the Smithsonian Institution respecting an alcoholic specimen of Mephitis patagonica from the Straits of Magellan.

The inquisitive fox watched us everywhere from the bluffs, but the crab-eating otter quickly slid from the rocks into the tangles of giant kelp so abundant along the shores of this region.

From Punta Arenas a two days' journey was made in the steam launch to the Fuegian side in search of Antarctic fur seals. We met with these animals about thirty-five miles south of Punta Arenas, at St. Peter and St. Paul Rocks, where a number were lying on the rocks near the water. By landing on the opposite side the captain and I managed to stalk them, killing three with our Winchesters before they could take to the sea. After the seals had been skinned for museum specimens, the carcasses were eagerly appropriated by a canoe load of hungry and more than half-naked Fuegians. While the men were stowing their wind-fall of fresh meat in the canoe, one of the women went foraging among the nests of some cormorants near by, taking all

Fuegian Canoes. Straits of Magellan.

the half-grown young she could carry, staying her appetite meanwhile with such raw eggs as could be found. Another woman was busy at the characteristic occupation of baling, for all Fuegian canoes leak, not being dugouts, but made of the roughest of native-hewn slabs lashed together with tough vines or rootlets and caulked with mosses. A third woman and a child seemed to be warming food over a fire and incidentally warming their own nearly naked bodies. The party had no knives and borrowed one of ours to cut up their meat.

Their backs were partly protected by guanaco skins, tied around their necks with the hair side out. These primitive capes were not otherwise fastened and, when the hands were in use, left the body quite exposed to the wind. None of the canoe Indians that we saw had more clothing, except in a few cases where they used portions of cast-off sailor clothes, and none fastened their fur capes about the body with so much as a string.

There is always a low fire burning on a bed of earth in the bottom of the Fuegian canoe wherever it may be met with, making possible the serving en route of smoked cormorant and baked mussels, but the indications did not always point to that use of the fire, some of the food at least being eaten raw. It is doubtless necessary for these wandering shellfish gatherers to maintain a permanent camp fire; to light it anew on their rain-saturated shores must tax their ingenuity to the utmost. A careful search of the canoes revealed neither flint nor matches, and the Fuegian has no pockets. This was our first meeting with the canoe Indians. Later we encountered them among the western channels, but never more than two canoes could carry. They were always eager to come aboard the ship and to trade their bone-pointed spears, bows and arrows, or rough paddles for ship biscuit and misfit clothing. They were even willing to trade their children. The canoe was apparently the only article not for sale. It seems to represent home and fireside, the few brush and leaf-covered bowers we saw on shore being merely hastily made night camps and wet ones at that. The canoe conveys the people from mussel bank to sea-bird rookery in the continual search for food. It is not likely that they often get seals, as their spears appear too rude—merely short poles with the bark on, the bone points being tied on in the roughest manner. Besides there never seemed to be enough seal skins to provide each member of the group with a cover for his shoulders. Naked children huddled close to their mothers for shelter from wind and rain. We made no measurements, but my recollection is that none of these savages exceeded five feet in height. The faces of the adults were all utterly barbarous. We saw but one dog among these people, where he may have been of more importance as possible food than as an aid in the capture of food. It is not unlikely that the natives get plenty of young seals during the season when the animals are breeding on the outlying rocks.

In Punta Arenas I purchased from a trader a rough Fuegian basket, but did not ascertain from what tribe it was derived.

Our photographs show Fuegians with clothing, but we had supplied it. We had at last found primitive man. It is doubtful if he exists in greater simplicity anywhere else to-day.

The natives of Fuegia are quite different from the Patagonian tribes and are known as the Onas, inhabiting the interior of Tierra del Fuego proper and subsisting largely by the hunt of the wild guanaco;

Fuegians. Otter Bay, Straits of Magellan.

the Yahgans of the Cape Horn region and the more southern parts of the archipelago, and the Alaculofs of the western channels, who like the Yahgans, are canoe Indians. All are disappearing in the face of the long, irregular warfare maintained between themselves and the white race. In half a century they have diminished from perhaps forty or fifty thousand to certainly less than one thousand. It is to be regretted that the canoe Indians have not been the subject of more study by ethnologists, as they probably are the least known of wild tribes, and the lowest in the scale of intelligence and development.

In the vicinity of Punta Arenas, which marks about the first third of the westward journey through the straits, the general aspect of the country undergoes a change. Hills and patches of forest appear. The climate also changes appreciably, the western part of the region being much more stormy and rainy. From this neighborhood may be seen to the southward on clear days the white summit of Mt. Sarmiento, nearly one hundred miles away. It is 7,000 feet in elevation—the highest peak in Tierra del Fuego—and its summit is as yet untrodden by man. Sir Martin Conway succeeded in reaching a height of only 4,000 feet when his party was driven back by appalling storms of sleet.

The resemblances to northern species which were noticeable among many of the birds, were traceable among the wild flowers. There were dandelions, buttercups, ground orchids, anemones, yellow violets, geraniums, gentians, yellow star-grass, primroses and marigolds, and probably hosts of others not observed because not in bloom. Many of those met with are unfortunately not namable except in botanical terms. Growing close to the ground and very striking was a large pink flower[8] of great beauty common along the western shores. There were ferns of many kinds. A barberry shrub[9] was found everywhere, and a fine currant bush[10] was often seen. Our greatest surprise was at the size and beauty of the Fuchsia, which forms thickets ten or twelve feet high and bears a wonderful abundance of flowers much frequented by humming birds.

The contradictions presented by nature were remarkable: with cold rain storms blowing over the mountains and beating fiercely down into the channels, chilly mists and lowering skies perhaps most of the time, we must yet believe it summer where, at the same time, humming birds, parrots and flamingoes, beautiful flowers and ripe berries are to be found. The line of perpetual snow is only 2,000 or 3,000 feet above tide water, while the mean summer temperature is about 50 degrees.

However mild and bright occasional days might be, the forests were always damp to the point of saturation. The excessive moisture was favorable to certain large fungus growths on the trees, and used as food by the natives.

The chief constituents of the Magellan forest are the Antarctic beech,[11] the evergreen beech,[12] and the "winters bark[13] (of the magnolia order) with laurel-shaped leaves nearly four inches long. A socalled cypress[14] is conspicuously abundant along the western channels.

It was new and rich ground for the scientific prospector. The naturalists were not to be deterred by the weather, but penetrated the narrow side channels in the ship's boats, shooting, fishing, botanizing, shore-collecting at low tide, photographing, hammering mesozoic fossils from the rocks, digging in the ancient shell-heaps of the aborigines and bartering with the natives.

Suitable beaches for dragging the seines were not easy to find, but the sailors usually secured enough smelt and mullet-like fishes for the table and a considerable variety of finny oddities for the ichthyologist's alcohol tanks. The naval officers found sport for their trout rods, in taking a trout-like fish abundant in the small streams. They insisted on calling it a trout, but this peculiar genus, Haplochiton, of the austral fresh waters differs noticeably from the boreal fish in lacking the adipose fin of the true trouts. To the angler it is equally gamy. The ichthyologist ignoring the rules of the true sportsman, swept many of the best pools with his nets. His "specimens," it is needless to relate, did not appear upon the mess table, much to the protest of the anglers.

Collecting along shore at low tide yielded many interesting invertebrates. A univalve of the genus Concholepas clings to the rocks like a limpet. It is as large as a man's fist and deep enough for a drinking cup. I saw one in a canoe where it may have been used as a boat bailer. It is also said to be used by the natives as food. The large Chilian mussel[15] is abundant and seems to be the principal item in the food supply of the natives. We found it excellent eating and obtained specimens fully seven inches long. The handsomest sea shell of the straits is Voluta Magellanica, which reaches a length equal to that of the large mussel.

The most interesting crustacean was an isopod of the genus Serolis, which bears a superficial resemblance to the extinct trilobites and here takes the place of our North American horseshoe crab[16] as a notable zoological type. We obtained specimens of it in many localities along shore and also in our dredge hauls.

We were scarcely prepared to find frogs in this latitude, but four very small specimens, representing three species, were secured, one of which proved to be new to science.

Of insect life we learned little, and our collections were unimportant. A few butterflies, moths and bees were seen, while beetles were more noticeable. Mosquitoes may be dismissed with the remark applied to the snakes of Ireland: there are none.

No exploring ship ever carried a more industrious scientific staff; its store of zoological and botanical plunder grew daily and the laboratory lights burned into the small hours for the identification of species and the preservation of specimens. The naval corps and the sailors also warmed up to the work, bringing in birds, mammals, fishes

Cassius Tern. Straits of Magellan.

and plants, some of them wielding the clumsy coal shovels from the fire-room, in digging ancient stone and bone implements from the shell heaps. Some of the shell heaps or "kitchen middens" as the archeologist called them, were several feet thick. Digging into them was laborious and the results called forth only contemptuous remarks from the sailors. A few arrow-heads, bone, flint and stone implements with bones of seals, and mussel and limpet shells did not seem to them worth the effort. But the ancient camp sites showed to those who could read their story, that the native population of the past had lived as simply as their descendants of the present, had subsisted on the same food, used the same primitive tools and camped on the same spots. There were doubtless more of them as barbarians decrease in numbers after contact with the white race.

Large mammals were, with the exception of fur seals and Antarctic sea lions, not common along the line of our operations, but foxes, otters, coypu, Ctenomys and other small fur bearers of the far south
Straits of Magellan. White-breasted cormorants. Santa Marta Island. Young birds in foreground.

were added to the ship's steadily increasing lists of the fauna and flora of the straits.

In the captain's private log there is a reference to the activities of the scientific staff, in connection with notes on very stormy weather at one of our anchorages, where it was too rough to send boats ashore:

It was fortunate for the naturalists, for it gave them a chance for a much needed rest—they ceased work in the laboratory at 11:30 p. m. and were off at 4 a. m. the following morning!

But the latter hour did not mean starting before daylight, at that

White-breasted Cormorants, Santa Marta Island. Straits of Magellan.

season and in that latitude, and the naturalists did not consider that they were making any sacrifices.

The weather during our "midsummer" month in the straits was of all sorts: it was very rainy or misty six days, very windy as many more, slightly snowy two days, really bright and pleasant four days. The remaining days could not well be classified, presenting all of the above-named varieties of weather in such rapid succession that the entries in the log book by each watch included them all, with an occasional fierce squall thrown in to take the kinks out of the cable and give the anchor something to do. The vessel sheered alarmingly as the squalls changed direction, but fortunately they were of only brief

Exploring an ancient Shell Heap. Elizabeth Island, Straits of Magellan.

duration. With all these wintry contrarities in the season of summer blooms, it was seldom squally enough to drive the hardy humming birds away from the fuchsias.

Our shore work, beginning at Dungeness Point at the eastern entrance of the straits, covered the territory adjacent to seven different anchorages in the straits proper and six among the channels of western Patagonia, terminating finally at Port Otway, where we entered the South Pacific Ocean. With the exception of Punta Arenas, these points were uninhabited save for the occasional presence of roving canoe Indians.

At Elizabeth Island there were excellent opportunities for the observation of water birds. A rookery of Cassin terns occupied several acres, the nests being close together, so that care was necessary to avoid stepping on them. Eggs and young birds covered the ground and countless thousands of old birds swarmed close overhead, actually clouding the sky, while the noise of their cries was tremendous in volume. The adjacent island of Santa Marta was largely occupied by white-breasted cormorants, the area covered by their nests being several acres in extent. The nests, about six inches high by eighteen in diameter, were placed close together. The great mass of old birds remained by their nests until cameras could be brought into play at a distance of fifteen or twenty yards. On being approached closer they shuffled off, not taking wing until more closely pressed, leaving the well-grown young behind. The latter had not developed the white breasts of the adults and were quite fearless. Another species of cormorant lacking the white breast, had nests along the low cliffs, while eggs and young of gulls were abundant on some elevations near the water.

Our explorations were not confined to the shores; when the ship was under way, the large dredge, or beam trawl, was often lowered to drag on the bottom, once as deep as 370 fathoms. It was, in fact, dragged systematically through the inland passages of the straits and Smythe Channel from Cape Virgins on the Atlantic to Port Otway on the Pacific. This big iron-framed net, hauled by steam power, brought up fishes, shells, crustaceans, sea urchins, starfishes and many other sea forms whose scientific names are here somewhat out of place.

Among the fishes we often got Macrurus, that strange, big-eyed, long-tailed genus distributed nearly everywhere over the ocean floor. Crustaceans were better represented in the dredge hauls, many deep sea types being brought up. Mollusks were plentiful in number and variety, living brachiopods—the "lamp shells" so well known as fossils—appearing frequently.

There were many specimens of small octopus and a couple of burly squids nearly six feet long. The deep-water species were, as a whole, new to science.

This whole region is an anciently depressed, sea-engulfed mass of mountains among which the voyager of the present carefully gropes his way.

The navigation of the straits is confined to daylight work and the summer days are of course long, but even then heavy fogs have to be reckoned on. The short nights were always passed at anchor. While the straits are several miles wide in places, there are dangerous narrows which can only be passed at slack water. English Narrows are less than a quarter of a mile wide and the channel affords room for but one ship at a time.

The only settlement worthy of mention here is Punta Arenas, the most southerly town on the globe. The region is too far south for agriculture, but garden vegetables can be grown in sheltered places. There is some gold digging carried on, but sheep raising has become an established industry. There was much in the climate to remind me of the Aleutian Islands, which lie nearly in the same latitude in the north.

Our observations of water temperature in the straits varied from 47° to 57° Fahrenheit, the higher temperature being found in the more northerly channels. The temperature of the air followed in a general way that of the water.

While there was a great deal in the way of birds and flowers to suggest familiar objects, our surroundings in other respects were strange. The trees of the forest, the smaller forms of sea shore life, the utterly barbarous look of the natives, the wildness of the scenery, left strong impressions. Even the constellations were altogether unfamiliar. The navigating officer pointed out the Southern Cross, the beautiful nebulous mass called the Cloud of Magellan, the "Coal Sack," that dark starless area close to the Milky Way, and the bright stars Canopus and Achenas.

I know of no more forbidding headland than Cape Froward, the southern point of the continent.' The scenery reminds one in many ways of the inland passage of Alaska and is probably finer, as there are more high cliffs of exposed rock. As in Alaska, the vegetation of the forest comes uniformly down to sea level, and here we find it actually overhanging and touching the surface at high tide.

After passing through Magellan Straits and turning northward into Smythe Channel and the series of inland passages beyond, the channels become narrower and the scenery wilder. The evergreen coniferous forests of the north are here replaced by evergreen beeches, which give a new and strange aspect. There are, however, the same high, tumbling waterfalls in the foreground with snow-topped ranges beyond.

No ordinary description can convey a clear idea of the generally impenetrable character of the forests, which are more tangled and difficult than those of the tropics. Fallen trees and branches cover deeply the whole forest floor, these in turn being mostly concealed with mosses and large plants, the whole always saturated as if by a recent rainstorm. After clambering over decayed logs, heavily blanketed with mosses, one may land waist deep in boggy vegetation. Progress is possible only by constant and laborious climbing over obstructions.

In this western section of nearly four hundred miles, the open ocean is seen only once, so completely is the long stretch of coast protected by the lofty islands of the archipelago. Passing gradually northward, glimpses of lofty snow ranges become more frequent, and at the mouth of the last narrow channel the white Andes are exposed to full view and may be enjoyed during the forty-mile voyage across the Gulf of Penas.

Before leaving Eyre Sound we made fast to one of the small icebergs drifting away from adjacent glaciers terminating in tide water, and took on board seven tons of ancient Andean ice for our voyage northward to the Galapagos Islands in the tropical Pacific.

  1. Illustrated by photographs made by Mr. Thomas Lee and the writer.
  2. Tachyeres cincreus.
  3. Pelecanoides urinatrix.
  4. Eustephanus galeritus.
  5. Pteroptochus.
  6. Oxyurex spinicauda.
  7. Dendrocolaptidae.
  8. Philesia buxifollia.
  9. Empetrum.
  10. Rites magellanicum.
  11. Fagus antarctica.
  12. Fagus betuloides.
  13. Drimys.
  14. Libocedrus.
  15. Mytilus chilensis.
  16. Limulus polyphemus.