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Adventures in Spanish

By Nate Senner, Ph.D. candidate
Comparing godwit molt patterns during banding.
Comparing godwit molt patterns during banding. In Chile, godwits depend on the same tidal flats as commercial seaweed collectors. Photo by Thomas B. Johnson.

“You Are a Lomo!

One of the reasons we come back to Chiloé every year – besides the birds of course – is to support our Chilean colleagues in their efforts to conserve the coastal ecosystems of the island. While Chiloé looks beautiful and pastoral, and is far less developed than the Chilean mainland, it is rapidly changing in its own right. Even in the four short years since I first came to the island, much has happened. The aquaculture industry, focused mainly on farmed salmon, mussels, and oysters, has taken over most of the bays around the island. Salmon-processing plants line many of the roads near Castro and Quellon. While the industries bring jobs, many fear that they also bring changes to the intertidal habitats that may adversely affect the functioning of the ecosystem, although this has yet to be fully documented.

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One industry – seaweed production and collection on the island’s mudflats – has a direct effect on shorebirds. Though it sounds like an odd way to make a living, seaweed collection sustains the immense international appetite for algae extracts that are used as additives and softeners in everything from medicine to ice cream. Hundreds of people, along with their trucks and dogs, comb the intertidal areas that godwits and whimbrels rely on to feed. And in the island’s wider society, Chileans are no different from people in the U.S. and the whole world over. They often have yet to learn about the ecosystems surrounding them and their importance for birds, dolphins, otters, and fish.

Leading the charge for conservation on Chiloé is Jorge Valenzuela, who works for the local nonprofit CECPAN (the Center for Study and Conservation of Natural Heritage), and recently started the Chiloé Bird Observatory in his “spare” time. He and Luis Espinosa Gallegos, a longtime local schoolteacher and biologist, are our main contacts and invaluable resources in our navigation of the Chilean bureaucracy.

During this trip, Jorge organized a full itinerary for us. He organized local news and TV reporters to cover our first day catching birds (see Twinkling the Whimbrels).  More exciting for me was our time with a local school group during one of our last godwit captures. The small group of fifth-graders was initially quite shy around us. But after Jorge’s presentation about godwit and Whimbrel migration and a quick tutorial on how to properly measure and band shorebirds, they grew wide-eyed when we gave each kid a chance to hold and release a godwit after we were done banding the birds. After each had had a turn handling a couple of birds, the students started to open up and talk with those of us who could speak Spanish.

Speaking Spanish didn’t necessarily mean we understood each other though.  One excitable student’s outbursts led our colleague Bob Christensen, a freelance conservationist from Alaska and all-around handyman, to remark (just as the hubbub of conversation was dying down), “¡Tu estás un lomo!” We all turned to look at him, wondering “¿Un lomo?” Bob had meant to say, “You’re hamming it up.” But what he actually had said was “You’re a thin slice of meat.” Luckily, after a brief pause, everyone broke into laughter and Jorge tried to explain the situation in more articulate Spanish.

Beyond helping us avoid language mix-ups, Jorge’s efforts have gone a long way toward making our expeditions to Chiloé a success and hopefully ensuring that we, and the shorebirds, can continue to return to Chiloé each year. Within the coming year, we at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology plan to do our own part, releasing a documentary that our multimedia department has put together that focuses on Chiloé and the mystery surrounding the migration of Hudsonian Godwits. Hopefully the piece will be a start towards educating the broader public not only about godwits and Chiloé, but about shorebird conservation in general. Stay tuned!

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library