Posted by: Rob Viens | February 22, 2014

Shearwaters and the Lonely Mountain

Coast Near Port Famine (from Wikipedia Commons)

Port Famine

After his climb to the top of Mt. Tarn, Darwin spent the next few days along the coast, walking the beaches and observing the flora and fauna:

“The day has been splendidly clear; Sarmiento, appearing like a solid mass of snow, came quite close to us. If Tierra del could boast one such day a week, she would not be so throughily detested, as she is by all who know her. — I made the most of it & enjoyed a pleasant stroll with Mr Rowlett & Martens. — There is little fear of Indians. — we found however a wigwam which was not very old. — & the marks of a horse; There can be little inducement for the Patagonians to come here, as they cannot leave the beach; it is one of the few spots where the Fuegian & Patagonian can meet. — Many of the trees are of a large size. I saw several near the Sedger river, 13 feet in circumference & there is one 18·9 inches. — I saw a Winters bark 4′.6″ in circumference” (Feb 7)

As mentioned a couple of posts ago, Mt. Sarmiento was named by Philip Parker King after Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa (the “founder” of the original failed settlement of Port Famine). The 7,369 ft (2,246 m) peak was first ascended in the 1950’s. Amazingly the second successful accent of it’s highest point was only made a few months ago in late 2013 – in winter!

Mount Sarmiento in Terra del Fuego (with the Beagle in the foreground) by Conrad Martens

Mount Sarmiento

While strolling on the beach Darwin described one of the local birds – one identified upon his return as Puffinus cinereus.  In usual form, his description of the local waterfowl was quite thorough:

“This bird is very abundant in the Sts of Magellan near P Famine.— It is particularly active late in the evenings & early in the mornings.— flies in long strings, up & down very rapidly, settles in large flocks on the water.— On the East coast of Tierra del Fuego single ones & Pairs may generally be seen flying about. When slightly wounded could not dive.— The male & female are of the same plumage.— In the stomach of one, small fish & 7 or 8 Crust. Mac. same as (820 spirits). stomach much distended.— shot late in the evening in a boat.— very wary & shy, will not approach a ship.— Mr Bynoes has seen them in very great number in the quiet sea of straits & passages of the Western Coast.— [In foot] inner web “red lilac purple”, edges of all & greater part of outer web blackish; legs & half of lower mandible pale “do purple”.” (Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle)

My first thought when I saw the name of this bird was that these were puffins and that this was another case where Darwin named birds after those he was familiar with from back home (puffins are only a northern bird). But in fact, the Puffinus consist of the largest group of birds known as the shearwaters – a name that refers to how they glide just above the surface of the water. There are actually three genus of shearwaters – the Puffinus, Calonectris, and Procellaria.  The later are the petrels (for more on them see Cruising with Elegant Petrels and Mother Carey’s Chickens.

Species of shearwaters found in Tierra del Fuego (that Darwin might have observed) include the sooty shearwater (Puffinus griseus) and greater shearwaters (Puffinus gravis). (There are other shearwaters on the Pacific side of South America, but it is hard to tell if they extend this far into the straits.) The sooty variety migrates over 10,000 miles, and can be found in the North Atlantic as far north as Norway. So in some ways, they are Darwin’s fellow travelers – traversing the globe nearly from pole to pole. By some strange coincidence, he may even saw these same birds back home.

Sooty Shearwater (from Wikipedia Commons)

sooty shearwater

Greater Shearwater (from Wikipedia Commons)

greater shearwater

On the 10th, the Beagle was ready to head back to the Atlantic:

“As soon as observations were obtained, we made sail in order to leave the Straits & survey the East coast of Tierra del Fuego.” (Feb 10)

In a couple more weeks it would be back to the Falklands…(RJV)

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