Saturday, June 10, 2017

Wildlife in the changing Andorran Pyrenees

I joined a group of volunteers under the auspicies of Earthwatch to help scientists collect data on the effects of climate change on the flora and fauna in Andorra. The work was over a period of six days, in the fresh air of the steep mountains with spectacular views. Our accommodations were more than adequate at the Hotel Bringué in the El Serrat community above Ordino, Andorra. We are at about 5,100 feet above sea level.


Here is the view from my room. 
Cows are grazing below the balcony.



Each work day we traveled by vehicle to the trail head, and then headed up the steep terrain to various sites.


Wildflowers were in abundance in the springtime environment, but I never expected to see fields of wild daffodils!


We were always assured gorgeous scenery and challenging hikes.



Brooke is setting tea bags in the soil to measure microbial activity. 
We are working at about a 45-degree angle.


Diana and Brooke take a siesta on the steep mountain.


Setting mist nets to catch small birds. They are banded and measured before being released.


Studying birds in the field. Principal Investigator Bernat looks on.


Jana is the certified bird specialist. Irene is learning. Both of these capable scientists were invaluable to the project. Their patience was much appreciated, and they were positive and happy people to work with.


This was one work site at about 7,500-foot elevation. Spectacular!


One happy camper!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Catalonia 2017

My two weeks in Catalonia begin in Barcelona, a wonderful city to visit. Most interesting is the modernist architecture of Gaudí and others of the late 19th century.


Casa Amatller and Casa Batlló are to the left of the corner building.

Antoni Gaudí was not the only remarkable architect working in the modernist style. Casa Amatllo was designed by Josep Puig i Cadafalch (1867-1956), and opened to the public three years ago. A guided tour was an excellent introduction to this beautiful landmark.


Façade of Casa Amatller


Central stairway in Casa Amatller


Gaudí's mushroom inspired fireplace alcove in Casa Batlló

A tour of Gaudi's Casa Batlló was remarkable for the high number of visitors. The audio/video device supplied to all tourists was very effective in learning the features of the house while sharing the visit with hundreds of others.


The roof at Casa Batlló is fun to explore


Casa de les Puntxes, Casa de las Puntas, House of Spikes,
also by Puig i Cadafalch


It's time to leave the city and visit the birthplace of cellist Pablo Casals, at El Vendrell, a beautiful beach town on the blue Mediterranean. The home is now a museum. Casals lived here until his exile in 1939. He never returned, in protest of Franco's fascist government.

Iberia 2017

A series of opportunities drew me to spend a month in Spain and Spanish lands.


Plaza Cibeles. Note the banner "Refugees Welcome."
(Click on any photo to enlarge, then zoom in)

The trip began with a visit to the Teatro Real in Madrid to see Alberto Ginastera's 1967 opera Bomarzo. My review of the performance is published at Peninsula Reviews.


Entrance to Sorolla house and museum in Madrid

I also wanted to visit the former home (and now museum) of the painter Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923).  His paintings of the sea and beach scenes are superb.




The artist's studio

After four wonderful days in Madrid I boarded a bus for the five-hour trip north to San Sebastián, in the Basque Country. My dear friend María met me there and we traveled the 30 minutes by train to her town of Zarautz.


View of Zarautz, population about 23,000


Beach at Zarautz, looking toward Getaria


San Francisco Church, Zarautz


Waterfront at Biarritz, France

María and I visited with her friend Michele in nearby Biarritz, who hosted us for the night in her beautiful and artsy home near the sea.



María and Michele

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Tour of Chilean Tierra del Fuego, January 2017

(click any image to enlarge)


Tierra del Fuego, or Fireland in English, is a name given to the big island to the south of the Strait of Magellan. The island is shared by Argentina on the east, and Chile on the west. The indigenous Selknam people, inhabitants of this windswept land for 12,000 years, were known to build large fires that were seen by Spanish explorers looking for a passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific in 1520.


I had the good fortune to tour the island with Marcelo Noria of Andes Fuegina, a professional guide and mountaineer who lives on the island. He is tenacious about developing a sustainable and responsible tourist industry on Tierra del Fuego. He was my driver, cook, teacher, caretaker, and dear friend for four days. The friendship part will continue long after this extraordinary journey.


The Selknam built stone barriers along the coastline to trap fish at low tide. These barriers are still visible, and were probably used into the early 20th century.


The Selknam probably numbered 4,000 at any one time, and their main source of food was the guanaco, a camelid relative of the llama. The guanaco provided meat, skins for clothing, bones for tools, and sinew for bow strings. Unfortunately for the Selknam and the guanaco, European settlers wanted the land for raising sheep, and massive estancias were created at the end of the 19th century. The indigenous people were viewed as pests and were annihilated. By 1930, these people who lived in complete harmony with their environment, ceased to exist, due to European disease and slaughter.

The first sheep ranch on the island was Estancia Josefina, established in 1894. The administrator was Alexander Cameron from New Zealand, famous for leading the campaign against the Selknam. Here is the current shearing shed, still in use. Sheep farming is lucrative in this gently rolling arid steppe.



The road is not paved, at times gravel, but usually is compacted earth on top of gravel. We will travel over 450 miles round trip in four days.

A visit to the king penguin colony along the coast of Bahía Inútil is a must for every tourist passing by. I apologize for the lack of a zoom shot. These animals stand stoically, guarding their eggs for several months.


We watch flamingos feeding in a lagoon near the road.


Our goal this day is to arrive at Karukinka Park, an important conservation effort administered by the Wildlife Conservation Society and funded by Goldman-Sachs. The park comprises 741,000 acres and reaches to the Admiralty Sound (Seno Almirantazco) in the south.

A three-room cabin is available to tourists. It contains a kitchen, bathroom with hot water, and living room besides the three bedrooms. You must bring your own food. The buildings here were part of the old Estancia Vicuña.

The next morning, we set out to hike the moderate Condor Imaginario hill, which has a spectacular view from the top. Our lodging is seen in the distance, to the right of center. The name of the hill is Imaginary Condor. When naming it, people had heard there were condor here but that day they found none. We saw one.


From the top of Condor Imaginario you can see Pietri Grandi, which we will climb two days later.

photo: Marcelo Noria

Our next goal was to drive south through the increasingly dense nothofagus (southern beech) forest. The landscape is increasingly mountainous. My mountaineer companion becomes more animated as we travel south. Below is a view of Valle Paciencia. There is an icy cold wind that Marcelo says is only a "Magellanic breeze." Click here for a short video. The reddish color of the valley floor represents "turba" or peat bog. Some beaver damage to the forest is also visible.


We arrive at the shore of Fagnano Lake and move into a rustic cabin at the local Estancia Fagnano, home of Germán Genkowsky, son of Polish immigrants who arrived in this desolate land in 1940. Don Germán was born here in 1946. The road only arrived about 2008. Before that there was only a horse trail. It took several days to arrive at his estancia.


Several years ago I was at the opposite end of the lake, 90 miles away, in Argentina. My dream was to arrive at the Chilean end. The lake is where the Scotia and South American tectonic plates meet. The Azopardo River drains the lake to the west, the Admiralty Sound and the Pacific Ocean. It is a land of superlatives. Don Germán's estancia is the only human settlement. The Argentine town of Tolhuin is at the opposite end.

The Chilean military is blasting a road through the rocky terrain, hoping to arrive at the southern shore of Tierra del Fuego at the Beagle Channel. They are now only about five miles south of Fagnano Lake. It will take several more years to complete the job.


We return the next day to Karukinka Park and our rustic lodging. Evidence of the environmental damage caused by beaver is evident wherever there is forest and running water. The animals were introduced here in the 1940s and have multiplied exponentially since then. 


Late in the afternoon we decide to climb Pietri Grandi mountain, so named for the great grandfather of don Germán Genkowsky from Fagnano Lake. Elevation is 5,000 feet via a trail of 4.3 miles. It took us 2.5 hours round trip. You can see almost all of Chilean Tierra del Fuego from the summit. Click here for a 360º view.



Dinner tonight is barbecue of freshly-trapped beaver brought in by the forest rangers at Karukina Park. They take measurements of the animals and occasionally use them for food but it's not a favored dish. I found it tasty but chewy. Best is to apply much salt and garlic.



Our last day is a long drive north, leaving the forest and entering the grassland steppe. At the town of Porvenir, we board the ferry to cross the Magellan Strait to Punta Arenas on the mainland. It was an unforgettable experience made all the more enriching by the expert knowledge and dedication of Marcelo Noria.