Image Image Image Image Image



Juan Fernández Islands: El Principio

  • By M.H.
Oikonos and Island Conservation team on Robinson

Oikonos and Island Conservation team working together on Robinson. Standing (L to R): Jessie Beck, Sara de Rodt, Hector (Chipi) Gutiérrez, Pablo Retamal Bottom (L to R): Kenneth Torres, Ryan Carle, Christian (Chupa) López, Rolando Recabarren, Peter Hodum, Daniel Leiva

January 13, 2015

Hola de Robinson Crusoe Island!

From the window above my work station, I watch streams of thick, cool fog pour down through a crack in the mountains (where Alejandro Selkirk’s, i.e. Robinson Crusoe, look-out was situated). The fog swirls down into the small town of San Juan Bautista, covering everything in small beads of water. The fog lets up briefly mid-day, giving the people of this isolated fishing village a dose of warm sun, before it comes blowing in with a vengeance in the evenings. Small, colorful open fishing boats wait out the weather in the bay in front of the town, patiently rocking back and forth in clear, cold Pacific water. The locals add another sweater to their layers, patiently waiting out the wind as they’ve done all year long, for generations.

Ryan and I have been here for a week, and we are still surprised every time the sun breaks through the Pacific cloud layers. We are here for 2-4 months to meet, help where possible, and learn from our Oikonos counterparts in Chile. We hope to connect the dots between the Oikonos projects that scattered across the globe.

The Juan Fernández Archipelago is located 400 miles offshore from the coast of mainland Chile, roughly in a straight line west from the capital, Santiago. There are 3 islands in the archipelago—Isla Robinson Crusoe, Isla Santa Clara, and Isla Alejandro Selkirk. There is one town on Robinson Crusoe called San Juan Bautista, and the economy is based around lobster (langosta) fishing—sort of a southern hemisphere, semi-tropical cloud forest version of Maine.

The islands are home to a fascinating array of unique plants and animals, many of which are island endemics (as in, only found there in the whole world). The plant understory is composed of a luscious understory of endemic ferns (helechos), and on the higher slopes of the island there are forests of endemic luma and naranjillo trees.

Perhaps the most charismatic of the unique species of the islands is the Juan Fernández Firecrown—a bright red, feisty hummingbird found only on Robinson Crusoe island. There are only about 1,500 Firecrowns left, and they are highly dependent on the island’s unique native plants for their nectar source.

The islands are also home to unique seabirds. The islands are the sole breeding site globally for Juan Fernández Petrel, Stejneger’s Petrel, and a subspecies of White-bellied Storm-petrel. It is also a globally significant colony for Pink-footed Shearwater (Fardela blanca), De Filippi’s Petrel, and the wider-spread, but rare and declining, Kermedec Petrel. These seabirds are all in the tubenose family of seabirds, smaller relatives of the albatrosses.

These species are highly pelagic and typically make impressively long trips at sea to gather food for their chicks. The Pink-footed Shearwaters, in fact, travel during the winter all the way from Chile to West Coast of the U.S. Their amazing migration provides a connection across hemispheres and cultures—the fate of the Pink-footed Shearwaters is in the hands of not only Chile, but also the United States, Mexico, and the many other countries whose waters they pass through on their migration.

checking fardela burrows

Jessie and Peter looking underground with a minature wireless infrared camera. With this tool biologists know if a seabird egg or chick is inside a burrow. This shearwater colony is Piedra Agujeriada inside a fence to prevent cattle from trampling nests and plants.

Similar to many islands around the world, the flora and fauna of the Juan Fernandez Islands are also highly threatened. The most pressing threat is from introduced invasive plant species that push out native vegetation, and introduced mammals that prey on bird eggs, chicks, and adults. On Robinson Crusoe, seabirds must contend with cats, rats, and dogs while they attempt to raise their young. Oikonos and other groups (such as Island Conservation and Rescatemos Juan Fernández) have been working tirelessly to conserve the unique native ecosystem, through research, invasive plant control, habitat restoration, training local biologists, education, and raising awareness of conservation issues among local pet owners, including a free pet spay and neuter program.


Little cabaña in San Juan Bautista on Robinson Island.

Ryan and I have been settling in and getting to know the local people, species, and programs. We live in a little cabaña in San Juan Bautista and our commute to the Oikonos/Island Conservation office is a 5 minute walk. The office is bustling with activity—it is the start of the summer work season and there are seasonal volunteers showing up, lots of field work to be done, and lots of planning to do. Stay tuned for more blogs!

Jessie Beck, 13 January 2015


Jessie in a Juan Fernandez forest

Jessie in a forest of luma trees and native helechos, near where some Chilean scientists are doing experiments on invasive plant control treatments.

Tags | , , , ,