Islands are known to harbor endemic and unusual wildlife and Chiloé Island off the southern coast of Chile looked like the perfect place to search for rarities. We flew from Punta Arenas to Puerto Montt on March 6, picked up our rental car and drove to Pargua where we boarded the ferry to Chiloé Island.
We got our first view of Chiloé's amazing wildlife during the crossing, South American Sea Lions.
|Taking the Ferry to Chiloé|
We got our first view of Chiloé's amazing wildlife during the crossing, South American Sea Lions.
|South American Sea Lion|
As we were nearing the island, a pod of Peale's Dolphins greeted us, thrilling us with their acrobatic moves.
Our first destination was Chepu Adventures Ecolodge located on the northwest coast of Chiloé at the confluence of the Puntra and Grande Rivers which combine to form the Chepu River. We were greeted by Juan our host and settled into our cozy cabin. As we returned to our abode after dinner we spotted a Southern Pudú, the world's smallest deer, just outside our cabin! This particular male with a broken antler is known to frequent the lodge. The Southern Pudú is listed as near threatened due to habitat loss and hunting.
Early the next morning we set off in a kayak to watch the sun rise over the sunken forest. I must admit it was a bit scary kayaking in the dark especially when we reached the forest. I couldn't see a way through the maze of submerged tree trunks which formed when the Chepu Valley flooded following the 1960 tsunami and earthquake, the most powerful ever recorded! We waited until it got light enough to find a way around.
We were hoping to spot a Southern River Otter, probably the world's rarest otter, or a Coypu but saw none. We returned to the lodge for breakfast and at 10:00 we arranged to go back out in a motor boat to continue our search for the otters. Javier, a local fisherman who now brings tourists out in search of wildlife picked us up at the dock. We motored down the Chepu River and into the Coluco Lagoon but sadly found no otters or coypus. As we were returning, I asked Javier if he could take us up the Puntra River where we had kayaked earlier and he agreed. About 3 km past the lodge, Javier spotted an otter swimming along the shore!
|Southern River Otter|
She entertained us for 40 minutes as she swam along the bank catching crabs and eating them sometimes while floating on her back! We returned to the lodge, elated that we had such a great encounter with this endangered mammal.
|Southern River Otter|
|Female Southern River Otter|
Later that afternoon we drove to Puñihuil to visit a colony of Humbolt and Magellanic Penguins. The surf was a bit rough and I was concerned that we wouldn't be able to go out but the local fisherman had an ingenious way to get tourists into the boats. We were pushed out in a high-wheeled cart! It looked silly but kept us dry as we boarded the boat for our excursion.
At this time of year most of the penguins had gone out to sea but there were a few stragglers still molting their chick-down before they could take to the water. Both species look very similar but the Humbolt Penguins have one dark breast band while the Magellanic have two.
We also spotted a Marine Otter but the surf was too rough for a photo. We returned to the lodge for dinner and another peaceful night. We had arranged to go out with Javier again the next morning but he canceled due to forecasted bad weather. When we woke up it was clearer than expected and we scrambled to find someone to take us out. Javier ended up taking us and we found a second female Southern River Otter further upriver!
We were hoping that Javier could take us back to the Coluco Lagoon at 5:00 to look for coypus but he was busy. Fortunately Juan was able to take us in the lodge's small motor boat. As we set off the skies were clearing but we could hear thunder rumbling in the distance. Were we being foolhearty boating on a lake in a metal boat doing a lightning storm? We pressed on encountering rain showers but fortunately no nearby electrical storms. When we entered the lagoon most of the weather had passed so we could relax and search for coypus. Juan spotted one far away and another close by grooming on shore.
These rodents look like a cross between a muskrat and a beaver. Originally native to subtropical and temperate South America, it has since been introduced to North America (where it is referred to as a nutria), Europe, Asia, and Africa, primarily by fur ranchers. Coypu have become pests in many of these areas, destroying aquatic vegetation, marshes, and irrigation systems, and chewing through human-made items, eroding river banks, and displacing native animals. It was nice to see them in their natural range where they're not considered vermin.
They next day we left Chepu Adventures after a very productive stay and drove south toward the city of Castro. Our next destination was Hotel Tephuhueico which we were expecting to reach by car but we received an email stating that all the recent rain had made a bridge to the hotel unsafe. We now had to drive further south to Lake Tepuhueico where a boat would pick us up and take us to the hotel. Frustratingly it was only 10:00 and the boat wouldn't be available until 4:00 PM. We killed sometime in Castro before heading to the rendezvous point. The directions were somewhat cryptic so we couldn't find the location. We were out of cellphone range so had to drive back toward the main highway to call for clarification. We decided to stay put until we got word that the boat was on its way and would proceed to the first location where the road reaches the lake. When we arrived we could see a tiny open boat bobbing in the waves. We were skeptical about crossing the lake in such inclement weather. A guy got out and in broken English told us we'd have to wait another 2 hours for the wind to die down! Resigned to our fate, I reclined the car seat and fell asleep. I was abruptly awoken and told that it was calm enough to attempt the crossing. We scrambled to put on our raingear and stuffed our duffel bags and packs into garbage bags for the wet crossing. The wind, rain and waves hampered our progress but slowly we puttered across the lake. Finally around 5:00 we arrived at Hotel Tepuhueico. Set in a 20,000-hectare private reserve of temperate rainforest, the hotel seemed out of place but we were happy to have finally arrived.
After dinner we set off on a night walk with our local guide to look for nocturnal animals but only spotted a lone Pudú. The next morning we set off before sunrise to search again and spotted another Pudú, possibly the same one from last night.
After breakfast I was on the deck scanning for wildlife. I glimpsed at what looked like a cat's tail disappear behind the hydrangea bush next to the front steps of the hotel! I grabbed my camera and binoculars, stopped off at our room to tell Marc and went out in search of the animal. I stayed within sight of the front door and when Marc came out I thought he saw me and I continued my search. Nothing. Suddenly a black cat, the size of a house cat strolls across the open lawn! I couldn't believe my eyes. He was so calm. I snapped a few photos with my camera but where was Marc?
He was on the road and I couldn't call him without frightening the cat. The kodkod disappeared in the bushes and finally Marc showed up. I asked if the cat had reappeared on the road but it didn't. When we showed my photos to Alexis, the hotel manager, he confirmed that it was a Guigna or Kodkod, the smallest cat in the Americas! I was thrilled to have seen it and taken some photos but bummed that Marc missed it. He hadn't seen me and went looking for me on the road. Alexis kept saying how lucky I was. He's been here for 3 months and has only seen it once!
In the early evening I resumed my scans from the deck. I spotted a Darwin's Fox! This time Marc was with me. The fox was just outside the front door! We sat on the steps to photograph him. He was close. At one point I thought he was going to come inside. Alexis joined us and kept telling us how lucky we were.
Up until 2008 Darwin's Fox was classified as critically endangered based on an estimated population size of less than 250 mature individuals. New distribution information indicates that the extent of occurrence of the species is much larger than originally thought and the species was downlisted to endangered. No reliable population data is available although foxes seem to be more abundant and to occur at higher densities in Chiloé than on the mainland. A very conservative minimum estimate suggests at least 412 and 227 mature individuals occur on Chiloé and on the mainland, respectively. It is likely that total population size does not exceed 2,500 mature individuals.
We left Hotel Tepuhueico at 9:30 the following morning. All the aggravation in reaching this place had vanished after our remarkable sightings of three rarely seen mammals! The lake was calm as we motored back to our car.
We headed further south to continue our exploration of Chiloé Island. Our next destination was Parque Tantauco where we hoped to encounter more wildlife. We drove 18 km on a gravel road to the ranger station at Yaldad where there was a resident Darwin's Fox!
Another 20 km in brought us to the Chaiguata sector and our accommodation for the next two nights. We had booked a domo, a funky structure with a comfy bed and a dry place to escape the rain.
That night we went in search for the Monito del Monte, a tiny opossum, possibly the world's most primative marsupial but didn't find one. The next day it was raining so we drove to Quellón to look for Chilean Dolphins but didn't spot any. Was our wildlife karma wearing off? We returned to the park passing the Yaldad ranger station. A km beyond a vehicle was parked in the middle of the road and a woman was on the roadside looking at something. We got out of our car to check it out. It was a baby Pudú standing in a stream shivering.
I asked the woman if the mother was around and she said no. The guy told Marc that they came upon the baby Pudú running across the road and that it appeared to be injured. Mom wouldn't return if we were standing around so we got in our car to wait as the other couple left. We were there only 5 minutes when an animal appeared on the road. Oh good, the mother has returned or so I thought. It was not Mom but a Darwin's Fox! This did not bode well for the baby Pudú. Maybe the fox wouldn't see it. The fox came over to our car and went underneath. Why? He came back out and headed straight for the baby in the ditch. "Should we intervene?" Marc asked. Even though part of me wanted to stop the fox, I said "no, we have to let nature take its course". The fox grabbed the baby and it let out piercing screams. Marc couldn't bring himself to take a photo and I didn't ask him to. Somehow photographing or videotaping the scene seemed sadistic. Would we be taking pleasure from the poor Pudú's terror and pain? The fox wasn't much bigger than the Pudú and after several attempts to bite it we decided to leave rather than watch the Pudú suffer a slow and agonizing death. About 15 minutes down the road we overcame our shock and regretted our decision not to photograph the scene from a scientific perspective. I'm not sure if a Darwin's Fox attacking a baby Pudú has ever been documented. We drove back to the site but both the fox and Pudú were gone. Good thing. At least the Pudú wasn't suffering any more. A near threatened species dies to sustain an endangered one!
The next morning we saw a female Pudú next to the road and she lingered long enough for Marc to take her photo.
We passed the scene of yesterday's crime and all was quiet. We stopped at the Yaldad entrance station to tell Victor, the ranger, what we had witnessed yesterday but he wasn't there. The resident Darwin's Fox was snoozing by the picnic tables. He looked too small to be the killer. But wait, there was a second, larger fox we had not seen here before. Could he be the Pudú hunter we had seen in action?
We drove north to Chacao to catch a ferry back to the mainland. Our time on Chiloe Island had come to an end. What a great adventure it was, full of surprises and encounters with rare wildlife! Many thanks to Juan and the staff at Chepu Adventures for taking such good care of us during our stay. Thanks to Javier for finding us two Southern River Otters! We're grateful to Alexis and his wife for making our stay at Hotel Tepuhueico comfortable and making it possible for us to see three rare mammals! Thanks to rangers Victor and Sander at Parque Tantauco for lending a helping hand during our visit.
We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc
Our route map: