The Atlantic Coast Reserve of Tierra del Fuego is located on a coastal strip approximately 220 kilometers long, extending from Cabo Nombre (Cape Name) north of San Sebastian Bay to the mouth of the Ewan River.
The Reserve was created on December 11, 1992, by Provincial Decree No. 202/92 in order to protect and conserve migratory shorebirds – plovers and sandpipers - coming from the northern hemisphere. In 1998, by Provincial Act No. 415 and as a Protected Area it was further categorized a Natural Coastal Reserve under the jurisdiction and management of the Province; it is also considered a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. In 2005 the Reserve was designated as an Important Area for Bird Conservation (AICA by its Spanish acronym).
The average temperature in this area during the summer is 14° C, and 4° C during the winter. The prevailing wind is from the west with gusts of 90 to 100 kilometers per hour. Behind the coast, the landscape is made up of mostly plateaus and plains, where the absence of trees is very noticeable. The grassy pastures include tussock (Festuca gracillima), flowering daisy (Chiliotrichum difussum), and myrtle (Empetrum rubrum). To the south of the reserve, near Punta Maria, the landscape changes to beech forest (Notophagus antarctic).
Three areas within the reserve stand out as important by the high concentration of migratory shorebirds they support: San Sebastian Bay, Rio Grande, and Viamonte. Among the birds are several long-distance migrants such as Hudsonian Godwit (Limosa haemastica), Red Knot (Calidris canutus), and White-rumped Sandpiper (Calidris fuscicollis), as well as shorebirds that breed in southern Patagonia, including Rufous-breasted Dotterel (Zonibyx modestus), Magellanic Plover (Pluvianellus socialis) and Two-banded Plover (Charadrius falklandicus).
Currently, the Atlantic Coast Reserve of Tierra del Fuego is administered by the Department of Protected Areas and Biodiversity under the Secretary of Sustainable Development and the Environment for the Province of Tierra del Fuego.
Ecology & Conservation
The Atlantic Coast Reserve of Tierra del Fuego is a marine estuarine ecosystem with intertidal zones of muddy shoals (restingas) and sandy plains. Its spacious beaches provide plenty of resting areas for birds, while the changes in tides every 6 hours produce a rich supply of benthic organisms, the main source of food and energy for the migratory birds. There is a remarkable diversity of birds—135 species in all–but seabirds, plovers, and sandpipers are the ones that really stand out. The cliffs that line the reserve are conducive to different species of breeding birds, including passeriformes, falconiformes, and Black-faced Ibis (Theristicus melanopis), among others.
San Sebastian Bay is bounded by the 18-kilometer El Páramo Peninsula and contains vast tidal flats and marshes with sections of shoals (restingas). This bay is the most hypersaline of the insular Atlantic coast. The majority of birds migrating from the northern hemisphere concentrate here, including 42% of the world population of Hudsonian Godwit (Limosa haemastica) (Morrison and Ross 1986). It is also an important site for the White-rumped Sandpiper (Calidris fusicollis), with an estimated population of 50,000. Behind the coastal plain on the steppe is home to the Ruddy-headed Goose (Chloephaga rubidiceps), a species in danger of extinction, and four Patagonian shorebird species: Two-banded Plover (Charadrius falklandicus), Tawny-throated Dotterel (Oreopholus ruficollis), Rufous-breasted Dotterel (Zonibyx modestus), and Magellanic Plover (Pluvianellus social).
This bay is also important for marine and terrestrial mammals, including 21 species of cetaceans and 6 pinnipeds. The water surrounding the bay is the preferred natural habitat and breeding area for the world's smallest dolphin, the Commerson’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus commersonii), and Peale’s dolphin (Lagenorhynchus australis), as well as the spectacled porpoise (Phocoena dioptrica). In winter one can see the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis), a prominent biological phenomenon. On the plain steppe there are herds of guanaco (Lama guanicoe) visible throughout the year, living in groups of 15 to 40 individuals.
Rio Grande, the coast adjacent to its namesake city, is the second important place within the reserve. This section, which extends from Cape Domingo to Cape Peñas, is the most important in Tierra del Fuego (Argentina) for the survival of Red Knots (Calidris canutus rufa). It also supports 21 species in the family Charadriidae and Scolopacidae. Seventeen species of shorebirds arrive here from the northern hemisphere (Nearctic), and seven come from northern Argentina and neighboring countries (Neotropical) to breed during the summer before returning north at the end of the austral summer.
Viamonte, the third area of importance for birds within the reserve, is located 50 kilometers south of the city of Rio Grande. Diverse species of resident and migratory birds gather here, making this an attractive resource for tourism based on birdwatching.
Condition and Status of the Coast within the Reserve:
The monitoring that has taken place for several years from Cape Nombre to Cape Ewan shows that the coastal marine environment is in good condition. However, there are some places adjacent to the reserve where anthropogenic pressure is remarkable, such as from urban settlements, oil exploitation and mining, ports, landfills, and fishing.
San Sebastian Bay is the area most vulnerable from oil and gas exploitation happening on lands near the coast and beach. This activity involves having an 18-inch pipe submerged in the bay that runs 4,600 meters out to a single buoy anchored to the seabed. The pipe is used to load crude oil bound for various distilleries in the country. While companies have strict security controls, this activity remains a potential threat to existing biodiversity.
Point Sinai, south of San Sebastian cape, is a low but steep ravine characterized by a field of boulders; it is a place of high scenic and geologic value. At low tide, exposed shoals (restingas) and boulders serve as a rookery for sea lions (Otaria flvences) and several bird species such as Imperial Cormorant (Phalacrocorax atriceps) and Kelp Goose (Chloephaga hybrida).
The Gama Creek, south of Point Sinai, flows from the high plains of the Tierra del Fuego steppe and forms a 1,080-meter2 lagoon before continuing to the sea. The lagoon is an alternative site for foraging and resting for Nearctic shorebirds during high tide, as well as a nesting site for Two-banded Plover (Charadrius falklandicus), Tawny-throated Dotterel (Oreopholus ruficollis), Magellanic Oystercatcher (Haematopus leucopodus), coots, and ducks. There was once a gold-mining operation on the south shore of this lagoon.
From here to Cape Domingo lies a sandy beach with an intertidal zone of silt and clay that supports several species of bivalves and mollusks. In the area called “Pasos de las Cholgas,” one can see Nearctic and Patagonian shorebird species such as Baird’s Sandpiper (Calidris bairdii) and White-rumped Sandpiper (Calidris fuscicollis), as well as Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophris) and other seabird species. It is also an excellent place for sport fishing of Patagonian blenny (Eleginops maclovinus) and long-tailed hake (Macruronus magellanicus). The land immediately behind the coast has been divided and two homes are under construction there; over time, if no urban management plan is developed, such construction will bring many environmental problems to the coast.
A few miles south of Pasos de las Cholgas, the beach changes in appearance. From here to the mouth of the Carmen Silva River (Chico), the beach was once in good environmental condition; one could see several species of shorebirds, such as Ruddy-headed Goose (Chloephaga rubidiceps) and Tawny-throated Dotterel (Oreopholus ruficollis). Today, they have disappeared and only nylon bags are seen, carried by the wind from the city landfill directly to the coast and sea. The municipality of Rio Grande is currently working on relocating the landfill. Adjacent to this there is a methanol and urea plant under construction, with plans to build two seaports—one for the company and another for the public.
Between the coast of Cape Domingo and Cape Peñas is the city of Rio Grande (population 80,000), the only civic center adjacent to the reserve. In the past 25 years, the city has increased its industrial economic growth and, in turn, its population. However, this rapid growth did not have an urban management plan to guide it. The coast shows signs of deterioration from industrial activities like port construction, quarries, concrete plant, clandestine trash dumps, plants and pipelines for wastewater treatment, debris, etc.
The southern boundary of the reserve resumes the character of a wide beach with an intertidal zone of mudflats and restingas at Cape Auricoste (Viamonte). This area is the third important site in the reserve, especially for Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) and several Calidris species. It also supports breeding Rufous-breasted Dotterel (Zonibyx modestus) and Blackish Oystercatcher (Haematopus ater), and wintering Kelp Goose (Chloephaga hybrida) and Fuegian Snipe (Gallinago stricklandii). The Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus), a flagship species, can also be seen overhead.
The Municipality of Rio Grande City is working closely with the Provincial Department of Protected Areas and Biodiversity to reverse the situation of coastal degradation. One of the projects underway is the construction of an interpretive trail along the coast that teaches visitors about the marine environment and wetlands, and the importance of migratory birds as indicators of healthy environments.
Click on the photos for a larger image
All photos provided by Luis Benegas, except where noted.
Actions by the Provincial Government of Tierra del Fuego’s Department of Protected Areas and Biodiversity
The Department of Protected Areas and Biodiversity is the authority in charge of the Provincial System of Protected Natural Areas in the Province of Tierra del Fuego. For many years, the agency has not had sufficient logistical or personnel resources to devote to operational tasks at the reserve. However, it does support research and environmental education efforts at the reserve jointly with the Municipal Museum of Rio Grande through the works of biologist Luis Benegas.
In 2004, the Department initiated the process to develop a management plan for the Reserve through a participatory workshop with all stakeholders and interested parties. In 2007, a second workshop and several technical meetings were held to discuss specific issues. Currently, the Plan is in the editing stage and will soon be available for review by the workshop participants.
Parallel to this process since 2006, a technical expert has been working on the management of the area in terms of planning and operation, research support, and resolving conflicts in the urban community sector of the city of Rio Grande. The Municipal Museum has been a constant partner, especially in giving support for researchers, Red Knot banding campaigns, monitoring of benthic fauna, banded bird counts, and more.
The following environmental education actions were carried out in coordination with the Municipal Museum and Mr. Luis Benegas:
Coastal wetland interpretive trail, thanks also to funding from Wildlife Foundation of Argentina (Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina). There are 16 posters along the path that inform visitors about the importance of wetlands to humans and to biodiversity, about the Reserve, on the identification of birds and marine mammals, and about the wonder and the dangers of migration - especially for the Red Knot.
Mobile posters for giving talks in schools: building upon the signs developed for the interpretive trail, partners produced informational panels that can be transported to schools and elsewhere for educational talks, mainly in the winter.
Equipment for birdwatching: partners bought 8 binoculars and, thanks to efforts by WHSRN, received a telescope and tripod through Birder's Exchange.
Overhead projector and laptop: partners obtained very useful equipment for giving presentations to adults and adolescents that include showing slides and videos.
Thanks to these acquisitions in 2009/10, partners were able to carry out 14 educational talks with 507 participants and make 21 birdwatching trips to the coast with 534 participants by the end of 2010.
The recent addition of park guards to the Provincial System of Protected Areas and Biodiversity has allowed partners to plan to install informational signs throughout the vast rural area of the reserve, including the Peninsula El Páramo north of San Sebastian Bay, Cape Domingo (public recreation area), Cape Auricoste (used by fishermen and shellfish harvesters), and the San Sebastian border crossing (by land) in to the Province.
Actions by the Municipality of the City of Rio Grande
The Municipality of the City of Rio Grande is committed to the protection and conservation of migratory birds, supporting different activities through the Municipal Museum of “Virginia Choquintel.” It also provides information to the community about the importance of being in a natural protected area that is also a WHSRN Site of Hemispheric Importance, a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Secretariat, and an Important Area for the Conservation of Birds by BirdLife International.
In 1992: signed the Act that created the Atlantic Coast Reserve with a commitment to the conservation of shorebirds and their habitats.
In 1993/4: started a study on the temporal and spatial abundance of shorebirds in the reserve, jointly with the Museum and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in the Province.
In 1995: the Museum participated in a survey conducted in the reserve by Wetlands for the Americas and the DNR. Participated also in the first season of Red Knot (Calidris canutus rufa) banding program organized by the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada and the Inalafquen Foundation in Argentina. The program continues to this day.
In 1996: launched “The Museum Goes to School” (Municipal Museum), a outreach program conducted in schools in Rio Grande and Tolhuin year-round about the reserve’s great importance. The museum also was vocal about avoiding the continued destruction of habitat at Point Popper, an important area for birds, by opposing the imminent removal of beach material.
In 1997: initiated the first drawing contest, “Awaiting the Migratory Birds,” with young students about the arrival of birds from the northern hemisphere. The contests still continues to this day, with winning posters that illustrate and promote the campaign to clean up the coast and how it benefits everyone.
Through the museum, the Municipality organized the first Green Day for migratory birds, consisting of cleaning up the coast at Point Popper by students of School No. 21 and their invited friends. The DNR provided all participants with gloves and a Green Badge.
The Municipal Museum and Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina organized the first training workshop “Save Our Migratory Birds and Conserve the Coastal Wetland of Rio Grande” for 39 teachers. The workshop was endorsed by the Provincial Secretary for Education and Culture through Resolution S.E.C. No. 023/98, and a second one was held in 1999.
Also in 1997, the “Ecology and the Environment” workshop was carried out for teachers with the Federal Network for the Formation of Teachers by Maria Gabriela Orzanco with the National University of La Plata.
In 1998: the museum and the municipality’s Press Department published two short documentaries for the public that express in every day language the importance of the reserve and how migratory birds serve as indicators of healthy environments. They also celebrated the National Bird Day and Migratory Bird Month.
In 2000: the museum launched the “Educational Project for the Conservation of Wetlands and Grasslands in Argentina,” in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Shorebird Sister Schools Program and the Director of Environment and Natural Resources of the Municipality of Rio Grande.
In 2002: began a series of workshops on environmental conservation for teachers in the Latin American Solidarity School. Workshops were taught by representatives of the Municipal Museum, School No. 14, the DNR, and the Provincial Department of Ecology and the Environment.
In 2009: the museum published the story, “History of a Tireless Traveler, the Red Knot (Calidris canutus rufa),” and distributed it to all school and rural libraries and donated copies to various birding workshops as well.
In 2010: the City signed an agreement to help support initiatives for the conservation of shorebirds and their habitats with its counterparts from three other WHSRN site in Argentina: Rio Gallegos (Santa Cruz), San Antonio Oeste (Rio Negro), Rio Dulce and Mar Chiquita (Córdoba).
The Municipal Tourism Department, with support from the museum, held the first “Atlantic Coast Reserve of Tierra del Fuego Bird Festival.” Aves Argentina, Argentine Wildlife Foundation, and the Patagonian National Center (CENPAT) also participated.
In 2011: the museum continues to give talks and audio-visual presentations about the reserve and migratory bird conservation at schools and other public institutions by request. It also provides teaching materials, magazines, books, and brochures about migratory birds, the reserve, WHSRN, and Ramsar.
The Municipal Tourism Department placed signs at the entrance to the city that promote the importance of migratory birds and their conservation, as well as the reserve’s coastal wetland interpretive trail.
Secretary of Sustainable Development and Ecology
Provincial Government of Tierra del Fuego
Municipal Museum“Virginia Choquintel”
Municipality of Río Grande
Luis G. Benegas
9420 Río Grande
Tierra del Fuego
Goodall, R.N., A.C.M. Schiavini, M. Galussio, and L. Benegas. 1991. A Winter Evaluation of Mammals and Birds of the Southwestern South Atlantic coast Between Cabo Espiritu Santo and Cabo San Sebastian, Tierra del Fuego. Total Austral S.A., Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Goodall, R.N., A.C.M. Schiavini, and M. Galussio. 1991. A Summer Evaluation of Mammals and Birds of the Southwestern South Atlantic coast Between Cabo Virgenes and Cabo San Sebastian, Tierra del Fuego. Total Austral S.A., Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Morrison, R.I.G. and R.K.Ross, 1989. Atlas of Nearctic Shorebirds on the Coast of South America. Vol 2. Canadian Wildlife Service Special Publication pp. 168-174
Schnack, E.J. 1985. Argentina. Pages 69-78 in Bird, E.C.F.; Schwartz, M.L.eds. The World's Coastline. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York.