Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Barn Owl in Chile

As a quick follow-up to Chris Batey's article on his work with the Barn Owl Trust, I thought I would share these photos with you of a barn owl in the Atacama Desert, northern Chile...

In fact, I saw this barn owl in mid-September while visiting the Reserva Nacional Pampa del Tamaruga, while working with CONAF, the Chilean National Forestry Corporation--the managers of this site and Chile's national parks.

The reserve is in the Atacama Desert and consists of an area planted with hundreds of thousands of trees of the endemic species, Prosopis tamarugo. Originally, the work was done to provide employment for a large workforce who had previously collected salt. In the photo below, you can see the Prosopis trees (and the strange rocky ground is actually salt, left behind from evaporated water in the desert).

The Prosopis trees survive in this inhospitable environment by tapping into the groundwater, many metres below the surface. Some reports claim to have found Prosopis roots more than 50 m deep.In the reserve, there is a well where you can see the groundwater level:

And if you look really carefully, you might notice a barn owl! I didn't notice it for a while, I must confess. 

Barn Owls are a classic example of a cosmopolitan species with a global range. In fact, we also see barn owls on our annual field course to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. As well as South and North America, we can find barn owls in the farmland around Plymouth, and across Europe and Asia. It is also found in Australia and the Polynesian Islands. I'm not a twitcher, but I would love to see the Galapagos subspecies one day...

Anyway, enough of barn owls, and back to Prosopis. There are some old, original trees that were present before the plantation work:

But most are plantation trees which are managed, mostly by coppicing (always leaving one stem uncut to sustain the new growth from the base. The coppiced wood is used to make high-quality charcoal in great pits dug into the salty ground. Below, Daniel Renison, an Argentinian conservation biologist, provides some idea of scale as he stands next to a recently coppiced tree.

If ever you are in the Atacama Desert and have the chance, pop into this reserve and watch out for the owl!

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