Written by Mirta Carbajal/Fundación Inalafquen and Charles Duncan/Manomet
Argentina, end of the 1920s. The prosperity of early 20th century Argentina and the vast distances between its cities led to the creation of Aeroposta Argentina, the airmail. The Patagonian route was opened in 1929, flying mail from Bahía Blanca to Comodoro Rivadavia in French-made single-engine, open-cockpit planes. Among the handful of brave and skilled pilots flying th
is route was one Antoine de Saint Exupery who later became known and loved worldwide for his story “The Little Prince.”
Less well-known is Saint Exupery’s chilling novel “Night Flight,” the story of the last flight of Fabien, one of the airmail pilots. Heading north at night to Buenos Aires after taking off from the town of San Antonio Oeste, Fabien encounters a huge storm that covers the entire center of Argentina…
Today, San Antonio Oeste is a popular Argentine summer beach resort town. It is also the most important northbound stopover site for Red Knots in South America, recognized as a Site of International Importance in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. Unfortunately, the total disconnect between these two worlds threatened the knots. Beachgoers rode 4-wheelers across sensitive habitat, and local authorities authorized incompatible projects.
Our two organizations realized that what was needed was a way to inform the public, both the residents and the visitors. But even more, we sought to engage them on an emotional, as well as intellectual level, with shorebirds and conservation. We first collaborated on the creation of Vuelo Latitud 40 (Flight Latitude 40), a nature interpretation center with that goal in mind. Manomet raised funds as part of a grant from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation while Fundación Inalafquen provided the vision, design and hard work required to create a place that is both appealing to visitors and effective in delivering its message.
One part of the Center is the Red Knot Club where children can play at being scientists studying shorebirds through participatory activities. We needed a mascot to tell the stories to the youngest ones, and Fabien, the pilot, was never far from our thinking. His lonely journey, buffeted by winds with only a simple compass and, at best, intermittent communication with the ground, reminded us of the needs of the knots. They, too, stop at San Antonio Bay, seeking a safe place to rest, refuel and do a little feather “maintenance” if needed before continuing on the way north, ultimately to the Canadian Arctic.
Soon, we had “reincarnated” Fabien as a rather dapper Red Knot—Playero Rojizo in Spanish–complete with flying helmet and aviator’s scarf. We named him “Fabien Rojizo” and made him the symbol of shorebird conservation at San Antonio Bay. As part of a “Pride” campaign co-financed by Rare and Manomet, a human-sized version of Fabien visits schools, dances on the beach, attends meeting with mayors of other cities, and leads the annual shorebird festival at San Antonio Bay.
And Fabien recently got a new plane! Recognizing the shared interests in the area’s natural, cultural and literary heritage, a partnership developed between Fundación Inalafquen and the 65-year-old Aeroclub San Antonio Oeste. During the upcoming edition of the San Antonio Bay Shorebird Festival, the Aeroclub-SAO will offer flights to get a shorebird’s eye view of the Bay.
Recently, in honor of the shorebird festival and the new partnership, Aeroclub-SAO has named its 4-seat Piper Archer “Fabien Rojizo.” Fabien will continue to fly at San Antonio Bay along with the flocks of Red Knots, telling the story that has joined humans and shorebirds in the same sky for so many years.