|Part Two. Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego|
|Written by Jos|
Covering the superb Patagonian grasslands and Torres del Paine National Park, along with sites on Tierra del Fuego, this was very much the highlight of the trip to Chile. Amongst the iconic species seen, a mouthwatering array of birds including King Penguins, Patagonian Mockingbird and Magellanic Plover, while mammals included two fantastic Mountain Lions, a couple of Big Hairry Armadillos and numerous Hog-nosed Skunks.
19 December. Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales.
Picked up a car and headed off to the north-east, Upland Geese immediately appearing roadside. Stopped for a pause by the coast a few kilometres along - almost lost the car door as it got wrenched by the wind, but that aside it was most excellent. A pair of Flying Steamer-Ducks sitting on boulders, Crested Ducks and Magellanic Oystercatchers either side of them. Austral Negritos feeding on short turf, bold and chunky Southern Caracaras sitting atop a bank just further along.
The plan for this day was to meander 300 kilometres or so northwards via quiet gravel roads and hopefully pick up most of the Patagonian specialities en route. First however, I hoped to find one of the true stars of Patagonia, Magellanic Plover. Rather localised, this bird favours open shores of shallow pools, the best known sites being in the Porvenir area on Tierra del Fuego. On the mainland however, there is also a lake some 30 km north of the airport that sometimes reportedly holds the birds. Sunshine and 13 C as I arrived, but with brisk winds whipping up waves across the extensive lake. Hundreds of Upland Geese present, many trailing broods of young goslings, more Southern Caracaras, a pair of Flying Steamer-Ducks. Hopped over a roadside fence and began to walk the southern shoreline, eyes watering a little in wind. Chiloe Wigeon skittled out onto the lake, small rafts of Yellow-billed Pintail too, plus a pair of Silver Teal. A kilometre along, short-cropped grass grazed by geese, a couple of Baird's Sandpipers busied themselves along the water's edge ...and here, plump and splendid in ashy-grey, one Magellanic Plover. Truly a very nice bird, I watched this individual for quite a while as it actively fed in the shallows, barely ever stopping to pause. Then, suddenly up it flushed and zigzagged across the lake, disappearing as a dot towards the far shore. A hundred metres along I found another, feeding in company with a young Two-banded Plover. Excellent thought I, then I discovered there was yet another pair feeding quietly on the short turf about 50 metres from the lake's edge.
One of my main targets for Patagonia was well and truly in the bag! With this, I returned south and then looped east to access the northbound Road 455, a lonely gravel track that would wind through pampass grassland for over 120 km. And super it was, from the very outset, a landscape dotted by massive great featherballs (aka Lesser Rheas) strutting their stuff, an impressive 250 or so seen along this route.
Also many dozens of Guanicos and a splendid range of birds, including a minimum of 25 Least Seedsnipes, a couple of small flocks of Ashy-headed Geese, frequent Southern Caracaras, numerous Austral Negritos and more localised species such as Common Miner, Cordilleran Canastero, Black-throated Finch and Patagonian Sierra-Finch.
Eventually we got the main Punta Arenas-Port Nateles road, turned north and motored onward to the town. Arrived early evening, two Cinereous Harriers as we approached town, lines of Imperial Cormorants on an old jetty as we got to the centre. For a first day in Patagonia, I was feeling quite content – not only the key Magellanic Plovers and both dotterels, but Big Fat Armadillo and Hog-nosed Skunk too. Found quite a nice hotel just off the waterfront, had a meal in town. Next days would be roughing it!
20 December. Puerto Natales & Torres de Paine
The waterfront off Puerto Natales is jam-packed with birds, flocks of Black-necked Swans lining the town's promenade (at least 300), South American Terns roaming up and down, Imperial Cormorants on the jetty, stacks more. And all to a backdrop of a distant glacier and mountains.
A pleasant couple of early morning hours here notched up quite a good species list, including Magellanic Oystercatchers, a posse of eight Southern Giant Petrels and two Northern Giant Petrels lingering near some fishing boats, a lone Black-browed Albatross sitting on the water and a wonderful Andean Condor flying low over the rocky shores to the north. Also, roosting amongst Kelp Gulls and Brown-hooded Gulls, my first Dolphin Gulls of the trip, eight in all.
For now though, I arrived at open meadowland adjacent to the Rio Serrano, a quaint campsite nestled beneath trees. Perfect for the day with Upland Geese and Black-faced Ibises in the open areas, a mix of passerines in the campsite. Erected the tent, chucked out a few scraps ...Patagonian Sierra-Finches and Rufous-collared Sparrow immediately around our feet taking the hand-outs.
So passed the day, enjoying the sun and some rather easy-going birding. By 5.00 p.m., I was getting a little itchy – time to get moving! Traversed the grassland, the Black-faced Ibises in a flock of 40 now, then began my route through Torres. Almost from nowhere, a wicked wind suddenly appeared, roaring through the mountains, an accompanying snowstorm obliterating everything in its path ...all of a sudden, things were beginning to look not too rosy for cat-spotting! White-tufted Grebe and Lake Ducks sheltering in the lea of reeds on a large lake, pods of Chiloe Wigeon and Red Shoveler too. I continued onward and crossed a mountain ridge, bye bye the storm, the weather was quite different on this side – still windy and now quite cold, but a dappled evening sun painting a rather nice picture across a landscape of mountains, hillocks and small lakes.
My first Guanicos of the day grazed a hillside, then a few more. As I encountered more, these I would watch for any sign of alert, possible indicators of feline presence. One false alarm as a couple engaged in some territorial dispute, chasing each other across a slope. Venturing further east, four Ashy-headed Geese, increasing numbers of Guanaco, then two Hog-nosed Skunks, a mother and youngster.
Approaching 10 p.m., as the sun began to sink, it began to feel like a make or break moment – surely the most likely time for the Mountain Lions to be stirring, but still with enough light to easily spot one. I reached the Rio Paine, a broad flow of water with wide grassland margins, a scatter of Upland Geese dotted around. Scanned in vain, then prepared for night, setting up my spotlight in readiness for dark, planning my route. Chugged off again, intially following the river. Pulling herself into a sleeping bag in the passenger seat, my younger companion had decided that our chances of seeing Mountain Lion had evaporated and she was going to sleep! Mutiny! I was however instructed to wake her if we should find one, or a fox of any description.
21 December. Torres de Paine, Transit Road & Punta Delgada.
Back on the tracks of Torres de Paine at dawn, a quick look round for further signs of Mountain Lion. Only gave it a couple of hours, then quit for breakfast of sorts on the banks of the river near the night before's sighting – Spectacled Ducks on the river, Rufous-tailed Plantcutters in adjacent scrub, Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles and Andean Condor overhead.
Added a few more birds such as Cordilleran Canastero and Buff-winged Cinclodes, then decided to cut and run, the new plan being to spend the entire day traversing the Patagonian grasslands en route for Ponta Delgada far to the east, a drive of 390 km.
Drove fairly quickly to Puerto Natales and onward to the gravel transit road 405. From there on, drove more sedately, frequent stops to scan the grassland. Lesser Rheas again in abundance, so too Southern Caracaras and Least Seedsnipes, the latter including a small chick beside the road. Also six Chocolate-vented Tyrants, a pair of Dark-faced Ground-Tyrants, fifteen Common Miners, at least 18 Black-throated Finches and, highlight, no less than 22 Tawny-throated Dotterels, most in a single flock.
Equally impressive though were the mammals – six species recorded on the transit, not just Gunacos (at least 300) and Brown Hares (minimum 40), but also three more Hog-nosed Skunks, one more Big Hairy Armadillo and, another cause for celebration, three South American Grey Foxes (one feeding at a carcass, one sleeping on a bank, one running across the grasslands). Even better, discovered three young Culpeo Foxes living in a culvert beneath the road.
Arrived in Punta Delgada in the early evening, no hotels in the area, so plonked the tent up aside an intertidal mudflat. Ended the day to three Cinereous Harriers, 20 or so Magellanic Oystercatchers, eight Two-banded Plovers and a whole host of other birds, washed down by hot dogs and coffee at a small cafe next to the ferry port for Tierra del Fuego.
22 December. Punta Delgada & Tierra del Fuego.
As well as being a good area for this rare goose, this nick of land jutting up along the Argentine border is also the only area in Chile that holds a couple of other restricted species, namely Patagonian Mockingbird and Band-tailed Earthcreeper. Chances of these however in the poor weather were low, so I resolved to return here later in the trip and instead take the ferry across to Tierra del Fuego.
Only a short ferry crossing at this point and not considered anywhere near as good as the longer Punta Arenas-Porvenir crossing, I did however see a few birds, highlights being two Southern Giant Petrels and my first Magellanic Penguins, three sitting on the water. Also three Peale's Dolphins.
Over on Tierra del Fuego, order of the day was to drive to Provenir. Sun broke out half way there, roadside stops then adding Short-billed Miner to the trip trip, along with umpteen more Guanaco and a range of common birds. Checked in at Yendegaia House, a small hotel run by a Chilean birder, then spent the remainder of the day seawatching on the coast just north of Porvenir. Splendid stuff, flocks of Dolphin Gulls in the ferry port, Flying Steamer-Ducks on the rocky coast and at least 25 Black-browed Albatrosses, 12 Southern Giant Petrels and 30 Chilean Skuas off the exposed headland beyond.
23 December. Day of the Penguins!
On the southern shores of the wind-swept Bahia Inútil, 120 kilometres down the western flank of Tierra del Fuego, a treat awaits awaits visiting birders – King Penguins! A species of remote sub-Antarctic islands and the Falklands, these represent just about the the most accessible King Penguins in the world, albeit that being a rather relative term – the colony is in fact at 53° south, just about the same distance to the Antarctic continent as are the Falkland Islands.
Mostly the penguins did absolutely nothing, but every now and then another would set off for the waddle back to the sea, all quite memorizing in its own way. Really a perfect morning, a colony of near one hundred King Penguins on a fairly warm sunny day, three Magellanic Penguins also appearing in the surf beyond, a Northern Giant Petrel adding spice and an Andean Condor overhead. Also White-rumped Sandpipers here and Magellanic Oystercatchers.
And then a little bonus – trotting straight past the King Penguins and not seeming to fuss them at all, a South American Grey Fox appeared! Intent on hunting for rodents or something, it strolled up the slope and, not giving me not a slightest look, began to wander around just metres away, cocking its head to listen at clumps of tussock grass. Eventually off went the fox and, a couple of hours having passed, so too did we, heading back to Porvenir via a more coastal route.
One Variable Hawk on a post, then masses of White-rumped and Baird's Sandpipers as we got to the wetter area, also 18 Two-banded Plovers, a Greater Yellowlegs and two South American Snipes. A fair way out, at least 500 Upland Geese headed an impressive count of wildfowl, four Spectacled Ducks rather closer, along with Yellow-billed Pintail and Chiloe Wigeon. Rain was beginning, cut and run!
And that is more or less exactly what we did ...straight into a Magellanic Plover! Had a quick look at his, then headed back to the car. Day over, back to the hotel we went.
24 December. Strait of Magellan.
Day of seawatching, first off the coast near Porvenir, then from the two-hour ferry between Porvenir and Punta Arenas, then in the evening east of Punta Areans – in all cases, the rich waters of the Strait of Magellan (the epic waterway that explorers past have ventured through from Francis Drake to Darwin).
Black-browed Albatrosses and Southern Giant Petrels cruising just off the beachfront, pods of Magellanic Penguins bobbing on the water, Wilson's Storm Petrels mid-channel, Magellanic Diving Petrels scooting past, it was excellent stuff all round, best summed up by the tallies of birds.
Numbers of birds (Porvenir / ferry / Punta Arenas):
Ended the day by booking into cabanas just east of Punta Arenas – so arrived Christmas Eve, Black-browed Albatrosses visible from the windows, Black-faced Ibises on the lawn.
25 December. Punta Delgada & South of Punta Arenas.
Soon after arrival, I encountered a bird skulking in the depths of a particularly thick bush – a bit of a long tail here, a glimpse of a wingbar there, then a face and eye-brow, all the bits of the jigsaw piecing together to what was an unmistakeable Patagonian Mockingbird! From one thicket to the next it went, then suddenly another appeared and out popped the first, it being a juvenile.
A scarce bird in Chile, it was my very good fortune to stumble across a breeding pair, two adults present feeding at least one fledgling. Simultanously though, a second species appeared and initially caused me some confusion – a pair of them, quite flighty, they were clearly shrike-tyrants, but did not seem to match Great Shrike-Tyrant, the only species that should be in the area. Dark-billed, moderate throat streaking, whitish outer tail feather and general greyish underparts, the birds were Grey-bellied Shrike-Tyrants, the nearest closest records at that time according to ebird being around the Gallegos River, about 80 km north in Argentina.
Windy, but pleasant sunshine, I continued by exploration of the bushland, Tufted Tit-Tyrants also seen, along with Southern House Wrens, Austral Thrushes, Mourning Sierra-Finch and Grey-hooded Sierra-Finch. Couldn't find a Band-tailed Earthcreeper though.
Eventually wandered back to the car and thought I would drive to the intertidal areas that I had camped alongside a few days earlier. A couple of kilometres along, in an areas with disperse bushes separated by open grassland, a small bird scampering along the ground near the base of a bush ... Band-tailed Earthcreeper! It ran and flitted to an isolated bush next to the road, vanishing into its interior. After quite some minutes of waiting for it to exit, I walked over to the bush expecting it to fly out – it didn't! Somehow, it had managed to depart without me seeing, it never reappeared! Still, that was a piece of luck, my two Christmas presents were truly now unwrapped.
Over at Punta Delgada bay, the tide was midway out, flocks of Hudsonian Godwits waded the water's edge, many dozens of Magellanic Oystercatcher also present, along with hundreds of both Baird's Sandpipers and White-rumped Sandpipers. A pair of Kelp Geese fed on kelp beds, Southern Caracaras plodded a dune embankment. Best of the lot though, feeding on weeds aside the gravel track, two Patagonian Yellow-Finches appeared for a while, my only ones of the trip.
So there we have it Christmas morning 2016, pretty good in all. In addition to all the birds, I had also added another South American Grey Fox, a mother and two young Hog-nosed Skunks, a few dozen Guanicos and both Brown Hare and European Rabbit. Now past midday, I turned and drove back to Punta Arenas, a couple of hours distant.
Later in the day, we decided upon a exploratory drive along the coast to the south-west of Punta Arenas. I had expected this to be a lonely road through wilderness without any people ...I had not reckoned on half of the population of Punta Arenas to be out enjoying the sunshine with Christmas barbecues! Thoughts of a Mountain Lion or something emerging soon evaporated, but it was still pretty good for birds, pairs of both Flying Steamer-Ducks and Flightless Steamer-Ducks dotted along the rocky shores, a flock of 19 Ashy-headed Geese and two Ruddy-headed Geese in a small wetland area and a Cinereous Harrier nearby.
Best however was on the adjacent Strait of Magellan – first a raft of about 45 Black-browed Albatrosses sitting on the millpond condition waters, then an amazing site as no less than 110 Southern Giant Petrels all sat just off a beach. Stopping to investigate, I spied they they obviously spied, a fisherman by a hut preparing his boat. Chilean Skuas with Kelp Gulls also lingering, South American Terns further offshore. Then absolute bedlam broke out as the fisherman began tossing chopped fish waste into the sea ...clambering all over each other in a mad panic to scoff down as much as possible, it was a mass battle of wings, heads and beaks. Very obliging, the fisherman directed fish waste in my direction, a spectacle indeed as these mighty birds squabbled just metres distant, ever enhance by an elegant Black-browed Albatross joining the scrum, along with the Chilean Skuas.
|Last Updated ( Wednesday, 01 March 2017 )|
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