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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Argentina: The South - Pampas, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego

2017 Narrative

In Brief: Argentina boasts a wide variety of wildlife and scenery that was apparent wherever we went. We began by exploring the vast pampas grasslands east of Buenos Aires where Greater Rheas foraged along the roadsides and Olrog’s Gull scavenged on the beach. Wetland complexes here also held avian goods amongst the vegetation like radiant Many-colored Rush Tyrants and skulky Curve-billed Reedhaunter. The Valdez Peninsula was teeming with wildlife: South American Sea Lion colonies, cities of Magellanic Penguins, and crowded tern nest areas held our constant attention while happy distractions came when Burrowing Parakeets, Aplomado Falcons, or Elegant Crested-Tinamous passed by. We even got to witness the majestic display of the endemic Carbonated Sierra Finch. Marsh habitats throughout the tour were full of waterfowl and icterids, with oddities like Southern Screamers, Spectacled Ducks, and Hudson’s Canastero. The windy Patagonian Steppe was astonishingly beautiful as we drove along the vast desert searching for Tawny-throated Dotterel, Chocolate-vented Tyrants, Least Seedsnipe, and Ruddy-headed Goose. Our experience at the end of the world in Ushuaia was unforgettable. We were greeted daily by a suite of gems including both Flying and Flightless Steamer-Ducks, Chilean Skuas, and snow-white Kelp Goose. We embarked on a comfortable cruise down the Beagle Channel where Magellanic, Gentoo, and King Penguins were waiting for us, but not before seeing hundreds of Black-browed Albatross slicing through the air mere meters from the bow of our boat.

In Detail: Since (almost) everyone arrived early the first day we decided to take the opportunity and do a pre-tour birding afternoon to nearby Costanera Sur. Good thing we did because the wetlands were packed with birds and everyone had a great time reeling in their first lifers of the tour. Several duck species were enjoying the warm weather as Yellow-billed, Ringed and Brazilian Teal dabbled in the shallows interspersed with showy Rosy-billed Pochards. A family group of the odd goose-like Coscoroba Swans snoozed on the bank in a long line of fowl including Silver Teal and White-faced Whistling Ducks. This is perhaps the best place closely see the normally reserved Rufescent Tiger-Heron and we encountered four of them here sitting next to an equally incredible giant Southern Screamer. A trio of raptors circled overhead including Harris’s and Roadside Hawks, as well as the remarkable Snail Kite searching for exposed apple snails to dine on. Close views of Campo Flicker were a treat as the more common Green-barred Woodpecker, which we later saw, is much more likely. Always exciting to see the antics of the gaudy Guira Cuckoos as they scream their songs loudly along the main street. Creeping along the edges of the reeds a surprise Yellow-chinned Spinetail checked us out from its sheltered observation point. The following morning we tried to get into Costanera Sur but a huge windstorm the night before left several large trees down throughout the trail system so we had to stick to the edges again. We were successful in getting some new birds however not seen the afternoon before including Narrow-billed Woodcreeper, White-crested Tyrannulet, Masked Yellowthroat, Yellow-billed Cardinal and the multi-colored Black-and-rufous Warbling-Finch family. We began making our way east through the substantial pampas grasslands eastern Argentina is well-known for and it wasn’t long before we added more birds. Both Gray-breasted and Brown-chested Martins perched alongside each other and brilliant male Fork-tailed Flycatchers utilized the endless fence posts, sometime in close proximity to Burrowing Owls. A couple opportunistic stops produced some marsh species like Yellow-winged and Chestnut-capped Blackbirds, Warbling Doraditos, and Brown-and-yellow Marshbirds. The riverine forest here is hot and humid and hosts a unique set of birds reminiscent of habitats further west. Here a few trees gave sanctuary to several engaging species like Suiriri Flycatcher, Straneck’s Tyrannulet, a family of Bran-colored Flycatchers and squawking Freckle-breasted Thornbirds. Several acrobatic Tufted Tit-Spinetails also meandered their way through this thorny forest.

At our conveniently placed lodging in General Lavalle we were perfectly situated to search the surrounding areas for several target species. At our hotel a flowering shrub constantly hosted both Glittering-bellied Emerald and Gilded Hummingbirds for welcome distractions. The extreme tip of this peninsula is called Punta Rasa and a nice assortment of shorebirds is usually present. American Oystercatchers crawled around the vegetated dunes, and Black-necked Stilts dozed on the backwater tidal pools with Black-bellied Plovers. A large flock of hundreds of Black Skimmers all took wing simultaneously and wheeled in unison until finally coming to rest at once. The grassy periphery was a haven for finches. Both the brightly billed Great Pampa-finch and compact Long-tailed Reed Finch were tending to their respective families. Terns were ample with both Sandwich and ‘Cayenne’ Terns present. These were joined by Royal and ghostly Snowy-crowned Terns, as well as at least 600 Common Terns which have a good-sized wintering population in the area. We walked all the way out to the point for our main target that was eventually well spotted flying over; the endangered and Argentinian breeding endemic Olrog’s Gull.

We flew south to Northern Patagonia and spent a couple of days on and around the Valdez Peninsula. This area is known for its abundant sea life where such giants as Southern Elephant Seals and Southern Sea Lions raise their young. While watching one of the beaches we were lucky enough to spot a pod of Orcas cruising along the shore scoping out prospective meals at the Magellanic Penguin colony at Punta Tombo. We were treated to an intimate experience with thousands of penguins present here in the breeding colony. The bushes were sneezing with hidden adults expelling their salty brine accumulated while feeding. All that feeding was worth it as we watched adults regurgitating goodies for their sizeable chicks. These shores also hosted the very local endemic White-headed Steamer-Duck, one of three Steamer-Duck species encountered on this tour. Some of the smaller mammals were great to see including a very confiding Hairy Armadillo drinking from a water dish, and the odd Maras sitting stoic along the roadsides. Although the landscape of this area seems dry and devoid of much life, several target bird species call it home. We searched successfully for White-throated Cachalote near its favorite trash dump, a family of Band-tailed Earthcreepers, and the reserved Patagonian Canastero. The few isolated patches of fresh water around Trelew also housed another smattering of waterfowl and we added White-cheeked Pintail, Lake Duck, Silvery Grebe and the parasitic Black-headed Duck.

Another flight took us into new territory around Ushuaia, the capital of the iconic Tierra del Fuego Province. This town, situated nicely between the Beagle Channel and Martial Mountains, provided a suite of birds seen only in this region. From our first base on Lago Fagnano we wandered on foot before breakfast and couldn’t resist taking pictures of the Buff-winged Cinclodes family foraging at our feet. A stroll along a nearby wetland provided some amazing views of Red Shoveler, Chiloe Wigeon, Yellow-billed Teal and Pintail, as well as a pair of Flightless Steamer Ducks. Surprisingly a pair of Black-browed Albatross were spotted cutting through the lake breeze, a hint at just how close this lake is to the ocean in Chile. Making our way back to Ushuaia for our afternoon boat trip we made one brief, and windy, stop at the waterfront near the mouth of the Pipo River to see if we could add some species to the list. Our first pair of Kelp Geese were attentive and we watched Magellanic Oystercatchers forage in the surf. Bright orange-billed Dolphin Gulls were having a good time picking up shellfish, flying them high overhead and dropping them in hopes of exposing the tasty interior. On our boat trip down the scenic Beagle Channel we experienced wonderful weather for viewing on the way out, and had many exciting bird encounters along the way. Hundreds of Black-browed Albatrosses joined dozens of Chilean Skuas jockeying for position right off the bow of the boat. We pulled up to a couple of breeding Imperial Cormorant colonies, with a few Magellanic thrown in for good measure, allowing some amazing photo opportunities of these otherwise swimming species. After heading down the middle of the channel edged on both sides by snow-capped peaks etched by ancient glacial valleys we eventually pulled into a sheltered bay and were slowly approaching an amazing Magellanic Penguin colony. At least 82 of the colorful, for a penguin, Gentoos were counted but the most exciting find was a stunning huge adult King Penguin with bill pointed to the sky absorbing what rays of sun could be had before the impending storm. The weather had been perfect for the two hours traveling here but all of a sudden right when we wanted to take our pictures of the colony a hail storm blew in and dampened photo opportunities. The few passengers who braved the storm were treated to an additional adult King Penguin seemingly out of place amongst its smaller cousins. The following day we meandered through the Nathofagus forests of the stunningly beautiful Tierra del Fuego National Park, which produced one of the major targets of the trip. We eventually found and watched four Magellanic Woodpeckers fly into view. A pair of adults were foraging actively, teaching their recently fledged young how it’s done. At a nearby river we had an amazing sequence of bird sightings when a Dark-faced Ground Tyrant was spotted snatching insects from the rocks, White-throated Treerunner scooted up and down some trunks, and soon after our first of several flocks of the hardy Austral Parakeet lit on the treetops. When leaving this area one last bird was noticed by a keen observer. It turned out to be an Austral Pygmy Owl sitting in the open atop a leafless tree that we all got great looks and pictures of. 

Our last leg had us exploring southern Patagonia from the glacier-filled valleys of the Andes across the vast steppe to the bountiful coast once again. Our first morning had us slowly birding the old road to the national park. One particular area was very productive as we stopped to check out a Canastero that dropped from the top of a shrub. It finally revealed its identity as Cordilleran and much to our surprise an Austral Canastero happened to pop up in the bush right next to it. Sometimes this species can take hours to located so we felt very lucky for this circumstance. Also along this road we watched a pair of huge Great Shrike Tyrants undulate to and from a row of willow trees and came across a small flock of Ashy-headed Geese resting in a green pasture. A surprise spotting of the handsome Rufous-tailed Plantcutter sitting in the scope for super views was rewarding. This section was also where we acquired several magnificent Andean Condors soaring high above the desolate slopes. Los Glaciares National Park provided stunning scenery, and we got to watch active calving from the massive Perito Moreno Glacier. This park also hosted several great birds including 2 pairs of Spectacled Ducks, confiding Chilean Flickers, and sooty Fire-eyed Diucons. The tour then headed east towards the coast along the endless dry steppe to our next locale Rio Gallegos. Thousands of migrating shorebirds stop at this fertile estuary every year so we got to see droves of White-rumped and Baird’s Sandpipers, Hudsonian Godwits, and even a few Whimbrel. At least 165 Two Banded Plovers were counted as we watched them huddle together for the evening on the sandy tidal shores. This area is also the stronghold for an endangered bird once abundant throughout southern Argentina. We were happy to succeed in spotting a pair of these Ruddy-headed Geese lazily foraging on the short grasses here. There were also great sightings of the striking Chocolate-vented Tyrant as it used the wind to navigate from perch to perch. 

We had an amazing group of observers on this tour and with only seven participants and two leaders the ability for everyone to get on all the birds and see them well was remarkable. Each person brought something to the table and aided in finding many new birds and that helped immensely. Several new species were added to the cumulative list displaying the unexpected nature of the birds seen in certain areas on this extensive itinerary. I’m already looking forward to my next adventure to Patagonia.

-Jake Mohlmann

Updated: March 2017