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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

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

2022 Narrative

In brief: Argentina boasts the largest variety of habitats of any country in South America and we did a fantastic job covering as much of four of them as possible. The monte desert around Puerto Madryn awarded us endemic species like roadside Rusty-backed Monjitas and Carbonated Sierra Finches in full display mode. On the shores of the massive Valdez Peninsula the Southern Sea Lions were giving birth and Southern Giant Petrels and Snowy Sheathbills were taking advantage of the ephemeral food source provided by this amazing event. The extensive pampas grasslands and marshes were overflowing with ducks and shorebirds seeking shelter in this resource-abundant habitat. Highlights here included the regional specialty Olrog’s Gull, range-restricted Hudson’s Canastero, and defensive Curve-billed Reedhaunters. Rio Grande provided wind rushing through the endless steppe habitat and harbored both Rufous-chested and Tawny-throated Dotterels, as well as both adult and young Magellanic Plovers foraging on the salty lakeshores. Our boat trip from Ushuaia down the Beagle Channel took us by nesting colonies of thousands of Imperial Cormorants, up close to passing Black-browed Albatross, and ultimately views of a single King Penguin trying to blend in with a colony of its cousins. The Perito Moreno Glacier in Calafate thundered as active calving of massive ice chunks was experienced, along with views of a highly sought-after Magellanic Woodpecker utilizing ancient southern Beech Trees. In all, 258 species were seen well by the group as we embarked on an unforgettable trip through the southern cone of South America.

In Detail: We made our way down to the Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve to experience the splendor of this urban bird wonderland. During our ample lunch we had a few feathered visitors. Our first encounters with crumb eaters were had including foraging Shiny Cowbirds and Grayish Baywings. Flocks of Monk Parakeets screeched by overhead and plump Picazorro Pigeons perched in the trees overhead. An opportunistic Narrow-billed Woodcreeper meticulously picked insects out of the spiderwebs on the light fixtures and House Wrens shot in and out of the tree cavities. A Streaked Flycatcher called out and repeatedly gleaned an unknown type of black bug from the porous tree trunks. After our lunch, we proceeded along the famous promenade to check out the waterbird scene. A flock of White-eyed Parakeets floated overhead, soon followed by a trio of Nanday Parakeets. Both of these species have a good population in this urban metropolis. A single male Ringed Teal was having a siesta under a tree adorned with Neotropic Cormorants. Giant Southern Screamers belted out their namesakes and some recent fluffy yellow young grazed on the marsh vegetation next to their parents. We noted how the bills of the young were parrot-like even at their age, just like the adults. Showy Rosy-billed Pochards were common, as were the attractive Silver Teals and White-tufted Grebes. A family group of Coscoroba Swans had a bathing party together and we pondered whether they were actually swans, geese, or neither. Small numbers of Yellow-billed Teal were scattered about, and a single bright male Red Shoveler floated by. We hit the trifecta of Coots when all the expected species were seen together:  White-winged, Red-gartered, and Red-fronted. A pair of Brazilian Teal loafed on an island edge while Great Kiskadees and Tropical Kingbirds sallied for insects. Numerous Black-backed Water-Tyrants hopped along the floating vegetation picking off insects. Scads of Common Gallinules and Wattled Jacanas also took advantage of the floating mats, and eventually we were able to pick out a few Spot-flanked Gallinules in the mix. Snowy Egrets were the commonest wader, followed by Cocoi and Whistling Herons. Luckily, we were able to spot a Striated Heron sitting perfectly still on the edge of the reeds. A stunning Rufescent Tiger Heron flew by and perched like a statue in a dead snag. Some ticking sounds alerted us to a Wren-like Rushbird at work adorning its well-woven nest stuck in the reeds just above the water line. Nearby a pair of Yellow-chinned Spinetails eventually perched up nicely allowing extensive scope views of this normally shy species. At any point when looking skyward, flocks of Grey-breasted and Brown-chested Martins cut through the skies, along with swallows including White-rumped and Blue-and-white. With eyes skyward we noticed a swirling flock of Snail Kites and at least one Harris’s Hawk in the mix. A panting Chimango Caracara allowed close approach and reminded us that we weren’t the only ones suffering in the humidity and heat of the day. The iconic Red Crested Cardinal foraged along the street with recently fledged young in tow. We noted how a lot of us had seen our lifers in Hawaii, where it has established a flourishing feral population, but it was nice to finally see it in its native habitat. Just before leaving, we spotted a tiny female Green Kingfisher that very well could have been nesting in the water pipes protruding from the block wall below our feet.

An early morning flight south took us to northern Patagonia where a raging wildfire consumed 75,000 hectares in 2 days. This was the second largest fire recorded in province history. Over 70km per hour winds helped to destroy much of the native vegetation and left a dusty mess with charred stubs of plants everywhere. Lots of wildlife unfortunately met their demise, but lucky for us most of the Valdez Peninsula was spared and there was still plenty left to see. Immediately upon arrival to Trelew we were whisked away in our sprinter van and headed directly north to Puerto Madryn. In some areas near town, we were able to tape in a White-throated Cachalote pair, endemic to Argentina. While there, another monte specialty flew in; the White-banded Mockingbird shows a bit of white on the wings when perched, but it’s obvious how it gets its name when it opens up in flight to reveal extensive white flashes on the wings and tail. Also here, the tiny Tufted Tit-Tyrants acted bold and came in close for inspection, as well as a flock of Common Diuca Finches. While we enjoyed our lunch of pizza and empanadas, both local staples, Great Grebes floated by in small rafts and Brown-hooded Gulls took refuge with the Kelp Gulls on the beaches at low tide. We drove directly to Puerto Piramides, and after a quick check-in at the hotel, went to Pyramid Point to observe the giant male Southern Sea Lions and their harems of females. It didn’t take long to find a real treat when a Snowy Sheathbill walked out from behind one of the females, no doubt feeding on some of the recent afterbirth that abounds in the breeding colony. Both Magellanic and Imperial Cormorants took refuge on the rock promontories, and so did several tern species including red-billed Royal, black-capped South American, and yellow-billed Sandwich. This type of Sandwich tern, referred to by some as Cayenne Tern, breeds off the coast of Brazil and disperses to the mainland coast afterwards. High-pitched whistling calls revealed numerous Blackish Oystercatchers blending in nicely with the dark rocky coastline. The shrubby verges of the parking lot also hosted a pair of Lesser Shrike-Tyrants, a breeding endemic to the Patagonia region of Argentina.

We took an entire day to explore the barren Valdez Peninsula that juts well out into the Atlantic Ocean. In the nice habitat near town our first Scale-throated Earthcreeper came to rest on a shrub close by, and numerous Patagonian Canasteros trilled their songs while tending to their thorny stick nests. Our first of many Elegant Crested-Tinamous shot across the 2-track. Little did we know that by the end of the day we would encounter nearly 100 of these roadside foragers. Another common species here was Patagonian Mockingbird, seen consistently during our drive around the peninsula’s edge. As we left town it didn’t take long to see our first of many Lesser (Darwin’s) Rheas. We could sense their confusion as we watched them frustratingly trying to navigate the sheep fences that separate the estancias peppering the landscape. In one of the few wet areas, we spotted the striking Chocolate-vented Tyrants as they foraged in plover-like fashion, running in brief spurts then stopping and standing tall. In this area numerous Barn Swallows had us wondering whether they were the resident birds that fairly recently established a resident population in Argentina, or perhaps long-distance migrants from North America we were familiar with from back home. Raptor species were not abundant, but the one that was quite common was a welcome sight. Lots of Variable Hawks took advantage of roadside perches, including a couple of family groups with juveniles taking shelter from the wind under the few shrubs available. Near Punta Cantor we observed another regional specialty when a Patagonian Yellow Finch made a brief appearance while we were watching Magellanic Penguins trying to make the tough decision of whether to come or go from the water. Here we also tallied an amazing 20 more Snowy Sheathbills, surely a record count for the tour of this odd bird. At Punta Norte, we watched Southern Sea Lions giving birth and were amazed at the spectacle of ravenous bird behavior we witnessed. The Southern Giant Petrels were lying in wait for this event to happen and immediately would consume the afterbirths turning their pale bills blood red. American Oystercatchers flew by in flocks and we picked out a couple Two-banded Plovers from among the much more common Baird’s Sandpipers and Sanderlings foraging in the algae-covered tidal zone. A ‘pit-squeet’ call from the bushes revealed a shy Sharp-billed Canastero pair working on their nest a few meters from our overlook. Just before getting back to our hotel an eagle-eyed participant picked out a Darwin’s Nothura trying its best to blend into the clumps of grass strewn about the roadside.

We left Puerto Piramides early and started west towards the mainland. A seemingly random location along the highway ended up yielding some very exciting birds. As soon as we stepped out of the van, a Rusty-backed Monjita was spotted perched on the roadside fencepost. This species is a breeding endemic in the low monte desert of central Argentina. The monjita took off and was hot on the trail of another similarly sized bird. It was chasing a Gray-bellied Shrike-Tyrant that eventually sat atop a bush and showed its large head and bill, white throat with black streaks, and white outer tail feathers. On the other side of the road, the pulsating rise and fall of the male Carbonated Sierra Finch’s song could be heard. There ended up being at least 5 males displaying, and as soon as a female showed up the male would chase her off through the desert. This lek-like performance was great to observe, and we were all very thrilled to see yet another Argentine endemic at this very spot. A bit further along the road our luck would continue when Mario spotted a flock of Burrowing Parakeets off in the distance. Eventually the 35 birds came closer and foraged on fruiting lysium berries. The blue flashes in the wings contrasted with their yellow backs when in flight, but upon landing they turned the same green color as the creosote bushes, blending in perfectly! Luckily, they allowed close approach and an ample photography session for all. Simultaneously, a migration of Satyr butterflies along the roadsides were a constant presence here.

We headed south along National Route 3 towards the Patagonian coastline to Punta Tombo, where thousands of Magellanic Penguins nest. The adult-sized young were in constant begging mode, harassing the parents returning from their oceanic feeding to try to induce the regurgitation of anchovies, their favorite food source this time of year. We slowly walked through the bushes and would occasionally hear a sneeze which would then reveal the location of the sometimes perfectly hidden burrows. Death is inevitable in colonies like this so it was no surprise to see Kelp Gulls and Chimango Caracaras picking apart an unlucky young penguin that had perished in the baking heat. Here we added Brown Skuas, who also course along the windy coast waiting for the chance to snag an egg from an unattended nest, or to take advantage of a chick straying too far from the safety of its parents watch. A couple pairs of the endemic White-headed Steamer Ducks slept on the mossy rocks just offshore. This massive duck species is restricted to the rocky central Patagonian coast of Argentina. At the 11th hour, just as we were about to leave the colony, a Band-tailed Earthcreeper flew in out of nowhere right next to the trail. We watched as this ‘earthrunner’ shot between bushes with tail cocked, looking for insects. It even utilized the contents of a Guanaco turd pile to its advantage! If not for the narrow strip of Chile that cuts across southern Argentina this species would also be an Argentine endemic, so we all felt lucky to experience this fleeting furnariid.

The few isolated patches of fresh water around Trelew contained another smattering of waterfowl and we added Lake Duck, Silvery Grebe, and the nest parasite Black-headed Duck to the list. We appreciated good comparative views of Yellow-billed Pintails floating right alongside Yellow-billed Teals teaching us the subtle differences in these similar-looking fowl. The shallow waters here also host a good number of Chilean Flamingos, some of which flew by quite close for picture opportunities. Tiny Picui Ground Doves fed on the manicured lawns amongst the much more common Eared Doves and the inevitable Feral Pigeons. A local birder alerted us to a shorebird out across the lagoon that was scoped to be a Lesser Yellowlegs trying its best to blend into the shoreline.

Our morning flight took us back to Buenos Aires where we were picked up by Juan and whisked away to the east and the vast pampas grasslands and marshes that lie in wait for our exploration. On the way we spotted our first Greater Rhea, foraging alongside domestic livestock though these are as ‘wild’ as they get. The riverine forest here is hot and humid and hosts a unique set of birds reminiscent of habitats further west. At a few stops, random sets of trees gave sanctuary to several engaging species like a family of Masked Gnatcatchers, bright Blue-and-yellow Tanagers, a foraging group of White-crested Tyrannulets, and sizeable nest features of a confiding pair of Freckle-breasted Thornbirds. The marshy verges of the road system here hide patches of wet vegetation teeming with birds. The tiny Warbling Doradito reacted boldly to playback and traded perches with the good-looking Great Pampa Finches set atop the vegetation singing in defense of territories. The messy-headed Guira Cuckoo also showed nicely and flocks of both Brown-and-yellow Marshbirds and Yellow-winged Blackbirds littered the reedbeds. At one bridge it didn’t take long for a curious Plumbeous Rail to run towards us, looking for the bold intruder calling from my speaker. Here a group of Sooty Tyrannulets came in for good looks and flocks of Black-necked Stilts roosted on the sandy shoreline. We got distracted along our drive by the humongous Maguari Stork that initiated furious picture-taking, and while stopped a male Double-collared Seedeater sat for scope views. On this windy day our first of many Long-winged Harriers of the trip kept even pace with our van, a lifer for many.

At our conveniently located lodging in San Clemente, we were perfectly situated to search the surrounding areas for several target species. At the extreme tip of this peninsula is the Punta Rasa Reserve, which usually has a nice assortment of shorebirds. We encountered over 35 Hudsonian Godwits snoozing in the backwaters, not quite ready to begin their long journey north. White-rumped Sandpipers were in abundance, and we watched a Bare-faced Ibis picking through the tidal flats. A major target here was Olrog’s Gull, of which we found 24 sleeping together on the beach. We had good timing because not long after, some kite surfers (or was it the dogs?) flushed the flock further inland to parts unknown. Terns were plentiful with the large Royal for a size comparison with the numerous ghostly Snowy-crowned Terns, as well as scads of Common Terns which have a good-sized wintering population in the area. The grassy periphery was a haven for small secretive birds. These were highlighted by the compact Long-tailed Reed Finch tending to their respective families. We also took time to track down a camouflaged Grass Wren giving short spurts of song. We strolled through a well-wooded park in town and eventually tracked down all three expected hummingbirds for this region: Glittering-bellied Emerald and both Gilded and White-throated Hummingbirds. A particularly vibrant male Tropical Parula came to the end of a branch for our close inspection, and water features produced lengthy views of both Creamy-bellied and Rufous-bellied Thrushes, male and female Hooded Siskins, a family of Green-barred Woodpeckers and finally a Small-billed Elaenia.

On a brief excursion outside of town. we checked out the wet grasslands interspersed with meandering tidal streams and an abundance of Granulated Crabs picking through the detritus. The larger-than-usual canastero named Hudson’s played hide-and-seek with us for a while until finally perching nicely on a bunch grass, showing its streaked back and flanks that help it blend into the surrounding grassland habitat. The true master of massive nests is the Firewood Gatherer, aptly named for the size of the branches used in construction. We were lucky enough to see one of these interesting furnariids as it sat high, singing its trilling song, never far from its wooden masterpiece. An insect-like song coming from the salt marsh was bleated by a Bay-capped Wren-Spinetail that we eventually coaxed into view. It was interesting to see some Burrowing Owls in this area that could only find suitable habitat within a trash dump. Likely this was because the surrounding area was filled with sheep and horses which tend to crush the burrows of these ground dwelling birds, unfortunately an increasing problem, especially in the southern part of the country.

Another day was spent searching reed-filled ponds punctuating the landscape and visiting a private estancia well known for its bird conservation and research efforts. En route to our first stop, we scored a big one when a male Scarlet-headed Blackbird was spotted at 60mph in a roadside ditch. While admiring this fire-headed stalk topper, a pair of Campo Flickers were noticed on a nearby fencepost adding a bonus bird to this stop. We worked hard to get good looks at Black-and-rufous Warbling Finches defending their respective patch of habitat, while Sulphur-bearded Reedhaunters crept through the undergrowth to get good looks at us. The short grass and wetlands were stuffed with hundreds of ducks and shorebirds that we could identify. In addition to loads of shovelers, teal, and grebes we added White-cheeked Pintails in the mix. American Golden Plovers were spotted in every piece of suitable habitat. Flocks of White-rumped Sandpipers and Lesser Yellowlegs harbored dozens of Pectoral Sandpipers, and eventually revealed a few Buff-breasted Sandpipers for excellent views. A Spotted Nothura had barely any cover, so we noted the details of its highly camouflaged plumage as it crept along through the grass. Also in this habitat, multiple Correndera Pipits regularly scurried away from the road edges. Everyone eventually got looks at Stripe-backed Bitterns, which is not an easy feat, but we lucked out with 3 different chances to see this diminutive marsh resident, an unbelievable count! Other small reed species we enjoyed seeing here were the striking Many-colored Rush Tyrants with their ridiculous adornments, and a Wren-like Rushbird perched still with mouth agape initially thought to be an awaiting bittern. A couple of Yellow-browed Tyrants were nice to see as well foraging for insects in the mud. We had to pull ourselves away from the plethora of birds mid-day for a traditional Argentinian barbeque we had planned months ago, a true culinary highlight of the tour, which included some ridiculously good chorizo, blood sausages, and an entire side of beef that had been slow cooking for hours before our arrival.

On our way back to Buenos Aires we had some strategic stops planned to maximize our time spent getting new birds. A brief stop in flowing grasslands yielded a pair of Bearded Tachuris. We sat in awe watching these tiny flycatchers as they fed in the overgrown road verges and witnessed the flight display of the male. Here we also added a White-browed Meadowlark perched next to the van on a fence post for extended views. Another stop finally rewarded us with a bird we had been looking for the last 2 days unsuccessfully: A very territorial Curve-billed Reedhaunter shot out from the marsh and alit on a tree right next to us allowing good looks at this skulky reed specialist! While there we tracked down a tapping sound that wound up being a Checkered Woodpecker picking through eucalyptus tree bark fragments. We spent time in a nature preserve that has a nice forest tract and got great looks at a few more species including Golden-crowned Warblers, a family of Spix’s Spinetails, and a wandering group of White-winged Becards. The normally reclusive Rufous-browed Peppershrike ended up perching in the open eventually revealing this well-hidden songster. A roadside Roadside Hawk was observed taking its time eating a frog on top of a fencepost and we noted how attractive this version of the bird is with its dark hood, much different than in the northern part of its large range.

Our next flight was to Rio Grande nestled in the Patagonian Steppe, perfectly situated for some rare species. The area was covered in low shrubs, sandy gravel, and lots of WIND. In this habitat the birds are mostly restricted to the gravel roads, in the case of the Short-billed Miners, or tied to the scarce water sources like the adult and young Magellanic Plovers we pulled right up to. A Rufous-chested Dotterel did its best to take shelter behind a clump of grass to avoid the wind gusts as we shot some pictures from the safety of our sprinter van. We were also lucky to spot a group of Tawny-throated Dotterels as they fed amongst the golden grass clumps of a nearby estancia.

We drove south and watched as the open windy steppe slowly turned into southern beech forest and into new territory around Ushuaia, the capital of the iconic Tierra del Fuego Province. This town, placed at the base of the Martial Mountains, provided a suite of birds seen only in this region. We stayed in perhaps the best hotel in the world for seawatching, on the banks of the Beagle Channel. Daily from the hotel we tallied Kelp Goose, Chilean Skua, Dolphin Gull, Magellanic Oystercatcher, and both Flying and Flightless Steamer-Ducks. It was a real treat to be able to observe these birds at our leisure whenever we came back to the hotel at the end of the day.

One morning we hiked up to the base of the Martial Glacier and were entertained by the antics of a White-throated Treerunner scurrying up and down the towering trees. Above tree line, the vega bogs host another selection of avian delights. A confident male Yellow-bridled Finch landed within a meter of our group and posed for 10 minutes, allowing a photographic frenzy and an unbelievable experience with this cryptic finch.  Some other interesting ground flycatchers that were utilizing these bofedales were both the lanky Ochre-naped and the compact Dark-faced Ground Tyrants, as well as a Grey-flanked Cinclodes working the cascading stream in the glacial canyon bottom.

We explored Tierra del Fuego National Park with its stunning snow-capped peaks and old-growth beech forest. Patagonian Sierra Finches foraged alongside the sprite Thorn-tailed Rayaditos, always encountered in querulous family flocks. High overhead a pair of Black-chested Buzzard Eagles sat motionless for what seemed like forever, slowly surveying the land for any potential prey. An Austral Pygmy owl was eventually found tooting from high up in a tree and narrowly avoided the mobbing flock containing Austral Thrushes, White-crested Elaenias, and Black-chinned Siskins. Just before leaving, Mario spotted a well-concealed Bicolored (Chilean) Hawk perched along the roadside at eye level. We observed this bird for 20 minutes as it made repeated efforts to catch unseen prey in the dense undergrowth of fallen logs.

Our boat trip down the Beagle Channel was epic, not only because the water was flat calm, but because new birds were constantly being added against the backdrop of the wind-swept mountains the area is named for. Numerous Black-browed Albatross floated by along with flocks Chilean Skuas, and nesting colonies of Magellanic and Imperial Cormorants numbered into the thousands. A recent colonizer to the islands here is the Blackish Cinclodes that we saw very well as it came to drink the fresh water from the boat’s windshield wipers! The penguin colony at the end of the line was filled with not only thousands of Magellanic Penguins, but a bunch of Gentoo as well. Of course, the highlight here was the gigantic King Penguin that tried its best to blend in with its cousins but was able to be spotted by its bright orange bill and yellow-washed chest. Later, a pair of Dark-bellied Cinclodes were photographed in the harbor, and a quick trip nearby added lots of White-throated Caracaras, a hunting Ringed Kingfisher, and dark “Dusky” subspecies of the Black-crowned Night Heron.

Los Glaciares National Park provided stunning scenery, and we got to watch active calving from the massive Perito Moreno Glacier, initially announced by a loud ‘crack’, and immediately followed by a loud splash. We estimated the size of the largest to be about 200 feet tall and the area of 2 city blocks! This park not only supplied a breathtaking glacier, but several great bird sightings including an Austral Parakeet nest, Rufous-tailed Plantcutter, Chilean Flicker, and the smoke-colored Fire-eyed Diucon. At one seemingly random shrub-choked stream, we coaxed out a Magellanic Tapaculo for all to see well. One doesn’t get to say that much about this normally hard-to-see group of birds. Before leaving for the day, we gave Magellanic Woodpecker one last effort. As we were walking out of the last habitat possible for this bird our driver pointed out that he had heard a response from way up on the hillside. A scramble up the mountain finally brought us to the largest woodpecker in the world, a stunning female with forward sweeping crest foraging on an ancient beech tree. Birding the back roads around Calafate provided not only memorable views of the neon blue waters of Lago Argentino and massive southern ice field, but even more new species such as flocks of the ground-loving Cinnamon-bellied Ground Tyrants and eye-level views of courting Cinerous Harriers. We were on constant patrol of the roadside edges and were rewarded with both Least and Gray-breasted Seedsnipes blending in perfectly with the gravel and weeds.

This fantastic group of participants got along extremely well and made for a very smooth tour that was a pleasure to lead. The assorted scenery was changing constantly, as were the birds we encountered. These factors made for an exciting endeavor that I can’t wait to experience again on next year’s tour.

- Jake Mohlmann

Created: 21 January 2022