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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

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

2018 Narrative

In Brief: Argentina boasts a variety of scenery and wildlife 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 beaches. Wetland complexes here also held avian goods amongst the vegetation, like the radiant Many-colored Rush Tyrant and skulky Curve-billed Reedhaunter. The Valdez Peninsula was teeming with wildlife; Southern Elephant Seal colonies, cities of Magellanic Penguins, and crowded cormorant nesting areas held our constant attention while happy distractions came when Burrowing Parakeets, Southern Giant Petrels, or Elegant Crested Tinamous crossed our path. Marsh habitats were full of waterfowl and icterids, with oddities like Southern Screamer, Spectacled Duck, and Scarlet-headed Blackbird. The windy Patagonian steppe was astonishingly beautiful as we drove along the base of the Andes searching for Least Seedsnipe, Chocolate-vented Tyrant, and Rufous-tailed Plantcutter punctuated by the occasional glacier. Our experience at the end of the world in Ushuaia was unforgettable. We were greeted at our perfectly-situated hotel 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 a surprise Blackish Cinclodes landed on our boat for an opportune drink.

In Detail: Right off the bat we hit the ground ‘running’ at Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve, positioned in the heart of the capital. It was difficult to choose which bird to pick for our first views of the tour because Chalk-browed Mockingbirds, Rufous Horneros, and Glittering-bellied Emeralds were all around us. The pampas grass patch here had our first of many foraging Monk Parakeets and a verbal Masked Yellowthroat singing loudly. Black-and-Rufous Warbling Finches belted out their ‘machu-pichu’ repeated songs and owl imitations attracted bold Masked Gnatcatchers, Small-billed Elaenia, and Checkered Woodpecker. Large waders were well-represented at this location and the scope was passed between Limpkin, Cocoi and the colorful Whistling Herons. Always entertaining were the antics of the Guira Cuckoo, with its messy crest, long tail, floppy flight and confident personality. We were reluctant to leave such a bird-rich location, but the vast Pampas lay ahead with lots of miles to travel to our night’s lodging.

Our first Greater Rheas were spotted en route, foraging alongside domestic livestock, though these are as ‘wild’ as they get. In the same area a couple White-browed Blackbirds perched tall, while a Scarlet-headed Blackbird was spotted at high speed. This is one of the most beautiful birds in the country with its fiery-red head and neck. The riverine forest here is hot and humid and hosts a unique set of birds reminiscent of habitats further west. At one stop a few trees gave sanctuary to several engaging species like emblematic Red-crested Cardinal, which adorns the cover of the most popular field guide. Squawking Freckle-breasted Thornbirds took time from tending their thorny nests to watch us, and a family of Chotoy Spinetails revealed their daintier version of a stick nest. The true master of massive nests, however, 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.

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 100 Hudsonian Godwits snoozing in the backwaters, not quite ready to begin their long journey north. Baird’s and White-rumped Sandpipers were in abundance and the showy Two-banded Plover foraged with spurts of energy in the tidal flats. Standing solo among the shorebirds was a very disheveled looking Olrog’s Gull, seemingly unsure if it was where it needed to be. Terns were plentiful with ‘Cayenne’ Terns on a sandbar day roost. These were joined by Royal and 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 finches. Both the bright orange-billed Great Pampa-finch and compact Long-tailed Reed Finch were tending to their respective families. 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 valiant male Tropical Parula nearly took out my eye when responding to my apparently perfect imitation of an intruding owl!

The wet grasslands here harbor some extensive marshes full of reeds and rushes that act as perfect perches for lots of birds. Somehow a Stripe-backed Bittern was spotted holding still in upright posture trying its best to be a reed. Another interesting ovenbird popped up, the Curve-billed Reedhaunter, and revealed another individual with whom it was conducting a territorial ‘dance-off’ while hanging on to the vegetation.

On our way out of town before heading off to destinations further south, we briefly birded one side road which yielded some pretty amazing birds. The larger-than-usual canastero named Hudson’s perched on fenceposts, nicely belting out verse after verse of song. Warbling Doraditos shot in and out of the roadside shrubby grass stands, jogging positions with a family of Bay-capped Wren-Spinetails. Along the edge of a thistle field, a surprise in the form of a male Bearded Tachuri alighted on a sprig of grass, long enough for us all to view this rare grassland flycatcher at length. At the turnaround a large flock of Brown-and-yellow Marshbirds sat right next to the bus for prolonged views of these beautiful large birds.

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 — large mammals raise their young here, and vast nesting colonies of Imperial Cormorants utilize the abundant fish supply just offshore. While walking the east coast’s towering cliffs we gazed down upon breeding colonies of South American Sea Lions intermixed with loafing gigantic Southern Elephant Seals. The always-opportunistic Snowy Sheathbills weaved in and out among the huge bodies looking for any unused morsel. Other species we were lucky to discover in this shrubby dessert wilderness were two endemic birds of Argentina: the White-throated Cachalote and Carbonated Sierra Finch. A one-eyed roosting Magellanic Horned Owl seemed out of place in the shade of a shrub and we lucked into a flock of the ground-nesting Burrowing Parakeets that call this area home. At the famed Punta Tombo, we were treated to an intimate experience with thousands of Penguins present in the breeding colony. The bushes were sneezing with hidden adults expelling their salty brine, accumulated while feeding. All that feeding seemed 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, too, including a very confiding Hairy Armadillo looking for scraps at lunch, and the odd Maras sitting stoically along the roadsides like little hairy statues. The few isolated patches of fresh water around Trelew also contained another smattering of waterfowl and we added Lake Duck, Silvery Grebe, and the parasitic Black-headed Duck to the list. Our local guide took us to a new area outside Puerto Madryn where he’d recently seen some enticing birds. Lucky for us, they were still there and we were treated to amazing views of the streaky Yellow-billed Tit-Tyrant and a raucous commotion put on by a family of Greater Wagtail-Tyrants. We got to listen to these long-tailed yellow flycatchers not only duet as they’re known to do, but also hear a trio of competing individuals. While driving the back roads here, constantly scanning for plastic bags in trees eventually revealed the stark White Monjita, a ghost except for jet-black wings.

Another flight took us into new territory around Ushuaia, the capital of the iconic Tierra del Fuego Province. This town, placed nicely between the Beagle Channel and 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 treeline, the vega bogs hosted another selection of avian delights. At least a dozen Yellow-bridled Finches were a constant sight, most interesting because it’s only seen on about half of the tours! Some other interesting ground flycatchers that were utilizing these bofedales were both the large Ochre-naped and the compact Dark-faced Ground Tyrants.

A recent colonizer to the islands at the mouth of Ushuaia Bay is the Blackish Cinclodes. We managed to get most of the group on one of these dark beauties but were frustrated that not everyone had a chance at this regional rarity. As the boat pulled away, we were thinking we’d lost our shot when the local boat guide said “Ah, there’s one there!” and we all snapped our eyes to the Captain’s windshield where he was spraying up fresh water to clean the glass and a perhaps trained and/or opportunistic Cinclodes was helping itself to the fresh water. This bird saves itself the miles of open water travel for fresh water and in return we get an amazing view of a rare-for-Argentina bird! Black-browed Albatrosses were abundant in the channel and our new high count of 677 birds (one-way) shows just how much activity there was out there. These massive aerialists were flying even with the boat, only a few meters from the railings, by the dozens – so even point-and-shoot cameras came away with trophy shots. While we stood at the bow, trying our best to withstand the dagger-like wind, a small black bird with a white rump caught our attention as the boat nearly creamed it. A Wilson’s Storm Petrel was great to see at such close range, but clearly chose the wrong location for an afternoon siesta!

In the dense and disorienting Nathofagus forests of Tierra del Fuego National Park a sprite, active, and social character was added to our story. One of our participants remarked how much they had in common with this extraordinary representative of the furnariidae family, the Thorn-tailed Rayadito. This active bird is a welcome addition to any flock as its multi-colored garb not only attracts wandering binoculars, but its mere presence is sure to lead to a larger flock of regional specialties as was often the case here. Other birds of note joining together to ward off potential intruders were Austral Thrushes, White-crested Elaenias, Chilean Swallows, House Wrens, and wide-ranging Rufous-collared Sparrows. In fact, aside from the thousands of penguins we encountered on this tour, this wee sparrow was likely the next most common species we came across. Slowly strolling along the glacial rivers cascading over smoothed rocks got us up close looks at Ringed Kingfisher, Great Grebe, Black-necked and Coscoroba Swans, and best of all an adult Spectacled Duck giving its wing a stretch before hopping into the river and disappearing into the vegetation. Our local guide’s extensive knowledge led us to an area where, after a few toots, we were delighted to find an Austral Pygmy-Owl perched openly on an exposed bare snag.

We had to leave the coastal beech forests behind and travel north to Rio Grande in the wind-swept Patagonian Steppe for some even rarer species. En route to the northern part of the island, our group had a once-in-a-lifetime experience that was entirely un-bird-related. Our guide’s family lent us their estancia for a couple hours and we got to enjoy a huge lamb barbeque, Argentina style, that had been cooking in smoke for the hours leading up to our arrival. We shared stories of our trip while sipping one of the delicious regional Malbecs, nibbled on delicately crafted empanadas for our entradas, and as a finale we enjoyed some homemade flan…with a side of dulce de leche of course. The area around Rio Grande was covered in low shrubs, sandy gravel, and lots of birds. In this habitat the birds are restricted to the gravel roads, in the case of the Short-billed Miners, or tied to the scarce water sources like the pair of Rufous-chested Dotterels we saw. Our main quarry for this area was the critically-endangered mainland Ruddy-headed Goose, and after a long drive we were rewarded with three of these scarce fowl seen very close to the Chilean border.

As soon as we arrived to Calafate for our final leg of the journey we began the search for Magellanic Plovers. Along the shores of Lake Argentino, among the screaming kids and playful dogs, a pair of these ‘southern-tip-of-South America specialties’ were discovered. We couldn’t believe they would tolerate such activity…but when the food’s good, the food’s good! At the local reserve here, several Correndera Pipits were skyrocketing high above our heads in full display flight, slowly falling back into the grass clumps. Also in full song display mode was a male Yellow-winged Blackbird, repeatedly flashing his bright epaulets. 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. This park not only supplied a breathtaking glacier, but several great birds including an Austral Parakeet nest, Rufous-tailed Plantcutter, Chilean Flicker, and the smoke-colored Fire-eyed Diucon. At one point we got to see Gray-hooded Sierra Finches inches below our feet as we meandered along the elevated walkways overlooking the ice field.

This fantastic group of participants got along extremely well and made for a very smooth tour that was a pleasure to lead. With only 8 participants and 2 leaders everyone’s ability to get on every bird was apparent, something that can be difficult on birdwatching tours. 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, though this trip will certainly be hard to beat!

- Jake Mohlmann


Created: 07 February 2018