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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Cruise: Around Cape Horn

Santiago, Chile to Buenos Aires, Argentina (or reverse)

2018 Narrative

IN BRIEF: This was our sixth cruise around The Horn, and once again it was a wonderful trip. On what other trip can you see both giants, Wandering Albatross and Andean Condor? Or spend one day with thousands of seabirds, and the next day go into dense bamboo looking for tapaculos? Let’s just name the voted 10 ‘best birds’ of the trip, to give a sense of the diversity encountered: the six stunning Magellanic Woodpeckers seen near Ushuaia had the attention of most and won the vote, followed by the amazing sight of South American Painted Snipe, the colorful King Penguin, the impressive Wandering Albatross, the unique Magellanic Plover alone in its family, the Sooty Albatross that surprised us south of Los Estados Island, the normally elusive Black-throated Huet-huet that gave us a great show, the recently described Pincoya Storm-Petrel, the very long-tailed DesMur’s Wiretail, and the vocal Chucao Tapaculo. Besides plenty of wonderful birds, we had several groups of dolphins, and no fewer than six species of whales and seven species of dolphins. A very enjoyable trip, visiting four countries, navigating two oceans, and sailing to legendary places such Cape Horn and the Strait of Magellan, without having to change rooms.

EXTENSION TO CEIBAS AND IGUAZU FALLS: The participants of the pre-cruise extension met at the hotel in Buenos Aires. We had an introductory meeting and our first dinner in the pleasant and recently restored ‘Puerto Madero’. We enjoyed dinner in front of the sailing ship Uruguay, today transformed into a museum and a legend of Antarctic exploration, especially known for rescuing the Nordenskjöld team in Antarctica in 1904.

For our first birding day we left our hotel quite early to reach the Ceibas area before the hot hours. The birding there was absolutely amazing! Here is part of the list of species seen during a quarter-mile walk: a lovely pair of White-fronted Woodpecker, two Narrow-billed Woodcreepers, lots of the very noisy Rufous Horneros, at least three pairs of splendid Red-crested Cardinal, a family group of Suiriri Flycatcher, several groups of Monk Parakeets, a fancy pair of Chotoy Spinetail, several elegant Masked Gnatcatchers, great views of a pair of Lark-like Brushrunner, and a splendid male White-tipped Plantcutter.

In the open scrubland the list of new species seemed endless. We had great views of an impressive Scimitar-billed Woodcreeper; a White-naped Xenopsaris also gave us a great show; plus the impressive Rufous Cachalote, a pair of tiny Checkered Woodpeckers, the larger Green-barred Woodpecker, and a pair of Little Thornbirds on their huge nest, almost together with the cute Stripe-crowned Spinetail. And then there were good views of White-crested Tyrannulet, Tufted Tit-Spinetail, and Pale-breasted Spinetail; a large flock of Maguari Storks soaring with a few Wood Storks; and spectacular views of the tiny Tawny-crowned Tit-tyrant, a species that usually stay hidden in dense vegetation! After an outstanding first morning we had lunch on the way back towards Buenos-Aires, arriving at our hotel in the early afternoon for a well-deserved bit of relaxation. Our trip couldn’t have begun in a better way.

The next day we flew to Iguazu, to visit the famous waterfalls and to bird some of the large tracts of protected forest found in the north of Argentina. Flying to Iguazu early meant almost a full morning of birding near our hotel, with excellent views of the cute Rufous-winged Antwren high in the canopy and of a pair of Southern Antpipit low in the understory; great scope views of a male Surucua Trogon; and a nice flock including beauties such Chestnut-bellied Euphonia, Guira Tanager, and Chestnut-vented Conebill. We even found the tiny but attractive Eared Pygmy-Tyrant in the dense foliage! After checking-in and a great lunch at our hotel we enjoyed a long nap during the hottest hours of the day. We then headed to a famous Hummingbird Garden in the city of Iguazu, enjoying the effervescent activity of tens of Black-throated Mangos, together with several Versicolored Emeralds and few Swallow-tailed Hummingbirds, Black Jacobins, Gilded Hummingbirds, and Violet-capped Woodnymphs. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped along the ‘costanera’, where besides enjoying a view of the three countries (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay), we found a stunning pair of Barred Antshrike, a small group of the superb Magpie Tanager, and a pair of the vocal Thrush-like Wren.

We spent the following day at Iguazu National Park, but before visiting the waterfall we birded the first hour of the morning along the wonderful 101 road. We found several fancy birds that morning, including two males of the colorful Swallow-tailed Manakin, two impressive Toco Toucans, a pair of Ochre-breasted Foliage-gleaners, a White-spotted Woodpecker, and a cooperative Wing-barred Piprites. A pair of the minute Streak-capped Antwren also showed nicely, as well as the cute Yellow Tyrannulet; the aptly named Sibilant Sirystes was also seen and heard well. We then headed to Iguazu falls for lunch, spending the full afternoon there; really an impressive place to be. We had amazing views of the falls, from the bottom as well as from above, enjoying the scenery of wild rivers surrounded by tropical forest, with falls plunging 250 feet (75 meters) down with an indescribable sound!  We also enjoyed some good birds during our visit to the falls, including splendid views of the fancy Plush-crested Jay, a Rufous-thighed (Sharp-shinned) Hawk, groups of Chopi Blackbirds, and even a displaying Fork-tailed Flycatcher. We also had several encounters with tame groups of South American Coati.

For our second morning near Iguazu we drove to the Urugua-í Reserve, about 1.5h from the hotel. The forest here is fantastic, and days could be spent on the forest trails of the reserve. In just a few hours birding we found plenty of new species, such as a superb Blond-crested Woodpecker, the cute White-throated Spadebill, plenty of White-browed Warblers, a pair of the elusive Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper, Variable Antshrike, Rufous-capped Spinetails, White-eyed Foliage-gleaner, and even the secretive Rufous Gnateater. After a morning at Urugua- í, we returned to the hotel with a stop at an Araucaria tree plantation, where we rapidly found the very specialized Araucaria Tit-Spinetail foraging amid the branches of these unusual trees. After a midday break we birded the hotel surroundings, enjoying views of the wonderful Spot-backed Antshrike, finding a beautiful male of White-shouldered Fire-eye, and adding Greenish Elaenia plus Hooded and Green-headed Tanagers to our already long list. Jim even discovered a Common Potoo on its day roost! After a wonderful day and a succulent dinner, a short walk around the hotel resulted in great views of a close Tropical Screech-Owl.

Flying back to Buenos Aires relatively late in the morning, we had time for some early birding near the hotel. After three days birding this area we still found several news species, including excellent views of Yellow-chinned Spinetail, three Buff-bellied Puffbirds, a prolonged scope view of Rufous-capped Motmot, a Chestnut-bellied Seed-Finch, a Muscovy Duck, and a few Purple Gallinules. We then had to leave the wonderful Misiones Region, flying back to Buenos Aires, and boarding Emerald Princess in the afternoon. In the evening we met the rest of the group, and all were excited to begin our cruise into the Southern Ocean.

MAIN CRUISE: After our first night onboard Emerald Princess we visited the Costanera Sur reserve, just a few kilometers from the harbor. Arriving there before opening hours we birded the wetland bordering the reserve, where we enjoyed an amazing variety of waterbirds including two Whistling Herons, Silver and Yellow-billed Teals, several stout Southern Screamers, a pair of Giant Wood-Rail, nice views of Rosy-billed Pochards, Pied-billed Grebes, excellent views of numerous adult and immature Rufescent Tiger-herons, and plenty of Wattled Jacanas. In the trees bordering the main avenue we also found a pair of Narrow-billed Woodcreeper, flocks of Monk and Nanday Parakeets, as well as fancy Red-crested and Yellow-billed Cardinals, competing with the lovely Black-and-chestnut Warbling-Finch for ‘best bird’ of the day! We also had great views of a few Glittering-bellied Emeralds, Checkered Woodpeckers, Masked Gnatcatchers, and even found a Dusky-legged Guan when watching two Gray-cowled Wood-Rails. After a successful birding morning, we boarded our ship for lunch, an afternoon rest, and a chance to familiarize ourselves with the huge vessel that would be our home for the next two weeks.

The next day we arrived early in Montevideo (Uruguay) and met our local guide, Florencia. After a short drive, we made our first stop at a small wetland and had an excellent start to our birding day. After excellent views of Plumbeous Rail, we spotted two South American Painted-snipe feeding in the open! What a wonderful surprise for a secretive species usually very hard to find. After enjoying prolonged views of the painted-snipes we had good views of three Rufous-sided Crake, and also found Sooty Tyrannulet and Wren-like Rushbird in the reedbed. What a start! Our second stop was at the Santa Lucia reserve, where despite the warm temperatures we found some excellent birds, including a beautiful male Southern (Masked) Yellowthroat, a handsome pair of Great Pampa-finches, a Rufous-capped Antshrike, and even a Freckle-breasted Thornbird that showed well. Our next stop was Colonia Wilson, where we had lunch on the shore of the Rio De La Plata. In the surroundings we found a nice pair of Giant Wood-Rails, a lovely White Monjita perched on an electrical wire, a noisy group of Campo Flickers, and a flock of Double-collared Seedeaters with at least one male of the rare Chestnut Seedeater among them. From the bus, we also spotted a very cute Burrowing Owl at the entrance of its burrow on the roadside. The last stop was Playa Benito Lake, where we found hundreds of Red-gartered Coot and White-tufted Grebes, a dozen Snail Kites, and small numbers of Lake Ducks, Red Shovelers, and Brazilian Teals. On the nearby beach we were very pleased to find large numbers of gulls and terns. In just one close flock on the beach there were at least 600 Snowy-crowned Terns, 200+ Cayenne Terns (including 10 Sandwich-type Terns), 40 Royal Terns, 30 Common Terns, and even 3 Yellow-billed Terns. A fantastic way to end a wonderful day in Uruguay!

We had a wonderful sailing day between Montevideo and Puerto Madryn (Argentina), spending the day seawatching from the exterior decks. All day long we enjoyed Yellow-nosed and Black-browed Albatrosses, Great and Manx Shearwaters, and small numbers of White-chinned Petrels. At one moment, we even had a group of several hundred Cape Verde and Great Shearwaters feeding with a few dozen albatrosses. Amongst these numerous birds, we looked for rarer ones and found six Cory’s Shearwater and even a Shy Albatross. Besides wonderful seabirds, we also had several large groups of Common and Bottlenose Dolphins, often jumping at the bow. A wonderful introduction to our forthcoming seabirding days.

After arrival at Puerto Madryn, and meeting with our driver and our local guide Mabel, we headed towards the Valdez Peninsula, making a productive stop in the Patagonian steppe with two Gray-bellied and four Lesser Shrike-Tyrants, a lovely Greater Wagtail-Tyrant, two Cinereous Harriers, and numerous Patagonian Mockingbirds. On a small lake, we had distant views of Patagonian (Silvery) and White-tufted Grebes, Coscoroba Swans, Red Shoveler, and a large group of Chilean Flamingos. Heading on to Puerto Piramides we made a few stops to enjoy close views of the well-named Elegant Crested Tinamou, as well as Lesser Rheas, Long-tailed Meadowlark, Mourning Sierra-Finch, and herds of Guanacos. Our main birding spot of the morning was a South American Sea Lion colony, where we had good views of a dozen Dolphin Gulls, plus Imperial and Rock Cormorants, and a few Cayenne (Sandwich) Tern. At this time of the year, the Sea Lion pups were making their first swims and we enjoyed seeing the young animals swimming with their mothers. Flying around the colony, a few Southern Giant-Petrels were probably attracted by some sea lion carcasses. We had our picnic lunch at Isla de los Pajaros, plus views of 100+ Magellanic Penguins, a beautiful group of flying Chilean Flamingoes, 40+ Great Grebes, thousands of breeding Kelp Gulls, and even a pair of elusive Sharp-billed Canasteros. Lastly we visited another sea lion colony south of Puerto Madryn, where we found two Snowy Sheathbills, a most sought-after species for many of us. On our drive back to the ship we saw a small group of Southern Martins, and then set sail for the Falkland Islands, accompanied by thousands of Manx and Sooty Shearwaters, as well as hundreds of Great Shearwaters.

We began our sailing day towards the Falklands with thousands of Black-browed Albatrosses around three fishing vessels. Absolutely amazing! Among the clouds of albatrosses we found a few dozens of the giant Southern Royal Albatross, as well as a few hundreds of Great and Sooty Shearwaters attracted by the easy food. Later in the day, we crossed path with other fishing vessels, giving more opportunities to see large flocks of albatrosses, and even finding a Gough (Wandering) Albatross. We estimated at least 5,500 Black-browed Albatrosses seen today! In much smaller numbers, we found our first Slender-billed Prions, Gray-rumped Storm-Petrels and Soft-plumaged Petrel, adding rarity to quantity. It was also an excellent day for mammal watching, with 50+ Southern Right Whales, 50+ Sei Whales, and several close views of groups of jumping Peale’s Dolphins.

Our day in the Falkland Islands we arrived in Stanley with beautiful weather, and after the short tender ride met the four jeep drivers who took us to Volunteer Point, where three species of penguins breed. It’s a two-and-a-half hour ride, half of it off road, to reach Volunteer Point, but our drivers were charming characters and their stories about their life on the islands, sheep farming, the war, or how to make good meringue with penguin eggs, made the trip much shorter. At Volunteer Point we enjoyed very close views of all three penguins (King, Gentoo, Magellanic) breeding there. The breeding season of the Magellanic and Gentoo Penguins was already finished, and the adults were all molting. But most of the King Penguins were raising large chicks, and some of them incubating eggs. Along with hundreds of penguins we saw numerous Upland and Ruddy-headed Geese, 50+ Double-banded Plovers, four White-rumped Sandpipers, and a few Dark-faced Ground-tyrants. On our drive back to Stanley, we made a few stops to watch Rufous-chested Dotterel, Correndera Pipits, Austral Wrens, and numbers of the charismatic Falkland Steamer-Duck. We also had incredible close views of a pair of Falkland (White-tufted) Grebes with their back-riding chick. After a lovely day in British territory we returned early enough in Stanley for a short city tour, or to have a beer at one of the local pubs, and then catch one of the last tenders back to Emerald Princess. Leaving these wonderful islands and charming people, we were followed by hundreds of Sooty Shearwaters, a few Sei Whales, and even some jumping Peale’s Dolphins.

We had another fantastic day at sea, sailing between the Falklands and Cape Horn (Chile). We began our day with close views of numerous Black-browed and Southern Royal Albatross, plus a few Slender-billed Prions and even of the minuscule Gray-backed Storm-Petrel. Among the numerous albatrosses we spotted a Northern Royal Albatross and a Snowy (Wandering) Albatross, but the most amazing discovery of the day (of the trip!) was to find a close Sooty Albatross. Spotted first by Ulf, this is an extremely rare albatross in that area. Beside these giants we looked for smaller seabirds, and happily found plenty of Fuegian (Wilson’s) Storm-Petrels as well as Magellanic and Common Diving-Petrels. A few Cape (Pintado) Petrels accompanied the ship most of the day, and even an Antarctic (Southern) Fulmar crossed the bow very close! While sailing around the legendary and scenic Cape Horn Island, the ship was surrounded by thousands of Sooty Shearwaters as well as hundreds of Black-browed Albatrosses, and a few thousands Imperial Cormorants were seen on their breeding colonies. We then headed towards Ushuaia (Argentina; the southernmost city in the World) through the Mar Del Sur Channel and spent the night sailing into the Beagle Channel, another legendary place.

After disembarking our ship in Ushuaia we met our local guide Marcelo, and immediately drove toward a well-known local birding spot: the garbage dump. That’s where we had great views of several White-throated Caracaras, and their commoner relatives, Chimango and Southern Caracaras, as well as at least a dozen of Black-chested Buzzard-eagles and a few elegant Dolphin Gulls. We then headed to Tierra del Fuego National Park. At our first stop we almost immediately found a pair of the sought-after Magellanic Woodpecker, and watched these beautiful birds for almost an hour, having incredible close views! What a memorable experience to see these birds foraging in the impressive Nothofagus forest. We then headed to Lago Roca, where after finding a Great Grebe on its nest, we found a group of at least four more Magellanic Woodpeckers—unbelievable! This bird, often so hard to find, gave us a truly wonderful show during our visit to the Tiera del Fuego NP. Excited by our imitations of Austral Pygmy-Owl were numerous Austral Thrushes, Thorn-tailed Rayaditos, and Patagonian Sierra-Finches, and during our picnic lunch near Laguna Verde, surrounded by impressive landscape, we even spotted a soaring Andean Condor. On the way back to town, we stopped on the shoreline of the Beagle Channel and found a close group of Kelp Geese, a dozen Rufous-chested Dotterel, a few Flightless Steamer-Duck, several Crested Ducks and Chiloé Wigeon, and a group of the superb Black-faced Ibis. After a quick visit to the city of Ushuaia, we were back on board and departed in the evening for sailing in the scenic Beagle channel.

The next day, our first stop during the excursion around Punta Arenas (Chile), was to admire a sublime Peregrine Falcon of the pallid morph! We had fantastic views of that rare raptor (found only in southern Patagonia), perched on a utility pole beside the road—a terrific way to begin our birding day in the Patagonian steppe. We then stopped by a shallow lake, where after a short walk we found a few White-rumped Sandpipers, Double-banded Plovers, and even a Baird’s Sandpiper. The bird that really got most of our attention was Magellanic Plover, and we found no fewer than 24 of them! Alone in its own family, this bright-pink-legged fancy bird only lives in Patagonia and is a most sought-after species for all shorebirds lovers and ‘bird family hunters.’ It easily won the ‘bird of the day’ vote because of the incredible close views we had of one individual. Stopping by some more wetlands gave us excellent views of most of the waterfowl species living in the area, including Coscoroba and Black-necked Swans, the colorful Ashy-headed Goose, Chiloé Wigeon, Red Shoveler, Flying and Flightless Steamer-Duck, and numerous Upland Geese. We also found a distant pair of Spectacled Duck, enjoyed a few Black-faced Ibis, and even found three species of cinclodes—Buff-winged, Gray-flanked, and Dark-bellied together on the shoreline! It was now time for a nice dinner together to celebrate a wonderful day, and to continue our journey into the Pacific.

The next day we began our seabirding at the exit of the Magellanic Strait, surrounded by Black-browed Albatrosses and Sooty Shearwaters. Unfortunately, the bad weather didn’t help us to spot many birds, but among the few dozens of White-chinned Petrels we saw our first Westland Petrel, and also had some nice views of Fuegian (Wilson’s) Storm-Petrels. At the end of the morning the ship entered the majestic scenery of the Chilean channels—what an experience to travel through this labyrinth of largely inaccessible islands covered by stunted forests. Birds in these protected waters included a handful of Magellanic Diving-petrels and Chilean Skuas. In the afternoon the ship stopped in front of the impressive Amalia Glacier for a spectacular view of the glacier and its surroundings.

Our second day at sea toward Puerto-Montt (Chile) was a great seabirding day and the best ‘albatross day’ of the cruise, with six species. The Black-browed Albatross was obviously commonest, but we also saw ten Northern and six Southern Royals, 100+ Salvin’s, four Antipodes (Wandering), and two Snowy (Wandering) Albatrosses. A big surprise of the day was seeing two Soft-plumaged Petrels, very rare here; indeed, our photos established the second confirmed sighting in Chilean waters! In the same genus, but more expected here, we found our first Stejneger’s Petrel and even a Juan Fernandez Petrel. In mid-afternoon, just before entering the channels of the Chonos Archipelago we encountered several rafts of Sooty Shearwaters totaling more than 10,000 birds. Seabird diversity dropped once in the channels, but we enjoyed a few flocks of Franklins’s Gull, some Imperial Cormorants, and groups of South American Terns resting on floating kelp.

For our last landing we spent a day near Puerto Montt in the splendid Nothofagus forest of Alerce Andino National Park. With the sky filled by dark and threatening clouds, the views of this pristine forest covering the mountains were impressive. Lots of trees such as Ulmo (Eucryphia cordifolia) and Arrayan (Luma apiculata) were blooming white, while numerous Green-backed Firecrowns were mostly attracted by the red and purple flowers of Fuchsia magellanica. In the forest, the explosive voice of the Chucao Tapaculo accompanied us all morning, and we had nice views of this beautiful tapaculo. We also enjoyed close views of a Magellanic Tapaculo in the dense bamboo understory and had a spectacular encounter with a Black-throated Huet-huet, coming very close to us and even offering photo ops. While whistling the song of Austral Pygmy-owl we attracted several Chilean (White-crested) Elaenia, Thorn-tailed Rayaditos, and Patagonian Sierra-finches. Another bird seen very well was the unique Des Mur’s Wiretail: a tiny little brown bird followed by an excessively long tail. Usually staying deep in the dense vegetation, one decided to please us and to come in the open at the edge of some chusquea bamboo. After a productive morning it was time for lunch, and Juan and Cristobal, our local drivers/guides, prepared one of the loveliest picnics we could expect. Among the various food and drink was some Chilean wine and artisanal beer. After lunch we drove back towards Puerto Montt via Peruvian Pelican, Black-faced Ibis, Austral (Ringed) Kingfisher, and flocks of Whimbrel. Leaving Puerto Montt in the evening we saw a few coastal birds such as Imperial Cormorant, Franklin’s Gull, and a few Parasitic Jaegers, ending the day with good views of 70+ Pincoya Storm-Petrels!

We finished our cruise between Buenos Aires and San Antonio (Chile) with an amazing seabirding day, including no fewer than 400+ Salvin’s, 250+ Black-browed, and 40+ Northern Royal Albatrosses. The best memories of this day were probably stunning views of 300+ Stejneger’s Petrels flying beside the ship and sometimes coming just below the bow. Together with the Stejneger’s Petrels we found a few Juan Fernandez Petrels and even a single De Filippi’s Petrel. In addition to these highlights were 1,000+ White-chinned Petrels, hundreds of Fuegian (Wilson’s) Storm-Petrels, and several large groups of Red (Gray) Phalaropes. Sailing close to Mocha Island, where most of the world population of Pink-footed Shearwater breeds, we saw hundreds of these migrant seabirds. The rarest sighting of the day was no fewer than 19 White-faced Storm-Petrels, a species with extremely few sightings so close to the continent, but seen here during our 2017 cruise. Beside these wonderful birds we found an amazing diversity of cetaceans: a group of 50+ Long-finned Pilot Whales along with 50+ Southern Rightwhale Dolphins, and 30+ Fin, 2 Blue, 3 Sperm, and 2 Humpback Whales! Sadly it was time to end our fabulous cruise around Cape Horn with a great farewell dinner, just before arriving in San Antonio.

- Fabrice Schmitt

Created: 17 April 2018