Thursday, 12 June 2014

Argentina – Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego

By Bob Vaughan

This trip was a Birdquest tour lead by Mark Pearman who is close to completing the definitive bird book for Argentina, I’ve seen some of the plates and they are excellent. The tour started with a flight to Cordoba, where we stayed in Icho Cruz, close to some ancient sierras known as Pampa Achala.

Rising to 2100m or so they harbour some interesting endemics and potential splits including Cordoba, White-winged and Olrog’s Cinclodes. Other birds included Puna Canastero, White Monjita, Ash-breasted and Plumbeous Sierra Finches and a local race of Long-tailed Meadowlark (ssp obscura). I saw my first Andean Condors and Firewood Gatherers too!

The next day we drove to Salinas Grande, a vast salt flats for the charismatic endemic Salinas Monjita:

 Bushy areas adjacent to the flats held Suiriri Flycatcher, Greater Wagtail Tyrant, Tawny-crowned Pygmy Tyrant, Chaco Warbling Finch and White-tipped Plantcutter:

Later in sierran chaco habitat we found the bizarre and lively Crested Gallito

and Black-capped Warbling Finch. Next day was stormy and windy so Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrant and Yellow-billed Tit-tyrant were best birds before we flew back to BA.

Anyone visiting Buenos Aires should go to two places and first up for us was Otomendi National Park, an open marshy area with reeds (and Tawny-headed Swallows).

So many good birds Southern Screamers, Silver Teal, Maguiri Storks, Giant Wood Rails, White-faced Ibis, Spix’s and Freckle-breasted Spinetails, Scarlet-headed Blackbirds, Brown-and-Yellow Marshbirds  and beautiful Long-winged Harriers to name but a few.

Down near the river Narrow-billed Woodcreeper, Diademed Tanager and Ash-breasted Cuckoo were found, and I missed Dusky-legged Guan (different sub-spp but not a tick).

The major pair here are however Curve-billed Reedhaunter, which showed easily

and Straight-billed Reedhaunter which caused Mark a little more effort

In the afternoon we visited Costanero Sur, smack in the middle of Buenos Aires are these pools (a bit like Radipole?) surrounded by concrete skyscrapers (less like Radipole).  It is good for ducks and coots (a bit like Radipole) but there are three types of Coot to contend with (White-winged, Red-gartered and Red-fronted) and the ducks are rather different: Brazilian and Ringed Teal, Rosy-billed Pochard, Masked Duck. Grey-necked Wood Rails wandered the tracks and Solitary Caciques, Yellow-billed Cardinals and Variable Orioles sat in the bushes – so nothing like Radipole really.

Next day we headed South – Warbling Doraditos and Wren-like Rushbirds at the first stop by a canal and on to a special site, known only to a few. This is the place for Red-and-White Crake, and it showed straight way, crisscrossing a gap at some speed. Mega. On towards San Clemente past roadside lakes teaming with waterfowl - nine species of duck including Black-headed, Coscoroba and Black-necked Swans, Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills and Black Skimmers. Just park-up and get the scope out, awesome. Waders too, a few Wilsons Phalarope and 300 Stilt Sandpipers!

As we continued south Greater Rheas started to appear in roadside fields, a new family for me,

and we saw our first Spotted Nothuras. We were heading for a special site where Hudson’s Canastero can still be found, it duly showed well, dig that orange chin patch.

Dawn next day saw us tramping in a line over some wet meadows at Punta Rasa in search of Dot-winged Crake, only seen in flight and not since 2000. Worth a go of course, but no joy. Walking back down the road Richard thought he had heard a “gremlin-like chuckle” so we walked in and set-up a recording. Within minutes a Dot-winged Crake trotted through the gap in the reeds I had my bins on – that minor orgasm moment! Everyone got views as a few birds seemed to be rustling around in the dense cover. I think this was the first time even Mark had seen the bird on the deck – monster!

A supporting cast of Bay-capped Wren-spinetail and Sulphur-bearded Spinetails and tehn back to town for more empanadas and White-throated Hummingbirds. The afternoon was spent wellied-up in a marshy area looking for South American Painted Snipe. It was quite wet and when a snipe was flushed it resulted in a few lost boots as we attempted to turn, but no ID. Many-coloured Rush-Tyrant is a great bird though and the fly-by Stripe-backed Bittern helped. So on (and on and on) to Bahia Blanca with a Red-winged Tinamou seen well by the roadside.

The next morning we took some side roads to look for the declining Pampas Meadowlark, not easy, but with Long-tailed nearby the crucial features became clear. Pampas Pipits flew overhead and a smart Bearded Tachuri posed in a bush, but close up gliding Cinereous and Long-tailed Harriers were my favourite. The next stop produced a male Hudson’s Black Tyrant and another White-tipped Plantcutter.

We then heading on a long drive into monte desert with vast areas of creosote bushes and other low spiky vegetation, and we were asked to look out for a bird which fluttered-up and sailed to a new perch. Eventually we see this type of display from the coach and climb over another barbwire fence into the vicious vegetation.  Most of Argentina’s roads are lined with awkwardly high barbwire fences requiring bravado and a nonchalant disregard for ones bits. A dark carbon coloured finch known as Carbonated Sierra Finch flew into the air twittering and sailed down, no idea why it is called carbonated, no bubbles apparent but it does look carbonised. Plenty of Cinnamon Warbling Finches and a nest-building pair of Patagonian Canasteros made it a great stop. On to Las Grutas, a pretty seaside resort complete with cliff, a sandy beach and lots of Burrowing Parrots, rather better than the name sounds.

Early next day we explored some coastal monte desert finding White-winged Black Tyrants, Lesser Shrike Tyrant, nesting Scale-throated Earthcreeper, White-bellied Tyrannulet and some Crested Ducks. Down one sand gulley we heard a Sandy Gallito and it came in to see us, an odd charismatic endemic which is more of a runner than a flyer.

Our destination today was the Valdez Peninsula and a whale watching trip out from Puerto Piramides. In the sheltered bay were at least five adult Southern Right Whales with their calves. The whales are harassed by Kelp Gulls who peck at their backs for a beck-full of nice fatty blubber. Sadly the calves get quite badly pecked

so the barnacled Mums spend time fending of the marauders.

Aside from this drama there were a few swimming Magellanic Penguins, plenty of Rock Shags and a few Blackish Oystercatcher.

Next day we had a day to explore the peninsula and so we tracked down the endemic Rusty-backed Monjita, the near endemic Band-tailed Earthcreeper, some Grey-bellied Shrike-Tyrants and the rather splendid Tawny-throated Dotterel and a Least Seedsnipe.


However the best was yet to come, as we were sorting out monster fly-by Southern Giant Petrels accompanied by a patrolling Northern GP we saw a couple of female Orca with a young one in tow. Rather than going out to sea they went down channel and returned after about half-an-hour. Suddenly one of the female Orca flushed itself up a shingle bank and grabbed an Elephant Seal, tossing it into the sea.

The show then began with a game of pass the seal, before the poor beast was devoured and Giant Petrels gobbled the remains. A real Attenborough moment, this is the only part of the world where Orca have learned to do this and we had a ringside seat.  South America’s largest penguin colony was around the corner and we had close encounters with some of the 600,000 Magellanic Penguins.

The real prize here is however the rare endemic Chubut Steamer Duck, and after a distant view of one on the sea we found a pair sleeping on rocks. They are similar to Falkland Steamer Ducks. Here’s the male

The next stage of our journey was a flight to El Calafate in Southern Patagonia, a tiny tourist resort by the beautiful emerald blue Lago Argentino. Our first walk out gave us Austral Negrito, Upland Geese and Flying Steamer Ducks, on the second we found our main target - Magellanic Plover. There were two distant adults on the mud flats and eventually we saw a chick crouched down behind a rock. One of the adults came up and regurgitated some food for the chick, not a normal wader this!

The big attraction near El Calafate is Perito Mereno, an 18ml river of ice in Glacier National Park

It is certainly impressive, but so were the Austral Parakeets, Chilean Flicker, Fire-eyed Diucon, Thorn-tailed Rayadito, White-throated Tree-runner, Black-chinned Siskin and Spectacled Ducks

Let us not forget the Magellanic Woodpeckers….


The walkway by the Glacier proved fruitful with a Magellanic Tapaculo bouncing around beneath us and a dash past by a rare Chilean Hawk chasing the ubiquitous Chimango Caracara.

We then headed up on to the north of Santa Cruz towards the Strobel plateau where Hooded Grebes still breed. The Hooded Grebe was discovered just 40 years ago and is critically endangered with fewer than 800 birds. It has a restricted breeding range confined to shallow basaltic cauldron lakes high up in remote Patagonia. It is dependent for nesting on vegetation which attracts snails. It is also threatened by: climate change (high winds and drought), introduced mink, trout and salmon, and predation by Kelp Gulls (those bastards again). It is difficult to imagine worse circumstances, but thankfully there are efforts to monitor and try to preserve this handsome species. We saw 11 on the fourth lake we tried - but they were rather distant and it was windy. 

On the way down we found Short-billed Miners and a fly over Grey-breasted Seedsnipe. On to a small estancia La Angostura for the night which served great food, had a goat wandering the kitchen, and has Austral Rails in the garden. Austral Rail was only rediscovered 15 years ago and that’s not surprising as it skulks like a Water Rail and is as small as a Crake. We eventually had views of it skirting the reeds, briefly.

Next day was intended to be a journey back to civilisation, but we had a flat tyre and due to unforeseen circumstances (?) no spare. Our six hour impromptu stop did yielded a mega though, three Patagonian Tinamou strutting their stuff. Eventually we reached Rio Gallegos which turned out to be less of a tourist resort, more of a scrapyard. It was very windy, straight from the Antarctic no standing-up very windy, so no flights to Tierra del Fuego. This allowed a leisurely exploration of a peninsula just south of town on the Cabo Virgenes Rd which really turned out well – a gorgeous Rufous-chested Dotterel displaying, a few male White-bridled Finches and a rare Ruddy-Headed Goose amongst the Uplands.

Then an Austral Canastero on some waste land, protected as ever by barbed-wire and Patagonian Yellow-Finch in a quarry. Complete clean-up.

Just one brave pilot bounced in next day in a small plane and was up for the hop over the Beagle Channel, we wound up the elastic band and pedalled down the runway and buffeted through to the Land of Fire. It got colder and snowed heavily, the pass to Ushuia was blocked by a jack-knifed lorry. Shovelling through this brought some of the high breeding species down to us but meant that the trek up to the White-bellied Seedsnipe was off. Dark-faced and Ochre-naped Ground Tyrants were by the roadside and a Grey-flanked Cinclodes was in the airport car park. Flightless and Flying Steamer Ducks, three Grey-headed Geese, and Dolphin Gulls were on the shore and Southern Fulmar zipped past.

Next day things had calmed down and our boat trip down the Beagle Channel was on, we moved slowly down past islands covered in Imperial Shags, Kelp Geese and Elephant Seals. One island had a couple of Snowy Sheathbills pecking over the seals, but the other half of the boat missed them.

 Half way down a Black-browed Albatross cruised by, then John shouted “get on this bird” and a petrel went by to port. Mark identified it as a Fuegian Petrel a likely split from Wilson’s. At the end of the voyage was Isla Martillo and much joy as amongst the Gentoo Penguins for which the island is famous were two stray sentinel King Penguins!

Back on dry land we headed up to the Chilean border for close up Grey-headed Geese, Austral Thrush and a Tufted Tit-Tyrant.

The Yellow-bridled Finch did not show and no Owls but it was a quite magical.

Argentina is a great place for meat, often cooked on an open grill (asado) and you can choose what you want sliced off a carcase of lamb or beef. The various empanadas make a great breakfast and the sausages are superb, particularly the hot oozing black puddings. The red wine is excellent for washing down the meat, particularly the Malbec.  This all goes down well until constipation sets in, the Argentines must have the slowest peristalsis of any country on earth. Also a piece of advice, if you have any choice on the way to, from or within Argentina do not fly Aero Lineas, try someone else like LAN.

Who let the dogs out?

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