Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Back from Chile and Argentina!

After an overnight flight from Buenos Aires to Santiago to Toronto, I am back home in Niagara-on-the-Lake, re-acclimating to southern Ontario winter (though the temperature has been equivalent to parts of Patagonia, reaching 15 degrees recently). The trip was a lot of fun, as Adam Timpf, David Bell and I explored the deserts, mountains, coast, steppe, grasslands and pampas of southern Chile and Argentina.

mountains near El Yeso, Chile

campsite under the stars near Torres del Paine, Chile 

On my previous two birding trips to the tropics (Panama in 2014 and Colombia in 2015) I was limited to two weeks. To pack in as much as possible we had a vehicle/driver with us for almost the entire tim for both those trips. Argentina and Chile can be expensive countries to travel in, especially for Canadians due to the current weak Canadian dollar. Combined with the long distances we traveled and somewhat longer itinerary than the Panama/Colombia trips, we tried to save costs when we could by using public transportation. Fortunately our longest stretches of travel occurred during the night, such as an internal flight from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, or with the myriad of overnight buses. This allowed us to wake up in a new place, ready to bird all day, but we learned several times that the bus schedules don't always line up and inevitable "travel days" occur. Relying on public transportation without booking accommodations in advance can be less expensive, but more time is needed when delays or mishaps occur. In several locations we rented vehicles for 1-4 days. This allowed us to thoroughly explore hard to access areas, as well as cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.

Many-colored Rush-Tyrant - Maipo river mouth, Chile


Some of the allure that draws birders to this part of the world is the number of unique or iconic species found nowhere else in the world. What Patagonia lacks in diversity it makes up for with quality! We succeeded in finding most of our big targets, including all 8 (9?) Chilean tapaculos, Greater and Lesser Rhea, Magellanic Plover, Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, Chocolate-vented Tyrant, all five sheldgeese, Snowy Sheathbill, Humboldt Penguin and King Penguin, among many others.  

Diademed Sandpiper-Plover with jewelery - El Yeso, Chile


There are approximately 222 species which are restricted to the "Southern Cone" area of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and parts of southeastern Brazil, southern Bolivia and Paraguay. Of these 222 species, 4 are limited to the Falkland Islands, 3 are only in northern Chile and/or southern Peru, 4 are only in the Juan Fernandez Islands, and 61 additional species we did not have a shot of, mainly because they are found further north in Argentina than where we would visit (while I only had just over a week in the southeast part of the country). This left 150 Southern Cone specialties that we had a shot at given our route. Of these, we came across 133, so a pretty decent ratio! Many of our misses are easier to find elsewhere in Argentina and beyond, though a few still sting (Pincoya Storm-Petrel, Creamy-rumped Miner and Rufous-tailed Hawk come to mind). Since Dave and Adam are still in Argentina they will pick up many of the additional species that I didn't have a shot at.

sunset in Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire

Seabirds, cormorants, penguins, etc were not in short supply on this trip and we were treated with birds more-or-less restricted to the Humboldt Current (Peruvian Diving-Petrel, Humboldt Penguin, Inca Tern, Peruvian Booby, etc), species found in the far south of Patagonia and beyond (King Penguin, Magellanic Diving-Petrel etc) and a wide variety of other interesting birds, such as Southern Giant-Petrel, Salvin's and Black-browed Albatrosses, and various shearwaters and other tubenoses. Our pelagic off of Quintero, located just north of Santiago, was relatively slow but still provided an abundance of awesome sightings including our first albatrosses. 

Salvin's Albatross - pelagic off Quintero, Chile

As far as its birdlife is concerned, tapaculos really help put Chile on the map. Eight species (or nine depending on your thoughts on Magellanic Tapaculo) grace Chile's borders, including some of the most interesting members of the tapaculo family. We managed to find all of them, though Chestnut-throated Huet-Huet remained "heard-only". While endemic to a small part of Chile, Moustached Turca proved to be reasonably common in the right habitat and instantly become one of my favorite birds!

Moustached Turca - Embalse El Yeso, Chile

Of course no trip to Patagonia is complete without visiting one of the many Magellanic Penguin colonies, some of which also contain small numbers of the similar-looking Humboldt Penguin. In recent years a King Penguin colony has grown in number down a long dusty road two hours south of Porvenir in Tierra del Fuego. We saw three species of penguins on this trip, and it would have been four if not for the inclement weather shutting down our boat trip to the Southern Rockhopper Penguin colony near Puerto Deseado, Argentina mid-journey. The King Penguins, located at the very furthest south location we visited, instantly became a favorite.

King Penguins - Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Reptiles and amphibians were in short supply during this trip, as it was a birding-centric adventure with most herps found incidentally while on the trail of a bird. Some of the most interesting species for me included Argentine Black-and-White Tegu in Buenos Aires, Jewel Lizards (Liolaemus tenuis) in central Chile, and this Chaco Tortoise in southeastern Argentina. 

Chaco Tortoise - Las Grutas, Argentina

The same caveats about reptiles and amphibians also apply to mammals. We were still able to observe some pretty interesting ones, including the world's largest animals - Blue Whales. While scoping the seabirds off Isla Chiloe in central Chile we were surprised to see some distant Blue Whales spouting from the horizon. This is a popular summering spot for Blue Whales and despite the distant views we were pretty excited to have glimpses of this enormous cetacean. One day I will have to get in a boat to view them from close range! 

We also identified three species of dolphins, including Commerson's, Chilean, and these Peale's Dolphins. Some of the other interesting mammals we came across include Patagonian Mara (think of a weird hybrid between a rabbit, antelope, capybara and kangaroo), Humboldt's Hog-nosed Skunk, Coruro, and of course the ubiquitous Guanaco (precursor to the domesticated Llama), common throughout southern Patagonia. 

Peale's Dolphin - Porvenir, Chile

Our last two days were spent in the hot, humid and busy environs of Buenos Aires before I said goodbye to the guys to catch my flight back home, while they continued northward in Argentina. We were finally at the edge of the forested areas after several weeks predominately in grassland and Patagonian steppe. The lifers came hot and heavy at Costanera del Sur near downtown Buenos Aires and we racked up close to forty in a day and a half. 

Guira Cuckoo - Buenos Aires, Argentina

After a short layover in Canada I am off to Cuba on Monday and I likely won't have internet access during that time, so additional photos from Chile/Argentina will have to wait until March. I hope to put out a series of posts detailing the trip sometime this spring. 

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