Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Journey to the Southern Cone: Part 10 (Patagonia: Sierra Baguales to Tierra del Fuego)

Introduction
January 8, 2016 - Santiago area, Chile
January 9 and 10, 2016 - Quintero pelagic, Parque Nacional La Campana, Chile
January 10, 2016 - Farellones, Chile
January 10-11, 2016 - Embalse El Yeso, Chile
January 12-13, 2016 - Nothofagus forests in Talca, Chile
January 14-15, 2016- Chiloe Island, Chile
January 16-17, 2016 - Chiloe Island penguins, Puerto Montt, Chile
January 18, 2016 - Patagonia: Puerto Montt to Sierra Baguales, Chile
January 19, 2016 - Patagonia: Sierra Baguales to Tierra del Fuego, Chile
January 20, 2016 - Patagonia: Tierra del Fuego, Chile
January 20-24, 2016 - Punta Arenas, Chile to Puerto Deseato, Argentina
January 25-26, 2016 - Valdez Peninsula and Las Grutas, Argentina
January 27-28, 2016 - San Antonio Oeste, Punta Tomba, and Bahia Blanca, Argentina
January 29-30, 2016 - Buenos Aires, Argentina

January 19, 2016

The temperature during the night plummeted to only a couple of degrees above the freezing mark. It was not the most restful sleep I had ever had and after what seemed like an eternity the sky over the mountains to the east began to lighten.We quickly made camp and began birding, attempting to shake off any remaining cobwebs as the day began.

Andean Condor - Sierra Baguales, Chile

Guanaco - Sierra Baguales, Chile

It was a great morning of birding and slowly but surely the hillsides and stream edges came alive with song. The calls of Least Seedsnipes beckoned from the pebble-strewn hillsides and it wasn't long until we had picked out a few perching on rocks.

Least Seedsnipe - Sierra Baguales, Chile

Least Seedsnipe - Sierra Baguales, Chile

Least Seedsnipe - Sierra Baguales, Chile

This was our second species of seedsnipe on the trip after finding a handful of Gray-breasted Seedsnipe in the hills near El Yeso above Santiago earlier in the trip. There are only four species of seedsnipe in the world, all restricted to the Andes and Patagonia. The Least Seedsnipe is, of course, the smallest individual of this family, ranging from Patagonia north to northern Peru and southern Ecuador. 

In the first couple of hours after dawn the birding was excellent and we quickly added a number of species to our growing list, including most of our main targets in Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant, Band-tailed Earthcreeper and Yellow-bridled Finch, along with our first Common Miners. Unfortunately the Yellow-bridled Finches were quite distant and disappeared over a hillside before we could obtain better looks.

Common Miner - Sierra Baguales, Chile

Cinnamon-bellied Ground-Tyrant - Sierra Baguales, Chile

Around mid-morning I decided to take a quick break to have a nap in the car, as the cold temperatures the night before had prevented me from getting much sleep at all, and I was starting to come down with a nasty cold. It had been all I could do to bird up to that point in the morning so a few minutes in the car with my eyes closed was a welcome relief. Adam joined me in the car as he was pretty tired at this point as well, while tireless Dave ventured down the road to keep birding. Only a short amount of time had gone by when I was woken up due to distant shouting down the road. It was Dave, with word of a small group of White-throated Caracaras that he had just found about a kilometer down the road! The three of us quickly made our way to the spot and fortunately one of the caracaras was still visible, perched on a fence post. A pretty sweet bird to end our time in the Sierra Baguales!

White-throated Caracara - Sierra Baguales, Chile

Our adventures in this part of Patagonia was nearly complete, but not before we made a quick stop at the entrance to Torres del Paine National Park. There are a series of wetlands in the area that play host to Austral Rails, a poorly known species with a restricted range in the southern Andes. Prior to 1998 there had only been a couple of sight records over the past hundred years, but intensive surveys in the years since have proven this species to be a little more widespread.

view of Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

We pulled up to our desired wetland and quickly heard a few of the rails calling from within. We tried to to get a visual and were eventually successful when a single bird flushed and land back down into the marsh, but mostly we just enjoyed hearing the rails call from their wetland. Several Wren-like Rushbirds and Spectacled Tyrants were also seen in the wetland, while numerous Sedge Wrens sang from the rushes. It seemed pretty strange to be listening to Sedge Wrens singing here at the other end of the world, considering that these are the same species as the Sedge Wrens we see in wet prairies and sedge meadows back in Ontario.

Guanacos were unusually abundant along the access road to the national park!

Guanacos - Torres del Paine entrance road, Chile

Guanacos - Torres del Paine entrance road, Chile

Leaving Torres del Paine behind, we drove back south on the gravel roads through endless open plains on our way towards Tierra del Fuego. Our rental car had some issue in which clouds of dust came in through the vents and by the pedals, quickly filling the car with a thick coat. We drove with the windows down the whole way, and Dave and Adam made good use of their bandanas!

While any roadside wetlands held good concentrations of ducks, geese and shorebirds, the barren steppe in between was somewhat devoid of life.

roadside birding in the Patagonian steppe, Chile

It is difficult to eke out an existence in these conditions. This perished Guanaco was one of several that we encountered.

perished Guanaco - Patagonian steppe, Chile

We had some information where a pair of Ruddy-headed Geese had been observed near the town of San Gregorio. The most difficult of the five sheldgeese species, Ruddy-headed has been undergoing declines in mainland South America, though a large population can still be found on the Falkland Islands. We were pretty happy to see that this pair of geese were still in their roadside wetland! The distance combined with the heat haze did not lend itself to good photography conditions and even views in the scope were quite "shimmery".

Ruddy-headed Geese - San Gregorio, Chile

By late afternoon we found ourselves in the Pampa Larga area, a well-known spot where both Tawny-throated and Rufous-chested Dotterel can often be seen, as well as White-bridled Finch, which is in my opinion one of the more spectacular finch species. A series of watering holes alongside the road provide fresh water and help congregate the birds.

Of course, one cannot drive anywhere in Patagonia without stumbling across Guanacos, it seems!

Guanaco - Pampa Larga, Chile

We spent an enjoyable couple of hours slowly cruising the roads, staking out various watering holes, and chasing down shorebirds in the fields. At least 12 Tawny-throated Dotterels were found and they allowed a reasonably close approach. I am quite partial to shorebirds and relished the opportunity to study this interesting species from up close.

Tawny-throated Dotterel - Pampa Larga, Chile

Tawny-throated Dotterel - Pampa Larga, Chile

The watering holes produced the greatest variety of birds. Correndera Pipits were abundant!

Correndera Pipit - Pampa Larga, Chile

It took some searching but we eventually encountered a White-bridled Finch! It was a little skittish but I positioned myself in such a way that I would be ready with my camera as I peeked over the edge of the grass into the dirt track where it had been seen. Unfortunately I completely blew the opportunity and the bird flushed before I could crack off any photos. Dave however managed a couple of great shots which are included on our eBird checklist.

Our last new bird for this area was a family of Patagonian Mockingbirds adjacent to the roadside.

Patagonian Mockingbirds - Pampa Larga, Chile

Patagonian Mockingbirds - Pampa Larga, Chile

By 8:30 PM we had reached the ferry terminal in Punta Delgado. It was a short crossing, taking only 15 minutes or so, but of course we kept an eye out for birds the entire time! Not much was seen in the way of seabirds - though we enjoyed studying the South American Terns - but we did see several spectacular Commerson's Dolphins as they cruised beside the ferry. The combination of white body along with black fins and head is quite striking on this species!

Upon arriving at the ferry terminal on Tierra del Fuego we drove to the southwest along the main road towards the town of Porvenir where we would be spending the night. Days are long in Patagonia in January; this photo was taken around 10 PM.

sunset on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

It was a long uneventful drive, but the surrounding landscape was stunning as the sun slowly slipped over the horizon. We kept our eyes peeled for Short-billed Miner, a range-restricted species that is common on Tierra del Fuego, but none were conclusively identified during the drive. We did have a flyover Black-crowned Night-Heron and the boys spotted a Short-eared Owl which disappeared before I could get on it. It was late when we arrived at our hostel for the night but we enjoyed a celebratory beer after another successful day. In the morning we would search for Magellanic Plover, one of the most unique shorebird species in the world, followed by a visit to a King Penguin colony located several hours south of Porvenir. I could hardly wait!

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