Saturday, 15 July 2017

Journey to the Southern Cone: Part 11 (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 20, 2016

One of the defining characteristics of Patagonia is the constant, incessant wind that continuously sweeps across the landscape. The previous days had exhibited typical conditions and the following days would prove to be quite windy as well, but the stars aligned for us during our morning in Tierra del Fuego. The air was completely still at dawn and remained that way as the sun slowly rose in the sky. We made our way along the bumpy roads of Patagonia towards a specific pebble-lined lake about half an hour away; a lake that is home to a strange, dove-like shorebird called the Magellanic Plover.

countryside near Porvenir, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Along the way small birds flushed from the roadside and after a few minutes our first Short-billed Miner was tallied. A Least Seedsnipe and Buff-winged Cinclodes were also in the same area, while a wet field further along held four Two-banded Plovers. We didn't linger for very long with these birds however, as our main quarry awaited. 

Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

By 7:40 the smooth as glass waters of Laguna de los Cisnes (The Lake of the Swans) appeared around a bend. Due to the size of the lake, and our lack of knowledge as to what part of the shoreline the plovers frequently, we decided to split up. Dave headed off in a counter-clockwise direction while Adam and I walked the other way around. 

Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Adam and I had been walking for less than 20 minutes when a movement up ahead caught our attention. A quick look with binoculars confirmed our suspicions that it was a Magellanic Plover! 

Magellanic Plover - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

We watched as the bird slowly worked the shoreline, keeping an eye on us while also inspecting the substrate for any morsels. Fortunately with a bit of patience we were able to approach reasonably closely, allowing a prolongued study and great photo ops.

Magellanic Plover - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Magellanic Plover is a species that has been reclassified several times, although recent evidence suggests that it is indeed a shorebird, but sufficiently distinct from all the others that it isclassified as the sole member of its family - Pluvianellidae. With striking pink legs, a bright red eye and smooth gray plumage coupled with a dove-like gait, it really is an unusual species to watch!

Magellanic Plover - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

When the bird was walking away from us over a section of larger rocks it blended in quite well, though upon closer inspection the bright leg and eye color stands out. If the bird was standing perfectly still it was quite difficult to pick up on first glance.

Magellanic Plover - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

At this point Dave was way over on the other side of the lake. Despite the still air, the distance between us make it difficult to know if he could hear our shouts an see us waiving to get his attention. It did not matter in the end, as he came across six Magellanic Plovers on that side of the lake! Adam and I were content with our single bird - the views could not be beat.

Magellanic Plover - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Magellanic Plover - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Some call notes over the water alerted us to several shorebirds flying along - Baird's Sandpipers. 

Baird's Sandpipers - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Rufous-chested Dotterels and White-rumped Sandpipers appeared, as did some Two-banded Plovers. We enjoyed our first good looks at this species which also was quite "accommodating" as we inched closer for photos.

Two-banded Plover - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

The Rufous-chested Dotterels were slightly more wary but with some patience they too came close enough for great looks and good photo opportunities.

Rufous-chested Dotterel - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Rufous-chested Dotterel - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

We could have spent hours at this lake but unfortunately the clock was ticking. We were hoping to make the long drive south to a recently discovered King Penguin colony, drive back north to Porvenir, and then catch the 2 PM ferry back to the mainland. We were already running a little late so we hurried back to the car.

Several songbirds flitted in the scrubby vegetation lining the shoreline including Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetails, Gray-hooded Sierra-Finches, Rufous-collared Sparrows, Long-tailed Meadowlarks and Austral Negritos.

Austral Negrito - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Gray-hooded Sierra-Finch - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Gray-hooded Sierra-Finch - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Long-tailed Meadowlarks - Laguna de Los Cisnes, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Unfortunately the predicted drive to the King Penguins was just over three hours long meaning we had a very small window before we would need to turn around and head north, in order to make the ferry crossing. I made very good time on the gravel roads, making up ground during the long straightaways and taking the turns as quickly as possible without sliding off the road. A chipped windshield, broken door latch and two hours later, we emerged from the vehicle at the penguin colony dusty but alive, and with an hour to spare before having to turn back around. 

Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

King Penguins - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Well over 100 King Penguins were currently at this colony - a nice mix of adult birds and mostly grown young birds. It was incredible to see this species up close and to watch their interactions...

King Penguins - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

King Penguins - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

King Penguins breed mostly on various sub-Antarctic islands but there are also a few colonies in southern Chile. This colony was established in 2009 or 2010 and has slowly grown in number with each passing year - we counted 144 birds during our visit. This is one of the easiest colonies to access for most birders not traveling to the Falklands, South Georgia, or Antarctica, and it is becoming a popular tourist attraction as well. During our visit there was a handful of other people there.

Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Adam watching the King Penguins - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Over the course of the hour we watched as some individuals slipped in the ocean to fish, while other returned from their forays in the ocean. Most of the birds were just milling about, though occasionally one would start calling and before long 10 or 20 others joined in.

King Penguins - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Penguins lend themselves well to photography due to their often comical expressions and behaviours. A barrier had been erected a sufficient distance from the colony so that people did not disturb the birds, but it was close enough that we were still able to obtain frame-filling images of the birds.

King Penguin - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Below are a sequence of photos of the penguins. The distant mountains provided a stunning backdrop to the south, across the blue waters of Bahia Inutil.

King Penguin - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

King Penguin - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

King Penguin - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

King Penguins - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

King Penguins - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

King Penguin - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

King Penguin - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

King Penguins - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

King Penguin selfie!

One large group of Sooty Shearwaters passed by far offshore. We picked out two Great Shearwaters travelling with them as well as a Southern Giant-Petrel and two Black-browed Albatrosses. We didn't really look at too many songbirds though a confiding Patagonian Yellow-Finch provided great views near the parking lot.

Patagonian Yellow-Finch - Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Unfortunately our time with the penguins was soon up so we reluctantly pulled ourselves away to begin the long drive back. We made good time, racing through the straightaways once again, while keeping an eye out (though unsuccessfully) for Chocolate-vented Tyrants, one of our few remaining target species in this part of Patagonia. After an equally harrowing two hour drive we pulled into the ferry terminal, making our boat with seconds to spare, and with a leaking tire added to the list of ailments we had inflicted upon the poor rental car!

ferry from Porvenir to Punta Arenas, Chile

In hindsight it would have been great to spend an extra day on Tierra del Fuego as our time here was quite rushed. That being said, there is never enough time at any stop on a trip like this! We had a very ambitious itinerary that covered a lot of ground so that is one of the sacrifices one has to make.

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