Saturday 12 August 2017

Journey to the Southern Cone: Part 14 (San Antonio Oeste, Punta Tombo and Bahía Blanca, Argentina)

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- Chiloé Island, Chile
January 16-17, 2016 - Chiloé 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 - Valdes Peninsula and Las Grutas, Argentina
January 27-28, 2016 - San Antonio Oeste, Punta Tombo, and Bahía Blanca, Argentina
January 29-30, 2016 - Buenos Aires, Argentina

January 27, 2016

We had done quite well over the previous days exploring the Valdes Peninsula as well as the Las Grutas/San Antonio area, yet a few main target species still eluded us. Olrog's Gull was our main priority on the morning of January 27 as we birded the estuary near San Antonio Oeste under cloudy skies. We discovered a decent concentration of Kelp Gulls and a few Brown-hooded Gulls, as well as a few species of shorebirds, but in the hour that we devoted to this area we could not turn up any Olrog's Gulls.

That evening our rental car was due back in Puerto Madryn, located about three hours to the south. With most of our target species wrapped up, we made the somewhat crazy decision to drive almost six hours to the south to Punta Tombo, overshooting Puerto Madryn by three hours, since this is a location where White-headed Steamer-Ducks are found with some regularity. If all went well we would have an hour or two of time to search for the ducks; at which point we would need to drive back to Puerto Madryn  to return the rental car, hopefully before closing time.

scoping a White-headed Steamer-Duck - Punta Tombo, Argentina

White-headed Steamer-Duck is the least common of the four steamer-duck species. Likely less than 3000 individuals can be found in the wild, all of them limited to a section of coastline in southeastern Argentina. After previously missing this species on the Valdes Peninsula, this would be our remaining shot at them.

The drive went pretty smoothly and by late afternoon we had arrived at Punta Tombo. The problem was that the only way to access the bay often frequented by the ducks was to pay to enter a colony of Magellanic Penguins, thereby gaining access to the cove. While I've never been known to turn down an opportunity to visit a penguin colony, the entrance fee was quite steep and we had limited time before needing to backtrack to Puerto Madryn. Despite our best efforts we were unable to convince the gate attendant to let us in for just a couple of minutes. We just wanted to run down to the cove, see the duck, and head back (good twitchers that we are).

Plan B was to attempt to scope the bay from a distance. After approaching as close as possible, we set up Dave's mini-scope on a sign for stability and took turns intently staring through the optics towards the direction of the bay. In the image above and below, Adam is acting as a wind shield for Dave (did I mention that it is always windy in Patagonia?). Despite our unconventional methods we were able to observe a distant duck swimming in the bay that appeared to be a steamer-duck, complete with a light-colored head. Success, though far from "crippling" views!

scoping a White-headed Steamer-Duck - Punta Tombo, Argentina

Feeling a little bit of shame because we had just driven six hours to twitch a duck whose field marks could barely be discerned, we jumped back in the car and turned down the long dusty road which would take us towards the highway, and eventually Puerto Madryn. As the car rumbled down the bumpy road I reflected on our time in this part of the country over the previous three days. We had done quite well with most of our target birds, even though we missed a few species including Olrog's Gull and Rusty-backed Monjita, as well as the Sandy Gallito which only Dave heard. We also missed Chocolate-vented Tyrant, a Patagonian specialty which was one of my most-wanted birds before the trip began. That evening we would be taking an overnight bus further north east, finally taking us out of the range for Chocolate-vented Tyrant. All things considered this leg of the trip was one of the better ones filled with many highlights, even though we missed a couple of species. As they say, it's just another reason to come back.

But wait, what was that, flying over the road? I brought the car to a halt while the other guys got on the bird....a few choice words later and we were staring at a Chocolate-vented Tyrant!

Chocolate-vented Tyrant - road to Punta Tombo, Argentina

We could not believe our luck. After passing through thousands of kilometers of suitable grassland habitat over the previous week without success, here we were, looking at one face to face.

Chocolate-vented Tyrant - road to Punta Tombo, Argentina

Already running a little late, the Chocolate-vented Tyrant added another 20 minutes to our arrival time but we did not care as we soaked up the views. A fantastic end to this portion of the trip!

January 28, 2016

The rental agency had closed by the time we rolled in to Puerto Madryn but after some asking around we were able to get in contact with them, return the vehicle, and settle up. We walked to the bus station and arranged  yet another overnight bus to take us further northeast.

The next morning we awoke to the sights of the countryside outside of Bahía Blanca, an important port city located in southwest Buenos Aires province. The windswept grasslands of Patagonia had been replaced with agricultural fields, pastures, and even copses and hedgerows. We were now on the edge of the pampas region of Argentina; vast fertile plains which provide suitable conditions for agriculture, but which also provide habitat for a unique suite of species, some of which we were hoping to cross paths with.

countryside near Bahía Blanca, Argentina

Our plan for the Bahía Blanca portion of the trip was to only spend one day here. With only three days remaining until my flight departed Buenos Aires to return home, it seemed like a better decision to spend one day in the pampas surrounding Bahía Blanca, followed by two days in the bird-rich environs of Buenos Aires.

We found a car rental agency and half an hour later had hit the road, meandering through the city to reach the countryside. As the car was a stick shift like most of the rentals in South America, I was the designated driver once again.

Our first stop was an accessible portion of an estuary on the edge of the city. Here we spotted a Gull-billed Tern and our first (and only) Snowy-crowned Terns on the trip, while we also noted our first Picazuro Pigeons, a common species we had not previously been in range of.

We motored on a paved road through the countryside to the northwest until we reached an area near Chasico. Based on trip reports and eBird checklists, this seemed like a good area for many of our targets - Grassland Sparrow, Spotted Nothura, Great Pampas-Finch and Pampas Meadowlark among other species.

The lifers came hot and heavy and over the course of several hours we found everything we had hoped to, and more. Several Pampas Meadowlarks, a Vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List, were a big highlight during the late morning. Most Pampas Meadowlarks can be found in the Pampas region of southeastern Argentina while a small isolated population subsists in southwest Uruguay. Formerly this species was quite common in southern Brazil, much of Uruguay and east-central Argentina, but its range has decreased by over 90% since the year 1900.

Pampas Meadowlark - Chasico, Argentina

A big surprise was finding a group of Pampas Pipits performing flight displays over a field. We assumed that we would miss this specialty of the region since few eBird records could be found anywhere close to where we were birding. A nice way to finish off a solid morning of birding!

That afternoon we returned to the estuary around Bahía Blanca, with one bird on our mind - Olrog's Gull. From what we had read it appeared that Olrog's Gulls are often observed on the mudflats of the estuary since a productive colony of these birds can be found further within the Bahía Blanca estuary, representing about 70% of the species' population.

birding the Bahía Blanca estuary near Punta Alta, Argentina

crab at the Bahía Blanca estuary near Punta Alta, Argentina

Almost immediately upon arrival we struck pay-dirt! At least a dozen Olrog's Gulls could be seen scattered over the flats, while several were feeding on crabs in the mud close to the shoreline. I guess we shouldn't have worried so much about this species earlier on the trip!

Olrog's Gull - Bahía Blanca estuary near Punta Alta, Argentina

Eager to view the Olrog's Gulls from up close, I took off my hiking boots and squelched my way through the mudflats towards one individual that was pre-occupied with a small crab. Eventually I was close enough to manage some reasonable photos, though the mid-day light was harsh.

Olrog's Gull used to be conspecific with Belcher's Gull, a species found on the west coast of South America from southern Ecuador to central Chile. Olrog's Gull is found only in the coastal areas of central Argentina and Uruguay, though individuals will wander further up and down the coast during the non-breeding season. Olrog's Gull is listed on the IUCN Red List as Near Threatened due to its small number of breeding colonies and the highly fluctuating numbers at these colonies.

Olrog's Gull - Bahía Blanca estuary near Punta Alta, Argentina

Olrog's Gulls feed primarily on crabs, a behaviour that has been speculated to be caused by direct competition with the larger and more aggressive Kelp Gull. During the non-breeding season they become more opportunistic, eating other mulloscs, small fish, and snails as well as crabs.

crab at the Bahía Blanca estuary near Punta Alta, Argentina

Dave had some intel on a good location for Dot-winged Crake in a seasonally flooded, grassy area near the estuary. The grasses were dry at the time of our visit and we spent some time in the mid-afternoon trying to tease one out of the vegetation. Eventually we gave up due to the heat of the day. We decided to venture into the near town of Punta Tomba to have a late lunch as well as find wifi. After a couple of hours we returned to the grassy area to try for the crakes once more.

Great Pampas-Finch - Bahía Blanca estuary near Punta Alta, Argentina

This proved to be a worthwhile strategy as a Dot-winged Crake responded to our playback immediately, and occasionally vocalized over the coarse of the hour that we spent in the marsh. Try as we might we were unable to get a visual; this species rivals the Black Rail in its secretiveness. I took the image below as the three of us were listening to the Dot-winged Crake.

Dot-winged Crake location - Bahía Blanca estuary near Punta Alta, Argentina

With time running out, we gave up on actually seeing the Dot-winged Crake and drove back towards Bahía Blanca to return the rental car. It had been a busy but productive day! That evening we grabbed another overnight bus, this one taking us to Buenos Aires. It was here that we would spend two days before my flight departed, while the other guys would continue further north into Argentina.

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