Darwin’s Rhea, one of the few birds which thrive on the Patagonian grasslands around the Magellan Straits
Having said our farewells to Joe & Gabi in Santiago, we caught the early flight down to Punta Arenas, picked up our hire car, and commenced the long journey through Patagonia steppe, following the shores of the Magellan Straits, to catch the ferry at Punta Delgado, bound for Tierra del Fuego. Twice before I’d been this close to reaching that ‘mythical isle’ but failed to make it both times. On the first occasion we ran out of time on a family holiday, having already visited the stunning national park of Torres del Paine – it’s easy to underestimate the travelling times and distances in this part of the world. On the second occasion, we were actually on the Argentine side – staying at Ushuaia, but on the day we were due to make the trip north, the mountain pass was blocked with snow – follow this link for the full story. This then was third time lucky!
Boat on the shores of the Magellan Straits, looking towards Tierra del Fuego (photo courtesy of Jane Williams)
Not surprisingly, there are very few birds in the wind-swept featureless grassland of Patagonia, but what there is, is truly stunning. On the approach road to Pali-Aike, a small volcanic national park on the Argentine border, we found a handful of the regions specialities – including Black-throated Finch, Least Seedsnipe and Tawny-throated & Rufous-chested Dotterel. After a rather choppy crossing (we didn’t realise until sometime later that all the ferries to TdelF were cancelled shortly after ours, for 24 hours, due to bad weather conditions!) we made our way to Cerro Sombrero and our most expensive hotel of the trip – mostly a gas-workers dormitory with a few, slightly upgraded rooms for tourists. Still, pleasant and friendly enough, and in the right location for the following days excursion to find the King Penguin colony at Bahia Inutil. That evening was spent at the lovely Yendegaia House – where David Couve, our host, provided excellent birding information and advice, allowing us to track down the icon Magellanic Plover before nightfall. Our last day on Tierra del Fuego was spent on the long return drive back to the ferry and along the shores of the Magellan Straits to Punta Arenas, stopping at various locations on route. The following day we spent a couple of frustrating hours in the Magallanes Forest NP, near Punta Arenas, in a failed pursuit of Magellanic Woodpecker – oh well there is always another time, before flying back to Santiago in preparation for our return to the UK.
The vast, windswept, grasslands of Patagonia – home to very few birds! (photo courtesy of Neil Parker)
But what birds there are, are pretty special – including this Black-throated Finch
or these Least Seedsnipe – little bigger than a sparrow!
There are two Dotterel of the region, this is Rufous-chested
and this one is Tawny-throated – struggling to stay upright in the fierce Patagonian winds
Tierra del Fuego – Spanish for ‘Land of Fire’, so named because of the many bonfires lit by the indigenous peoples and observed by the early European settlers, is an archipelago, covering 18,500 sq miles, at the southern tip of South America. It consists of the main island – Isla Grande, shared between Argentina and Chile, together with the many smaller islands, south of the Beagle Channel, reaching about 55 deg latitude. The earliest known human settlement on Tierra del Fuego dates to around 8,000 B.C.. Europeans first explored the islands during Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition of 1520. Settlement by those of European descent and the great displacement of the native populations did not begin until the second half of the 19th century, at the height of the Patagonian sheep farming boom and the local gold rush. Following contact with Europeans, the native Selk’nam or Ona and the Yaghan – a nomadic, canoe-dwelling people, populations were greatly reduced, through unequal conflict and persecution, by infectious diseases to which the indigenous people had no immunity, and by mass transfer to the Salesian mission of Dawson Island.
Yaghan people, 1883
Julius Popper, during a manhunt of the Ona people. In the late 19th century estancieros and gold prospectors launched a campaign of extermination against the indigenous peoples
But, despite this despicable and tragic chapter in the history of global exploration, Tierra del Fuego remains a fascinating land, which still holds many avian treasures, including this beautiful and scarce Chocolate-vented Tyrant
and, Two-banded Plover
One of our principal targets on TdelF was this species, King Penguin – seen at the only ‘mainland colony’ in South America. The population at Penguino Rey NP, has gradually increased over the past decade, is now approaching a hundred birds
On our return journey around the Bahia Inutil, to Porvenir we encountered several Chilean Skua
and these Southern Giant Petrel – identifiable by the greenish, not reddish, tips to their bills
Having dropped off our bags at Yendegaia House and been given helpful directions by our host, we were off in pursuit of our next target – this time the mythical Magellanic Plover, which has it’s main centre of population on Tierra del Fuego. It’s expertly camouflaged body being completely betrayed by its punk pink legs! Just a fantastic bird and the raison d’être for our visit
The following day we retraced our steps back to Punta Arenas, collecting a few more species on the way. This was the range-restricted Short-billed Miner
One of the most conspicuous species of the Patagonian grassland was Cinereous Harrier
From the ferry we saw very little but I did manage to catch up with this group of Magellanic Penguin
Our interest extended beyond birds of course, including this handsome and obliging Cupeo Fox
and this charming and aptly named Big Hairy Armadillo
Once back on the main land we added a few more wildfowl to the list, including the two species of Steamer Duck, the first is Flying
and these are Flightless – the shape, structure and bill colour being the distinguishing features
Two more geese were also notched up, including Kelp – only the males are white, females are black
and the rarest of them all, Ruddy-headed Goose – last seen on the Falklands in 2012. Click this link to read about the increasingly dismal prospects for this, now globally threatened, species
That pretty much brings the final leg of our Chile 2016 adventure to a close. Some great birding in a fabulous country. This is not a destination for ‘big listers’ but what there is here is a diversity of scenery and habitats which it would be hard to beat anywhere else in the world. Friendly and helpful people, good infrastructure and a place where you can find your own stuff – and push the boundaries of existing knowledge. I can’t wait to return…