Feb. 18 to 20, 2019
Our plane landed about 7pm, the sky was the kind of gray that reminded me of dreary winter days in Montana. Light rain and some wind. Overall, not the most pleasant weather but I couldn’t have been more excited! Birding at the end of the continent was something I wanted to do for so long, and it was finally going to happen!
Our AirBnB host picked us up from the airport and on the drive to the city, there were already good birds! Southern Caracaras and Upland Geese along the roadway.
The town had a strangely familiar feel to it. Something like Port Angeles, Washington combined with my Uncle’s neighborhood in Seattle. I was comfortable and felt like I could l live there. Watching the rain on the window of our host’s house, coffee in hand, the cool gray sky made it feel like home.
The weather started to lift around midday on our first full day in Punta Arenas (meaning sandy point in Spanish), so we took the opportunity to walk into town, take care of some errands and see some birds.
First stop, the beach! Not the warmest beach, but this one had a lot of bird activity!
The old dock (eBird hotspot “Muelle Viejo”) was loaded with Imperial Cormorants, Kelp Gulls, and my lifer Dolphin Gull!
Scanning the strait with the scope, we saw a dozen Southern Giant Petrels and even a few Black-browed Albatross! I was in love with this place! Really cool birds seemed to be everywhere, and how many other places can you see multiple Albatross from the shore?
My second lifer of the day was this Flying Steamer Duck hanging out on the beach. Both Steamer Ducks now in the bag! After taking a few touristy photos in front of the obligatory giant letters proclaiming the town’s name and loving it, we had to go get some errands done.
Our first order of business was to stop by a tour company and ask about tours to Isla de Magdalena, a small island in the strait that has a colony of some 40,000 Magellanic Penguins! Before we made it to the office, we saw a familiar face walking down the sidewalk. It was John Carlson! John is an excellent birder and photographer from Montana who leads birding/naturalist tours to Antartica every year. We knew he would be in Punta Arenas at the same time as us, so we planned on going birding for a day, but didn’t expect to see him until the following day. He was on his way to the rental car office to get a car reserved for the following day of birding and he asked if we wanted to join him on his walk.
“So,” John said to us, “they told me it would cost nearly the same to get the car for 2 days instead of just one. I have to fly out the morning after, so if I got the car for the 2 days, would you be able to use it?”
“You want to let us have the car for whole day?” I asked, sort of in shock.
“Yeah, of course. Would you be able to use it for the next day after tomorrow?” John wanted to make sure we didn’t have any plans already. I said that we absolutely would use it and that I couldn’t be more thankful! He reassured us that it was no problem. “Consider it my wedding gift to you two.”
That next morning we woke, ready to explore the great Patagonian steppe (arid grasslands) north of the city. We met John at the car rental office at 9am, signed some papers, and were off!
The first place we stopped was Laguna Los Palos. This spot held the most promise for Magellanic Plover, a bird John really wanted to see. The weather was gray and cloudy like usual, but the wind had picked up and it was blowing hard. As we learned over the next week, it’s always windy in Patagonia, but that day was the strongest sustained wind we’ve experienced other than being on the top of a mountain. It whipped up the water of the laguna into a froth, and made it almost impossible to see through the spotting scope. The wind shake was intense.
We tried our best, but did not locate a Magellanic Plover. There were, however, a lot of other birds around! Andean Condor flying over, an inland Chilean Skua, 40 Chilean Flamingos, Silver Teal, a field full of Upland and Ashy-headed Geese, and my lifer Correndera Pipit and South American Snipe!
We drove east on highway 255 and turned north on Y-455. This long gravel road was the main area we wanted to bird. It winds its way through a lot of great scrubland and steppe habitat, and according to eBird data, it is one of the best places to find all the patagonian species we were after.
Almost immediately we spotted some Lesser Rheas off the side of the road! I couldn’t believe how quick that was! Right away, we were looking at several huge flightless birds walking through the grass and shrubs. How incredible!
Moving farther down the road, we came to a large estáncia at about 10.5 km along the road. The green pasture was literally full of birds! Flocks of Rufous-collared Sparrows and Gray-hooded Sierra-Finches in the shrubs, and dozens of Rufous-chested Dotterels feeding in the grazed pasture. The biggest surprise was nearly 200 Least Seedsnipe all over the pasture! My 5th lifer of the day so far.
From here, we continued north checking every shrubby spot we found for Band-tailed Earthcreeper. Getting out of the car to listen and play calls on a speaker were proving difficult in the stiff wind. It was hard to hear anything over the roar of 25mph winds. Sometimes, a gust of 40mph would come by and almost knock me over!
The drive was long, but we filled the lulls with conversation. John told us about his Antarctic tour, the penguins, whales, seals and ice they encountered. We told him about our last 4 months of travel from Bolivia all the way to Punta Arenas. Often we remarked at how much this landscape resembled eastern Montana, Valley County in particular. We ran into more flocks of Rufous-collared Sparrows, Long-tailed Meadowlarks, an occasional family of Rheas, and a lone Southern Caracara or two getting blown by the winds.
About 33km down the road, we spotted our lifer Tawny-throated Dotterels! I was pretty excited and actually relieved! That was a bird I really hoped to find and I was worried we would miss it. We sat and watched the loose group of 18 birds in the short grasses on the east side of the road.
We decided to turn around at 38kms, and head back south towards town. Right after turning around, we flushed a White-bridled Finch from the side of the road! Incredible! We got out and walked to field where it flew to, flushed it a couple more times but never got solid looks at it. Oh well. A cooperative Correndera Pipit in the field was a nice consolation for braving the wind once more.
The White-bridled Finch is a spectacularly beautiful bird, especially for how dreary and muted the steppe looked that day. I still wish that we had a chance to fill our eyes with the bird perched on some grass or a fence post. Fleeting looks of its contrasting black/white/yellow wing pattern is all that I remember of that encounter. Regardless, a great find and one that we easily could have missed.
We stopped at the Tawny-throated Dotterel spot on the way back through, this time we both got much closer photos. Subtly beautiful, they were became my favorite new bird of the day.
While we were watching those cool birds, we spotted a Chocolate-vented Tyrant! Definitely the most surprising bird of the day! They were huge, much bigger than I was expecting. They are about the size of an American Robin (rather than kingbird size like I imagined) with enormous long wings like that of a Nighthawk. The bird was catching bugs on the ground and then flew to a shrub where it fed its fledgling. How cool! A fantastic way to end the day birding out in the Patagonian Steppe!
We drove back to Punta Arenas and after dinner at Dino’s Pizza with John, we said our goodbyes and drove to our AirBnb, hoping to finally warm up. We planned our next day with the rental car over afternoon coffee and packed our backpacks. Maybe we will drive even farther south.
Thanks again, John, for a fantastic day of birding and great company!
eBird checklist for Muelle Viejo: https://ebird.org/checklist/S52937671
eBird checklist for Laguna Los Palos: https://ebird.org/checklist/S52980050
eBird checklist for road Y-455 (Gallego Chico): https://ebird.org/checklist/S52982257
Cost and Logistics
Since John Carlson rented the car, and we didn’t use any public transit, I don’t have cost and logistics information regarding this post.
BIRDING PATAGONIA: the Breakdown is where you can find a total list of all the relevant cost and logistic information for our whole time in southern Patagonia! It’s the master list of all the information to help you plan your visit!
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Reblogged this on Wolf's Birding and Bonsai Blog.