Further South

Feb. 21 & 22, 2019

The Ruddy-headed Goose is one of 4 species of Sheldgoose in the genus Chloephaga, all from southern South America. Of the 4, it has the smallest distribution and population, with less than 1000 individuals living on the mainland of the continent and 80,000 birds on the Falkland Islands. Most of the endangered mainland subspecies live on Tierra del Fuego, but some spend the summer on the continental side of the Strait of Magellan, near Punta Arenas.

All of this was unknown to me at the time. I guess with a entire year’s worth of planning and research, I hadn’t learned about this bird or its predicament.  Talking with John Carlson over some of Punta’s best pizza (which isn’t saying much), he told us about a place south of the city where you can find Ruddy-headed Geese with some regularity. I looked over at Stephanie and thought about it for a second.

“Want to drive down there tomorrow and find a place to camp? We’d get to see more of Patagonia and go even farther south!” I pitched the idea to her, and she was more than happy to make it a plan. Some quick searching on eBird, and I had found a couple spots to bird on the drive south.

The next day, Stephanie and I completed some errands in the city, bought some groceries, and started driving south! Not the longest road trip we’ve done, it was only an hour of driving broken by a couple stops, but it sure was a blast! To this day, it’s still one of my all-time favorite days I’ve ever had.

Our first stop was the river mouth of the Río Leñadura some 8 kilometers south of Punta Arenas. We parked on the north side of the bridge, right by some large bushes, and walked on the trail through the fence, down to the river and out to the shore. Standing at the edge of the grass, where the tumbled rocky beach begins, I scanned the waters edge with the spotting scope. A large group of Kelp and Brown-hooded Gulls roosting on the shore were the first birds we saw. 

the beach at the Río Leñadura river mouth

Soon we started to notice just how many shorebirds were running and feeding along the waters edge! Baird’s and White-rumped Sandpipers, and 20 or more Rufous-chested Dotterels. Some small pale Plovers were among the Dotterels running around the rocks. I grabbed the scope and walked closer to get a better look. They were Two-banded Plovers! My first lifer of the day! The closer I looked, the more there were. I ended up counting 14 Two-banded Plovers among the other shorebirds all along the shore. I grabbed the camera and crawled as close as I could to the group and managed to get some satisfying photos. You can see the fragments of the two breast bands that would wrap around the chest of the plover if it were in fresh breeding plumage.

One of the many juvenile Rufous-chested Dotterels on the beach.
This cute Two-banded Plover was the highlight of the morning!

While snapping photos of the plovers, 2 Magellanic Oystercatchers sailed in and landed 10 meters away! Second lifer! They were beautiful birds, looking much like the American Oystercatcher, but instead of brown backed, it is a clean black. Their calls were definitely Oystercatcher-like, but with a mournful quality.

The striking black-and-white pattern of the Magellanic Oystercatcher really stands out among the rocks.

After getting my fill of all these birds, we walked back to the road, jumped in the car, and continued south. 

Honestly, I really enjoyed traveling without a car. Using public transport really simplified most aspects of travel. But I tell you, we were absolutely loving this car! Blasting our favorite songs, drumming on the dashboard; we were free! One of the most important reasons to rent a car is to go where buses don’t and to stop when buses can’t. One great example was shortly after leaving the Río Leñadura, we spotted a Southern Caracara on the side of the road feasting on roadkill.  We turned around and were able to drive right up to it as it stood over a dead rabbit (they are introduced and invasive in Patagonia). Caracaras are spectacularly beautiful birds when you get them up close. A weird bird that appears to be a mix of a falcon and a vulture.

Southern Caracara with its free roadside meal.

Soon, the pavement ran out. Only dirt roads from here continued south. At that point, the Patagonian weather changed for the worse. We have heard that in Patagonia you can experience all four seasons in the same day, and this was that day. The rain started to get heavier. Then, it turned into snow and hail! During the worst of this localized storm, we came to an odd monument on the center of a small roundabout. We braved the hail and ran to the tall white monument to take a few photos. We were at the political center point of Chile! Geographically, we were at the end of the world, but politically, Chile extends to Antartica where a wedge-shape sliver is claimed by Chile all the way to the South Pole. So we were standing at the halfway point between the South Pole and the northern border of Chile!

The obelisk marking the north-south halfway point of Chile.

A beautiful six more kilometers down the road and we found our camping spot, a level grassy area by the Río San Juan.  We turned off the gravel road onto the dirt tracks that led us about 150 meters to a wonderful area along the river and near a stand of trees. A true sign that this was the spot to pick was standing on the riverbank, right near our future camping spot. A family of 4 Ruddy-headed Geese!! Like a divine gift, the species of goose that was unknown to me just a few days before was now standing just 20 meters from us. I wanted to cry; cry tears of joy and tears of gratitude. I didn’t know who to thank, exactly. I thanked John for giving us a day with the car to allow us to get to explore, but I also felt like I wanted to thank the universe. I wanted to thank the planet, life, and those geese. They were so incredibly accommodating to Stephanie and I as we walked closer and took oh so many photos.

beautiful Ruddy-headed Goose
adult and juvenile Ruddy-headed Geese, the young one still has downy feathers on its head.

As if the camp spot hadn’t finished selling it’s wildlife to us, we found even more great birds! My lifer Plumbeous Rail ran around in a wet ditch that fed into the river, and a pair of Spectacled Ducks were on the river bank across from us! Two species I was worried that we might miss while in Patagonia. We even had a visiting Austral Pygmy-Owl as dusk turned to night. 

immature Plumbeous Rail.
One of the two Spectacled Ducks along the river at camp.

As it turns out, our campsite was just one half of a kilometer from a wildlife refuge dedicated to the Ruddy-headed Goose! We took a small drive before dinner to explore the area and found ourself driving through the refuge to the coast. The mountains across the strait were dusted with snow, and the beams of sun through the clouds made for a seriously magical evening. That was one of the most beautiful places I had seen. It reminded me of being out on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington in late fall. 

We checked out the reserve dedicated to the Ruddy-headed Goose. The words in the red bubble read “Species In Danger of Extinction.”
Looking across the Strait of Magellan to Isla Dawson, one of the many islands of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago.

It was a clear and crisp morning, with ice on the outside of our rental car. We chose to lay the back seats down and camp in the back of the Jeep. We made the right choice.
Coffee and breakfast was made while shivering in the sub-freezing morning. We left our wonderful and free campsite early enough to make it back to the city in time to drop the car off. We caught a bus north to Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park, arguably the most beautiful national park in the world.

We saw several hauntingly picturesque shipwrecks on our drive up the coast back to Punta Arenas.

eBird Checklist for Río Leñadura: https://ebird.org/checklist/S53115739

eBird Chechlist for camping at Río San Juan: https://ebird.org/checklist/S53115930

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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