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This trip had originated with the notion of doing some Puma tracking near El Calafate in Patagonia, and adding some wildlife watching in areas such as the Valdes Peninsular and Chiloe Island. However, cost started to become as issue, and we became more interested in the possibility of walking in the Andes, knowing that a good selection of birds would be encountered incidentally. This turned out to be very much the case, with a good range of Patagonian species seen, including some key ones such as Andean Condor, Lesser Rhea, Torrent Duck, Magellanic Woodpecker, Magellanic & Humboldt Penguins, and Black-browed Albatross. Apart from a day in Buenos Aires at the start of the trip (and part day on return for flight purposes – a more northerly range of urban species was seen here), all locations were in either the Argentinian or Chilean boundaries of greater Patagonia.
The initial outline plans for puma tracking etc had been looked at with Trogon Tours (www.trogontours.com), but then we looked at various South American specialists for the final plans. We plumped for Real World (http://www.realworldholidays.co.uk/) who provide an excellent tailor made planning service, and provide good communications for tweaking details. For a lot of the travel within South America, they use more than one locally based agents who tend to the day to day dynamics. Since we visited different distant locations, this often involved various combinations of travel, including internal flights, public buses, private taxis, and even ferries. There were also some trips we booked which had accompanying English speaking guide, such as to Chiloe (private guide) and the Perito Moreno glacier (local bus trip). Public buses were more like tourist buses in style (some but not all with toilets on board), with the tickets or travel vouchers already provided by the local agency, and someone to meet us at the other end of the journey.
We flew from the UK (Newcastle) and either Buenos Aires or Santiago can be used as the international destination, using one of the European airports as a hub. Both are very similar, so we went for Buenos Aires due to slightly lower cost and better flight times. Both would then need internal flights to Patagonia. It’s worth noting that the luggage allowance for the transatlantic flights are now quite generous (we had 23kg with KLM/Air France), but that there may be a baggage excess to pay for internal flights (of our three, only the Argentinian Sky Airlines required this on the flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate, and it was only about $US12 each).
Crossing the Argentinian / Chilean border was an interesting experience, which naturally had to be completed twice. The first time was on the journey from El Calafate to Torres del Paine. This was by public bus. The border crossing was within spitting distance of the mountains, and was a very slow affair. First the Argentinian side, which was in little more than a hut with no toilet facilities. There were separate slow moving queues snaking out of each of the two doors into the open air for those either entering of leaving Argentina. A 10 minute drive then found the Chilean entry point, which was a more modern affair with sniffer dogs for disallowed food and X-ray machines, and still took a while to pass through. Entry back from Chile was in the centre of the Andes, at one of the highest points in the road crossing between the two on our bus/boat trip from Puerto Varas to Bariloche. This was very much quicker and with what seemed a lot less fuss.
Timing and weather
November/December is late Spring in Patagonia, which meant a preponderance of flowers, and hopefully many singing birds and/or young (including the return of the penguins to the colony on Chiloe). Weather conditions are interesting here. Apart from El Calafate, which is on the lee side of the Andes, and so receives very little rain, we had fully expected a good possibility of wet weather some of the time with very cool to moderate temperatures. Even the weather forecast checked before leaving showed this to be the expectation. There are also reputed to be very strong winds in Torres del Paine. Our reality was that we experienced the sort of weather expected at the height of Summer in the Spring. So much for the base layers and warm weather over garments (which, however, would still be the usual choice to take)! We had a minimal amount of rain in one period in each of Torres del Paine and Puerto Varas, with day time temperatures anywhere between low 20’s°C to almost 30°C one day in Bariloche.
Buenos Aires. We stayed in the Spanish quarter for 2 nights at the start of the trip and one night at the end. Even within this very large city, there are numerous parks which all seem to teem with common birds (thrushes, doves, etc) as well as people, and can even turn up one or two surprises, such as Rufous Hornero and Cattle Tyrant.
El Calafate. The main objective for tourists here is the Poreto Moreno glacier, which is hugely impressive in itself. The boat trip to view the edge of the ice is impressive, although barely any birds are seen from here. However, back on dry land, there is a descent along boardwalks to view the glacier from above, and a few birds can also be picked up. At the cafe and car park at the bottom, it is worth scanning the cliff faces above for Andean Condor, which had also been picked up earlier on the bus ride from El Calafate. El Calafate itself is very good for birds, with particular focus on the bay of the lake. The western end holds large numbers of waterfowl, flamingos, and waders. At the eastern end is the small nature reserve, which is not only good for getting closer to some of the same birds in smaller numbers, but also a rewarding mix of passerines. A small dry looking marsh on the landward side of the reserve held displaying Cinereous Harriers.
Torres del Paine. The trip to here from El Calafate on the public bus is the best opportunity to see good numbers of Lesser Rhea, and also the most numerous collections of Guanaco. The park itself is stunning, with plenty of walking opportunities with tracks around and even between the mountains (I would recommend the “Ascencio Valley Hike” from just outside the Los Torres Hotel which ascends alongside a river North-west between the peaks). Andean Condor and Black-chested Buzzard Eagle are quite regular, and the fast flowing river provides ideal opportunity for Torrent Duck. The trees encountered further up the walk (from the cafe at 3 miles) was our only site for Magellanic Woodpecker and fairly regular Thorn-tailed Rayadito).
Puerto Natales. Following Torres del Paine, we took two public buses to reach the airport at Punta Arenas. The two were split by an overnight stop at Puerto Natales. The inlet from the sea here not only has a good view of the distant Andes, but is also a good spot for various water birds not seen elsewhere. A main road starts at the ferry dock to the South end of the town, and although this is reasonably busy, a footpath follows it on the shore side, which is very productive. Amongst the numerous Black-necked Swans, the small numbers of Ducks, Gulls and Terns are worth checking. The pier near the ferry depot produced Chilean Skua, and a wrecked pier further North had numerous Imperial Shag.
Puerto Varas. This rather comfortable small town is at the western end of the Chilean lake district. We used it as a base for a trip to Chiloe, and also then to enter and cross the Chilean lakes and Andes to Bariloche on the Argentinian side of the mountains. There is a promenade which stretches for around 2 miles along the lake shore, which doesn’t have too much of bird interest apart from regular Dark-bellied Cinclodes, and a park above our hotel (Cabanas del Lagos Hotel) at the North end of the town also seemed fairly quiet (although this was where there were the first Green-backed Firecrowns and Tufted Tit-tyrants). Outside of this the town is fairly quiet for birds (save for the noisy and regular Black-faced Ibis and Southern Lapwings). Chiloe is well worth a visit. We did it for the penguin colony at Puñihuil, which is a trip worthwhile in itself, with the potential of seabirds on the 2 half hour ferry crossings added in for extra interest. The west coast of the island is likely to be good for more sea-watching, and more time in the interior may be productive (including for possible Darwin’s Fox)
Bariloche. While there is a potentially good lakefront with ample views of the Andes from this busy town, there isn’t much to be had on the birding front unless the town boundary is reached and the suburban sprawl left behind. Chimango Caracaras seem to be everywhere, and Dark-bellied Cinclodes frequent, with additions of a small group of Tufted Tit-tyrants and a pair of Great Grebes and Flying Steamer Ducks on the lake, but the best part of Bariloche is getting there from Puerto Varas. The scenic/touristy route is by 3 boats/lake crossings, and bus links between (along with the border control high in the Andes). The strength of this passage is not so much the birds, but the wonderful scenery encountered, including both turquoise and emerald coloured lakes, and 4 close volcanos of various shapes. Half way stop is at the Hotel Natural just on the Chilean side of the border, where lunch can be bought in the hotel restaurant, and the surroundings checked for both Green-backed Firecrown and Yellow-winged Blackbirds which were both present
Other tips and information:
Day 1 - Sunday, 20th Buenos Aires
While the objective of the trip was to visit the Argentinian and Chilean areas of Patagonia, the early morning arrival of our third flight into Buenos Aires (landed 1.15am) meant that a day in the capital before flying down to El Calafate was a sensible option. The arranged itinerary was for a morning off, and then an afternoon guided tour to look at the city sites, but the local agent hadn’t quite read the communications correctly, and had us slotted in for a 9.30 pickup. After we impressed on her that this wasn’t going to happen, she agreed to try to rearrange for later (not easy for a Sunday and at this time in the early hours), and the following morning came back with a 3pm pickup. The tour itself was the predictable drive around the city sites, with a little walking time, but the many parks dotted around produced copious Eared Doves, lesser numbers of Rufous-bellied Thrushes, and sporadic hirundines. A highlight in the centre of the city was a family of Rufous Horneros on a small patch of grass, where a single Cattle Tyrant also appeared.
The morning was more interesting from a birding perspective, since we left the hotel post breakfast for a 3 hour stretch of our legs, heading away from the closed in Spanish style streets around the hotel to head for the more open Puerto Madero district. This is a reclaimed old port developed into a modern surround of shops, bars, offices and apartments. The beauty if it is that it still has an open channel separating from the mainland, connected by short bridges. The most obvious birds are flocks of parrots noisily flying overhead (mostly Monk Parakeets, but there seemed to be more different special shapes amongst them), and the hirundines hawking and probably nest prospecting around the water. Most obvious species were Brown-chested Martin, White-rumped & Blue-and-White Swallows, but others may also have been amongst. On a very small circle of greenery on one of the bridges was a pair of Rufous Horneros. Apart from a few Neotropic Cormorants in the water, the only other bit of excitement was a few feeding Chalk-browed Mockingbirds and Shiny Cowbirds in a small park alongside the restaurants.
Another walk around this district on the last morning at the end of the holiday not only found a similar mix of these species, but also added in Great Kiskadee, Grey-breasted Martin, Green-barred Woodpecker and a pair of Roadside Hawks overhead.
Day 2 - Monday 21st. El Calafate
Landing in El Calafate from Buenos Aires is literally like a breath of fresh air. The entire area is Patagonian Steppe, which is very dry and fairly uniform, with the town of El Calafate the only significant outpost for the locality. The town is located next to the turquoise waters of Lake Argentinos, in a bay which curves round to then incorporate the small wetland nature reserve (open 9-5, as admission ARG $100 to non residents). We landed early afternoon, and by the time we had transferred to the hotel, finally managed to see some birds by late afternoon. A couple of hours walking alongside the reserve and its immediate environs dug up a good selection of the local specialities. Even just out of the hotel, a group of Black–faced Ibis were on the local golf course, and a single dark capped Austral Thrush was closer to.
The real birding started when we reached what looked like an extensive salt marsh type of habitat approaching the shores of the lake. A small bridged stream held a few Crested Duck, but of even more interest were the pairs of Upland Geese scattered around. Occasional pairs of Austral Negritos were quite flighty but out in the open, which contrasted with the first of a handful of much more obliging Spectacled Tyrants. In the distance we could now make out the small collection of Chilean Flamingos on the enclosed pool of the nature reserve, with sporadic Black-faced Ibis flying in. Small numbers of Long–tailed Meadowlarks were stunning (and noisy), belying their name which should have favoured Crimson-breasted Meadowlark. After a couple of Southern Crested Caracaras flew by, perhaps the stars of the show were the Chimango Caracaras and Cinereous Harriers. The former were very active in both sides of the road we followed, often in twos and threes quartering the scrub. The harriers favoured a small area of reeds on the landward side of the road, and were demonstrating that Spring in the Southern Hemisphere is definitely here by the courtship displays and mating rituals. On the return, the only extra birds added were a Correndera Pipit on one of the fence posts, and a single Yellow-billed Pintail in a small pool next to the road.
Day 3 - Tuesday, 22nd Perito Moreno glacier
To see one of the most accessible glaciers in the region had to be done, and so we found ourselves on a bus with 13 other tourists for the one hour journey from El Calafate to the Los Glaciares National Park. The scenery changed from one of barren steppe to mountains and greenery once the boundary of the national park was reached, although the freshwater lake was still that of Argentinos, the self-same one which El Calafate nestles on. As we picked others up from the town, and on leaving the outskirts, it was obvious that the meltwater hadn’t reached a seasonal peak as yet, leaving the bay above the water level, and the birds seen the previous evening on the walk along the eastern shore were in much greater numbers on the exposed ground. From a distance on the bus, many more Upland Geese and Chilean Flamingos were present, along with good numbers of Coscoroba. Many other species were a little distant for identification given our mobile hide!
Before reaching the entrance to the national park, we stopped at a lakeside viewpoint with the Andes in the distance. A few Southern Crested Caracaras passed by here, with a pair of Black-necked Swans in the centre of the lake. Main prize during this part of the journey was an adult Andean Condor gliding over the bus, searching for carrion on the steppes.
The format of the glacier tour was to sail on a tourist boat for an hour close to the glacier (well recommended despite the number of people!), and then a three hour wander around the descending boardwalks lining the opposite hillside to the calving section of the glacier (just as good, with regular calving events). We were very lucky with the weather, which seemed even hotter than Buenos Aires in the low 20’s and constant sunshine, which enhanced the blues in the ice, and the regularity of calving. The main birds seen and heard were Rufous-collared Sparrows, but some gems were unearthed along the way. Chimango Caracaras were occasional, but the final descent to the lower car park and restaurant turned up a trio (at least) of goodies. First was a White-crested Elaenia, showing off the characteristic white crown vividly. Then came a jewel – a male Patagonian Sierra-Finch (a pair were later near to the restaurant), picked up by its song. Near to the end of the trail, a pair of Bronze-winged Ducks hugged the icy edge of the lake – the first, and last, birds seen on the actual water. Then, dancing around on the ice and shale, a couple of Dark-faced Ground Tyrants, showing off the characteristic spreading of the tail of the family. At the restaurant, Chilean Swallows, Austral Thrushes, and a marauding pair of Southern Crested Caracaras provided easy entertainment. However, easy main award again went to a small group of Andean Condors, soaring around the peak above us at some height.
Day 4 - Wednesday 23rd El Calafate to Torres del Paine National Park
The journey from El Calafate to Torres del Paine was an overland one. We were amongst the first to be picked up by a shared bus at 5.30am, and by the time we had reached the outskirts of town, all the seats were taken. The total time taken for the whole journey was well over 6 hours, and this mainly through what is on the face of it monotonous Steppe, which in Argentina is dry and low scrub. Watching out for wildlife of any kind makes the journey seem a lot more agreeable. Even then, up until we stopped for a break after 3 hours, the main entertainment was from regular groups of Guanacos, which were to be a staple sight for the day, a Southern Crested Caracara, and an introduced European Brown Hare skipping across the main road. Just before said rest stop, a slightly lower flatter area was perceptibly greener, and the good numbers of Upland Geese also heralded the first Lesser Rheas of the trip. These were to become more common in small groups as the journey progressed, although none were seen within Torres del Paine. A single Grey Fox spiced up the sightings.
The slow and cumbersome border crossings in Argentina and then Chile were made somewhat easier by a single Magellanic Oystercatcher, with a group of 4 Andean Condors swooping in low looking for a meal. Once into the park proper, the routine was to stop off for regular photo breaks, which unearthed Black-necked Swan and small groups of Chiloe Wigeon. On the approach to the treat of a one hour actual walk in the park, we passed a small lake which contained a pair of White-tufted Grebes. The circular walk we did to the Salto Grande waterfall, which runs into Pehoe Lake, was a real treat. The group from the bus snaked its way along, cameras snapping constantly. Rufous-collared Sparrows were commonly seen and heard, with a rewarding Andean Condor overhead. The sound of rushing water heralded the presence of the waterfall with fast flowing water above. The optimistic query to the guide as to the potential of Torrent Duck was met with the disappointing “only seen 3-4 times a season here”. Yet only a minute later, I picked up a female feeding just above the falls. Result! And after only 2-3 dives, off she flew. An American Kestrel then circled overhead, and a very obliging male Austral Negreto fed next to the path.
It was now 2.45pm and finally time for lunch, which was to be at the Explora Hotel on Pehoe Lake. As soon as we reached the lake, a Great Grebe was seen fishing next to the shore. Then a lunchtime treat – a Flying Steamer Duck (and male Upland Goose) was feeding just outside of the restaurant windows, with the peaks of Torres del Paine as a backdrop.
Then it was finally time to retrace steps to our accommodation at the Los Torres Hotel, close to our original entry gate (Laguna Amarga). While waiting for the courtesy bus, a Black-chested Buzzard Eagle flew by. The grounds and surrounds of the hotel looked to have plenty of potential. Apart from the common Rufous-collared Sparrows and Chilean Swallows early hits were Chimango Caracara, Black-faced Ibis and Southern Lapwing. A short walk before a welcome beer found a couple of Patagonian Sierra Finches, with curtain closing Andean Condor overhead and Buff-winged Cinclodes in front of our room.
Day 5 - Thursday 24th Walk up Torres del Paine Ascencion Valley
The Los Torres Hotel, our accommodation for 2 nights in the Torres del Paine National Park, is situated in an excellent location for walking. It is located to the South-east and directly below the peaks of the mountains, offering hiking both eastwards and westwards, both culminating in a rather long circumnavigation of the peaks. There is also a track leading North-west, taken as a branch 800 metres to the West of the hotel, then heading up to follow the valley of the river cutting through and between the peaks. Much of this is uphill, with a lengthy descent at one point to a handily placed but pricey cafe/kiosk, situated next to a bridge and the stunning fast flowing small mountain river. At this point, the low bushes of the slopes are replaced by forest, which we followed until almost reaching a junction, where a left turn would have scrambled up to a mountain lake. Since we eventually covered 9 miles in the 8 hour outing, we decided against the lake, mainly due to time constraints.
The lower elevations of the walk were mainly low bushes, and scattered trees. As opposed to yesterday when we had constant sunshine, today was more cloudy with occasional light drizzle – perhaps much better conditions for an uphill walk. Rufous-collared Sparrows continued to be the most common bird – by both sight and song. Second in line, and by a long way, were Southern House Wrens and Austral Thrushes closely followed by Patagonian Sierra Finch. The latter continued to be a problem, since many of the males had upper back a lot more olive than the typical bright golden, although the (non) extent of the white on the lower flanks seemed to preclude Grey-hooded. Outside of these, a Black-chested Buzzard Eagle flew over our heads and landed on the distant cliff face, with a couple of Austral Blackbirds and a pair of Black-chinned Siskins for variety.
The real excitement started just before the bridge crossed the river at the café. This is also where the forest began, immediately produced a trio of very active Thorn-tailed Rayaditos in the canopy, just preceded by a pair of Dark-faced Ground Tyrants along the track. After a coffee at the café, we followed the river for about 100 metres, scanning the rapids for Torrent Duck and/or other water specialists, when – a superb male Torrent Duck was spotted. And more – the female was close by with 3 ducklings. They were totally oblivious to our presence, allowing us to watch them tackle the fast flowing water for ages. We ploughed on upwards, unearthing more Thorn-tailed Rayaditos and the occasional White-crested Elaenia, until we decided that to climb to the lake wasn’t time efficient. Great decision! If we hadn’t done that, we might have missed out on the impressive female Magellanic Woodpecker picked up shortly after on the descent. After another stop at the café on the way down (the Torrent Ducks were still there and now under performing!), crossing the bridge turned up a brief Dark-bellied Cinclodes. A couple of Andean Condors had soared overhead, but not as impressive as the four adults just above eye height soaring into the valley.
Almost back to the hotel room, and a quip about the fast flowing river on the last approach looking a likely spot for Torrent Duck . . . . provided yet another pair! They were both resting on a large rock downstream, and had what looked like two ducklings shading under the female. Unbelievable! Two pairs on one walk, with a lifer the day before.
Day 6 - Friday 25th Walk West of Los Torres Hotel to Tarn
With a courtesy bus to the departure gate at 2pm, this morning’s walk had to be considerably shorter than yesterday’s trek, and the hike directly to the West of the hotel, which rounded a tarn above the main lake suited ideally. In all, 5 miles were covered in a gentle stroll over four and a half hours, with a few impressive additions around the tarn. After a very early Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle overhead, the Torrent Ducks of the previous evening were absent. Today we ignored the path up the valley to the right and continued through much flatter terrain surrounded by low matted vegetation. Outside of the ubiquitous Rufous-collared Sparrows, the odd Long-tailed Meadowlark was of interest, with what could only be Scale-throated Earthcreeper flying over. The short “ascent” to the tarn was preceded by a brief Dark-bellied Cinclodes, a small group of Black-faced Ibis in a greened area, with the only Guanacos seen in the park on the horizon.
The tarn was of a reasonable size, with the main lake below and in the distance. From our first viewpoint above, a couple of Red-gartered Coots were dragging themselves across the width, and a pair of Flying Steamer Ducks had a couple of ducklings. Walking closer to the water, a pair of Ashy-headed Geese were tucked into a hidden corner of the water. As we circumnavigated the tarn, a Fire-eyed Diucon was seen in the open, and a Chilean Flicker landed in a tree just above us. Passing the bridge over the river towards the hotel again found no Torrent Ducks.
After a less than 2 hours bus journey to Puerto Natales, we walked along the waterfront for a little way. This is limited to the South by the ferry terminal, but the shore edge can be followed for some way to the North. This is well worthwhile, and turned up some different more maritime specialties than the interior. Black-necked Swans were numerous, many pairs also towing cygnets. Amongst them were Spectacled Duck and Chiloe Wigeon, with a few Yellow-billed Pintail for good measure. A dilapidated pier initially held good numbers of Imperial Shags. Amongst the quite common Brown-hooded Gulls were a few Dolphin Gulls and a couple of South American Terns. Two Chilean Skuas were an extra bonus.
Day 7 - Monday, 28th Chiloe Island and Penguin Colony
We stayed at Puerto Varas for three nights, with the main target being Chiloe and the Penguin colony at Puñihuil Cove. The small town is located on the shore of Lake Llanquihue, which, when in good weather with blue sky, can be seen to be backed by 2 impressive volcanos and the Andes. There don’t seem to be huge birding opportunities within the town, apart from a small park to the North (almost next to the Cabanas del Lago hotel), which holds one or two interesting species such as Tufted Tit-tyrant and Green-backed Firecrown. Black-faced Ibis is hard to miss, and Dark-bellied Cinclodes regular along the lake shore front.
From Puerto Varas, it takes only an hour in the car to reach the ferry terminal to Chiloe. These seem to be very frequent, and take buses and lorries as well as cars. Entry on to the ferry was simplicity itself, and despite being only a half an hour journey, standing on the top platform is very rewarding. We had fairly calm water and decent weather when we crossed, making the sea-watch very pleasurable. A diving Imperial Shag next to the terminal heralded our departure, and it took only minutes to realise that there is a continuous passage of Sooty Shearwaters passing (however, 3 Pink-footed Shearwaters were picked out on the return). They were examined as best as could be done for other species, but no joy. Biggest scoop was half way over, when a Black-browed Albatross sailed close by. As we neared the Chiloe terminal, Franklin’s Gulls and South American Terns became obvious, and a single Red-legged Cormorant flew by. The shore of the terminal seemed to hold only Black-necked Swans initially, but a pair of Fuegian Steamer Ducks were on shore, along with good numbers of Hudsonian Godwits and a few Whimbrel.
The ultimate destination was Puñihuil Cove, where the boats for the Penguin Colony were located. We stopped briefly at a couple of open marshes on the way. One small one either side of the road held good numbers of Greater & Lesser Yellowlegs, as well as a few Yellow-billed Teal. Larger marshes seemed to have the same mix in smaller numbers. The cove itself is rather attractive, with a beach facing a number of small close in offshore islands. The locals have cottoned on to the lucrative nature of Penguin watchers, and have a good visitor system going on. The boats hold around 30 people and the total tour lasts 30-40 minutes. Getting on to the boat, which is moored just about 20 metres off shore, is by a small platform on wheels – wonderfully archaic but it works! The boat skirts around a couple of the small islands and gets quite close to some open aspects where the Penguins can be seen fairly close to (no landing here – all is done from the boat). The vast majority are Magellanic, many with fairly well grown young but the seaward face of one of the islands also has a few Humboldt Penguins. The few pairs of Kelp Gulls present are pretty obvious, but a bit of searching also found Blackish Oystercatcher and small numbers of the rather smart Red-legged Cormorants (slightly larger numbers of Neotropic were nearby). On our return to the shore, a Peruvian Pelican flew in and landed close to on the sea, and Dark-bellied Cinclodes were obvious along the beach and rocks.