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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Argentina: Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, Iguazu and Buenos Aires province,
20th March – 9th April 2005
Gentoo Penguins, Beagle Channel, 29th March 2005 (Richard Rae)
This is a report on a trip to Argentina by Richard Rae and Emer Callanan, visiting Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, Iguazu Falls and Buenos Aires. We aimed to combine birding with other “normal” holiday activities, which was made easier by the fact that I had previously been to Chile so had seen a lot of the Patagonian specialities. We hired a guide for one day in the Buenos Aires area to free up time for general sightseeing in BA, and also spent one morning with a guide at Iguazu.
The birding highlights included Black-fronted Piping Guan, White-throated Caracara, Gentoo Penguin, Giant and Slaty-breasted Wood Rails, Short-tailed Antthrush, Spot-backed and Tufted Antshrikes, Blond-crested, Robust, Yellow-fronted and Magellanic Woodpeckers and some nice hummingbirds. The forest birding at Iguazu was really superb with a steady stream of high quality birds.
We were also fortunate to see the Killer Whales at Punta Norte, and also a Sei Whale in the Beagle Channel.
Getting There and Getting Around
Our flights were booked through STA Travel who as usual provided a good service.
There are quite a few airlines serving Buenos Aires, however it is likely that the only real choice will be the national carrier, Aerolineas Argentinas, since this enables you to purchase their airpass for internal flights (of which several will probably be needed) at a discounted price. The full price is significantly more (for our six internal flights it would have amounted to over £200 extra).
We had initially booked our international flight with Iberia, and I was under the impression that this would allow us to purchase the airpass at the discounted rate. This may have been the case in the past, but apparently now you can only buy the airpass cheaply if your international flight is with Aerolineas AND you buy it at the time of booking your international flight. This was what the staff at STA were told by Aerolineas, although it appeared that Aerolineas were less than certain about the rules themselves.
Due to a change in Iberia’s timetable which would have meant a ludicrous twelve hour wait in Madrid on the way out and back we had grounds to cancel our flights with them and re-book the whole thing with Aerolineas. The total cost of international and internal flights was approx £900 per person.
Aerolineas have a website containing timetables for their internal network. We were able to take advantage of the relatively new direct flight from Trelew to El Calafate, in the past you had to fly to Rio Gallegos (a days drive away from EC) via Buenos Aires, so this saved us a lot of time (NB. The journey from RG to EC can be worthwhile for birding but there were no realistic lifers for me).
We did have some problems with Aerolineas, mainly to do with them changing their flight timetables, sometimes significantly, and not keeping us informed. We were supposed to be flying from Ushuaia to Iguazu in one day. At the time of booking this was possible, with a reasonable 90 minute connection in BA. After nearly missing our flight from Ushuaia, because we’d been told it had moved to an hour later when it was in fact only half an hour, and enduring a journey from hell in the worst seats at the back of the plane, right next to the engines, with no windows and about 2/3 the normal seating space, on arrival in BA we discovered that the times had changed and there were no more flights to Iguazu that day, meaning we had to spend an unplanned night in BA, at the airline’s expense but still very annoying. We also discovered at this time that we were no longer booked on our flight home. This was eventually sorted out but the flight had moved 7 hours earlier, meaning we lost most of our last day in BA and had a soul-destroying 9 hour wait in Madrid for the flight to Gatwick.
Based on all this we were less than impressed with Aerolineas Argentineas.
Car hire was booked online with Avis and Budget (http://www.budget.co.uk). Budget offered unlimited kms for the Trelew leg which was worthwhile. We didn’t bother with a hire car for the Iguazu and Buenos Aires which was fine (and there is no way I’d want to drive in BA, which looks like motoring hell!), although we probably would have at Iguazu had we not been staying at the Sheraton inside the park (a rare bit of luxury). We opted for the smallest cars (all low mileage Chevrolet Corsas) and this was fine although there were only two of us.
They had records of our bookings at all three places, however on arrival at Trelew the Budget representative seemed unfamiliar with internet bookings and had to get confirmation from the BA office that we had actually paid in advance. Fortunately she did this while we had the car so it was no real problem. Also I got the impression that the unlimited kms deal that we had got may have been some kind of error on the website, nevertheless they stuck to the agreement.
On arrival at El Calafate we quickly discovered there was no Avis desk at the airport. We eventually found the representative from Avis in the restaurant, and discovered that we would have to travel into El Calafate to collect the car. Since we were travelling to El Chalten in the opposite direction, we were offered a car with Hertz (who are at the airport) for the same price and conditions.
Total cost of car hire was about £350.
Thanks to the devaluation of the peso, we found Argentina a rather cheap country to travel in. The exchange rate at the time of our visit was A$5.5 to the UK Pound.
All was of a decent standard, varying in price (for a double en suite) from A$60 at the Hotel Touring Club in Trelew and A$48 at the Gran Hotel Espana in Buenos Aires (both very atmospheric if a little past their glory days) to approx A$500 for the Sheraton at Iguazu. Most places were towards the lower prices quoted.
A bit hit-and-miss, we often found that going for the apparently better places did not mean better food. Better to go for something mid-range that gets a good write up in eg. The Lonely Planet. Generally it was possible for the two of us to have a good meal and a bottle of wine for approx A$100 although we could have eaten much more cheaply. Places I’d recommend are El Viejo Molino in Trelew, the Fuegia Bistro in El Chalten, the Hotel Michaelangelo in El Calafate (which was superb and in stark contrast to the over-hyped La Posta also in EC, which served tiny portions of pretentious, overpriced food), and Tia Elvira and Volver in Ushuaia (both serving fantastic seafood).
Potatoes and vegetables normally have to be ordered separately. Vegetables are generally bland.
Most people in Argentina speak little English, although with even a smattering of Spanish we managed to get by without any real problems. As on my previous trips to this part of the world, I found myself wishing I could communicate more, as meaningful exchanges with local people would I’m sure add to the experience.
Health and Safety
No major issues, there is some malaria in Missiones province so we took Chloroquine (2 foul tasting tablets once a week), but the risk is supposedly not that great. At no time did we feel remotely threatened, even in Buenos Aires at night, which was a pleasant surprise, although of course like any big metropolis crime does occur, and has no doubt risen since the problems with the economy.
We found most people to be very friendly (even if we couldn’t understand what they were saying!).
Trip Reports, Field Guides and Tapes
As usual, trip reports by Hornbuckle (1996 & 2000) and Vermeulen (1994) were useful, also those by Jonathan Newman (2002), Paul Noakes (2003), Ian Merrill (2001) and Greg and Debra Jackson (1996) and Roger Ahlman et. al. (2004).
The only field guide we took was the Collins Illustrated Checklist to the Birds of Southern South America and Antarctica, by de la Pena and Rumboll. Just about adequate for the south, where there are relatively few difficult species, things got tricky at Iguazu where many tyrant flycatcher sightings had to be binned, due to the hopeless plates and text. Frustrating.
Hopefully a better book for Argentina will be available some time in the future. I believe one is in preparation by Mark Pearman.
I bought the collection of eight cassettes by Roberto Straneck from Wildsounds and transferred what I thought would be the most useful onto CD using my PC at home, then used a cheap portable CD player with speakers in the field. This worked well, although I wish I’d spent more time familiarising myself with the calls for Iguazu.
For general travel info we took the Lonely Planet and Footprint guides to Argentina. On this occasion the Footprint guide proved to be the better of the two.
We spent a day visiting Entre Rios sites near Buenos Aires with Hernan Rodriguez Goni, booked through Birding Argentina. This was good although very pricey at US$480 for the day.
While at Iguazu we bumped into Daniel Somay, of Explorador Expediciones, and booked a morning with him (4 hours for US$60 per person, up to 6 people). This proved worthwhile with some good birds we’d not have seen otherwise. Daniel’s shop is the last one in the arcade in front of the Sheraton.
Both guides were excellent, having extensive minidisk collections that they used well, and were good company in the field.
An ordinary European plug adaptor is fine for use in Argentina. It is worth getting tide and sunrise/sunset times from the internet, there was a good site
www.mobilegeographics.com for this but the last few times I’ve tried it it hasn’t been working properly.
Thanks to Jonathan Newman for some useful comments about tapes, and advice on seeing the Punta Norte Killer Whales, which we were able to put to good use.
Valdes Peninsula, Punta Tombo and around
The Valdes Peninsula proved rather disappointing, with several of my relatively small list of target birds going unseen. I suspect this was at least in part due to the timing of our visit, November/December being much better. The main disappointment was our complete failure to find Band-tailed Earthcreeper, despite numerous attempts in suitable looking habitat with the CD. Also dipped on Carbonated Sierra Finch, Rusty-backed Monjita and both Shrike-tyrants.
Snowy Sheathbill was seen at the loberia at Punta Piramides and at Punta Norte; Elegant-crested Tinamou was common throughout by roadsides; Patagonian Canastero was taped out along the road to Punta Piramides loberia and subsequently seen at a couple of other random places; White-throated Cachalote was seen well in scrub near the road along the south of the peninsula to Punta Delgada; Patagonian Mockingbird is numerous and impossible to miss in this area (a bird we failed to find in Chile).
A couple of other tinamous were seen briefly but it was impossible to tell whether they were Spotted or Darwin’s (which is apparently the commoner one here).
Some compensation was had in the form of several Killer Whales at Punta Norte. They had been showing almost daily in the month before our visit, best chance is two hours either side of high tide (morning or evening seem equally possible – we saw them in the evening but dipped the following morning). There were several adults with several young here, and the famous “intentional stranding” behaviour was seen once.
There were still plenty of Magellanic Penguins to be seen at Punta Tombo, and if you don’t leave here with at least 50 excellent photos you should take a night class in photography. They’re rather confiding. We saw 3 pairs of the endemic Chubut Steamer Duck here with ease. The road to and from PT can be good for passerines but we didn’t see much of note in several stops. A flock of Least Seedsnipe was seen by a roadside lake, and we saw our only definite White-tailed Hawk along this road.
This town, in the northern part of the Los Glaciares National Park, about 4-5 hours drive from El Calafate along a rough road (that is gradually being surfaced, with about 60km of fresh tarmac in the middle at present), is not often visited on birding trips. We went to do some hiking and see the mighty Mount Fitzroy. It was well worth it, with stunning scenery and far fewer people than at the Moreno Glacier. And there were a few good birds too. About 7 kms before El Chalten, a cracking White-throated Caracara flew across the road. This species is not often seen by visiting birders away from Tierra del Fuego. Around the town we saw Grey-flanked Cinclodes and Andean Condors were regular overhead. We did the walk out to Laguna Torre (probably the easiest of the many trails in the area), which gave incredible views of 4 Magellanic Woodpeckers down to about 4 feet, also an obliging Torrent Duck and Dark-faced Ground Tyrant where the path goes near the river.
El Calafate and Moreno Glacier
Relatively little birding was done here. We visited the Moreno Glacier which was certainly spectacular and a must-see although the sheer volume of people impinged on our enjoyment somewhat (we later discovered there were probably more people there than usual due to it being Easter weekend). A White-throated Treerunner was seen in trees next to the car park.
We made a brief afternoon visit to the Laguna Nimes reserve. It was extremely windy and consequently we didn’t hang around long. This is a regular site for Magellanic Plover, although having seen this in Chile no great effort was made to find it. The water level seemed very high so I’m not sure where any waders would have been anyway.
Tierra del Fuego
With three full days here, we spent one morning at the Garibaldi Pass, one full day doing a Catamaran trip in the Beagle Channel, and the last day was spent at the Tierra del Fuego National Park and the Martial Glacier close to Ushuaia. There were only 3 realistic lifers for me here (having seen the Caracara near El Chalten and most other stuff in Chile). Gentoo Penguin and Yellow-bridled Finch were seen but like most people we couldn’t find those pesky White-bellied Seedsnipes…
At the Garibaldi Pass we used the map from the report by Roger Ahlman et. al., who had seen the seedsnipe a few months previously. We found the right area and spent a couple of hours on the scree slopes but had to be content with some flighty Yellow-bridled Finches. Good scenery here.
For the Beagle Channel we took the full day catamaran trip with a company called Tolkeyen, who seem to be one of the major tour companies operating in the area. It was an excellent day, and quite good value at about A$140 (if memory serves me correctly). We visited all the best islands in the Beagle Channel, with superb views of 3 Gentoo Penguins in the Isla Martillo penguin colony being the definite highlight. There are some companies that offer landing on this island but from our experience this wasn’t necessary because the catamaran gets very close. Also 3 Snowy Sheathbills on the first sea lion island visited. Flightless Steamer Duck was very common in the Channel – this species was hard to find in Chile. The day also includes a tour of the Harberton Estancia which was interesting.
An unexpected bonus was a Sei Whale and another whale seen briefly, a probable Minke.
In Tierra del Fuego National Park we did the Hito XXIV trail along the edge of Lago Roca, and checked out a couple of spots along the coast. Most noteworthy was a White-throated Treerunner by the restaurant at Lago Roca.
The Martial Glacier was scenic although no notable birds were seen.
Iguazu National Park
In terms of birding, this was the definite highlight of the trip, despite losing about half a day here due to the previously mentioned problems with the flights. We still had 4 nights here, staying at the Sheraton inside the park, which is a good base and saves having to travel in daily from Puerto Iguazu, about 25 mins away by bus (although the service is frequent and cheap). Also when you’re staying at the Sheraton you only have to pay the park entrance fee once.
One thing that proved very annoying here was the ridiculous rules about not walking the trails early in the morning and late in the day, although it is generally easy enough to get away with it (you can be fined however). Our experiences of this were:-
- after getting off the train a little before 18:00 at the main visitors centre. There is a small trail of a couple of hundred metres that cuts through to the main road, which is the quickest route back to the hotel. No sooner had we started to walk than we had some official barking at us that the trail was shut, which meant we had to take a long and inconvenient route back to the hotel. Asking for some sort of reason got us nowhere.
- At about 7.15 one morning we were walking along the road to the start of the Sendero Macuco trail. A Land Rover pulled up beside, with 4 park rangers in it. The window was wound down then they asked us in a very accusing way what we were doing. I said we were just birding along the road. They made us promise not to leave the road at all until 08.00, when, for reasons unclear to me, the trails suddenly become safe. As it happened the birding from the road was so good (Slaty-breasted Wood Rail followed quickly by 2 Blackish Rails, then a pair of Saffron-billed Sparrows feeding at the start of the trail!) that it was close to that time anyway when we embarked on the SM trail. Still, absolutely unnecessary and heavy handed bureaucracy.
We found the Sendero Macuco trail to be quite excellent, with several new birds seen each time we walked it. In fact we never made it right to the end! The brilliant Blond-crested Woodpecker was seen once with a pair near the start of the trail, White-bearded Manakins were noisy and visible at their lek a short way along the trail (where it veers sharp left and there is a CIES barrier) and seen several times, Rufous-capped Motmot was seen a couple of times, Eared Pygmy-tyrant once, Blue (Swallow-tailed) Manakin once, Rufous Gnateater was easily taped out (listen out for the very distinctive ascending staccato call), a female Black-breasted Plovercrest once, and a Short-tailed Antthrush (only heard once but fortunately it came straight in to the CD!). I really felt sorry that I didn’t have a few more mornings on this trail.
The Sendero Yacaratia, the other main trail near the park headquarters, was rubbish when we walked it (although it was drizzling at the time). The passing of frequent 4WD vehicles full of tourists heading for the boat rides doesn’t make for a very pleasant experience and surely reduces the likelihood of seeing any real forest species?
The gardens of the Sheraton and the area around the car park just beyond the Shreraton turn-off (basically the end of the road) could be very birdy at times and we even saw Black-fronted Piping Guan in trees around the large grassy area in front of the old hotel (now an infirmary). Birding from the hotel balcony could be excellent, as it provided a good vantage point to scope the trees in the garden. You have a choice of falls or forest views from the rooms. I would say for a birder the rooms with forest views are better (and cheaper too!).
We spent a rewarding morning with Daniel Somay birding along RN101 a few miles east of the main park area. This gave me 17 lifers (most of which we did not see again), including Tufted and Spot-backed Antshrikes, Robust and Yellow-fronted Woodpeckers, Red-breasted Toucan, Rufous-capped Spinetail and Scaly-throated Hermit.
We saw a huge flock of Great Dusky Swifts at the last viewpoint along the Circuito Superior, plummeting from a great height to their nests behind the torrent of water with incredible precision – a stunning spectacle.
We took the free train to the Estacion Garganta (I think this is the area often referred to as Puerto Canoas?). A long boardwalk takes you to a lookout where you get great views of the Garganta del Diablo, the most impressive of the falls. We were lucky to see another Black-fronted Piping Guan on a small island in the river, not far from the station end of the boardwalk.
One afternoon we visited a house in Puerto Iguazu where there are some well established hummingbird feeders, which gave excellent views of 8 species. The hummers are hard to see well in the forest so this is a worthwhile place to go. They welcome visitors (admission A$5 per person). The house can be found at 150 Fray Luis Beltran, a short walk from the bus station. The road is shown on maps in eg. Lonely Planet and Footprint guides. If you can’t find it ask for “Casa de los Colibris”.
Some time was lost at Iguazu due to rain.
This was a really brilliant area and a week or more would not be too much here.
Entre Rios Sites
A good day was had visiting Otomendi, Ceibas and Gualeguaychu, all within a few hours of Buenos Aires, in the company of Hernan Rodriguez Goni. The day threatened to be a washout with rain of biblical quantities as we set off from BA, and intermittent very heavy showers at Otomendi that had us running for the car (although we still managed to tape out both the reedhaunters). Fortunately it eased off after that, and Ceibas was really good, although the road to Gualeguaychu was too bad even for the 4WD due to the recent rain, so we had to turn back before getting to the site proper.
I spent one afternoon at this urban nature reserve in Buenos Aires. This must be one of the finest reserves in a city anywhere in the world. The best birds seen were a pair of Black-headed Ducks, for which this is one of the best sites, also Rufescent Tiger Heron, Giant Wood Rail, Solitary Cacique, Green-barred Woodpecker and Rosy-billed Pochard among others. More time here would undoubtedly have given plenty of other species.
19th March– We arrived in Buenos Aires late in the evening after our flight from Gatwick via Madrid. Taxi into the centre for A$48 (we initially thought the driver meant US$48 and were on the verge of getting out to find another cab!). Night at the reasonable Hyde Park Hotel, booked in advance over the internet.
20th March – A relaxing morning in BA, before our afternoon flight to Trelew. On arrival we checked into the atmospheric Hotel Touring Club, a true bargain at A$60 a night. An excellent meal at the El Viejo Molino restaurant.
21st March – The first proper day of the holiday. A fairly early start, down to Punta Tombo penguin colony. We had a spell of extreme frustration due to our inability to find the turnoff at Rawson to PT (there are two roads between Trelew and Rawson and we had of course taken the wrong one!), with me eventually having to get someone at the bus station to draw us a map. After a couple of hours we arrived at PT, and were soon enjoying superb views of the Magellanic Penguins. We spent a few hours here, during which time we saw various other species including 3 pairs of the endemic Chubut Steamer Duck. In the afternoon we drove up to Puerto Piramides on the Valdes Peninsula, checking into the ACA Motel at the edge of town.
22nd March – Up early, for a full day on the peninsula. First port of call was the loberia just a few kms from PP, and a bit of random CD playing soon gave good views of Patagonian Canastero. The first of many Elegant Crested Tinamous were seen slightly further along the road, and from the viewpoint at the end of the road a Snowy Sheathbill was watched walking around on the rocks. We then drove along the southern side of the peninsula, picking up White-throated Cachalote and more Patagonian Canasteros on the way. On arrival at Punta Delgada we were greeted with the somewhat disappointing news that the Elephant Seals had all left. We knew that the males had left by now but the travel guides say that a few females and young hang around all year. Not true apparently…The afternoon was spent driving up the eastern coast of the peninsula, with relatively few interesting birds seen. Arriving at Punta Norte mid afternoon, we soon found out that the Killer Whales had been showing regularly, including at this morning’s high tide. We reasoned that tomorrow morning’s high tide would be our best chance, but decided to stay around in case they turned up this evening. It was lucky we did. After milling around for a couple of hours, seeing another 2 Snowy Sheathbills on the beach and enjoying a cold beer from the café, we made our way back to the viewpoint to find about half a dozen Killer Whales on view. We watched these fantastic animals for about an hour. Generally you would just seen the dorsal fin and some of the back as they briefly surfaced, although more of the younger ones (of which there were several) would often be visible, including the distinctive face pattern. On one memorable occasion we saw an immature (although still a fair size!) come right up to the beach in an attempt to catch a sealion. From the angle we were viewing from it was hard to understand how the massive animal didn’t get grounded on the beach, but I guess they know what they’re doing! Satisfied with the day’s work, we drove back to PP in the dark.
23rd March – Fired up by yesterday’s views of the whales, and hungry for more views, we drove the 80km back up to Punta Norte first thing in the morning. We waited for several hours, but they did not show, to the chagrin of the large crowd who had gathered. Disappointed not to have had more views, but thankful for our encounter last night, we headed back to PP, then along the road to Puerto Madryn, birding along the way. The rest of the day was more or less a complete washout, with no new birds, and numerous attempts at Band-tailed Earthcreeper drew a blank. At one spot, a gulley a few km north east of Puerto Madryn, a Patagonian Canastero did it’s best to cheer me up, showing interest in the B-t E CD and even hopping around on the ground with it’s tail in the air but it was no use. After grabbing a very tasty take away pizza in Puerto Madyrn we drove out to Punta Lomo to the south-east of PM, having read that the road out to it can be good for passerines. Nothing. We headed back to Trelew to overnight at the Hotel Touring Club again. At the insistence of one of the porters we put the car in their secure lock-up round the back (we had left it out front last time). I voiced my concerns to him that leaving it at the very back may not be wise, given the likely arrival of several more vehicles and our early flight next morning, but he assured me it would be no problem. Early night without food after the very filling pizza.
24th March – Up early, and after breakfast I was accompanied by a different porter to the lock-up. As expected it was now completely full, with at least two vehicles needing to be moved for us to get out. I fought the temptation to go into full-on panic, but a tense ten minutes followed while the porter went off to find the keys to the vehicles. Having extracted the car we went straight to the airport, where the Budget representative eventually turned up to take our car. A short flight down to El Calafate, picked up the next hire car and we were on our way to El Chalten, a scenic drive along a generally bad but at least partially surfaced road. Not many birds although a surprise was superb White-throated Caracara that flew across the road shortly before we arrived at El Chalten. I hadn’t expected to see this species until Tierra del Fuego. It was somewhat cloudy on our arrival, apparently the norm here, and we couldn’t see much of the surrounding scenery. We checked into the pleasant Hospedaje La Base and had a wander around the small town, seeing Grey-flanked Cinclodes and our first Andean Condors of the trip overhead. Dinner in the excellent Fuegia Bistro.
25th March – The Gods were obviously smiling on us today, as the first peer out of the window revealed a beautiful clear morning and the distinctive peak of Mount Fitzroy clearly visible. After a quick breakfast we set off on our hike up to Laguna Torre, supposedly the easiest of the hikes starting in town but still offering stunning scenery. According to the information board at the start it is about 10km each way. It didn’t feel that much, but it took us about 7 hours with regular birding stops. It was surprisingly warm and we were soon down to our t-shirts. Andean Condors were almost constantly visible in the sky. As we walked up through the nothofagus forest, I tried periodically knocking rocks on trees and playing the CD of Magellanic Woodpecker, but we eventually stumbled across a group of four birds feeding right next to the path. Truly unbelievable views were enjoyed over the next twenty minutes, and we left them still on show. Their incredibly confiding nature is such a contrast to most of their ilk, and to stand barely 4ft away from one of these awesome birds while it hammered away quite unconcernedly on a tree was a definite candidate for “David Attenborough moment of the trip”. The last bit of the trail seemed to take ages, but we were eventually rewarded with the sight of Laguna Torre, complete with jagged peaks surrounding it and a glacier snaking it’s way down to the water’s edge. Walking back, we were pleased to find a female Torrent Duck perched on a rock in the river, which gave great views and even stayed still long enough to take some photos. Also around here was a Dark-faced Ground Tyrant. Arriving back in El Chalten in the mid afternoon, well pleased with our day so far, we embarked on the bone-shaking drive to El Calafate, and checked into the Los Lagos Hotel, our base for the next two nights. An outstanding evening meal at the Michelangelo Hotel – highly recommended.
26th March – A relative lie-in this morning, since it was a mainly non-birding day. Our destination for the day was the famous Moreno Glacier, some 80km from El Calafate. The glacier was definitely very impressive, and the obligatory photos were taken of it from every conceivable angle, but there were so many people there that at times it was almost impossible to move without getting in the way of someone’s photo or video. The only birds of note were a Green-backed Firecrown seen briefly by Emer, and a White-throated Treerunner in trees by the car park.
Returning to El Calafate, a brief visit to Laguna Nimes gave a few new wildfowl for the trip.
Evening meal at the hugely disappointing La Posta restaurant. Recommended if you like your food arty and served in portions so small that a pair of tweezers is needed to eat it. Some solace was sought in the small bar just down the road from our hotel, where a couple of large bottles of Quilmes were consumed in the company of several locals.
27th March – A fairly relaxing day around El Calafate, with no birding done. Afternoon flight to Ushuaia, with a distinctly unpleasant descent to the airport. The local geography seems to dictate this, with the need to drop rapidly after flying over the mountains of the interior of Tierra del Fuego while simultaneously turning 180 degrees in the Beagle Channel to land from the south on the runway. We collected our hire car and drove into town, checking in to the Hostal Malvinas, our base for the next 4 nights. We soon realized that getting the early night we had hoped for may prove tricky, with an unbelievable amount of traffic passing noisily just past our window, until the small hours of the morning. I simply would not have expected this in a place like Ushuaia. Where were they all going?!
28th March – After arranging to move to a quieter room, we set off for the Garibaldi Pass, some 50 km east of Ushuaia along a good, surfaced road. The scenery along the way was very easy on the eye. Parking up at the pass, we walked back along the trail that starts just to the west of the pass, then scrambled up through the woods to get to the scree slopes above the tree line. It was very cold and windy up here and even started snowing at one point. A couple of hours tramping around was starting to look like a total failure but we eventually saw a couple of Yellow-bridled Finches. We made our way back down, looking (unsuccessfully) for one of the eye-cups from Emer’s bins which had fallen off on the way up. Driving back into Ushuaia we dropped the car off at the Hostal and, after a bite to eat and a beer, walked down to the pier to book our trip in the Beagle Channel for tomorrow. Rest of the day chilling out and an excellent meal in Tia Elvira.
29th March – A relative lie-in because the catamaran trip did not depart until about 9.30. There were birds to be seen as soon as we left the harbour, with Black-browed Albatrosses, Sooty Shearwaters and Flightless Steamer Ducks proving to be very common in the Beagle Channel. Visiting the first of a number of islands on the way to Estancia Harberton, some 85km east of Ushuaia we noted 3 Snowy Sheathbills in amongst the sealions. Various other birds were seen on these islands including Imperial Cormorant, Dark-bellied Cinclodes and a pair of Rufous-chested Dotterels. The longish gap between the first series of islands and the Isla Martillo penguin colony was enlivened by two whale sightings, the first being identified as a Sei Whale, the second a probable Minke Whale. Apparently we were lucky to see these. As the boat drew up at Isla Martillo, anxious scanning by RR was soon rewarded with three superb Gentoo Penguins in among the Magellanics. The catamaran pulled up right in front of them giving wonderful views. A number of digi-binned photos were taken, some of which turned out remarkably well (see above). It may have been partly due to the fact that these were the only realistic potential lifer today, but I really enjoyed these birds. Pressure off, we took the tour of Estancia Harberton which was interesting, and gave a few birds as well. Much of the long journey back to Ushuaia was spent chatting to the couple sat next to us. We discovered that he was a soap star on Brazilian television, and had been getting mobbed and asked for autographs almost everywhere he went in Argentina (except by us!). Arrived back at 17.35. Another excellent evening meal, this time at Volver.
30th March – With most of the main T d F targets in the bag, a fairly relaxed day, with a walk in Tierra del Fuego National park in the morning and a visit to the Martial Glacier in the afternoon.
In T d F National Park we took the Hito XXIV trail along the edge of Lago Roca as far as the Chilean border, showing a flagrant disregard for the sign telling us not to enter Chile (well you would, wouldn’t you?). It was a pleasant enough walk in woodland and I’d imagine would often be good for the big Woodpecker but we didn’t see any. Lunch in the restaurant at Lago Roca campsite was a surprisingly nice pizza, and a video playing there of Roger Waters in concert doing Pink Floyd material threatened to derail plans for the afternoon but we managed to drag ourselves away. After checking out a couple of coastal points in T d F National Park, we drove to the cable car terminus below the Martial Glacier and took the cable car up. We spent a couple of hours walking up here, with some nice scenery but few notable birds. Took the cable car back down then drove back to the Hostal Malvinas. Revisited the Tia Elvira for another excellent seafood meal.
31st March – The day when everything went wrong. I won’t go into enormous detail but the bare bones are: nearly missed flight to Buenos Aires because we’d been told the flight left an hour later when in fact only half an hour…spent the flight in appallingly cramped seats at back of plane with no windows and right next to the turbines…arrive at Buenos Aires to find that our connection to Iguazu is no longer possible so we have to overnight in Buenos Aires…while booking us on flight next day Aerolineas staff inform us that we’re no longer booked on flight home, so this has to be sorted…find out that flight has moved 7 hours earlier so we will lose most of our last day…overnight in Hotel Cuatro Reyes paid for by Aerolineas. The staff here were useless and we end up having three heated discussions due to their failure to tell us what food we were entitled to paid for by the airline before we ate. Went to bed early, stressed to the max and hoping this was all the bad luck for the holiday used up!
1st April – Up early, glad to see the back of the Cuatro Reyes, taxi to the aeroparque and flight up to Puerto Iguazu, taxi to the Sheraton, arriving late morning. Out birding almost immediately, being keen to make up for the lost time. An initial sorty down the Sendero Macuco gave a few birds but not surprisingly given the time of day activity was a bit low so we decided that it might be better to see a few sights. Apparently there are some quite impressive waterfalls here…We headed towards the falls, but were held up for some time in an overgrown corner of the carpark just beyond the Sheraton turnoff as a mixed flock came through. It was hard to know what to look at next but hopefully not too much slipped through the net. The highlight was our first Ochre-collared Piculet – a real stunner. Making our way a little further on to the large grassy area in front of the infirmary, Red-rumped Cacique (our only one seen) and Pale-breasted Thrush were added to the list, and I was just attempting to photograph some of the many Plush-crested Jays, when Emer drew my attention to a strange looking black bird perched up in the trees. ****ing Black-fronted Piping Guan! It stayed around for about 10 minutes and happily posed for some photos. A lot of people struggle with this bird so I was delighted to see it so easily. The rest of the afternoon was spent on the Cicuito Superior (the upper series of trails) where superb views of the falls were had, and as it clouded over a large flock of Great Dusky Swifts amassed. To see them plummet one by one from the sky to return to their nests behind the torrent is a truly impressive sight. A Peregrine was sat in a tree near the falls looking hopefully at the swifts. Well pleased with our first afternoon, and with the pain of the previous day starting to recede, we returned to the Hotel. An average and rather expensive meal in the restaurant.
2nd April – Early morning found us at the start of the Sendero Macuco, where we had barely walked ten paces before a pair of one of the top targets for Iguazu flew into a tree right next to the path – the stunning Blond-crested Woodpecker. A decent variety of other species were seen over the next few hours including Black-throated and Surucua Trogons, Blue (Swallow-tailed) Manakin, Rufous-capped Motmot and the delightful Eared Pygmy-Tyrant. After partaking of the excellent buffet breakfast at the hotel, a heavy downpour meant that we were confined to the hotel until early afternoon. On heading out again it took us some time to get beyond the gardens of the hotel, with many birds busily feeding after the rain. We eventually dragged ourselves away, and followed the road past the end of the Sendero Macuco and took the short trail on the left to the main station, adding a superb pair of Variable Antshrikes, White-crested Tyrannulet and Purple-throated Euphonia to the list as we did so. The train was just about to depart so we hopped on, arriving at the Garganta del Diablo station about 20 minutes later. The walk out to the falls along the metal boardwalk was packed with people, making it rather difficult to stop and look at any birds. Despite this we managed to see a number of species along here including our only Snail Kites, Green Kingfishers, Ringed Kingfisher and Yellow-billed Cardinals of the trip, as well as another Black-fronted Piping Guan. The view of the falls from the end of the boardwalk was pretty special too. Back at the hotel later we saw 3 Chestnut-eared Aracaris from the balcony. An excellent day.
3rd April – We awoke to drizzle this morning, although it wasn’t strong enough to stop us following our plan of a pre-breakfast walk along the Sendero Yacaratia. This was very disappointing with hardly any birds seen and the annoying offroad vehicles laden with tourists regularly passing by. On the way back to the hotel Daniel Somay pulled up in his 4x4 and gave us a leaflet for his guiding services. We said we’d think about it. By the time we arrived back at the Sheraton we’d had ample time to think about the one lifer seen this morning (albeit in poor weather!) and booked 4hrs with him the following morning. I also asked him about the hummingbird garden in Puerto Iguazu, which we planned to visit later today, and he kindly phoned them up to let them know we were coming. After breakfast it was time for a bit of balcony birding, with a flock of 10 dazzling Green-headed Tanagers being the highlight. In the early afternoon we took the bus into Puerto Iguazu. It was fine when we left the National Park but by the time we arrived in town a tropical downpour was in progress. It was so heavy we had no option but to take shelter and wait. After what seemed like an eternity (but was probably about an hour) during which every slight easing off of the deluge was optimistically taken as a (usually false) indication that it was about to stop, the sun came out and we were able to make the short walk to the hummingbird garden. An extremely pleasant hour was spent here and 7 hummingbird species were added to the trip list before we took the bus back to the National Park.
4th April – Up early to meet Daniel outside the hotel at 06.30, fortunately the rain of the past two days was not in evidence. We drove to RN101, a few kms east of the park headquarters, and birded along the road using the minidisk to call things in. One of the first was a Tufted Antshrike which was heard first, and showed briefly very close to the road. A fine pair of Robust Woodpeckers was seen shortly after. Bird activity was good along the road, with several mixed flocks encountered – in particular there were lots of Swallow Tanagers and we probably saw over 20 during the course of the morning. Having reached something of a clearing, Daniel proceeded to call in the excellent Yellow-fronted Woodpecker, with a pair giving prolonged scope views. Saffron-billed Sparrow was tried for but remained elusive. Walking back to the car, a frenzy of activity included Scaly-throated Hermit, an attractive pair of Chestnut-vented Conebills, a cracking Rufous-capped Spinetail and, the highlight of the morning, a pair of Spot-backed Antshrikes which gave uncharacteristically good views even without the minidisk. Just before getting back to the car Daniel heard Red-breasted Toucan which was then successfully located in a tree next to the road, with 4 feeding alongside the commoner Toco Toucan. Driving back to the hotel, another try for Saffron-billed Sparrow was unsuccessful but it had been a thoroughly enjoyable morning and I can heartily recommend Daniel. After lunch, the afternoon was spent on touristy stuff, including a boat trip under one of the falls for a real soaking. Late afternoon we were back on the Sendero Macuco, with Creamy-bellied Gnatcatcher being new and seconds of the Rufous-capped Motmot. A pair of guans were seen perched up in trees near the path but in the fading light it wasn’t possible to tell whether they were Rusty-margined or Dusky-legged which was a shame. 3 Nacunda Nighthawks were seen flying high over the hotel gardens just before we arrived back.
5th April – Up early for our last morning at Iguazu. After an annoying encounter with the park rangers along the road near to the start of the Sendero Macuco (see above), we carried on further down the road, and where the railway track passes right next to the road I saw movement on the ground next to tracks. Half expecting a mammal of some kind, I was delighted to see a stunning Slaty-breasted Wood Rail, which then walked quite boldly along the edge of the track for some way before disappearing off into the long grass. Good start! Walking a little further on to where a path cuts through to the station, I was amazed to see a pair of Blackish Rails standing by the side of the path. At this point I started to think we might be in for a good finale at Iguazu. A male White-bearded Manakin gave good views on the edge of a clearing just over the road from here, then it was on to the Sendero Macuco. We had barely set foot on the trail when I saw two birds feeding on the path ahead. A pair of Saffron-billed Sparrows. These were superb and particularly satisfying after our failed attempts to see them yesterday. In the end we actually had to flush them because they wouldn’t budge from the trail! Some way down the trail I realised that I recognised a sound that we’d been hearing at a few places along the trail. The CD of Rufous Gnateater was duly spun and the bird came in remarkably quickly for a look. Another Tufted Antshrike was heard distantly. The next new bird was a couple of White-eyed Foliage Gleaners, and an obliging Surucua Trogon was nice to see. All too soon it was time to start heading back, however the Sendero Macuco still had a couple of tricks up its’ sleeve. A perched hummingbird was identified as a female Black-breasted Plovercrest, and a mixed flock contained White-spotted Woodpecker which was new. We were really starting to run out of time and so the pace quickened somewhat, however a very distinctive song stopped me dead, as I knew exactly what it was and also that I very much wanted to see it. The CD was quickly located, and the song played. The bird responded, sounding much closer. We crouched down next to the path and gave the CD another play, fortunately the bird had read the script and the Short-tailed Antthrush gave a brief but excellent walk-by before disappearing back into the dense undergrowth. What a superb finish to our birding at Iguazu! Arriving back at the hotel a little later than planned, we checked out and took a taxi to the airport for our flight back to Buenos Aires. Checked into the quirky Hotel Gran Espana (at Tacuari 80) and went out to investigate the city, evening being spent taking in a tango show at Café Tortoni which I’d recommend.
6th April – A non-birding day, although a couple of hours spent at Costanera Sur in the afternoon was highly productive, with no fewer than 10 lifers including the hoped-for Black-headed Duck, not to mention Solitary Cacique, Giant Wood Rail and a brilliant Rufescent Tiger Heron.
7th April – The last bit of birding for the holiday, we had booked Hernan Rodrigues Goni for a busy day visiting the Entre Rios sites. After a little bit of a mix-up over the address of the hotel, Hernan picked us up and we were on our way, unfortunately in very heavy rain which showed little sign of abating as we neared our first site, the marshes at Otomendi. After a few false starts the rain did begin to ease off, so we ventured out. A couple of further heavy showers did ensue, but we still managed to tape out Curve-billed and Straight-billed Reedhaunters and see a decent variety of birds including the exquisite Scarlet-headed Blackbird. Once Hernan thought we had exhausted the possibilities for Otomendi, it was on to the next site, an hour or so drive away. Ceibas was great and new birds added here included the smart White Monjita, family tick Southern Screamer, Maguari Stork, White-tipped Plantcutter, Narrow-billed Woodcreeper, Chequered Woodpecker and no less than 3 Ash-coloured Cuckoos. After a tasty lunch at a roadside “parilla” we were off to Gualeguaychu. This was arguably a little disappointing, as we were unable to reach the actual site due to the dreadful condition of the road. It didn’t look that bad but the mud had a peculiarly slippy quality which meant that even the 4x4 was sliding off the road. A few new species were still added including White-browed Blackbird and Spotted Tinamou. As we were unable to make it to the site, Hernan took us on a drive around a few spots in the area, hoping to pick up a few more species. We finished the day at a small rubbish tip attached to a camp site that Hernan said can often be good for birds. Sadly all it seemed to be good for today was some of the largest and most vicious mosquitoes I have ever seen. Emer very sensibly beat a hasty retreat back to the car, thereby missing out on the truly delightful sight of a bloated and putrefying armadillo carcass among the assorted garbage. A short while later Hernan and I admitted defeat and joined Emer back at the car, and we embarked on the long drive back to Buenos Aires, with a number of smart Nacunda Nighthawks over the road as we left. Arrived back in BA mid evening rather tired but it had been a good day, particularly considering the bad weather we had at the start. Hernan had been good company and has an immense amount of knowledge about the birds of Argentina.
8th April – A day of sightseeing in Buenos Aires.
9th April – After breakfast we took a taxi to the airport, flight to Madrid, arriving early on 10th April, then a very nice 9 hour wait thanks to Aerolineas(!) before our 2 hour flight back to Gatwick, arriving early Sunday evening. Train into London, two tubes out to Leytonstone, taxi to our friends house, collected the car and drove back to Sheffield, arriving home late evening, some 30 hours after leaving the hotel in BA. Back to work on 11th April.
Magellanic Woodpecker, near El Chalten, 25th March 2005 (Richard Rae)
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Richard Rae, Sheffield, June 2005.