Birding Tours and Nature Photography in Southern South America

From the Pampas to Patagonia

From Mahara Sinclair and Ken Grist, Nov. 2010.
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We`ve just completed a six-day birding tour organized by Aves Patagonia, as a pre-conference trip to the South American Bird Fair. The journey was close to 2,000 kilometres from Buenos Aires to San Martin de los Andes. What a time we had. There were five birders on the tour, our birding guide, Federico, and two different drivers in a 14-seater van. We enjoyed time with a couple from France and an Argentine woman. Federico is a wonderful guide, very knowledgeable and eager to please. The group dynamics were excellent and we had a lot of fun. All of us are avid birders. We had some difficulty because of our less-than-perfect Spanish language skills, but I now know a lot of Argentine birds by their Spanish names. Our conversations were a combination of Spanish, English and French, although mostly in Spanish, or Spangish. It worked, although next time we would like to learn the names in English. We missed a great deal of the small talk.

The first day we covered almost 600 kilometres, but after that most other days we traveled an easy 200 kilometres or so. On a typical day we were up early, and after a quick breakfast of medialunas (tiny croissants) and coffee, were on to our first birding site, generally close to where we arrived the previous night. Sometimes we saw birds in the hotel parking lot. For example, from the town of Carhue we went to Lago Epequen where we saw dozens of flamingos and Wilson’s phalaropes. After we’d seen all we could in an area, we would pile into the van and drive for a few more hours to the next location, stopping along the road by little ponds or marshes if we saw unusual-to-us birds or animals. We stayed at Carhue, Santa Rosa, Puelches, La Roca and Piedra del Aguila.

As we drove along, from his thermos of agua caliente Fedi would prepare some mate and would pass it around with everyone drinking from the same straw-like spoon. Mate is the local drink Argentines consume like coffee; it wasn`t our favourite because to us it tastes like medicinal herbs. We birded all day, stopping only for lunch and coffee and would arrive into the new town pretty late, around 8:30 or so. Dinner would be around 9:30 or 10 or later, very late for us. Then we would drop into bed at 12 or 1 to be up and ready to go by 7 am.


We saw parrots and hawks, tinamous, flycatchers, owls, tyrants, cowbirds, thrush, ibis, ducks, phalaropes, flamingos and roseate spoonbills, swallows and dozens more- about 150 species in all, with about 40 to 50 bird groups a day and usually around eight new birds every day. On the lakes and marshlands it’s easier to spot birds. Typically upon arrival at a cliff or desert site we saw very little. However, after a few minutes of being there and merging in, we would get a sense of the place and where the birds might be. We traveled across five of the ornithogeographical zones of Argentina. These include the Pampas, the Chaco and Espinal, the Monte, the Patagonian Steppe and the Araucano Forest.


We drove through apple, pear and wine regions, by dry salt lakes, and in another region saw buttes or montes and high cliffs in the distance. We went through lots of desert and scrubland, and in the high desert areas the 360 degree vistas were amazing. We experienced a brilliant red sunset one evening, and silhouetted in the distance was a red-backed hawk on a pole. Patagonian swallows dove in and out of the dry volcanic cliffs and we learned that rock doves live in, well, rocks, or cliffs. We spent time high in the mountains, by lakes and rivers, in provincial park, for example, Parque Luro and national parks such as Lihue Calel, and explored a town abandoned after the nearby panoramic mirador dam site was built. We visited a Museo Paleontologica in Neuquen province and learned of the history of the area. On display was an Argentinosauros, part of the Titanosaurs, as well as Gigantosauras. Argentina also has dormant volcanoes, with the glistening snow covered peak of Mount Lanin rising near San Martin. The geographical changes were reflected by the various birds in each region, Austral birds, and desert birds for example. The dry flat pampas is similar to the southern Okanagan.

We had a few strange experiences. We wandered through a crumbling and decrepit graveyard, its tombstones leaning and damaged. It had emerged from Lake Epequen three years ago, after being submerged for 25 years. Lining a path to the graveyard were tall white barren dead trees, standing stark against the sky. A women living in a nearby trailer nearby asked us to sign a petition about saving the area.


We saw calm guanacos silhouetted on the mountain tops, standing as sentries for their herds. We stopped to take pictures of tortugas or turtles and tarantula on the roadway. There were red deer with huge antlers and wild pigs in the fields, along with plenty of gauchos on horse-back, tending their cattle or traveling. After being bitten by red ants while standing on their ant hill, I learned to look before we moved forward. Seeing tarantulas on the road a few times convinced us not to go into the desert with open-toed sandals.

At first we couldn’t figure out what our guide Fedi was doing when he leapt suddenly from the van and ran like crazy into the dry bushes. We didn’t recognize the Spanish word for armadillo which someone called out as we drove along. They are hard to spot and harder to catch. After a couple of misses, he got one before it had a chance to dig itself into the sand so we were able to look and photograph it. The little critter must have run away at 50k per hour. The sun was often fierce and the van`s air conditioning spotty; once it was 40 degrees inside the van at mid-day.

I took dozens of flower pictures, from cacti to alpine beauties, and I hope to have a web-album of the birds, animals and flowers soon.

Our final destination was San Martin de los Andes, a gorgeous small town located in a valley. Talk about broom or forsythia - complete hillsides were a brilliant golden yellow and the roadsides were lined for miles. The snow covered dormant volcano Lanin shone in the light above the clouds. San Martin felt and looked much like Whistler, with huge evergreen pine and cedar trees and snow-capped Andean peaks. Similar to Ecuador, the altitude and temperature create ideal rose growing conditions and dozens of varieties lined the streets and houses. The alpine houses were built in the classic “snow-resort” style: lots of cedar, wooden windows, huge stone facades, steeply sloped snow roofs and curved doorways. As we sat and gazed at beautiful Lake Lacar we commented that we could have been in Horseshoe Bay, except that it’s sunnier.

San Martin has a completely different atmosphere to Buenos Aires – cool alpine air, clean and very middle class. The city has a small village feel although the streets were lined with high-end adventure clothing stores, restaurants and coffee shops and there are plenty of adventure tours available: rafting, wind surfing, snowboarding, canopy towers, skiing, hiking, and horseback riding, and of course, skiing. Both San Martin and nearby Bariloche were settled by Europeans. In the general area there is a Swiss colony, called Colonia Suiza, and the words Edelweiss, Tirol, Alpine were amply used. Fondues and chocolate are regional specialties.

Feria de Aves de Sudamerica

The South American Bird Fair or Feria de Aves was exciting. There are about 30,000 birdwatchers in Argentina, and it is quite an organized activity, with training and accreditation involved. There were also many people from the tourism industry as the organizers plan to make this an annual event.

The bird fair participants had a great respect and understanding of nature and are involved with protecting and nurturing the environment. For example, one couple, an engineer and his wife, are running an NGO, involved in land and seed conservancy and in clean energy. Our poor Spanish language skills precluded talking to many involved people in great depth. Argentina has a ten year environmental plan to preserve Argentina`s natural resources and they are creating new natural reserves and parklands. We found the countryside of Argentina to be in good shape.

Travel makes you more aware of whom you are. We didn`t realize we were such passionate environmentalists because we took things such as a clean environment for granted. Involvement with birding takes us to natural places as well as the big world cities. Unfortunately, respect for the environment is not uniform, with much of the third world awash in garbage. Plastic bags and tin cans litter the countryside. The Argentines have a better handle on it than many countries.

The conference had about 25 sessions on all aspects of birding; anatomy, evolution, photography, conservation, and birding information about Columbia, Brazil, Peru, and Chile. There were photography and painting exhibits and four early morning birding trips to the surrounding area. We met producer of The Path of the Condor, filmed in the Andes and saw this amazing piece of work.

The author Tito Narosky spoke and autographed his new edition of the Field Guide of the Birds of Argentina and Chile. Written in both Spanish and English, with both photos and drawing and a CD of bird songs included, it’s a major accomplishment. The fair organizer, Horacio Matarasso, did a wonderful job and his two teenage sons participated.

We are developing a more in-depth feeling and knowledge of the Argentine people after spending more than a year here. Many Argentines have a rich intellectual life. They read a lot, are involved with their interests and are happy with their lives. In my opinion Argentina is the most cultured place in South America, with a large, but shrinking middle class.

We enjoyed a lovely final evening at the home of an American couple who are building a home in the hills of San Martin on a bluff overlooking a mauve and purple lupine meadow and the alpine mountains. It’s always interesting to share stories with other couples and see how we have all arrived at where we are in life.

And so our birding trip and the bird fair ended and off we went to Bariloche. It was our first extended birding trip and we are hooked.

Mahara Sinclaire

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