Birding Tours and Nature Photography in Southern South America

Patagonia: 7 Eco-Regions

27/11/19 – 8/12/19

Participants: Roger and Anne Baugh
Guide: Horacio Matarasso

We landed expectantly at the regional capital Neuquen on a bright spring morning, to meet our
guide, and Buenos Dias owner, Horacio, after a couple of days acclimatising in Buenos Aires.

Soon we were off across the flat semi-desert landscapes of the Argentine monte, the first of our seven ecoregions! Passing Chimango and Southern Caracaras (the former would become a ubiquitous species for the whole trip) and Cinereous Harriers provided excuses for quick stops. Arriving at our hotel in the off-the-beaten-track town of Zapala, we were greeted by three noisy Burrowing Parrots on the street wires just outside its entrance. But we were quickly off again, rattling along tracks through the surrounding Patagonian steppe, a landscape of short grass tussocks and low rounded Neneo bushes, developing now to the west of the monte as we gradually approached the Andes. Birds such as White-throated Cachalotes and spectacular Fork-tailed
flycatchers sat atop the taller bushes, while Black-winged Ground-doves explored the ground below.

Lost in the rolling steppe, we found a shallow lake, an unearthly milky-green from its abundant algal growth, which was proving a magnet for birds. Walking right around, we could see our first Upland Geese, Coscoroba Swans and Black-faced Ibises on the grassy margins, Double-banded Plovers and a plethora of Baird’s Sandpipers at the water’s edge, but also one of the first of our ‘target’ groups: two diminutive Least Seedsnipes, scuttling lark-like among the sparse bordering vegetation, where a Rusty-backed Monjita perched for nice views.

Out on the water, up to a thousand Chilean Flamingos created a stunning sight as they flapped low over the waves to land again in mid-water. Dapper Silvery Grebes swam in small parties, along with Crested Ducks, Red Shovelers and a few Andean Ruddy Ducks, mixing with the many Red-gartered and White-winged Coots. A large raft of Wilson’s Phalaropes pecked delicately at the surface, joined by three of the much scarcer Red Phalaropes: a good find!

After an early start the next morning, we breakfasted in the dazzling low sunlight beside the bigger Solitaria Lake, home to phenomenal numbers of coots, both of yesterday’s species. Along with many more of the waterbirds of yesterday, we could add Black-necked Swans, Cinnamon and Speckled Teals, our first Chiloe Wigeons and the always-cute White-tufted Grebes. Around its salt-encrusted edges, dotted with the salt-loving algarrobo bushes, smart little Austral Negritos perched perkily. Out among the rafts of coots, we picked out a lone Black-headed Duck, typically low in the water. A quick visit to the contrastingly green Rio Covumco river valley found us some species at their southern limits, such as Sombre (ex Chiguanco) Thrush and Rufous Horneros. Spectacled Tyrants and Yellow-winged Blackbirds meanwhile sang and flitted over a small wetland area.

Soon we were heading south across wide spreads of Patagonian steppe, the highlight being a party of female Lesser Rheas feeding close to the road: another target species and great views! Raptor sightings punctuated the drive, with many Variable Hawks and two impressively bulky Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles among the ever-present vultures.

After a lunch of local trout in Junin de los Andes, we drove up into Lanin National Park, dominated by the massive white-capped volcano of the same name, and were soon in the curious and beautiful protected forest of huge Araucarias (A. araucaria, with a limited distribution in these mountain valleys). Bright yellow Gavilea orchids grew below the mighty trees, and in our first stretch of Nothofagus (‘southern beech’) forest nearby, we glimpsed a few of its characteristic birds, such as Fire-eyed Diucons and White-crested Elaenias, to become familiar over the next few days. A Chilean Pigeon was endearingly tame below the trees, over the mountains from its main range. Back down in the valley, a Chilean Flicker flashed by and called loudly from riverside trees while further on, a White-tailed Kite hovered, a typical early evening sight.

Next day proved to be very windy, making for challenging birding at times. But early on, Andean Condors gave us some magical moments. A pair were seen overhead making for a carcass already being visited by vultures and caracaras: after wheeling around to take a good look, they decided to move on, hanging in the stiff wind just metres from our car as they gradually gained height, before soaring majestically away over the high slopes, where Guanacos could be seen grazing in small herds.

We now drove the rough tracks across Ted Turner’s Collon Cura Steppe Reserve, spreading over a rolling plateau above the river. In spite of the wind, we built up a decent list of its special species, each appearing briefly from the bushes by the track, for close views as they were buffeted in the gale: Band-tailed Earthcreeper, Common Miner, Grey-bellied and Lesser Shrike-tyrants, Hellmayr’s Pipits, Black-winged Ground-doves and two Grey-breasted Seedsnipes all showed themselves. Mourning Sierra-finches, however, proved the most intrepid, often in large loose parties. We, though, retreated back down into the relative shelter of the Collon Cura valley, where riverside walks were shared with lots of species, such as a singing Ticking Dorodito in marshland trees, and a bevy of hirundines (Southern Martins, Chilean, Blue-and-white and Barn Swallows) beside the river, along
with Dark-bellied Cinclodes at the water’s edge.

An Andean (Red) Fox by the roadside added to our mammal sightings, as we headed back to our comfortable hotel in San Martin de los Andes.

The next morning, we were up early for Horacio to take us above the town into the southern beech and Austrocedrus forest, here often interspersed with flowery slopes. The wind now having dropped, many birds were active. Patagonian Sierra-finches, Black-chinned Siskins and Austral Blackbirds vied with the smart Fire-eyed Diucons for our attention, as neat little Thorn-tailed Rayaditos flitted in the scrub with Tufted Tit-tyrants, and curious-looking Rufous-tailed Plantcutters (now assigned to the cotingas) perched up to sing. A Patagonian Forest Earthcreeper also perched for a view, recently split from the steppe-haunting Scale-throated.

Meanwhile, the songs of the region’s charismatic tapaculos rang out all around: Chucao Tapaculos’ rich, resonant phrases and Black-bellied Huet-huets’ haunting hooting songs. We tracked two of the latter calling through the undergrowth, but resolutely refusing to be seen – for a future day! Beside an attractive mountain lake, Ashy-headed Geese could be picked out on the grassy margins, as we sat taking in a wonderfully picturesque scene.

In the afternoon, we drove up higher into the mountains, and trekked up through thin snow cover into a magical forest, the Nothofagus trunks decked thickly in grey-green Old Man’s Beard lichens, the branches sporting the very curious soft yellow balls of llao llao galls. We were looking for Magellanic Woodpecker, and soon a scarlet-headed male dutifully appeared, flying onto a trunk for a majestic view. As we clambered up towards a high viewpoint, other forest birds regularly turned up: a White-throated Treerunner on upper branches, a lively Grey-flanked Cinclodes, a Striped Woodpecker and many Austral Thrushes among our now familiar species.

After a busy day, we descended back to town for a leisurely and copious parilla in one of its many cosy restaurants.

The following morning took us along the famously scenic Ruta de los Siete Lagos, punctuated by stops for photogenic views of lakes and mountains, all seven lakes carefully counted as the forest edges around us rang to the various songs of lurking tapaculos. An unexpected highlight, however, was a Monito del Monte, an unusual and rarely seen marsupial with no close living relatives, which ventured out to sun itself on a lakeside branch like a giant dormouse. As we drove on, the forest understory of Chusquea bamboos became everywhere brown and seeding – a rare coordinated phenomenon occurring only every 50-60 years.

After lunch at a smart lakeside restaurant and installation at our charming wooden lakeside hotel at Villa Angostura, we wandered down to the edge of Lake Nahuel Huapi, where Horacio negotiated an impromptu boat trip: soon we were off in search of Flying Steamer Ducks and it was not long before a pair swam across the lake centre and conveniently straight past our bows, for a perfect photo opportunity of another of our target species. Great and Silvery Grebes added to the show. Back on shore, an early evening stroll among tall old beeches found us Patagonian Tyrants and, after another fruitless search for frustratingly calling Huet-huets, a typically fleeting view of a wren-like Magellanic Tapaculo lurking below a dense bush.

The new day was to take us up and over the Andes. We rose up slowly through evergreen beech forests, amid increasing signs of the great eruption of Puyehue Volcano of eight years ago: grey ash layers beside the road became increasingly thick as we passed through the border posts and topped the Cardenal Antonio Samoré Pass to drop down into Chile. The great volcano itself came into view, white-capped and brooding, and soon we were driving through kilometres of dead forest trunks and thick ash banks, fragile splashes of green showing the power of natural regeneration. Beyond, the landscape changed dramatically, the forest of varied broadleaf trees around us now richly cloaked in climbers and epiphytes: the Valdivian temperate rainforest! A stop beside a mountain river rewarded us with a rust-and-grey female Torrent Duck braving the rapids and a big Ringed Kingfisher perching above.

Chile’s Central Valley presented a different scene again, an almost European-looking landscape of green fields and dairy cows. Black-faced Ibises dotted many fields and a little detour after hearing their calls led us to Slender-billed Parakeets adorning tall hedge trees. Nearby, a Chilean Mockingbird perched conveniently on a roadside wire. We arrived in lovely sunshine at the Pacific coast, its little bays and fishing villages. The wide curving sandy beach at Maicolpue allowed us to compare American and Blackish Oystercatchers, and to search through the Kelp and Brown-hooded Gulls for more unusual species (in vain this time!). A strange sight, though, was that of an immature Southern Giant Petrel, sitting peacefully on the upper beach – blown in by the recent strong weather systems, and hopefully soon to find its way back out to sea.

Soon we were installed at our accommodation above the bay at Bahia Mansa and headed off for sumptuous oceanside fish dinner. In the early morning, we found ourselves bouncing through the heavy ocean swell as our small boat took us out to explore offshore islets. We were hoping for penguins and we were not to be disappointed. The biggest triangular-shaped islet, just off Pucatrihue, housed a breeding colony of Magellanic Penguins and we could gently approach the shore for fantastic views of adults and well- grown young, standing around on beach and rock slabs, or clambering on the steep rocky slope above where their nests must be hidden.

Red-legged Cormorants were also breeding on the islet rocks, flying in with bills full of seaweed for their nests. Moving on to cliff-sided stacks further on, we could pick out both Rock and Imperial (Blue-eyed) Shags high on their own rock pinnacles. South American and a few Snowy-crowned (Trudeau’s) Terns danced over the waves, and our first Peruvian Pelicans flapped heavily overhead. A splendid trip was capped by a Marine Otter back in the bay at Bahia Mansa, nonchalantly floating on its back while dismembering a large crab on its breast.

The rest of the day was spent exploring the coast to north and south, strolling on deserted beaches, with South American Sealions and Bottle-nosed Dolphins often just offshore. In the mid-afternoon, we could look out at thousands of Sooty Shearwaters passing southwards over the ocean, heading now for their breeding islands near Cape Horn. Dark-bellied Cinclodes loitered around the beach edges as huge Peruvian Pelicans drifted overhead. On the cliff slopes above, Plain-mantled Tit-tyrants flitted in the scrub as Austral Parakeets dashed over on noisy manoeuvres. It was time sadly to move on from the sparkling coast. We headed first for the port city of Puerto Montt where huge mudflats were home to impressive numbers of migrant Franklin’s Gulls, roosting with Elegant Terns. Whimbrels and oystercatchers dotted the mud, but Hudsonian Godwit flock proved elusive – for another time!

Re-crossing the Central Valley, with a backdrop of enormous snow-capped volcanoes, a highlight was the Rufous-tailed Hawk (a scarce forest species) which perched handily on a roadside wire for us to verify its features. We entered Puyehue National Park and arrived at our lakeside ecolodge, home for the next two nights. A soak in the well-appointed thermal baths up in the mountain foothills was followed by a first walk in the temperate rainforest. While sitting quietly by a narrow path, a Des Murs’ Wiretail, a tiny cinnamon ball but for its long fine tail feathers, appeared on a bamboo branch right by our heads for a magical encounter!

The next day was cool and overcast, for a day of forest walks. Three Black-throated Huet-huets finally came out of cover for us, calling furiously as they perched openly, if briefly, with tail coced. Chucao, Magellanic and Ochre-flanked Tapaculos called from pathside thickets, but gave just fleeting views at best. A Green-backed Firecrown, however, up to now only seen dashing through the trees or hovering at the red flowers of a notro (‘Chilean Fire-tree’), now perched close by us for perfect views.

A drive up a rough track to the Raihuén crater above Antillanca found the whole scene enveloped in thick mist: very atmospheric as we walked on black lavas and lichen-covered slopes, but not a time for searching for the open mountain birds! We descended for further forest walks and an evening relaxing at our comfortable lodge by the lake edge. Our re-crossing of the mountains was uneventful but for the constant stunning Andean views, and soon we had arrived at the smart resort town of Bariloche, set beside a sparkling Lake Nahuel Huape. We explored again the southern beech forest surrounding the town, re-acquainting ourselves with its special birds as we searched for Wren-like Rushbirds along lake and pool borders. Bariloche is situated at an ecotone between the Nothofagus forests of the Andean foothills and the Patagonian steppe. The following morning we set off to explore the latter, in much more conducive conditions than our Collon Cura day. Many birds could easily be seen from the roadsides, most perching prominently on bushtops to sing: a Scale-throated Earthcreeper, Rufous-taile
Plantcutters, Austral Canasteros, brightly attired Long-tailed Meadowlarks, smart Common Diuca- finches, besides the seemingly ever-present Mourning Sierra-finches and Austral Negritos. Both Correndera and Hellmayr’s Pipits could be distinguished, and a Lesser Shrike-tyrant, its bill full of flies for its nestlings, gave us much better views.

A circling Andean Condor added to our by-now expected sightings of this mighty bird, while lower down a bright male American Kestrel contrasted with a soaring Peregrine. We reached a shallow roadside lagoon, where Chilean Flamingos and Upland Geese (which had also been visible dotting grassy steppe flats) were joined by Red Shovelers, Yellow-billed Pintails and Chiloe Wigeons. Six Lesser Yellowlegs out in the shallow water had a Greater Yellowlegs for company, nice for comparisons.

After lunch in town, we headed up the mountain road to take a cable-car at the ski resort of Cerro Catedral, rising to 1800m. Here we were above the treeline, surrounded by high rocky slopes sparsely carpeted with low-growing mountain flowers. Yellow-bridled Finches were smartly attired around the upper station café, where Plumbeous Sierra-finches and a Bar-winged Cinclodes lurked on damp ground below. A White-throated Caracara was also here, periodically rising up to soar over the slopes, as a Condor appeared over a high ridge for our last views of an iconic bird. Exploring further, we finally encountered a pair of Ochre-naped Ground-tyrants, at home in this
magnificent habitat, with stunning views down across the deep-blue lake and lines of mountain peaks beyond.

Out tour was nearing its end, our final morning spent dreamily wandering the picturesque forests around our little hotel, for wistful encounters with the birds which had become familiar to us over the past days. Then on to the airport for sad farewells with Horacio, with whom we had spent so many fascinating hours. Our Patagonian adventure had been one of dizzying variety, in the habitats, the landscapes and the birds (around 200 species, 75 of them new ones for us), not to mention the splendid food, all enjoyed in unfailingly good-natured and engaging company!

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