Patagonia with the Falkland Islands and Cape Horn Mar 10—27, 2016

Posted by Rafael Galvez

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Rafael Galvez

Rafael Galvez has been birding and illustrating birds since childhood, a dual passion that developed when his family moved from Peru to South Florida. Always with a sketchp...

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During this magnificent cruise, we traveled from the remote shores of the Falkland Islands, around the captivating seas of Cape Horn, through the spectacularly scenic fjords and channels of Patagonian Chile and Argentina, and up the coast of the Pacific aboard the handsome Sea Adventurer, a 110-passenger ocean liner. Our adventures ranged from vigils for plentiful seabirds aboard the spacious decks of the ship, to Zodiac ventures along gorgeous channels lined with glaciers, to landing in remote forests seldom visited by humans. Highlights were many and included five albatross species; fantastic visits to colonies of four penguin species including King; Patagonian staples including Lesser Rhea and Guanaco; woodland denizens such as Magellanic Woodpecker and Austral Pygmy-Owl; and excellent looks at various marine mammals including Leopard Seal and Humpback Whale.

Guanacos in Tierra del Fuego

Guanacos in Tierra del Fuego— Photo: Rafael Galvez

 

This tour was organized in collaboration with Zegrahm Expeditions. After an evening meet and greet in Santiago de Chile, we took the first morning flight towards Punta Arenas. At that airport, we watched our first flock of Chimango Caracaras, a species that would be ubiquitous throughout the tour. After arriving in Mount Pleasant in the Falkland Islands, we took a bus ride to Stanley, during which we saw many Upland Geese and some Variable Hawks. Once in Stanley, we were treated to confiding Kelp Geese at the shore. A quick scan of the body of water by the port revealed several pairs of Falkland Steamer-Ducks, our first endemic of the trip. The shoreline also contained Crested Ducks, Magellanic Oystercatchers, and Kelp and Dolphin gulls. We could also see a number of Rock Cormorants in the water, and had a quick glance at our first Magellanic Penguin, surfacing momentarily.

Young Magellanic Penguin at Saunders Island

Young Magellanic Penguin at Saunders Island— Photo: Rafael Galvez

 

After our first day sailing, we experienced one of our most memorable days of the tour when we visited Saunders Island in the Falklands, home to colonies of penguins. Upon landing with our Zodiacs, we were greeted by a colony of charismatic Gentoo Penguins, with their bright red bills. Among them, dark and menacing Striated Caracaras—or “Johnny Rooks”—paraded among the penguins looking for feeding opportunities. Falkland (Brown) Skuas circled overhead, patrolling the shoreline. Beyond the pebbled beach, we climbed up the gentle slopes of the island, at times covered by grasses or with scattered boulders painted with lichens. We soon found Magellanic Penguins peering from their burrows. Like the Gentoos, many Magellanics were young, about to lose all their downy plumes to reveal their bold adult plumage. But the fun only continued increasing, as we started spotting the first of our King Penguins, lying flat among the grasses—the bright orange of their bills and napes contrasting colorfully against the drab vegetation. It did not take long before we came upon a group of several King Penguins—gorgeous adults bickering with their neighbors as they stood tall, closely shadowed by their brown downy young. The parents and chicks often exchanged bonding gestures, touching and clappering their bills together. Our trek over the hillside continued to a colony of Black-browed Albatrosses overlooking a gorgeous beach and adjacent flatlands where thousands of penguins could be seen in large groups scattered into the distance. The bright blue ocean waters stirred with white surf, where a dozen Commerson’s Dolphins frolicked in the waves. The Black-browed colony was primarily represented by chicks, some quite advanced and nearly ready to fledge. Every now and then an adult would carefully alight on the cliff-side colony and feed its chick, followed by plenty of bill gesturing. After that we visited another cliff-side colony, this time inhabited by Southern Rockhopper Penguins. We had fantastic views of this charming species. Most of the birds stood lethargically under the warming sun, the strong breeze blowing their golden crests in all directions. Along the way back we spotted other interesting birds including Long-tailed Meadowlark and the first of our cinclodes species—the bold and inquisitive Tussockbird—or Blackish Cinclodes.

Striated Caracara

Striated Caracara— Photo: Rafael Galvez

 

During our fourth day we were at sea, traveling from the Falklands towards Cape Horn. The seas were quite active, and we had substantial swells. This was our first true day of pelagic birding. Sightings included Southern Giant-Petrel, beautiful Cape Petrels, White-chinned Petrels, Sooty and Great shearwaters, many Black-browed Albatrosses, both Northern and Southern royal albatrosses, and even a distant Wandering Albatross seen by a few passengers. Every now and then we were treated to Common Diving-Petrels spooked by the wake of the ocean liner.

We rounded Cape Horn on the fifth day. That morning, as we observed the distant contour of jagged islands at the end of the earth, the seas were filled with Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and Black-browed Albatrosses. By this time, Magellanic Penguins and Commerson’s Dolphins were not an uncommon sight, with the eventual Sei Whale and Peale’s and Hourglass dolphins. By that afternoon, we made a wet landing on the pebbly shores of Isla de Hornos, where we visited the metal albatross monument of Cape Horn. One of the most interesting sightings there was watching Gray-flanked Cinclodes feeding atop strands of kelp being strewn about by the rough surf crashing against shoreline rocks, as if oblivious to the violence of the waters.

The following morning, we arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina. The massive snowcapped mountains cradled the city. Chilean Skuas could be seen as we anchored, and our first Great Grebe foraged by the port. Upon disembarking, we took buses to Tierra del Fuego National Park, where we hoped to see a number of species associated with the stunted Southern Beech forests of the regions. At a number of locations, we found evidence of the elusive Magellanic Woodpecker, but the species would elude us for a few days still. In the process of our search, we found feeding flocks composed of many Thorn-tailed Rayaditos, an inquisitive tit-like species with a unique tail bordered by thorn-like projections, along with a few White-throated Treerunners and Southern House Wrens. Along the shorelines, we encountered three cormorant species including “King” Imperial, Magellanic, and Neotropic cormorants. There we also encountered the first of our Black-necked Swans, Yellow-billed Pintails, and Rufous-breasted Dotterels. Over the surrounding mountains, Andean Condors and Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles soared. One of the most memorable encounters was a very cooperative Fire-eyed Duicon, with its captivating bright red eyes. When we returned to the port, the surrounding coves hosted Brown-hooded Gulls, Red Shovelers, Yellow-billed Teal, and South American Snipe.

Black-browed Albatrosses

Black-browed Albatrosses — Photo: Rafael Galvez

 

From Ushuaia we continued through the Beagle Channel into Glacier Alley, cruising along spectacular scenery. Typical of the region, the weather changed dramatically at times, from sunny to foggy and wet. Black-browed Albatross and Sooty Shearwaters were ever present. We saw an increasing number of Southern Fulmars as we continued through the passage of glaciers. Every now and then we would pass islets filled with Imperial Cormorants or Magellanic Penguins. South American Fur Seals were often sighted. That sixth day, we also took a Zodiac cruise and landed along a stretch of pristine forest at the foothills leading to the magnificent German Glacier. Among many sightings, what captivated us most was a pair of cinclodes that worked the rocky shoreline. They turned out to be a Buff-winged and a Gray-flanked Cinclodes, working in close association with a Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant. The cinclodes kept low among the water-washed rocks and algae; the ground-tyrant foraged from higher atop the rocks.

The following days, continuing along the fjords heading northward, we would continue seeing many seabirds, and adding Flightless and Flying steamer-ducks, Magellanic Diving-Petrel, South American Tern, and Ringed Kingfisher to our list.

Torres del Paine National Park in Chile was a much anticipated highlight of the tour. The spectacular and eerie horn-like mountains that towered over the range were reason alone to visit the park. Upon entering the llanos, we encountered bands of gauchos—the cowboys typical of the vast plains of southern South America—proudly trotting, followed by bands of loyal dogs. It was not long before we encountered herds of Guanacos—one of two camelids native to the continent—interspersed with groups of Lesser Rheas, the largest South American birds. The scene could not have been more evocative of the region. Additional highlights included a flock of Austral Parakeets as we traversed a riverbed to peek at a large glacier, and both Patagonian and Gray-hooded sierra-finches, relatives of tanagers with colorful yellow and orange plumages.

Fire-eyed Diucon

Fire-eyed Diucon— Photo: Rafael Galvez

 

It wasn’t until we visited Bernardo O’Higgins National Park the following day that we finally encountered the enigmatic Magellanic Woodpecker. The morning had started with a fantastic view of two Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles dominating a mammal carcass, surrounded by Southern Caracaras attempting to outwit them, sneaking-in their long legs to pull out meat to eat from underneath the larger predators. The sun rose as we entered the renowned Milodon Cave, where remains of an extinct giant ground sloth—Mylodon darwini (estimated dead about 12,000 years ago)—were discovered. The stunted forests surrounding the cave were full of life, including sierra-finches and diucons. Most visible were the many Austral Thrushes that foraged through the understory, reminding us all of a subtly-colored version of American Robins. Excitement had already struck from great views of Striped Woodpecker and Chilean Flicker, when word spread that atop the cave, within its dense forests, a family of Magellanic Woodpeckers was being seen actively feeding. The uphill pilgrimage of all birdwatchers quickly took place, and soon we were all rewarded with great views of both male and female of this grand species, uncommon relatives of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.

Torres del Paine National Park

Torres del Paine National Park— Photo: Rafael Galvez

 

After leaving Puerto Natales, we began our day cruising through the fjords, in a passage that showed few birds and little wildlife. By midday we had reached the site of the famed Pio XI glacier. Our group cruised by Zodiac, through the chunks of the clearest imaginable ice, toward the eastern flank of the glacier, where we had spotted dozens of Flying Steamer-Ducks passing us by. The magnificent wall of the glacier loomed to our side as we attempted to cross its 2.5 mile face. As we reached the far side, it became apparent that there were many birds sitting on a bar and swimming on the shallows. As we approached, a mass of hundreds of Brown-hooded Gulls flew up in unison. Over four hundred steamer-ducks bobbed nearby in the waters. Dozens of Kelp Gulls dotted the shores, and a mass of many cormorants of three species stood guard.

We returned to the opposite side of the glacier, where a large tunnel of the most amazing blue ice beckoned us and rumbled deep. Upon landing, we could view through the gigantic wall of ice of this largest glacier in South America. The views were spectacular. The forest opposite of the ice was gorgeous. Stunted trees covered with mosses, lichens, and epiphytic growths rose up the slope. Upon closer inspection, the forest floor also gave way to many flowering plants, all of which have a variety of red-colored flowers. Every now and then, Green-backed Firecorns flew by at high speeds. The highlight of the hike up the slope was an Austral Pygmy-Owl that looked down at us from the forest gallery.

Magellanic Woodpecker female and male, and Austral Pygmy-Owl

Magellanic Woodpecker female and male, and Austral Pygmy-Owl— Photo: Rafael Galvez

 

Our third to final day was one of our best out at sea, and one of the best pelagic experiences. The seas were sporty, with swells estimated at over 10 feet. The Black-browed Albatrosses were always accompanying us, but it did not take long to see White-chinned Petrels cruising by. Sooty Shearwaters were always numerous, sometimes cruising by in very large groups. We started seeing albatrosses with gray heads, sometimes too distant to make much in terms of identification. A number of these indeed turned out to be Gray-headed Albatrosses, but as the day progressed, we began encountering Salvin’s Albatrosses, with their beautiful horn-colored bills. At times all three species could be seen together, often distant in the rough spray of the churning seas; the difference in their sizes made for beautiful comparisons. Later in the afternoon, as the seas seemed to be ever increasing in rage, we encountered a few Northern Giant-Petrels following the boat, the first to be easily visible from the ship.

Zodiac cruising past Pio XI Glacier

Zodiac cruising past Pio XI Glacier— Photo: Rafael Galvez

 

The following day, we cruised through channels with calm waters, again seeing tremendous flocks of shearwaters, bands of Magellanic Penguins, and Black-browed Albatrosses and Kelp Gulls everywhere. This day we again had a Zodiac cruise. We took a path hugging a shoreline with drastic inclines and very dense forests. We managed to find the first Great Egret of the trip. We soon found Yellow-billed Teals, steamer-ducks, and Rufous-chested Dotterels. One of the rocky islands surrounded by kelp had the first of many Whimbrels we would see for the remainder of the tour. But the highlight was seeing our first Black-faced Ibis—three individuals preening on a grassy knoll by the shore.

On our final day, we visited Chiloé Island and the namesake national park. On our way we drove past agricultural fields and fruit groves. Large flocks of endemic Slender-billed Parakeets were seen flying over the highway, and Grassland Yellow-Finches were evident here and there. We spent the morning birding the dense rainforest, getting great views of Green-backed Firecrowns, Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetails, and Tufted Tit-Tyrant. Some of us had the privilege of seeing Chucao and Magellanic Tapaculos. Yet what stole the show was an unexpected and cooperative Rufous-tailed Plantcutter out in the open.

During this fantastic cruise we covered tremendous ground, nearly half the length of the birdiest continent in the world by water and land. We visited a great diversity of habitats, from penguin colonies in the remote Falkland Islands, fjords nestled in glaciers, steppe-like Patagonian steppes, and stunted Austral forests to the bird-rich waters around Cape Horn. Not only were the wildlife experiences spectacular, but we saw some of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet.