Argentina: Pampas to Patagonia (Part 6: Rio Grande)
Road trip! Though we had an Airbnb in Ushuaia for five nights, we wanted to take an overnight to the Patagonian Steppe around the town of Rio Grande. As you can probably infer from the topo map below, the habitat there is quite different from that of Ushuaia and brings a different selection of birds to the table, including one of the most sought-after Southern Cone species of all.
Departure from Ushuaia was in the pitch black, which is quite early at this latitude in November! We began in Rio Grande itself at some salinas on the west side of town in search of Magellanic Plover. We put in a focused couple hours of checking all the stony edges and mixed shorebird flocks for this odd-looking shorebird, but there was no sign of our quarry.
Satisfied with our efforts, we shifted focus to other species and moved onto a cool little wetland called Laguna de Los Patos. Right away we noticed a couple MAGELLANIC SNIPE, which we later realized was a common species around town with birds displaying over even the most degraded waterways. Several CHILEAN FLAMINGOS were roosting and feeding in the pond. The north end held a solid selection of common waterfowl including a pair of FLYING STEAMER-DUCKS. Boreal breeding shorebirds were well-represented by BAIRD'S, WHITE-RUMPED and PECTORAL SANDPIPERS, WILSON'S PHALAROPES, and both YELLOWLEGS.
|the cryptic Magellanic Snipe
On the paddocks beyond the pond, Provencher spotted a RUFOUS-CHESTED DOTTEREL, our prime target here. We ended up watching at least three individuals out there, sometimes calling and flying around.
From there we left town and drove northwest through pastureland towards Estancia Los Flamencos, a ranch with salinas that would give us our best shot at Magellanic Plover. En route there were several spots to check for various new species, but we were hampered by our first significant weather obstacle in Tierra del Fuego: wind. Patagonia as a whole is known for windy conditions, and that seemed plenty accurate to us. The strength of the wind was much too strong to keep scopes from vibrating or falling over, which made scanning the open country nearly impossible, even when crouched behind our vehicle.
We still spent some time searching the fields as best we could for Tawny-throated Dotterel, a low-density breeder in this region. We eventually cut our losses and continued towards Los Flamencos. Not long after we abandoned watch, driving quickly along Route C a pair of TAWNY-THROATED DOTTERELS flew across the road right in front of the vehicle! We got lucky and they landed not too far from the road and allowed us to enjoy this species that lived up to its billing as one of the most beautiful shorebirds in all of South America.
As we approached Los Flamencos, we began to encounter more geese. A large flock of UPLAND and ASHY-HEADED just outside the ranch's entrance deserved a closer look. Sure enough, no less than five RUDDY-HEADED GEESE were present in the group. This is the rarest of the Chloephaga geese and completed our sweep of the genus.
Now inside the ranch property, we began our birding at Laguna Miranda and re-focused on the elusive Magellanic Plover. We were soon approached by a man who was presumably one of the ranch managers. He seemed a bit wary of our presence and calmly spoke to us in Spanish. I figured we had done something wrong. Indeed, the protocol for birding is to first ask permission to enter, which we definitely did not do! Once the misunderstanding was sorted, I asked if we could proceed with the birding, and the gentleman graciously obliged. Truly a good dude. He easily could have lost his patience with us gringos, but he did not.
OK, back to the task at hand. Laguna Miranda, much like the salinas in Rio Grande, was nearly bone dry. After some time had passed without success, I began to wonder if the lack of water might be hurting us. Perhaps the birds had dispersed to a wetter location?
Finally Provencher spotted a distant pair in flight over the far end of the "lake," but neither Tripp nor myself were able to get on them. There were plenty of birds scattered about, namely BAIRD'S and WHITE-RUMPS and TWO-BANDED PLOVERS, but no further sign. Frustrated by the conditions, we decided to change our strategy of stationary scoping. Instead, we attempted to circumnavigate the dried salina on foot, focusing on the stony edges but covering as much ground as possible. Over the ensuing couple hours it felt like we laid eyes on every shorebird out there several times, but still no funky "plovers" - note that Magellanic Plovers are not actually plovers, but are the only member of the family Pluvianellidae and are thought to be most closely related to Sheathbills.
It was not looking good as the afternoon wore on and we had nearly completed our walk. By that point we had spread out quite a bit over the vast lakebed. DP and I reconvened while Tripp did his own thing. Moments later we noticed Tripp waving his arms from about a quarter-mile away. We hopped in the vehicle, which I had just retrieved, and drove towards him. As we approached, a large flock of shorebirds took flight from the same stony shoreline we had scoured earlier. Upon reaching Tripp, he explained that there was a pair of MAGELLANIC PLOVERS in the flock that had just vanished to the west.
We pulled out the scopes and again assumed the position. There was no sign of that shorebird flock. I began having flashbacks to May 2016, when, near Shanghai, China, Luke Seitz and I missed Spoon-billed Sandpiper while our friend Ian Davies deftly photographed one in flight within shouting distance of us. The #1 target bird of that trip, Luke and I never did find one of our own. I still have not seen that species to this day.
Magellanic Plover was not quite in the same tier of "cannot miss" as the Spoonie, but it was close! After a bit of scoping that felt fruitless, I decided that it was time to quit, regroup, and give it another shot in the morning. My slam of the rear gate indicated that I was done. It was a very quiet drive back to town! But we had time and daylight for one scrubby roadside stop that produced a responsive AUSTRAL CANASTERO, our final lifer of a very productive day.
|Least Seedsnipe, in the grassy hills surrounding Laguna Miranda
|hamburgers the size of a small pizza!
Well, today's objective was quite clear. We would spend all day searching for Magellanic Plover - my most wanted bird of the trip - if that's what it took! I felt a bit badly that we were doing this for me, but in reality DP wasn't pleased with his looks and Tripp was game for more.
The wind intensity was cut in half this morning. Luckily it didn't take long to spot a MAGELLANIC PLOVER all by itself, working that same dry, salty, rocky area on the east side of the laguna. I breathed a sigh of relief and we proceeded to work the bird for photos without disturbing it. Truly a unique beast that deserves its own taxonomic family. I am generally not one for unnecessary common name changes, but if they nixed the word "plover" in this case, I'd be more than OK with it.
Now mid-morning, we had the rest of the day to play and look for bonus steppe species that were on the table, and perhaps get a look at the ocean. One of the possible bonus birds was CHOCOLATE-VENTED TYRANT, a species that just about reached the southern limit of its range here. In fact, our nearest lead was yet further north from here, right along Route 3. We had the time to try, so we did. And a bit to our shock, a pair were flying around right as we pulled up to the coordinates. Too easy! Also present here were CINNAMON-BELLIED GROUND-TYRANTS and SHORT-BILLED MINERS. These three species each get more common the further north you go from here, so we were glad to be able to connect so close to Rio Grande.
Having now swept our Rio Grande targets, we had the rest of the day to mess around and get ourselves back to Ushuaia. My suggestion, a surprise to no one, was to check out the coast. There was also an outside shot at Surfbird, which would have been a lifer for Tripp, so all the more reason to explore a bit. Upon approaching the coast, a marshy roadside pool held a single STILT SANDPIPER amongst many WILSON'S PHALAROPES. The Stilt Sand is a scare bird this far south, so we made sure to document with photos.
The coast we reached, apparently at low tide, was a huge mudflat that must have stretched well over a half mile from the beach. So we never really got to see the open ocean here. But the mudflats were covered in shorebirds. HUDSONIAN GODWITS were the dominant species here, numbering well over 200 birds. Harsh lighting conditions kept us from working the flock as carefully as we'd have liked. A couple SNOWY SHEATHBILLS were near shore, and we marveled at SOUTHERN GIANT-PETRELS loafing like gulls on the flats. No Surfbird, though.
|Long-tailed Meadowlark; common throughout most of the trip, but not to be taken for granted.
We grabbed a snack in town and embarked for Ushuaia. The drive back over the Andes on this cloudless and unseasonably warm day was gorgeous. We couldn't help but stop at Garibaldi Pass in an attempt to plot our ascent if we had time to try here for White-bellied Seedsnipe tomorrow morning. While up there, a stunning adult ANDEAN CONDOR appeared over one of the peaks. Our best look yet.
We had time for one quick stop at the Ushuaia landfill since we would pass it coming back into town. The attendant did not let us enter the property, but we were able to view birds in the air from the dirt road by the entrance. Caracaras of three species were all over the place: CHIMANGO, CRESTED, and WHITE-THROATED. This would have been a must-stop for us to see White-throated if we hadn't found one at Martial Glacier earlier this week.