Saturday 8th December
Call me controversial, but I would ban all under-5's from boarding long-haul flights. And I'd start with the one who sat next to me and screamed all the way from Rome to Buenos Aires. Still, Christmas is coming, good will to all men, etc.
Sunday 9th December
Ezeiza International Airport, Buenos Aires, 09.15. Martin Kennewell, Dave Wright and myself take our first steps in the lower latitudes of the South American Continent. We're instantly aware that Argentina is a "First World" destination. We change one of our internal flights with no complications or bureaucracy whatsoever and find that the half-hour, return, taxi ride to Costanera Sur will cost us $57!
A journey through first the suburbs and then the commercial heart of the city reveals that Buenos Aires is a surprisingly clean, fresh, leafy city, in fact very European in many respects. The sky is clear blue and a cooling breeze keeps the temperature down to that of a hot summer's day in Britain. Although high-rise development predominates in the suburbs, the area leading down to the old docks is characterised by many fine old colonial buildings. Litter seems entirely absent and the local population exudes a friendly and relaxed air.
Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve is a wetland oasis, sandwiched between the vast urban sprawl of Buenos Aires and the mighty Rio de la Plata. It also serves as a focal point and recreation area for the local community, making birding the site a rather bizarre experience. As we stand watching Rosy-billed Pochard and Spot-flanked Gallinule, a constant stream of Buenos Airens walks, roller-skates and cycles past!
Costanera Sur's origins are, in fact, totally unrelated to conservation and the natural environment. Work originally commenced with the purpose of reclaiming land from the Rio de la Plata's margins, using the "polder" system successfully operated in The Netherlands. The project did not progress according to plan, however, and a series of marshy lagoons remained as the scheme was abandoned. The area became so attractive to wetland bird species that it was declared a nature reserve, and it is now recognised as the prime birding site in the Buenos Aires region.
We spend four hours dodging cyclists and amassing a phenomenal number of new birds during what is, in fact, the hottest and least productive time of the day. Black-necked and Coscoroba Swans, Red-fronted and Red-gartered Coots, Lake Duck and Silver Teal, Yellow-billed Cardinal, Spectacled Tyrant, the list goes on and on. Over 30 ticks are accrued in this excellent introduction to Argentine birding.
Black-headed Duck is our main target, a very range-restricted species in a genus of its own, and is the last bird to be found. We also realise that our field guide, "de la Pena", is woefully inadequate for sorting out tricky species and is doomed to be relegated to "toilet roll" before the end of the trip!
Coypus, loafing on dead branches breaking the lake's surface, make an amusing sight. They resemble giant guinea pigs and, though occurring in large numbers here, are seen nowhere else on the trip.
All too soon it's time for the taxi back to the airport and the first of many internal flights. As our Aerolineas Argentinas airliner leaves Buenos Aires in the late afternoon sunlight a window seat gives excellent views of the changing scenery below. Immediately south of the capital the panorama is as flat as a billiard table and the lush, green, pampas grassland of countless cattle ranches stretches to the horizon. Half an hour into the flight and the monotonous grassland gives way to a patchwork of arable fields with the coastline visible in the distance.
Further south still and the outlook takes on a distinctly more dry appearance. Light greens and browns of the Patagonian Steppeland now stretch out to the clearly visible Atlantic Ocean. In this landscape roads run straight as a die, and are clearly visible from the air, cutting through the scrub in unerringly regular lines, as if drawn with a ruler.
Eventually the outline of Peninsular Valdes, one of South America's premier natural history regions, is clearly discernible. Its distinctive shape is etched in our minds, from hours of pouring over maps in preparation for the trip. Thoughts turn to an image of what must be flying, hopping, running and swimming far below!
The plane can't land fast enough and we're soon installed in our hire car. Chimango Caracara and Long-tailed Meadowlark are ticked before we're out of the car park! We make rapid progress on good roads and hit Peninsular Valdes at dusk. A room is booked in a pleasant motel in the very touristy town of Puerto Piramide and we celebrate our safe arrival with the first of much fine Argentine cuisine and beer.
Monday 10th December
An obligatory early start and we're off north on the dirt road to Punta Norte. Almost immediately the first of many Elegant Crested-Tinamous is spotted at the roadside. Amazing, a tinamou that doesn't skulk ! And a very smart looking one, too, with an elegant little crest. Our first Lesser Rheas are soon seen, jogging through the low scrub. Huge, ostrich-like birds, though of very nervous disposition. Most views are of a rapidly disappearing rear-end!
A group of Guanaco, Argentina's ubiquitous camelid, feed close to the road. These attractive animals, reminiscent of large ginger-and-white Llamas, range widely over suitable scrubby habitat and enliven many a long drive throughout the trip.
We make a stop and stride out into the dense Patagonian Scrub. Birding is hard work and densities are clearly low in this harsh, dry, habitat but slowly we find the skulkers. Scale-throated Earthcreeper, Lesser Canastero and other scrub specialists are added to the list.
It's mid-day by the time we reach Punta Norte and the temperature is rising rapidly. The car thermometer reads 28.5 degrees Celsius. We have a final bash around the scrub but soon give up, sweating, scratched and with socks full of the irremovable seeds of a hundred plant species!
Punta Norte is home to huge pinaped colonies (the collective name for seals and sea lions etc.), made famous in many a wildlife documentary. It is here that the epic sequences of Orcas taking seal pups from the beach were filmed.
Sadly no Orcas are present at the time of our visit, the peak season for this species being February and March. There is no shortage of other forms of mammalian interest, though. The huge forms of basking Southern Elephant Seals litter the sand above the rocky shoreline, at what is their northernmost breeding colony. Although the immense adult bulls have left the scene there are many females, pups and immature males in residence. The young males hold practice sparring bouts in the surf and their throaty roars echo along the beach.
Southern Sea Lions, a species with a later breeding season, are only just arriving at the shore. This means that the huge, maned, males are establishing territories and spectacular fights erupt along the beach. Despite their great bulk they are surprisingly agile out of the water and charge great distances along the sand in order to confront rivals. It's an amazing sight.
Back at the car park we are rushed by a very determined armadillo! This is no exaggeration. It is clearly used to visitors and wants to be fed. We treat it to a cereal bar, in return for some close-up photos, and identify it as Larger Hairy Armadillo.
Late afternoon finds us back at Punta Piramide, a headland just south of the town. As we drive towards the car park a suspicious "rock" is spotted just off the coastline. I've got a whale! Scopes out and we're soon enjoying amazing views of two Southern Right Whales only 200 m offshore. Blowholes and barnacles are clearly visible! They carry on south and we carry on down to the headland.
A whole new array of birds waits on the rocky shore and wave-cut platforms. Rock and Imperial Cormorants, Blackish Oystercatcher and the strange sight of our first Snowy Sheathbill. Sheathbills are something of an ornithological anomaly. Their taxonomic status has long been debated and they are currently classed as allied to waders. They fill the role of vultures to the Antarctic mammal colonies, living on a diet of carrion.
Our final destination for the day is Isla de los Pajaros, literally "Bird Island", just off the north west coast of the peninsular. The small conical lump of rock is teeming with seabirds, supporting huge colonies of cormorants and egrets, and also produces our first reasonable (though distant) views of Magellanic Penguin. An Argentine Grey Fox walks below the observation tower, just feet away from our vantage point. Avian highlight of the visit is Chubut Steamerduck, a flightless species, endemic to Argentina and with a tiny range centred around Peninsular Valdes. A fitting finale to a brilliant first day.
Tuesday 11th December
First light finds us back in the scrub, just north of the Punta Norte road, in search of more skulking endemics. A determined effort produces Band-tailed Earthcreeper and Patagonian Canestero, both found in no other country on Earth. We are also treated to excellent views of Mara. Voted most bizarre mammal of the trip, these huge rodents resemble a cross between a giant, long legged, guinea pig and an antelope!
We feel that we've earned ourselves a good breakfast so we sit down to a four-course spectacular, back at the hotel, overlooking the South Atlantic.
Peurto Piramide is famous for its "Whale Trips" out into the bay. The whole economy of the place is clearly geared to this activity with different boat operators vying for custom and every shop stacked high with whale momentos. We feared the worst in this very touristy environment and were totally unprepared for what lay ahead.
We have only been on the boat for about ten minutes when the sharp-eyed skipper spots the first "blow". Rapidly arriving at the scene we have fairly close, but very brief, views of a Southern Right Whale. The skipper insists that this is an unobliging animal and we set out across the bay in search of more whales.
Soon another two are spotted, in close proximity, and the boat closes in. To the absolute amazement of everyone on board this pair, which turned out to be a mother and her calf, are totally unafraid of the boat. They actually seem to relish our company and continually cruised below and around the hull. In the crystal-clear water every barnacle and blemish on the animals' backs can be studied. When they surface to breath, right alongside the boat, the spray from their blows showers everyone on board. The boat on which we were sitting is only 10 m long compared with the giant 20 m female. Though she repeatedly rubs the keel of the boat with her back there is never a hint of hostility or danger.
Being so close to such awe inspiring creatures came as an incredibly moving and humbling experience, and something that will live vividly with us forever. It is unbelievable to think that such a majestic animal gained its name from the fact that it was once considered the "right" whale to hunt because it floated when killed. Man's greed and savagery nearly lead to its extinction, yet now a pair show such trust and apparent curiosity that they are literally within touching distance.
The whales spend half an hour "socialising" and a small lorry load of Fujifilm is exposed! Just as we think that the performance can't possibly get any better one of the whales breaches, clear of the water, just off the bow. Then it repeats its performance again and again. These are the sort of moments you dream about and know that you will never forget. As we head for the shore the occupants of the boat are strangely quiet, contemplating what they have just been privileged enough to witness.
Next stop Punta Delgado, an hours drive away at the far south east corner of the Peninsular. A brief view of a "wader" brings the car to a halt and we are delighted to find an extremely obliging pair of Least Seedsnipe, which refuse to leave the road!
We had been a little disappointed with the Punta Norte, as there is no access to the beach. At Punta Delgado it's a totally different story! The scenery is superb with high sandstone cliffs, falling towards a sandy beach, backed by a wave-cut platform dotted with rockpools. Beyond this is the deep blue water of the South Atlantic, whose breakers crash in unhindered since leaving the West African coast.
Accompanied by a guide we climb down the steep cliff pathway and approach to within 30 feet of the Southern Elephant Seal colony. Just the four of us, and 500 or so seals, waves crashing in the background and Southern Giant Petrels sailing overhead. Heaven!
This colony still supports a good sprinkling of adult bull seals and hierarchical fights continually break out. Massive elephant-nosed animals rear up and stare each other out with crazed, bloodshot, eyes before launching vicious attacks that gouge horrific flesh wounds with huge brown-stained incisors. We sit and soak it all in for a couple of hours before our tight itinerary means we must drag ourselves away.
It's a long drive north to our next destination, but the long straight roads again make for rapid progress. There is little time for birding en route, but the car screeches to a halt when a small flock of brightly-coloured Burrowing Parrots are seen feeding at the roadside.
It's late evening by the time we reach San Antonio Oeste and we crash in the first hotel we find.
Wednesday 12th December
Fully refreshed and revitalised we dive into the Patagonian Scrub, just south of the town, at first light. White-throated Cachalote, a large, rather drab, endemic ovenbird is soon located at our stakeout for this species. We rapidly move on, as there seem to be very few other birds at the site and the local pack of dogs look decidedly unfriendly!
We drive through the coastal town of Balneario de las Grutas and locate some excellent looking tall scrubby habitat to the south. Burrowing Parrots are almost constantly in view flying past in small, raucously calling, groups.
Sandy Gallito, a small sandy-brown endemic topaculo is notoriously a real skulker. The first birds we see are two Sandy Gallitos hopping on the track, in the open, tails cocked above their heads! Another endemic, Carbonated Sierra-Finch is found a little further up the gully. Stunning black-and-white males perform their distinctive song-flights from low bushes.
Over the next couple of hours another dozen-or-so species are added to the list before the temperature begins to soar, under the clear blue sky and strong summer sun, and we retire to a friendly local restaurant for some fine Patagonian seafood.
We make the long drive south, back to Trelew, during the heat of the day. Lago Trelew was apparently once a half-decent wetland site, but our visit reveals a rather degraded, rubbish-strewn lake, on the town's outskirts. Chiloe Wigeon, Red Shoveler and White-tufted Grebe are amongst the few notable birds.
To end the day we put in an hour's unproductive seawatching at Playa Union. We're blasted by wind-whipped sand as we crouch, ironically, behind a statue of a pod of Commerson's Dolphins. If only!
Our hotel in Trelew is a fine old colonial building with a huge high-ceilinged bar identical to ones we'd frequented in Victoria, Australia, some years earlier. Presumably built in a similar era, though any other links remain a mystery. The menu is illegible due to the absence of our phrase book and we end up doing cow impressions to the waiter in order to secure the delivery of a steak sandwich!
Thursday 13th December
We hit the road early for the long drive down to Punta Tombo. A stop at a likely looking area of roadside grassland produces a pair of extremely confiding Rusty-backed Monjitas. This brightly-coloured endemic tyrant is, like its congeners, very wheatear-like and prefers areas of short grassland amongst the scrub.
Punta Tomba appears on the map as an insignificant looking headland on the Atlantic coastline a couple of hundred kilometres south of Peninsular Valdes. To Magellanic Penguins, however, it is a unique and vital environment hosting no fewer than half a million birds in what is mainland South America's largest seabird colony.
We check in at the information centre and are sent on our way down to the colony with the immortal words "Please don't touch the penguins". At this stage we have a sneaking suspicion that we are in for some reasonably close views!
As we drive down to the car park we have to make repeated stops to allow penguins to cross the road in front of the car! Most birds have almost fully grown young and are constantly walking past, with long lines of birds walking along "penguin motorways" to and from the ocean, delivering food to their offspring. Once in the water adult birds will spend up to four days at sea before returning with food.
Magellanic Penguins winter at sea to the north, many off the coast of Brazil. In late August and early September they return to the nests which they used in the previous season. The nest site, either a burrow or a scrape below a bush, can be up to 800 m from the shore and the walk from the water's edge can take over an hour. Two eggs are laid in early October, which means that at the time of our visit large, downy, young are everywhere.
Walkways are set out amongst the nesting birds, which seem oblivious to visitors. We photograph penguins from every conceivable angle and vantage point. When bending down to take a photo we often receive an inquisitive peck from a passing bird. At one stage my fingers are nibbled by a Magellanic Penguin! In fact, far from being told not to touch the birds, it is a case of them touching us! Another amazing and unforgettable experience.
All other birds take a back seat here, though we enjoy excellent views of Southern Skua, Dolphin Gull and another pair of Chubut Steamerducks. On the drive back another species of armadillo crosses in front of the car, this time a Seven-banded.
By mid afternoon the car temperature gauge reaches the dizzy heights of 39 degrees Celsius! We are told that such weather is, thankfully, unseasonably hot and induced by warm westerly winds straight from the Atacama Desert. We see out the day at an area of marshland beside the Rio Chubut not far from the coast. It's hardly a hive of activity but it does produce the only Patagonian Yellow Finches of the trip.
The hire car is returned to the airport with 1679 km on the trip counter and we sink a few celebratory Quilmes (local lager, for which we are now acquiring a taste) in the bar.
Friday 14th December
A long day of travelling lies ahead. We get an early taxi to the airport in the hope of getting a cancellation on the flight direct to El Calafate. No such luck! The next leg of our trip takes us to the southern-most region of mainland Argentina. We need to travel to a point well south west of Trelew. The direct flight to El Calafate would have been perfect, but it was only added to Aerolineas Argentinas' schedule in November and so we had no idea that the route existed when we booked our Airpass. Now, instead, we have to fly north, back to Buenos Aires then south to Rio Gallegos (via Ushuaia) and finally catch a bus to El Calafate. Shades of "Trains, Planes and Automobiles"?!
After a brief stop-off at Ushuaia we finally we land in Rio Gallegos at 21.15.
We set off west through a barren, windswept landscape. The flat, grassy, steppeland is grazed short by sheep and punctuated by occasional small, scrubby, bushes. It is a land of vast, open, plains and occasional low bluffs. At 22.00 we watch a breathtaking sunset over the huge western horizon.
Saturday 15th December
Extravagance prevails and we treat ourselves to a cooked breakfast. This is actually a "bonus day" as we should, by rights, still be in Rio Gallegos. To make the most of it we book a taxi for the day to take us to Los Glaciares National Park, about 70 km west of El Calafate. El Calafate is surely the most expensive destination in Argentina and we feel that we could have bought the ageing Peugeot taxi in many Third-World countries for the price of our day's fare!
We drive through the town, with its array of expensive restaurants and gift shops, before heading out east towards The Park. The scenery is superb as we look across the deep blue Lago Argentino towards the snowy peaks of the Andes. Totally different area, whole new set of birds! Black-faced Ibis, Austral Negrito and Austral Thrush are all now common roadside birds.
A stop to check some soaring raptors reveals a group of six Andean Condors soaring high above the steep mountainside. These are surely one of the most impressive birds alive. Another group of seven birds is found close by, sitting beside a sheep carcass. Southern Crested Caracaras fight over the remaining scraps as the condors stand and digest their feast, some holding their huge black and white wings open to the morning sunlight.
As we enter the Los Glaciares National Park the habitat takes a dramatic change. The sparse Patagonian Steppeland gives way to the majestic trees of the Southern Beech Forest. The concept of temperate woodland at the cold southern tip of the continent has always fascinated me. The moderating influence of a maritime climate, combined with the high rainfall induced by the Andean uplands, creates conditions that will support huge deciduous trees. Just 100 km further east and the rainshadow effect of the mountains produces a climate so dry that only rough grassland and scrubby bushes can survive.
The dappled sunlight of the lichen-draped Southern Beech Forests is accompanied by the constant soothing wash of wind-rustled leaves. Wild flowers carpet sunny glades, exotic orchids bloom, and fritillary butterflies skip through the trees. Ancient, gnarled, trunks stand shrouded in wisps of pale green, beard-like, lichen gathered over many centuries. Chilean Swallows dart between the trees, their trilling calls accompanying the ever-present song of the White-crested Elaenia.
Suddenly the distinctive double thud of a drumming Magellanic Woodpecker echoes through the trees. After a few minutes of frantic searching a magnificent and confiding male, the largest woodpecker in South America, is found clinging to a dead limb. A female displaying a strange, forward-facing, curly black crest soon joins the huge black male, with his bright red head. We try mimicking the woodpeckers drumming with a rock on a tree trunk. The birds are distinctly unimpressed. We obviously lack the rhythm and technique of Sir David Attenborough!
Austral Parakeets wheel about the treetops and the strange tail-less silhouette of Black-chested Buzzard-eagle is a regular sight overhead. Thorn-tailed Rayaditos roam the woodland in small groups. With an intricate plumage of browns and yellows they run, treecreeper-like, along branches supported by an amazing thorn-tipped tail.
Areas of bushy scrub between patches of forest support communities of different species. Fire-eyed Diucon, Rufous-tailed Plantcutter (actually a cotinga!), White-browed Ground-Tyrant and Austral Blackbird are all found amongst the flowering shrubs and bushes.
We round a bend and are confronted by the breathtaking sight of the vast Perito Moreno Glacier. The wall of ice is 6 km wide at its terminal end, and its source is in the snowy peaks on the distant horizon. The fact that it advances at the prolific rate of 2 m per day means that huge chunks of ice are constantly falling from its face, sending thunder-like crashes echoing around The Park. The ice at the fringe of the glacier has an amazing deep cobalt-blue quality. This phenomena is caused by the density of the ice which has been crushed for the last 400 years until very little air remains trapped within. Consequently the lake is littered with a series of stunning cobalt-blue icebergs.
Planning for the trip had commenced many months before we left Britain and, as is now customary, I had tried to make a few local birding contacts via the wonders of The Internet. One such contact, who I had caught up with by the skin of my teeth just before we left, was Luciano Bernacchi.
Luqui, as he soon became known, is a very keen birder living in El Calafate. As we were to find, he has unsurpassed experience of the birds of the area. Working as a guide and lecturer on the Perito Moreno Glacier his head is brimming with knowledge on the region's geology and natural history. He is also one of a handful of people in the whole of South America who know where to find the mythical Hooded Grebe. But more of that later. So to summarise, we had the perfect guide to accompany and educate us for a couple of days birding in deepest, remotest, Patagonia.
Come the evening we meet up at the allotted hour. We plan our trip, and share a few birding yarns, over a couple of beers in the town with Luqui and Luis Seguna. Luqui's friend and fellow birder, Luis lives in Puerto Madryn on the east coast. Unfortunately we are too late to make use of his knowledge of this area.
Sunday 16th December
Luqui picks us up at 6 am in his big shiny 4WD, laden down with all the necessary food and equipment for our expedition. We head north and the tarmac ends after a few kilometres. From now on it's dirt tracks all the way.
We traverse the now familiar bleak Patagoian Steppelands throwing up a dust trail visible for miles around. Apparently the area was heavily degraded by over-intensive sheep farming earlier in the century. With the collapse of the wool industry some 20-or-so years previously the sheep disappeared from the landscape and the area is now starting to recover.
It may be degraded but the steppes are alive with birds. Huge black, white and brown Chocolate-vented Tyrants survey their surroundings from roadside vantage points. Exquisite plumaged and perfectly proportioned Tawny-throated Dotterels feed amongst the short turf in flocks of up to 50 birds. The commonest bird is probably Least Seedsnipe. Males sit atop rocks and small bushes or make their distinctive display flights on bowed wings. Their bubbling calls are constantly audible.
Beyond Lago Viedma, another huge icy-blue lake, the distinctive outline of Mount Fitzroy towers into the clouds. This impressive peak, 3375 m high and actually lying on the nearby Chilean border, was named after the captain of Darwin's ship, The Beagle.
At Tres Lagos we top up with diesel at the last gas station for 400 km and head into real wilderness. We carry on across seemingly endless steppeland, until eventually the high southern escarpment of the Strobel Plateau raises above the flat plain. Only one thing is now on everyone's mind.
In 1974 Maurice Rumboll, a pioneering Argentine ornithologist, visited the Perito Moreno Glacier to study the birds of the area. During the course of his visit he heard stories from local gauchos, the "cowboys" of the Patagonian Steppes who spend their lives in the wilderness, of a strange and beautiful bird which inhabited a nearby lake. When Rumboll visited Lagunas de los Escarchados ("Lagoons of the White Frost"), the source of the sightings, he was amazed to find a bird previously undescribed to science. To discover a small skulking passerine in an unexplored region of rainforest is one thing but to find a large and stunningly beautiful grebe, on a lake only a short drive from a local centre of population, is another story entirely. One can image Rumboll's elation at his discovery!
Hooded Grebes continued to be seen, off-and-on, at Lagunas de los Escarchados until the mid 1990s. Apparently somewhat nomadic in their choice of breeding sites the grebes depart at the end of the breeding season to winter at sea, off the Atlantic coast, as the inland lakes freeze over. Their wintering quarters are still poorly known and study continues to clarify their whereabouts.
The causes of the Hooded Grebe's recent demise at Lagunas de los Escarchados seem to be two-fold. Kelp Gulls have taken up residence in the area in the last few years, a new phenomenon, probably supported by the scavenging potential of a large rubbish dump at El Calafate. We actually saw a Kelp Gull at the Lagunas, when we visited the site later in the trip, which confirms their continued presence. It seems that the Grebes were not equipped with techniques to deal with this predator. Instead of protecting eggs or young when attacked, the adult grebes would dive for cover, with obvious tragic consequences. The other detrimental factor has been the introduction of trout into the Lagunas. Trout are well known for their ability to adapt to most environments and utilise any available food source. In this case they seem to have devoured the small molluscs which are the principle food-source of the Hooded Grebe. No snails, no grebes.
There is mention in some current birding literature that Hooded Grebes make use of shallow upland lakes which are prone to drying out in times of low rainfall. This seems unlikely to be true, as such bodies of water would be devoid of such forms of food. They would also be unlikely to support waterweed required for nesting purposes.
Recent aerial censuses of suitable sites, large permanent lakes on the Patagonian Uplands, suggest a likely population in the region of 2000 birds. This figure is based on probable breeding densities rather than a physical count. Many lakes are in extremely remote areas and access at ground level is very difficult.
Following the demise of Lagunas de los Escarchados there were no easily accessible sites where Hooded Grebe could be seen. German Pugnali, who lives in Buenos Aires, is a close friend of Luciano and a fellow birder. In 1998 German, and two others, set out on an expedition to find such an accessible lake in the southern part of the bird's known range. After scouring miles of likely looking habitat, and questioning many local landowners, a new site for Hooded Grebe was found on the Strobel Plateau. This was our destination.
On the map there was nothing but a large empty space between Lakes Cardiel and Strobel. Luqui had visited the site a couple of times previously, but not for over a year. He had the co-ordinates entered into his Magellan GPS navigation system and the excitement mounted as the kilometres decreased on the systems "distance to target" readout. This really was groundbreaking stuff. Birding with the aid of satellite navigation!
As we climb the escarpment onto the plateau the dirt road degenerates into a couple of wheel ruts. These eventually peter out and we are relying on the arrow on the GPS screen alone. Four-wheel-drive is engaged and we set off across the steppes.
We bump across the short turf, making minor adjustments and a few abortive turns. Then, as we reach the brow of a hill, the laguna appears shimmering, mirage-like, in the distance. Despite its large size it is concealed in a rather steep depression and could easily be missed without exact co-ordinates. The journey has taken us eight hours.
Upon reaching the lakeside a number of black-and-white blobs can be seen out on the water. Pulses quicken! They were obviously grebes, but we want some proper views. We hike round to a distant promontory and set up scopes. By now the sun is shaded by clouds that cut out the heat haze. It is also, amazingly, one of the very few days when the relentless Patagonian wind abates. The waters of the lake are flat and mirror-like.
So there we sit and soak in Hooded Grebe for the next two hours. Described in literature as "the most beautiful grebe in the world", this mantle is certainly no exaggeration. A large grebe, similar in size to Red-necked, they display the most exquisite head pattern. A jet-black crown and cheeks set off a frontal crest, which subtly blends from a white forehead to deep chestnut at its peak. The crest is raised and lowered depending upon the bird's mood much in the way of a Great-crested Grebe. It lays flat to the crown before diving and can be raised to actually point forward at the climax of display.
The birds are already paired up and seem to be at the height of displaying activity. They face each other and indulge in bouts of neck stretching and head-turning. As with other grebe species the passing of water weed forms an integral part of the display, though a previously unobserved element of this routine is the draping of weed-strands over one of the bird's backs prior to diving. Fascinating and enthralling viewing, and something only ever witnessed by a very lucky few people in the entire World!
Even the calls of the grebes fit the incredibly atmospheric setting perfectly. A plaintive, piping, trill with the rather mournful qualities of a loon echoed across the still water. Just the four of us sitting at the waters edge, with probably only one or two other souls anywhere in a radius of a few hundred kilometres. This scene is certainly set to be one of the most abiding birding moments in my life.
We end the visit with a picnic at the waters edge, before descending from the plateau and carrying on north to an estancia (Argentine cattle ranch) where we are hoping to spend the night. The day's final birding is done around an area of marshland adjacent to the estancia where we enjoy excellent views of many waterbirds and add Wrenlike Rushbird to our list.
The owners of the ranch are away, but a lone gaucho welcomes us warmly. An incredibly rugged and hardy-looking character, Luqui translates that he has never travelled beyond a 200 km radius of the estancia in his life. Apparently the gauchos move between estancias following work, their only possessions being a dog and a couple of horses.
A Puma skin is nailed to a nearby tree. The gaucho had killed it earlier in the year. Probably with his bare hands, by the look of him! Our host lights up the campfire in our honour and sets an entire side of a sheep to barbecue. I am the first to be offered a choice morsel, and before cutting a rib from the rack our man kindly wipes his knife on the bottom of his shoe. Not wanting to seem ungrateful I accept his offering! Though a little short on meat content it is surprisingly tasty. Washed down with a can of Quilmes, beside the campfire, it is probably the perfect way to end a day that we will never forget as long as we live.
Monday 17th December
Luqui has another trick up his sleeve for this site. Austral Rail, an inhabitant of isolated marshes and reedbeds on the bleak Patagonian Steppes, is a close relative of our familiar Water Rail. Due to the remoteness of its chosen habitat, and its extremely skulking nature in the densest of reeds, little was ever known about the bird. So little, in fact, that it was considered extinct after 1934 as no sightings were made for many years.
In 1998 German and his colleagues were passing this very same marsh in the course of their Hooded Grebe expedition. An unfamiliar call was heard from the reedbed and suspicions were aroused. The group managed to make a recording of the bird and tempt it out using playback. As the bird emerged from the reeds they realised that they had rediscovered the Austral Rail!
Since this initial sighting Austral Rails have been recorded at other suitable localities both in southern Argentina and Chile, though it's notoriously skulking habits have meant that very few birders have ever come eye to eye with this most sought-after prize.
As we walk around the margins of various reedbeds, playing Luqui's copy of German's original recording, no one really thinks that we have a chance of seeing Austral Rail. By the time we reach the furthest and final clump of reed I am personally getting more interested in breakfast that listening to another burst of rail calls.
Martin's panicked attempts to stifle a shout suddenly focus our attention. Unbelievably an Austral Rail is standing at the edge of the reeds, no more than 5 metres away! It remains for just a few seconds, before disappearing back into the dense vegetation, but that is all the time we need. We later find out that less than 100 living people have set eyes on an Austral Rail. And what an amazing double. Hooded Grebe and Austral Rail within 24 hours!
Still buzzing with excitement we are presented with a breakfast of coffee, bread and jam back at the estancia. The owners have now returned and we are invited into a house that seems to have been frozen in time 100 years previously. Quite an experience in its own right and like visiting a museum of Patagonian life at the turn of the last century.
Before commencing the long drive south we make a very rewarding stop at a nearby lake whose large congregation of waterbirds includes our first White-winged Coot and the only Silvery Grebes of the trip. In-the-hand views of a Least Seedsnipe chick are also enjoyed, thanks to Luqui's lightening reflexes!
The trip back to El Calafate is enlightened by a little mammalian interest. First a pair of South American Foxes appear hunting at the roadside. Later a Seven-banded Armadillo, or Pichi, runs across the track in front of the car. Luqui performs a rapid U-turn, sprints from the driving seat and has the Pechi in his hand before it can burrow its way to safety in the soft ground. Burrowing out of harms way is apparently their preferred method of escape. We are treated to an in-the-hand identification lesson as the seven bands of defensive plates, which give this species its alternative name, can clearly be counted.
By late afternoon we are back at a grey, cold, and rainy Los Glaciares National Park. Luqui knows every nook and cranny of the area but it still takes a couple of hours to find a pair of Spectacled Ducks, a speciality of the park, and our only sighting of the trip.
Away from the park and its unpredictable mountain weather systems and we are back into sunshine. There's only an hour of daylight left but Luqui still has a final site on the itinerary. We pass the buildings of his friend's estancia and scramble our way up the steep hillside beyond. Suddenly the huge form of a Magellanic Horned Owl glides into view and perches on a rock just 30 m away in wing-spread threat posture. It's clearly not impressed that we're close to its nest site and we retreat to a safe distance, further up the hillside, to admire this magnificent bird. An American Kestrel is, in turn, unimpressed at the presence of a huge owl in its territory. It bravely dive-bombs the owl that ducks, comically, at each pass. On occasion the kestrel comes so close as to visibly part the feathers on the owl's head!
We decide to leave the birds in peace and Luqui leads the way down the hillside. At this point a second adult owl appears. With the arrival of reinforcements the owls decide to assert their authority on the intruder. Both birds take to the air and as Luqui keeps his eye on one bird the other sees its chance to press home the attack. By the time we realise what is happening it's too late to shout out a warning and 3.5 kg of angry owl strikes Luqui squarely on the back of his unprotected head. With a shout of surprise and pain our intrepid mountain guide is knocked to the floor by a bird!
We all scurry for cover before examining the damage. The owl's needle-sharp talons have inflicted a couple of nice cuts on Luqui's scalp and there's plenty of blood flowing. It would seem that the moral of this story is not to go anywhere near a nesting Magellanic Horned Owl!
It's probably best to end the day with something a little less dangerous. We search around an old orchard on the opposite side of the estancia and find at bird at the opposite end of the scale. A tiny Austral Pygmy Owl lands on a branch just 3 metres away to provide a fitting finale to another amazing day courtesy of Luciano, expert guide, and now firm friend.
We pick up some food and few beers in the town and, back at the hostel, we drink to an amazing couple of days.
Tuesday 18th December
The events of the previous two days were always going to be a tough act to follow. A brief lie-in and cooked breakfast builds up our reserves for a walk down to the town and the wetlands beyond.
At Laguna Nimes we spend time photographing many an obliging waterbird including Andean and Flying Steamerducks. Our goal for the morning is Magellanic Plover which, after some amount of searching, materialises on the muddy shores of Lago Argentino. Unfortunately they disappear again just as rapidly leaving us somewhat miffed at the brevity of the views.
After a short siesta and lunch courtesy of the local supermarket we hire a taxi to Lagunas de los Escarchados located around 50 km east of the town. This is the site where Hooded Grebe was first discovered and we feel like we should pay our respects!
A new road now bypasses the Laguna and it's an hours walk to the water. There is now a typically strong Patagonian wind blowing in our faces and the walk is hard work, though made more bearable by Short-billed Miner and numerous Least Seedsnipe on the dirt track.
The wind makes the surface of the lake resemble the Atlantic Ocean. Predictably nothing is on the water so we walk round to the shore in the lee of the gale-force wind to check the sheltering waders. The birds are flying nowhere in this weather and we enjoy extremely close views of many Baird's Sandpipers, Two-banded Plovers and a single Magellanic Plover. The latter is, indeed, a very peculiar wader with its tiny bill, pot-belly, and slow, deliberate, gait. Bright red eye and pink legs contrast with ghostly grey and white plumage to make a very attractive and distinctive bird. Magellanic Plovers lay two eggs, but it is normal for only one chick to survive. Uniquely amongst wading birds both adults feed the young until after fledging, sometimes by regurgitation.
Back in the town we have a farewell beer with Luciano and his girlfriend Lucia. Making new friends is always one of the best parts of a trip and we assure him that one day, in some part of the world, we will meet up again. Thanks again Luqui, for a couple of unforgettable days.
Wednesday 19th December
With the majority of our target species secured we have a fairly relaxed morning, taking a taxi back to the Los Glaciares National Park. The sun is beating down from a blue sky and a breeze rustles the leaves of the Southern Beeches. Another Magellanic Woodpecker puts in an appearance and the Thorn-tailed Rayaditos are out in force. There are just so many magical places in Argentina that choosing your favourite is impossible!
We take the old road back to El Calafate and stop the taxi when we spot a group of Andean Condors soaring high above the plain. As we watch they slowly descend, getting closer and closer. Finally they fly past at eye level, no more than 100 m away, against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. Words aren't enough!
More than satisfied with our morning's work we pack our bags and head out to the shiny new airport for a mid-afternoon flight to our most southerly destination.
Yet again views from the air are spectacular as we fly over the island of Tierra del Fuego to reach the town of Ushuaia on its southern tip. Tierra del Fuego is Spanish for "Land of Fire". Apparently when the first European explorers came upon the isles they saw smoke from many native fires or beacons. By the time these tales got back to Europe the talk of smoke had been exaggerated into fire, hence "Land of Fire". Sadly all of the native Indians were exterminated and the fires are long dead, but the scenery remains just as inspirational.
We pass over high, craggy, snow-capped peaks before descending over the Beagle Channel. This straight finger of ocean, named in honour of Charles Darwin's ship, forms a huge natural canal between Tierra del Fuego and the labyrinth of smaller islands to the south. Ushuaia perches at the edge of the Beagle Channel, with a magnificent backdrop of snow-capped mountains.
The southernmost town in the world, Ushuaia is the gateway to the Antarctic and has a unique frontier atmosphere all of its own. Although the economy was clearly based on tourism the town had not lost its character. The port bustles with maritime activity. Large ocean-going trawlers are moored alongside Antarctic icebreakers and huge container ships. Yachts sailing under a dozen flags bob in the breeze.
On the beach Kelp Geese graze on the exposed seaweed and Dolphin Gulls paddle in the sewage outfall, all allowing photographic approaches of a matter of feet.
We book for tomorrows boat trip down the Beagle Channel and stock up with sandwich making supplies at the southern-most supermarket in the world!
Unable to resist a final bout of birding we take a walk out to the shore beyond the old airstrip. Beach-combing is great fun anywhere, but what can be better than a few pieces of choice driftwood from Tierra Del Fuego?!
The first restaurant we try offers fantastic views over the Beagle Channel. We actually watch a Black-browed Albatross fly past as we sip a beer, but then we see the prices on the menu.
Thursday 20th December
We make up our day's sarnie rations and walk down to the quay to board the big modern catamaran in anticipation of the Beagle Channel trip. The twin-hulled boat is extremely stable in the choppy seas and the interior resembles that of a luxury coach.
Whilst the less hardy tour participants enjoy the nice double-glazed viewing lounge we immediately take up position on the windswept balcony beyond! Within minutes the first Black-browed Albatrosses are whizzing past, often within metres of the boat. It's strange to see these birds of the true open seas wheeling and soaring against a background of snow-capped mountains.
We pull up alongside an offshore island crowded with Southern Sea Lions and Imperial Cormorants and enjoy some very close views of a group of Snowy Sheathbills. Further down the Channel and more true ocean-going seabirds start to appear. Magellanic Diving-Petrels, White-chinned Petrels and a lone Southern Fulmar all pass the boat. The number of albatrosses is also a big surprise. 500 or so Black-broweds are seen during the trip.
As we near Harberton, at the eastern-most limit of the trip, our old friends the Magellanic Penguins begin to appear again. We know that we have a good chance of a second penguin species in this area but we still jump around like mad men when a small huddle of Gentoos come into view!
The Gentoo Penguin is essentially a bird of the Antarctic islands and these individuals seem to be the result of a chance colonisation on the very edge of their range. Having said that, they seem to be doing well. A few years ago only an odd bird could be seen but now five adults, each with one or two downy youngsters, are present. The Gentoos seem to prefer higher ground and have built a series of adjoining shingle nest-mounds overlooking their Magellanic cousins. They're a good head-and-shoulders larger than the surrounding Magellanics with coral red bills, wonderful white eye-flashes, and snowy flecking adorning their jet-black heads. Certainly strong contenders in the "bird of the trip" competition.
When the boat reaches Harberton we are disappointed to hear that we will be returning to Ushuaia by bus, as the winds are now too strong to permit a return sailing along the Beagle Channel. So much for our sturdy catamaran!
Whilst the rest of the party take a tour of the historic Harberton Estancia, one of the first to be colonised by European settlers, we wander off to the beach. There a Dark-bellied Cincloides feeds amongst the seaweed and driftwood piled above the tideline by winter storms.
The bus arrives and the journey back is lost to catching up on missed sleep. A taxi from the harbour takes us straight to the airport and our waiting hire car.
Our next destination is quite possibly one of the most disgusting places at which I've ever had the pleasure of birding. Ushuaia dump is our stakeout for White-throated Caracara, a rather smart black-and-white raptor restricted to Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands. We tick it picking the brains out of a severed sheep's head! Wandering around we step over various discarded body parts from all manner of animals. A couple of huge, filthy-looking, pigs scavenge in the offal and a pack of feral dogs fight for choice morsels. It really is a God-forsaken place, but the birding is excellent. We get great views of three White-throated Caracaras amongst the ubiquitous Chimangos and scores of Chilean Skuas loaf with the gulls on the shore.
Having given quite a bit a scrutiny to the gulls in Tierra del Fuego we are disappointed to later leave the area without having seen Olrog's Gull. Later discussions with well-informed Argentine birders reveal that southern Argentina is far out of the range of this species. Future listers beware of immature Kelp Gull plumages!
The last hour of daylight is spent on the coast just west of the town. We find that a large new housing estate has been built on what was a prime birding site and we have to be content with close views of some very handsome Ashy-headed Geese and our first Black-faced Ground-Tyrant of the trip.
Friday 21st December
An early start sees us driving north towards Rio Grande on the Atlantic Coast of Tierra del Fuego. There's no point in coming all this way and not seeing the whole island, is there?!
Tierra del Fuego is essentially split into three faunal zones, and our drive across the island takes us through them all. Up to now we have been spending our time in the temperate southern reaches where damp, mild, maritime-influenced conditions prevail. As we drive north we ascend the range of mountains which divide the island, culminating in a drive over the 1490 m high Garibaldi Pass. We spend a short time here but it is obvious that a walk to the snowline and scree slopes is impossible in the time available. This area allegedly harbours a couple of very localised species, but would take up a whole day to reach and possibly call for a rope!
Descending the far side, on a road that has now changed from tarmac to a dusty track, we find ourselves in a landscape of huge lakes and rather sickly looking deciduous trees. Eventually the trees give way to familiar sparse Patagonian scrub, and a landscape similar to that which we left behind in Rio Gallegos.
Our first destination is the Rio Chico, which runs down to the Atlantic some 20 km north of Rio Grande. Here hundreds of geese graze on a large expanse of short, lush, grassland covering much of the valley bottom. Upland and Ashy-headed Geese are present in great numbers and it takes a fair amount of roadside scanning before we locate a single, distant, pair of Ruddy-headed Geese. We make a commando-style assault across the fields, so as not to flush the birds, and are soon enjoying close views of this particularly attractive species.
Ruddy-headed Geese have an extremely restricted range, being limited to Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands. The Tierra del Fuegan birds fly north to winter in Buenos Aires Province, whilst those in the Falklands are resident. Since the introduction of the Argentine Grey Fox to Tierra del Fuego, which was done to control introduced rabbits, Ruddy-headed Geese have suffered a dramatic decline. Once the commonest goose species in the region, we were sadly watching a fair proportion of the remaining population feeding in front of us. Yet another example of the damage caused by Man's reckless introduction exploits.
By the time we reach the next site, close to Rio Grande Airport, the wind has reached such a velocity that we can scarcely stand up straight once out of the car. A dust storm is also blowing up over the dry lakebed but we aren't going to let minor obstacles like that stop our fun! Predictably we see little for the next couple of hours, Martin comes down with a severe bout of hay fever, and we retire to a café to recuperate.
Travelling south from Rio Grande we fail to find our next destination at all. Nick Gardner's excellent trip report, which forms the basis of our entire trip, is now 21 years old and someone seems to have moved Cabo Penas since he put pen to paper!
Saving grace comes in the form of a roadside flood, which is teeming with waterbirds. Our first South American Snipes of the trip are feeding right next to the car and at least 3,000 White-rumped Sandpipers scurry about at the water's edge. A look at the distribution map for this species shows what a huge migration the tiny wader makes. Breeding in the high North American Arctic, it travels south to winter exclusively on the southern Patagonian tip of South America.
The journey back to Ushuaia is another battle through clouds of dust on the unmade road. A brief stop produces the strange sight of four Black-browed Albatrosses shearing over an entirely land-locked lake.
Saturday 22nd December
Patagonia is notorious for its inclement weather but other than the strong winds we experienced at many sites we feel that we've fared very well weather-wise. It's therefore no real surprise to wake up to one morning of low, grey, cloud and heavy rain. We drive to Tierra del Fuego National Park and can only sit in the car and wait until the weather clears. In the course of an hour the weather changes from rain to snow to bright sunshine. When we first arrived in Ushuaia we asked a local lady if she could tell us the weather forecast for the next day. She just laughed! Such are the wonders of the Tierra del Fuegan climate.
As soon as the rain stops we leap out of the car to explore the park. It really is a beautiful setting of lakes, marshy grassland and Southern Beech forest. The surrounding peaks now have a powdered covering of fresh snow that glistens in the early morning sunlight. A pair of Great Grebes display on a small pool beside the road. These are our first full breeding-plumaged birds we've seen on what has become something of a "Grebe Trip". If Hooded Grebe is "the most beautiful", Great Grebe must win the "most elegant" prize with its long, russet-red, neck and dagger-like bill.
The Southern Beech forests in the park have a very different character from those which we visited further north. The trees are taller and hung with False Mistletoe while a dense, shrubby, understorey flourishes below. The more open areas are carpeted in a lush mat of mosses and ferns, and babbling brooks weave between the trunks of giant beeches.
The now-familiar double thud of Magellanic Woodpecker echoes through the trees and Thorn-tailed Rayaditos seem to cover every branch. Our main target species, White-throated Treerunner, eventually materialises high on an exposed bough. It is a great shame to give such a superb area just one morning, but we have another site to pull in before our late afternoon flight.
The Martial Glacier can be reached by a chair lift, which runs from the northern edge of Ushuaia town. It's the easiest way of getting above the tree line and to a number of species that occur beyond. We arrive at the car park and there's a blizzard blowing, yet ten minutes later the sun is shining, so we hop on a chair. From the top of the lift it's still a fair walk to the glacier and we decide to head in the opposite direction where there will be less disturbance.
We've just found our first bird, a fine Ochre-naped Ground-tyrant, when the snow begins to fall again. The snowfall gets heavier, with the strong wind blowing it in horizontal clouds, and we huddle in a gully for cover. After a while it abates for long enough to allow a foray up to the scree slopes but we eventually admit defeat and head for the comfort of lower altitude.
All that remains is to drop off the car, check in for the flight back to Buenos Aires, and bid farewell to what must be one of the most stunningly beautiful and atmospheric little corners of the whole World.
When we land at Jorge Newberry, BA.'s domestic airport, it's rapidly approaching midnight. A very shabby taxi takes us to our very shabby hotel.
Before we parted company with Luciano, way back in El Calafate, he gave us the telephone number of his friend German Pugnali in B.A. We've followed up the contact and arranged with German (actually pronounced Her-man) to stay in a certain hotel from where he will pick us up in the morning.
The Hotel Maipu is in fact perfectly adequate for our purposes and is thankfully cheap! We rapidly sort out our kit for what is set to be one hell of a day and hit the sack. The alarm will be going off in just 3 ½ hours!
Sunday 23rd December
Dead on 04.00 hrs and we're loading our kit into the back of German's car. We speed off through the labyrinth of BA's streets and motorways, noting the almost total absence of signposts.
Our original plan had been to pick up a hire car at the airport and drive down to San Clemente, over 300 miles south of Buenos Aires. A combination of our dated site information for San Clemente and Luciano's insistence that his friend would produce the goods caused us to plumb for "Plan B". But would our faith in our guide for the day pay off?
The first glow of dawn is brightening the eastern horizon as we arrive at Otamendi, a large seasonally flooded wetland nature reserve on the delta of the Rio Parana, an hours drive north of Buenos Aires. A large bird flashes across the track in front of us and the car skids to a halt. We scramble out to find a superb female Scissor-tailed Nightjar, complete with scissor-like projections extending from her rear, doing circuits of the car in the early morning light. What a start!
Mist hangs over the marsh and the air is alive with birdcalls. All very atmospheric. We park up a little further on, beside an area of lush scrub and reedbed with a narrow vegetated canal at either side of the dirt road. At this point German produces a huge, sophisticated, cassette player and a large bag of cassettes. He switches on his "birding ears" and the action begins. Red-rumped Warbling-finch, Solitary Black Cacique and Sulphur-bearded Spinetail all hit the list in a ticking frenzy. It is immediately obvious that German has an incredible knowledge of the birds of the area. We later find out that this unparalleled experience stretches to the whole of Argentina and that German has actually seen more species in the country than anyone else. His Argentine list stands at an amazing 872 species.
Two extremely sought-after species of this region are the reedhaunters, a pair of comparatively large, marsh inhabiting, spinetails of extremely skulking nature and very local distribution. German plays a tape and before long a Curve-billed Reedhaunter is replying. Eventually it climbs a tall stem to show it's diagnostic decurved bill and pale, contrasting, underparts. A few hundred metres back along the track and German plays a tape of its close congener in a spot where the species has been seen in the past, but not for a number of years. Almost instantaneously a Straight-billed Reedhaunter pops up on a bare thorn bush about 3 m in front of us! It displays a disproportionately long, straight, bill and spiky tail. Stunningly close views of a stunningly good looking bird, in what is probably the most amazing response to tape playback that I've ever seen. No one sees both of the reedhaunters in the same trip, let alone the same hour!
By 07.30 the sun is climbing into the clear blue sky and the temperature is increasing rapidly. We set off north for the next site, an area of dry thorny woodland dotted with marshy pools, close to the town of Ceibas.
Snail Kites are now constantly in view, hunting over the mollusc-filled pools. Stunning Long-winged Harriers also hunt overhead, while everything in the air seems to be dwarfed by the totally bizarre sight of Southern Screamers soaring above the trees. These strange birds resemble a cross between a vulture and a bustard, though they are most closely allied to the ducks, and are particularly numerous in this area.
Birding in the thorny woodland produces a host of species, including Little Thornbird, Brown Chachalote, White-tipped Plantcutter and Xenopsaris. A pair of boldly marked White Woodpeckers and an exquisitely patterned Chotoy Spinetail swells the list further. A Lark-like Brushrunner adds twigs to its ridiculously oversized nest high in a eucalyptus tree. It seems amazing, as we've already spent nearly 2 ½ weeks birding in Argentina, but we've added 35 new species to our lists by the time we leave Ceibas.
A roadside stop, as we continue north in the heat of the day, produces a group of Greater Rheas. We are surprised to find them in what is apparently a heavily cultivated area, but it seems that they are perfectly happy in this environment. The males of this huge ostrich-like species are easily told apart from their steppe-dwelling cousins by an obvious black patch at the base of the neck.
It's early afternoon by the time we reach an area of grassland and marshes north of the town of Gualeguaychu. We add a number of marshland land species to the list, but the target bird here is the extremely scarce Saffron-cowled Blackbird. Beautifully marked black-and-yellow males occasionally climb the reed stems to betray their presence, but are generally rather inconspicuous. This very rare icterid has a range restricted to northeast Argentina, Uruguay and extreme southeast Brazil and is apparently declining throughout this region.
The next stop is an unlikely looking area of arable farmland at Perdices. Many of the telegraph poles, which follow the dirt track, are topped by the oversized stick-nests of the aptly named Firewood Gatherer. Seedeaters abound in the roadside stands of grass and a Spotted Tinamou crosses the track in front of the car. A huge Scimitar-billed Woodcreeper, with monstrous curlew-proportioned bill, alights obligingly on a roadside fence post. Field Flickers certainly favour this habitat and a number of these superb black-capped, yellow-breasted, woodpeckers adorn roadside telegraph poles.
A family party of Pampas Foxes trot along the track in front of the car. Argentine canid taxonomy is rather contradictory, but according to our field guide this is the only species found in the pampas areas of the east. Some authorities lump the whole genus as Argentine Grey Fox, but as we've seen the other species earlier in the trip we naturally treat them as separate!
By the evening we are back at Ciebas, though this time in a markedly more marshy area. It's the familiar story of birds everywhere and we wish that we have sufficient time for a whole day at this site, rather than our whistle-stop tour. White-backed Stilt, Yellow-throated Spinetail and a wonderfully deep-blue Plumbeous Rail are all new birds. Hundreds of White-faced Ibises are flying over, in tight formation, on their way to roost. We find a pair of Ringed Teal beside a pool. The addition of this cracking little duck to our list means that we have seen every species of wildfowl that is possible in the area covered by our trip. We congratulate ourselves on our achievement!
We pull in Yellowish Pipit en route, before making our final stop beside an area of dense reedbed. A recording lures out a Curve-billed Reedhaunter, which gives stunningly close views and serves as an appetiser for the passerine highlight of the day. Another burst of playback, a shiver of reedstems, and out pops what is arguably the most vividly coloured and complex plumaged of all birds. The name Many-coloured Rush-Tyrant certainly doesn't do it anything like real justice! This mind-blowing little flycatcher displays an amazing combination of clear cut yellow, red, blue, brown, black and white to produce a bird which resembles the result of a drug-induced painting-by-numbers exercise! I remain convinced that German had deliberately saved this one until last, but I'm sure that he would deny it!
As the sub-tropical sunset lights the western sky a pair of Nacunda Nighthawks patrol the marsh, silhouetted against the orange glow. What a day! For a few minutes the events of the previous 16 hours even take our minds off the savagely biting mosquitoes, but then we realised that we are rapidly being sucked dry and dive in the car for cover!
After a short drive the huge form of a Great Horned Owl is flushed from the road before being spotlighted in a low tree. Now in owl-mode, we try a tape and before long a Tropical Screech-Owl is responding. A little persistence is needed, but eventually we have superb spotlight-views of this fierce-looking little owl right next to the car. In hope of completing the nightjar-set we try a final tape and yet again get an almost instant response. This quarry is somewhat more elusive but, after a little repositioning, we persuade a Little Nightjar to sit on top of a spotlit roadside fencepost. Four owls and three nightjars in a day. Unheard of!
It's been a totally unbelievable day. We've recorded 160 species, of which 55 were ticks. Totally without precedent on the first day of a trip, let alone the last! German has proved to be the most competent and professional birding guide we've ever used (not that we've used all that many!).
When we reach BA, despite our 22 ½ hours in the field, we're still buzzing. We say farewell to German, shower him with gratitude and appreciation for providing possibly the most productive day's birding in the World ever, and buy three large beers! Here's to German, bird guide par excellence!
Monday 24th December
We cram our smelly clothes into our rucsacks and catch a taxi out to Ezeiza International Airport. Christmas Eve is a great time to travel as most sensible people are staying at home. There are only 50 or so people on an aircraft with capacity for around 400.
Tuesday 25th December
Before we know it we're in Rome and then Heathrow. It's raining. Merry Christmas!
Although we only visited part of it's vast area, we found Argentina to be a fantastically diverse and stunningly beautiful country. It has a civilised, safe and relaxed air. Its people are extremely friendly and communications are first class. It may be a very expensive country in which to travel, but the rewards make it all worthwhile.
On a trip of such quality, individual highlights can be hard to distinguish. The sea mammal colonies and whale nurseries of Peninsular Valdes; the Southern Beech forests and glaciers of the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares; the untouched, remote, wilderness of the Strobel Plateau and above all the beauty and atmosphere of Tierra del Fuego, the fabled "End of The World". These places will remain, for me, amongst the most memorable and magical on Earth.
Ian Merrill, January 2002