Birdguiding is always a challenging affair as guides have to adapt to changing situations primarily caused by weather conditions but also by the birder's expectations. Birdguiding an ornithologist that comes from far away to see, watch and photograph a single species he is studying is something very delicate indeed!
Don Scott is an avid birder but his goal is to see and study personally all the harrier species in the world. Having guided him to see the only two South American harriers, he has now seen by travelling to different parts in the world 12 of a total 16 species. I started planning carefully this birding trip about a year ago when Don told me that he had only about two weeks to accomplish his task and this should be sometime close to the year-end.
Sergio Corbet and Don Scott
To most birders raptors are birds as any others although the falcons and especially the Peregrine Falcon just because of ancient falconry traditions may mean something more...but harriers? We just see them flying in the fields and that's it! Now Don wanted to see our two harrier species in their habitat and if possible nesting or rearing chicks. This meant that I had to dig into my Raptors of the World book and thus find that the Cinereus Harrier migrates through the central South American continent and nests in southern Patagonia while the Long-winged Harrier moves almost over all South America mostly nesting in the central Argentine wetlands and more to the north too. Because of the distances involved, this obviously meant that finding one species nesting would necessarily mean that the other one would not be doing so.
Nancy and Ludie, a couple of birders I had birdguided on last year were now living in southern Patagonia and told me that in their area around San Julian they had often observed Cinereous Harriers flying and roosting so there was a strong possibility of finding some of them even nesting. Don arrived on the first days of December so down we went to Patagonia in search of the harriers. We stayed 5 days at San Julian and the weather treated us well, it was quite warm according to local people's comments yet the never ending wind which inspired Charles Darwin to call Patagonia The Whispering Land, very often made us feel miserable. We saw quite a number of Cinereous Harriers during our stay, mostly all birds flying, hunting or apparently just circling seeking thermals. Making some changes in our watching strategies finally produced a rewarding find. While walking along a bushy and small ravine, a female rose almost from under Don's feet upon our approach and there on the ground quite concealed in the bushes we saw a nest with 3 week-old chicks in it! Don was delighted so he made observations and took pictures of all. We soon left the nest and from not far away saw a male Cinereus Harrier coming in holding its prey in its legs, it then tossed it to the flying female that caught it legs up in the air and certainly took it to feed the chicks. What a sight!
On the next morning we took advantage of a boat trip within San Julian Bay guided by Natalia a local nature guide. She took us to a colony of nesting Magellanic Penguins and Blue-eyed Cormorants, some wintering Red Knots, South American Terns, Blackish Oystercatchers and several other birds. Upon arrival at one of the nesting colonies, we were greeted by a pair of Pale-faced Sheathbills that came running towards the boat as if greeting old friends. We saw Magellanic Penguins being harassed by Hall's Giant Petrel which would come from the sea gliding low above them probably choosing a strained fat chick to feed on. Seeing these majestic birds fly in the wind, with their long wings stretched and gliding effortlessly without a wing beat is something that to marvel.
We managed to see some other birds too. Below is a list I made of different bird species seen during the five days stay while searching for Cinereus Harriers.
We now moved north, back to the Pampas where in the low wetlands close to marshes, lagoons and ditches we hoped to find Long-winged Harriers. The first place visited was the Otamendi Nature Preserve, then some days later we went into southern Entre Rios province with very typical harrier habitats. We felt it was not sensible to look for any nests since we saw many juvenile birds flying, some already hunting on their own. During the forthcoming days we had some spectacular sightings of both males and females, even of the darker phase of this species. While looking for harriers in southern Entre Rios province, a male glided very close to us flying above a ditch along the road so it allowed Don to take pictures of it during an almost incredible two miles long drive completely ignoring us, so concentrated it was while hunting!
On our last day the lowlands at Otamendi Nature Preserve produced some great sightings and Don got some very good pictures of several close flying Long-winged Harrier females. With all the materials obtained Don happily left back to Ireland.
Long-winged Harrier copyright Peter Nash
List of birds seen while driving between Rio Gallegos and San Julian and around San Julian between December 5th and 10th 2004.