Argentina part 6: the Strobel Plateau and Rio Gallegos – December 2014   Leave a comment

This is the sixth and final account of my recent trip to Argentina. It covers the journey north from El Califarte to the Strubel Plateau and the La Angostera Estancia and then south to Rio Gallegos.

From here Mark (the leader) and two of the participants travelled on to Tierra del Fuego for the optional extension, but as we had already been to Tierra del Fuego on previous tours, myself and two others flew back to Buenos Aires and then home.

Most of this account covers birds seen on the plateau and the estancia, but a few birds seen near Rio Gallagos are shown at the start.

IMG_3903 Rhea and chicks

Along the road to Rio Gallegos we came across this Lesser Rhea and chicks trying to get through the wire fence.

IMG_1264 guanaco stuck on fence

Earlier on, crossing the plateau, we had seen a number of dead Guanacos on the stock fences that flanked the road, animals that had got their limbs caught between the wires and had remained trapped until they died. This individual was still alive and Mark and our driver were able to release it, albeit with a large gash to one leg.

IMG_3915 poss Austral Canestero

In the Rio Gallegos area we connected with the range restricted Austral Canestero ….

IMG_3912 pos Austral Canastero

…. which showed off its wing pattern nicely.

IMG_3910 Flying Steamer Duck

There are four steamer ducks, the flightless Chubut further north, two further flightless species on Tierra del Fuego and the Falklands/Malvinas and this one the Flying Steamer Duck, even in this species older birds loose the ability to fly. Flightlessness may have led to cryptic speciation in this group and it has been suggested that there are several more species to be described.

IMG_3939 Rufous-chested Dotterel

Other birds in the Rio Gallegos area included this Rufous-chested Dotterel.

IMG_3665 plateau

A couple of days earlier we had left Califarte and headed northwards to the Strobel Plateau. This is a wild, windswept and treeless landscape crossed only by a few dirt roads.

IMG_1216 Trelew - Califarte flight crater lake

We were heading for a number of crater lakes, the breeding ground for the rapidly declining and critically endangered Hooded Grebe. Fifteen lakes are accessible from the tracks and we checked them all. This crater lake was photographed as we flew over the area when we descended into Califarte

IMG_1268 flamingos on plateau lake

Of the fifteen lakes, twelve were dry and two others covered in a green algal slime. This was the only one that held any birds and there were no Hooded Grebes. This bird was the reason I had come on this trip and now it seemed that there was every chance that I would be going home empty handed.

IMG_3670 Patagonian Tinamou

Well not quite empty handed because there were other good birds up on the plateau; this Patagonian Tinamou ….

IMG_3636 Least Seedsnipe

…. Least Seedsnipe ….

IMG_3650 Tawny-throated Dotterel

…. Tawny-throated Dotterel ….

IMG_3681 CV Tyrant

…. and Chocolate-vented Tyrant.

IMG_3701 Estancia

We were staying at this traditional estancia at the foot of the plateau. An adjacent marsh held lots of good birds including the seldom seen Austral Rail (which we only heard), but our main interest was a lake some 5km away where Hooded Grebes had been seen in the past.

IMG_3812 dawn

We visited the lake in the late afternoon and again at dusk (in case any birds had come into roost) but again drew a blank. It looked like the trip would have to be summarised as ‘it was a great trip but I missed the bird I had travelled all this way to see’.

IMG_3707 Magellanic Horned Owl

But there was plenty to see around the estancia, including this Magellanic (or Lesser) Horned Owl ….

IMG_3787 Upland Geese

…. flocks of Upland Geese ….

IMG_3739 Upland Goose

…. which wandered around with their goslings just outside where we were staying ….

IMG_3741 Upland Goose

…. Upland Goose is a sexually dimorphic species, this is the highly distinctive male.

IMG_3719 Chiloe Wigeon

Chiloe Wigeon were common ….

IMG_3803 Crested Ducks

…. and there were small numbers of Crested Duck.

IMG_3797 Corendera Pipit

Corendera Pipits perched on the posts but inspite of a lot of tramping about up to our knees in the marsh Austral Rail remained a ‘heard only’.

IMG_3773 Cinereous Harrier

A feature of this marsh was the wonderful views we had a nesting Cinereous Harriers. I don’t think I have ever had such close and prolonged views of an harrier species before, including our breeding Western Marsh Harriers at home.

IMG_3730 Cinereous Harrier

The male (photo above) and female (shown here) were seen just yards from the estancia and appeared to be defending their territory against another pair. We had repeated good views throughout the afternoon and early the next morning ….

IMG_3725 Cinereous Harrier

…. and I was even able to photograph a food pass.

IMG_3827 Black-faced Ibis

Black-faced Ibis were common and relatively tame.

IMG_3893 Hooded Grebes

Although it was in the wrong direction we opted to make a third visit to the lake. Our spirits were raised when we realised that there were far more birds there than at dusk last night. Several of us got onto two distant birds simultaneously but it was Mark who got he scope on them and announced ‘Hooded Grebes’. A wave of relief and delight passed through the group!

IMG_3885 Hooded Grebes

The distant birds slowly swam towards us and even did a bit of display. This species, which was only described in 1976, is declining rapidly due to the drying out its breeding lakes, being killed introduced mink, its food supply being taken by introduced trout and predatory Kelp Gulls colonising the area due to poor waste management of the increasing human population. It was incredibly exciting to see this extreamly rare bird which looks likely to go extinct within 50 years of its discovery.

It had been a wonderful trip, full of interesting birds and mammals and great scenery. As I had been to many of the sites we visited I wasn’t expecting very many life birds. In the end I added 23 to my list, we had a few misses but that was to be expected. I very much enjoyed traveling in southern Argentina and would certainly recommend it to other birders.

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