S. America glimpses 2-3

Subject: S. America glimpses 2-3
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Thu, 13 Nov 2003 09:23:24 +0100

The town of Ushuaia, on the shores of the Beagle Channel south on Tierra
del Fuego far south in Argentina, bills itself as 'el fin del mundo', the
end of the earth. Certainly it felt a little like that after the 13 hours
bus trip from P. Arenas in S. Chile.
But what a spectacular scenery! I was this time blessed with mainly sunny,
although cool weather for four days in a row, a pleasant surprise indeed
since on my first visit here in 1997 sleet and storm had spoiled most of
the views. This time the backdrop of the steep and snow-covered Martial
mountains could be admired in sharp relief and radiant sunshine, and the
Southern Beech forests, that start directly above the town itself, were
just leafing. No flowers anywhere as yet, apart from the very numerous
Dandelions on all road verges (as I saw so many places on Tierra del Fuego).

The first day I walked up through town (completely dominated by House
Sparrows) to the Martial gletcher, along the winding road past the large
hotels overlooking the town. Everywhere one hears the somewhat sad jingle
of the 'chingol', the dapper Rufous-collared Sparrow; the birds themselves
are also easy to spot, as they sing from comspicuous song-posts and are far
from shy. The local birds are grey-headed and therefore maybe somewhat less
contrasty than their nephews further north, but this is still a very nice
and quite charming little bird. Another small bird that is both very common
and surprisingly conspicuous is the southern House Wren, the Chercan, often
singing conspicuously from the tip of a tree---the song is quite variable,
but always full of trillers. There are more small birds in the trees, but
those usually keep a little better hidden among the leaves: Black-chinned
Siskins sing their quite Chaffinch-like songs, while the colourful
Patagonian Sierra Finches, often in small flocks, do not seem to have much
of a song at all.

The Austral Thrush is also common here; it is a quite nice-looking bird
with its dark head, and surprisingly unafraid for a thrush. But its
rattling disjointed phrases are definitely not much of an advertisement for
'thrush-music'. A more straightforward rattler is the Churrete Chico, the
Bar-winged Cinclodes, a tame and pleasant bird, that like all Cinclodes
rattles ('churrs') with a rapidly vibrating open bill. There is also a
Tyrant flycatcher here, the Dark-faced Ground Tyrant, a typical
sit-amd-wait hunter, usually sitting on tall herbs or fence posts and
flying down to the ground to pounce on insects etc; also this bird is not
at all shy.
Few larger birds this time, in fact only a single Chimango, the smallest of
the caracaras. Also Chilean Swallows, with their whitish rumps and dry
creaky voices, hunt the air space.
Ushuaia is a seaside town, and there is much of interest also birdwise
along the shore. But that will have to wait until next time.

                                                        Ushuaia, 21 october 2003


My hotel in Ushuaia 18-24 October was at one end of the town, and my
conference on the marine biology of the Magellanic region and the Antarctic
deep sea, the reason for my presence here, almost at the other end. This
gave me a good excuse to walk every day for ca 45 minutes each way along
the shore of the harbour and around the Bahia Encerrada, a shallow part of
the harbour crossed and almost closed off by a road; the tides still have
access to the bay through two large culverts under the road. Judging from
the amount of green algae in the Bahia, this part clearly had some
eutrophication problems. In fact also the rest of the harbour is far from
pristine, as waste treatment clearly is not of the most modern type in this
town as yet. The gulls were very happy about this , though, and joyfully
concentrate around the discharge pipes.

The dominant gull everywhere here in the south is the Kelp Gull, that
reminds me of a Lesser Black-backed Gull to look at, but acts much more as
a Herring Gull, a general scavenger. Here in Ushuaia the beautiful grey
Dolphin Gulls with their rather unlovely hoarse yapping-dog voices are
almost as common and share the same habitat (although they keep more
strictly to the shores; I never saw them in the grasslands of Tierra del
Fuego, where Kelp Gulls are common). I saw the Dolphin Gulls regularly fly
up and drop mussels on the stony shore, the only gull to show this
behaviour here. (I saw Kelp Gulls do this in the Falklands). The third
gull, the elegant Brown-hooded Gull, is uncommon on the shore here; I see
maybe 1 or 2 per walk. And I saw only two terns (South American Terns)
during the whole week. And only a single Chilean Skua.

Next to the gulls the Crested Ducks are the most common birds around: in
the Bahia Encerrada there must be at least a hundred. Usually they forage
in the intertidal, but now and then large groups get in display mode, with
much brisk head and neck movements, and very creaky calls, by the males,
and inciting by the quacking females. Only under such circumstances the
birds really look crested. Half way through the week a beautiful Red
Shoveler kept the crested ducks company, and by the end of the week their
number had grown to at least 12 birds. They fed often closely together, in
typical shoveler manner, with their oversized bills flat on the water. In
the pools in the waste land ofte a few pairs of Speckled Teals lurk.

There are also much larger ducks here, the somewhat ungainly fat Steamer
Ducks (called pato vapor here in Argentina). They mostly dive for a living
and come in two species, the Flying and the still fatter Flightless Steamer
duck, otherwise pretty similar at first sight. They have the most curious
rattling sounds and are almost all in pairs--but I still have not yet seen
any 'steaming'.

The geese are larger still, at least the most common one, the Upland Goose,
with its vigilant white-necked ganders and brownish females. They are more
often than not grazing on the many lawns, that adorn the gardens behind the
Bahia Encerrada, and there are usually 10-15 around, all in pairs. Still
more sexually dimorph are the strictly intertidal Kelp Geese, where the
male is all white and the female mostly blackish; there seems to be only
one pair around of those here. In contrast, the third Goose, the
Ashy-headed Goose, has much less sexual dimorphism---a few of these more
slender and elegant geese appeared during the last days of the conference
on the waste land behind the Bahia.

One day a Peregrine falcon appeared, stooped half-heartedly at the Crested
ducks, and circled so long over the Bahia that everything flew up and away
for a while. Otherwise Chimangos now and then foraged on the lawns like
crows, a Crested Caracara flew over one morning, and an American Kestrel
hovered over the waste land another day.

In the water itself, although much more common in the harbour itself than
in the Bahia, cormorants fish. They are mostly the black and white Imperial
Cormorant, but also the slender all-black Neotropic Cormorant occurs, and
seems less reluctant to use the Bahia. Once there was also a Great Grebe,
clearly the most common grebe here, and another day a Black-chinned Petrel
circled the harbour, strangely enough on an almost windless day. In the
twilight the Garza, the local very dark form of the Black-crowned Night
Heron, came to fish in the Bahia; I never saw one during the days.

What else? A few pairs of Blackish Oystercatchers (which in good light are
clearly dark brown), and a single Magellanic Oystercatcher with its staring
yellow eyes. In the waste land 'in the back', where pieces of land have
been reclaimed but not exploited, most days a few White-rumped Sandpipers
foraged diligently. Here also are the ever loud Southern Lapwings and the
carhorn-voiced Black-faced Ibis. And always---like wagtails in
Europe--small neat Austral Negritos trip along the shoreline and forage.
They don't wag their tails, but instead regularly spread it sideways. The
last days there were also two Dark-faced Ground tyrants here.

The grassy verges along this dirt road have some further birds:also here
the voice of the Rufous-collared Sparrow is everywhere, and Austral
Thrushes and Bar-winged Cinclodes frequent the gardens. This area is also
territory for several stripy Correndera Pipits, and from the meadows above
one heards the song-calls of the red-bellied Long-tailed Meadowlark. One
time I even surprised an avidly churring Black-flanked Cinclodes near the
seashore, but the next days, when I wanted to show it to colleagues, it was

                                                                Stanley, 26 
October 2003
                                                                Wim Vader, 
Tromsø Museum
                                                                9037 Tromsø, 

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