Danzenbaker Tour Journal: Last Day in Argentina

December 30: Tierra del Fuego National Park and boarding the Polar Star

A 5:45am wake-up call seemed fairly civilized compared to the early mornings of the last few days. This day marked the official launch of the tour so there was much to be done. Before we all enjoyed a full continental breakfast in the hotel restaurant, various staff members handed out luggage tags and name badges to the 95 participants. There was great anticipation as we packed up bags and loaded onto buses because we would soon be headed for the beautiful beech forests and white-capped mountain vistas of Tierra del Fuego National Park. Located only 20 minutes west of Ushuaia, this park attracts thousands of visitors each year. Despite comparatively heavy use, it remains a largely pristine environment to explore. 

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An Austral Thrush, the same size as an American Robin, rests between feeding forays. This species is common in the Tierra del Fuego National Park.

Birding started as soon as we entered the park with Patagonian Sierra-Finches near the entrance and Black-chinned Siskins alighting in the treetops. Our first scheduled stop in was in the shrub-covered valley rimmed by towering peaks and ridgelines. A scan of the sky produced several Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles that were being harassed by Chimango Caracaras. They gradually flew closer and closer until they were a mere 35 feet overhead and displaying beautifully for us. Never before had we been treated to such fine views of this large raptor. Scanning the mountain tops, we found an Andean Condor. Though the distance prevented us from seeing it well using binoculars, the Kowa scope once again delivered views that all could appreciate. The dense clouds and rain of the previous day were a memory as we were bathed by the warmth of the sun. As the vegetation warmed countless small, non-threatening insects hatched and began flying about and we were able to shed a layer of clothing.

Farther along, we were surprised by a female Magellanic Woodpecker that was feeding on trees no more than 15 feet from the bus windows. All marveled at her amazing crest, which flailed in the air as she hammered into tree after tree in search of grubs. Since this was our target bird for the morning, the leaders felt secure that everyone would be happy regardless of what happened the rest of the day. However, our good fortune did not end here. As we moved along, diminutive Thorn-tailed Rayaditos, White-crested Elaenias, Tufted Tit-Tyrant, and Austral Negritos all presented themselves. A distant lake delivered a Flightless Steamer-Duck to inquisitive eyes. A pair of regal Black-faced Ibis flew in for us to enjoy while Rock Shags swam between rocky islets. This was wonderful, but the true highlight of the day still lay ahead.

After our sack lunch, we were joined by a flock of extremely cooperative Austral Parakeets that perched on the exposed branches of a dead tree. I had never seen them so well. It was a treat to view their green and maroon plumage lit up by the afternoon light. Afterwards, to our amazement, we spotted yet another Magellanic Woodpecker--this time a beautiful red-headed male. We were incredulous as it flew towards the group and landed not 20 feet away. Prolonged and satisfying views brought beaming smiles all around.

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Nearly the size of the North American Pileated Woodpecker, Magellanic Woodpeckers are a target species for every birder who visits Tierra del Fuego National Park. Males, like the bird above, are particularly photogenic with their bright red heads and wispy crests.

Just as we were thinking we couldn't get much luckier, a female showed up and joined the male. We were left with nothing but spoken and unspoken superlatives as the two magnificent woodpeckers tore away bark and hammered holes into trees looking for unseen larvae. The half-hour study we enjoyed was the best I've had over my many trips to this National Park.

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The Patagonian Crested Duck is the most common duck in this part of Tierra del Fuego.

As we made our way back through the park, we stopped for wildflowers, which included three different species of orchids and an endemic lady slipper. On our return trip to Ushuaia, we stopped at the local dump for our annual reunion with White-throated Caracaras, a rare species that can be found easily at this location. Although aesthetically unpleasant, we endured our surroundings knowing that this bird would not be seen beyond this day of the tour. It was good to see this species alongside the more expected Chimango and Southern caracaras. We were often able to see all three species in a single scope view. 

Once back in Ushuaia, we had a scant 25 minutes for last-minute shopping, postcard writing, and e-mail downloads before our long-awaited boarding of the "Polar Star." The beginning of our pelagic expedition was at hand!

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With looming mountains providing a backdrop, the view as we set sail from Ushuaia is stunning.

The Polar Star, our home for the next 26 days, was dwarfed by the larger ships in the harbor, but towered over them in its capacity to take intrepid travelers to remote locations in the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and Antarctica. Upon boarding the boat we settled into our cabins and then enjoyed a warm welcoming reception as the crew and staff introduced themselves. Within an hour we were pulling away from the dock to begin our epic adventure. After the first of many fine meals was served, we adjourned to the bow of the ship to watch various wildlife illuminated by the evening light across the Beagle Channel. The first Magellanic Penguins of the trip fed alongside flocks of Black-browed Albatrosses and Imperial Shags. Several diminutive Magellanic Diving-Petrels winged low over the water--the final bird I wanted to see before retiring for the evening.

All photos by Jim Danzenbaker

1

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2

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