Friday, March 21:
We woke early-ish, packed, and ate a light breakfast. While the others got ready, I walked down to the waterfront to do some morning birding, and was glad I did, as the light was favorable and plenty of birds were out.
Black-necked Swan / Cisne de Cuello Negro
A strikingly-small raptor on the shoreline caught my eye, flashing a white rump patch, as Northern Harriers do, but being not even half the size, and shaped more hawk-like. Upon looking it up later, it turned out to be the first of many Chimango Caracaras (LIFER!) I would see on this trip.
Chimango Caracara / Tiuque
As I was admiring some Black-necked Swans, a pair of large pure white duck-like birds floated to the south. I walked on down and was treated to the only sighting I would have of the interesting Coscoroba Swan (LIFER!)
Coscoroba Swans / Coscoroba
This and the Black-necked are the only swans in Patagonia, and unlike the Black-necked, Coscoroba Swans do not look very swan-like at all, more like geese. Give this, it’s perhaps unsurprising that they’re in their own genus (their scientific name is Coscoroba coscoroba). A little wiki’ing showed them to be the smallest swan species, and endemic to South America.
Imperial Cormorants / Cormorán Imperial
A decrepit pier had Dolphin and Kelp Gulls, as well as many Imperial Cormorants. I spent some time trying to distinguish between King Cormorants and Imperial, only to learn later that they’re subspecies (the former ssp. albiventer, and the later the nominate ssp. atriceps) of the same species Phalacorax atriceps.
Dark-bellied Cinclodes / Churrete Común
I also saw more Chiloe Wigeons and Crested Ducks, and as I was preparing to return to the hotel, a dark contrasty little bird flitted about in the shoreline rocks. I photographed it and had a hard time figuring out what it was, but posting it at the always-helpful BirdForum quickly got it ID’ed as a Dark-bellied Cinclodes (LIFER!).
We checked out of the hotel and hit the road. Jim & Diane had heard that nearby Laguna Sofia (thanks BrianR for reminding me of its name!) was good for bird-watching, so a few miles out of Puerto Natales, we turned off on a dirt road and drove a few miles to it.
Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant / Dormilona Tontita
Austral Canastero / Canastero Austral
Storms looked to be brewing, and it was pretty darned windy (a near-constant phenomenon in Patagonia, especially this part of it), but we walked around a dirt double-track by the lagoon to see what we could see. Initially there wasn’t anything to see, but Jim spied a probable Condor roosting high on a cliffside, and a pair of Neotropic Cormorants (LIFER!) flew by. Some small bush birds entertained us briefly. I had to go to BirdForum to ID them too, but they were the Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant (LIFER!) and the very pipit-like Austral Canastero (LIFER!).
Andean Condor / Cóndor
As we walked back toward the car, we got a pretty good look at some circling Andean Condors. These beautiful scavengers are gigantic, with up to a 12-foot wingspan, and weighing in at 30+ pounds. A small group of Upland Geese on the shore rounded out the birds here, and as it started sprinkling, we continued on our way.
Many Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles were on roadside posts, but all successfully evaded my attempts to photograph them. This was more than made up for by many close-up Rheas and Guanacos. We got a little lost at a junction, but a local set us straight, and we continued on our way. The road was a well-graded dirt one, but our old’ish Nissan Pathfinder had a tough time not fishtailing, so I put it in 4WD mode, which helped, but it still handled like crap, unlike my considerably smaller and less guzzling Subaru Outback Sport, which handles quite well on dirt roads. Of course international travel luggage for 4 people would have been a problem in my car!
Some obliging guanacos stood right at the edge of the road, with the Torres del Paine behind them, so I just had to stop and take a few pics of them. The views were astonishing all around, with the huge Torres clearly visible in the distance (they’re the beige rock spires at the right in the photo above).
Around a corner another staggeringly beautiful vista, as we came upon Lago Amargo (“Bitter Lake”). This shockingly-green lake, the result of sediments in the water, stood in contrast to the brown wind-swept foothills and the huge outcrops of the Torres themselves. Despite constant 30+mph winds, we couldn’t help stopping and walking to this lovely lake, which has a beach-like area on its shore. If not for the winds, we’d have called it a lunch spot, but it was too blustery to linger, and on we went.
The torres went out of view, and instead we were treated to lovely views of the Cuernos del Paine (“Horns of Paine”). These gnarled black crags have a wide light-colored band running through them, given them an even more tortured appearance.
At a roadside turnout, where we’d stopped to admire the Cuernos towering thousands of feet above Lake Nordenskjold, 3 Grey Zorros ran out, begging food. These cute little foxes were obviously accustomed to being fed, as they had no fear of us at all. As we left, and right in front of a sign that clearly said “No alimentar,” some fool reached into his car and started throwing bread to the foxes, arrrgh! We pointed at the sign and shouted “¡No alimentar!” at him. A lost cause, I imagine, but it made us mad to see someone so obviously and obliviously feeding these should-have-been-wild animals.
Rio Serrano. The hotel we stayed at is the one with green roofs
Continuing onward we passed Lago Pehoe and Salta Grande (more on them later) and eventually, after quite some time, arrived just outside the park at Rio Serrano, and encampment of several hotels/cabins. Looking at the map later, it turned out we had taken quite the long route to get where we were, adding at least two hours of driving, but given the wonderful view we had enjoyed, I couldn’t be at all sad about it. Plus it saved us the need to take a day-trip to the park’s other side. This was important because although we had filled up before leaving Puerto Natales, the fuel economy and small’ish tank of our vehicle found us with less than half a tank of gas, and there’s nowhere at all to get more.
Geese with a view
We checked into our rooms at the Cabañas del Paine and rested for a few, then Sarah & I went for a little walk to stretch and get the lay of the land. The nice woman at the front desk said she’s seen Magellanic Woodpeckers (Carpintero in Spanish) nearby, and we were hopeful of seeing this regional specialty.
No luck at all on that front, however, as all we saw were flocks of Ashy-headed and Upland Geese. Still I got some nice flight photos of them, and it was nice to walk anyhow. Dinner at the hotel was a rocky affair, with some language issues, and some menu issues, and we wound up all eating salads. Fortunately things would improve somewhat in the next couple of meals there, as there really aren’t any other options in the area.
Even here in the middle of nowhere, the hotel had an internet room with one computer and a surprisingly-fast connection. After catching up on email and making sure our kitties were well, we retired early’ish.
Part 1: Getting to Patagonia
Part 2: El Calafate & Laguna Nimez
Part 3: Glaciar Perito Moreno
Part 4: El Calafate backcountry excursion
Part 5: Goodbye Argentina, hello Chile
Part 6: To Torres del Paine! <– You are here!
Part 7: Lago Pehoe and Paine Grande
Part 8: Mirador los Cuernos
Part 9: To Rio Verde and Punta Arenas
Part 10: Pelagic, Penguins, and farewell to Patagonia
Part 11: To Buenos Aires!
Part 12: BsAs’ Sunday markets and other diversions
Part 13: Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay
Part 14: Buenos Aires’ Jardin Botanico and Costanera Sur
Part 15: There’s no place like home