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Miles to Punta Tombo
Just a few short weeks ago, during late March, my family and I took a road trip through parts of Northern Patagonia and the Lake District of Argentina. I have lots to share but thought I would start with a single place - Punta Tombo, a penguin reserve found in the Province of Chubut.

Dawn Chorus probably isn't an appropriate name for this diary! Penguins sound a lot more like braying donkeys than anything musical but the trip was one I wanted to share with other bird lovers. For me, it was the trip of a lifetime. For my youngest son, who hopes to be a wildlife biologist, it was so much more! Every visit to see animals in the wild just reinforces his desire to work with them.

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The road to Punta Tombo
This was no easy road trip - it took us two days of driving just to get to our first stop in Peninsula Valdés, a national wildlife reserve, where we spent a couple of days. We wanted to spend more time but that is a story for another day! A little further down the coast is Puerto Madryn, a well known tourist town where we spent another night. And then almost two hours more down the coast to Punta Tombo. Not all the roads were paved so distances were even more deceiving because you can only drive so fast on a gravel road!

We arrived late morning, just shortly after opening hours. We had the place to ourselves since we were slightly off-season. Remember, March is autumn in South America. It's the beginning of the school year and everyone is heading back to work after summer long vacations. It also meant we were visiting the pinguiñera well after the new chicks had grown and left. They were all out to sea waiting for their parents to catch up.

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Welcome sign 60K out... not much else down this road!
We weren't sure if we would see many penguins at all, to tell you the truth. We knew that they headed out to the ocean in April but with weather changes all over the world, we weren't sure how the penguins might act differently. So our trip was a little bit of a gamble.

We toured the visitor center first, to learn all we could about Magellanic Penguins. The museum was a treasure trove of information and dioramas. The best were the ceiling-level, life-sized penguins swimming through the air with seals and orcas alongside. Since we couldn't actually watch the penguins in acquatic action, this diorama was the next best thing to show us what they would like flying underwater.

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Interpretive display at the museum
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Open tunnel that symbolizes driving through Patagonia
Outside, the museum had a long, concrete open tunnel that led to a large viewing station where we could see all the cardinal points of the compass. The path was a metaphor - its blank walls that were too tall to see over and symbolized the nothingness of driving through long stretches of Patagonia. There is little appreciation for the in between spaces here - everyone flocks to the tourist destinations and spends little time in between because they think there is nothing to be appreciated in the dry, often cold, land. Some of our favorite spots where in the middle of nowhere!

From the viewing station we could see to the North, towards Buenos Aires, thousands of kilometers away; to the South lay thousands of kilometers more to Ushuaia, a trip that was impossible for us to make. To the West, we looked across miles and miles of desert scrub that reminded us of Nevada, dry and full of scrubby plants that looked like mesquite and low growing juniper. To the East, we could see gorgeous red rocks reaching out into the brilliant aqua blue Atlantic Ocean.

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Looking to the West across the desert
What we couldn't see were penguins, so we were off to hit the trails!

We saw a penguin almost immediately, right next to the lower parking lot just before reaching the trails. He was hanging out with some local guanaco. We thought he looked a little lost sitting amongst the scrubby bushes but we were soon to find out that scrubby bushes make great protection for penguin nests.

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A lone penguin hanging out with the local guanacos
As we walked along the actual trail, we saw more nests and their occupants snuggled into the roots of the low growing scrub. There was one here, another there. A few times we would see a pair. I had never imagined penguins in a desert before! I thought they lived very close to the water but these guys would have quite a hike to reach the waves.

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Penguins guarding the walkway
We found a gaggle on the split walkway and decided we best go the other way. We were warned to give the penguins lots of space, about 2 meters or 6 feet. They look cute and cuddly but they have very sharp beaks and can attack when they feel threatened, like any wild animal. They do give a warning sign, but that in itself is rather cute and mesmerizing... they slowly wave their head from side to side, not especially threatening behavior. We chose not to test any of these guys but they were so relaxed in their sunbathing that I don't think we had much to worry about.

As we walked further along the trail and closer to the water, we started to see more penguins, especially more penguin couples. They were nesting together, sunning together, laying down together. And so many of them were just plain bedraggled. We had come at molting season and the feathers were a flying. Some had finished their molt and were beautiful black and white, your typical tuxedoed penguin. Many were a dull gray and looked like they had been rolling around in the dust. Others were in mid-molt, feathers still clinging to their bodies and blowing lightly in the breeze.

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Sometimes molting just seems like an embarrassing process
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Helping with the molt
Some penguins were taking care of their own feathers and slowly rubbing their bodies with their beaks to loosen them so that they could float away on the breeze. Some penguin couples were plucking each other. There was no hurry. It was a nice day and everyone seemed to be content to just enjoy themselves. After all, when the molt is finished, in a few short days, maybe a week or two, they would be joining their young out in the ocean for their winter retreat to Brazil or to Chile, depending on their druthers. For now, it seemed they were all enjoying a needed break from their kids.

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Looks like penguins might now how to party hard.
At this point, we had seen hundreds of penguins and they had been cute and photogenic but for the most part, quiet and unobtrusive. We figured there just weren’t that many around. Then, as we got closer to water, the breeze became a wind and sound carrier. In the distance, we could hear sounds like braying donkeys and cock-a-doodle-doing roosters. We began to wonder what on earth we were walking towards.

The nesting areas became less protected, fewer bushes and lots of gravel nests. Birds seemed more comfortable nesting very close to one another but the nearness seemed to encourage conversation. At least background conversation. The guys closest to the paths were still the silent types but you could tell that we were missing some kind of cocktail party somewhere, so we just kept walking.

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Penguins and their less protected nests
We found the break room underneath a bridge that took us over a penguin walkway to the ocean, dozens of penguins were enjoying the shade. It made me wonder if penguins can get sunburned?
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Penguins enjoying the shade on a warm, sunny day
We were still about a kilometer away from the inviting azur coolness of the Atlantic Ocean to our left. Only a penguin or two seemed to be waddling towards it, but not in any kind of hurry. We continued on our pathway, paralleling the ocean but slowly turning towards a point in the distance where we could get a better view.
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The Atlantic Ocean
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High density penguin nests as seen with zoom lens
It was about at this point in time that we could see the hillsides in the distance and began to realize that the ground covering we thought might be bushes was not. It was penguins. There were penguins everywhere in the distance covering every spot you could possibly think of. They covered a barren flat spot potholed with nests and probably covered the bushy areas under the brush and the dark rocks on the other side, we just couldn’t make out their profiles as easily. There were thousands upon thousands of birds covering tens of square kilometers. Now we were beginning to realize why this was a penguin reserve.
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Penguins in fore, mid, and background
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All the dots in the distance are penguins
Later, as we left the park, we asked a ranger about the babies and that’s when we learned how crowded this place is earlier in the year. He told us in the high penguin season, after the babies are born and begin to gain mobility, the parking lot is not a safe place to park… the birds cover the place. The staff maintain all visitors and cars up on the higher lot and shuttle people in so that they can protect the young chicks. A part of me wishes we could have visited at that time – we also could have seen the whales – but that is also high tourist season and even more expensive and crowded. I hate spending money and I hate crowds even more so I decided to be happy with our molting bunch!
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Close-ups of penguin bills and penguin feet
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High density penguin population ahead
As we approached the end of the trail, we saw a sign stating we were reaching the point of high density penguin population. Here is where all the noise was. We could hear penguins from all quarters and even had the chance to see one braying in full glory at his pack mates. He was definitely not happy. Maybe his wife had left him for the water and to catch up with the kids. Maybe he was a young male and was demanding attention from the local girls. All I know is that he was loud. He spread his wings wide, opened his mouth to the sky, and the hee-haw sound of a donkey came out of this tiny animal. It was a sight to see and to hear. Some of his fellows decided to give him a little space but the others just looked at him like he was crazy… that made me decide he was probably a teenager who was just unhappy with life. Hormone rush and all, you know?
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One very vocal penguin
Nearby, we could see the ocean shore down below. We couldn’t approach the water, which for my family is a very hard thing not to do. We could see great rocky outcroppings in the distance that were just begging for some California tidepoolers to explore. But the penguins own this spot and we were kept far away. Of course, if we had paid the money to stay at the Estancia (ranch or estate) that was neighboring the reserve, we would also have had permission to walk the beach on the farside. But our camping budget did not allow for estancia stays – only for the occasional hotel on really bad weather nights. And we didn’t even have the bad weather to give us an excuse.

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Taking an early afternoon swim in the Atlantic Ocean
Down by the water, we saw a few dozen penguins, most on the rocky shore but some out in the water. There wasn’t a mad dash… I wonder if there ever is, if one morning, they all wake up and decide it’s time to go or if they just wander off in pairs. I do know that they have to finish molting and that some penguins do get left behind the main group. I’m sure some of the leaving depends upon the weather and the running of the fish. Wikipedia says that this reserve of penguins is actually in danger because of over fishing and the penguin mothers are having to swim further out to sea to find food to bring back to the fathers and new chicks. They often have to swim as much as 25 miles further out to sea and some don’t make it back in time. Penguin colonies are being seen further north probably because the fish are closer inland, but that also means the penguins are encroaching on private land and are closer to private land to refineries. It is one of the reasons that Magellenic Penguins are endangered.

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Penguins, red rocks, and blue ocean. A perfect combination
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Guanaco, a wild relative of llamas
This reserve at Punta Tombo is important not only for the penguins, but for other animals as well. We saw many wild guanaco, a distance relative of the camel. We also saw birds of prey and what we think was an ocean-going petrel soaring overhead. I am sure the diversity of tidepool life is excellent as well in such a well protected spot. If only we could have gotten down to those rocks! And there were tons of animals we didn’t get to see, especially the nocturnal kind; penguins here are in danger from more than man.
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Profiles of birds in flight
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A relative of our armadillo, a pinche
One critter we got a great picture off as we left is a relative of our armadillo. He’s called a pinche and he is armored as you might expect but much, much hairier. This little fellow was caught out walking along the road in a culvert and had no place to escape our camera. The birds we saw nearby, some time of pheasant or quail were luckier, they were well camoflauged by the tall grass.
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Wild fowl near Punta Tombo
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Wonderful sun!
I wish we could have camped nearby but no facilities or public lands exist for that. It is a place that deserves exploring for more than a day and it’s distance even from Puerto Madryn makes it a pain to drive back and forth. We find that nature is best observed in the early morning and the late evening and, in our laziness, we would just love to plop ourselves down in the middle of it and just observe.

As we were leaving, I was left with a feeling of great love. It’s wrong to put anthropromorphic feelings on animals, but I couldn’t help but feel a great respect for these penguin couples. I felt great emotion in this place – in the noise and the cacophony of penguin life, in the simple pleasure of raising your face to the sun to feel it’s warm rays, and the irreplaceable feeling of sitting close to your mate and enjoying a moment of true peace.

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A penguin portrait of true love
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And one more, just because.

Originally posted to Birds and Birdwatching on Sun May 27, 2012 at 06:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by America Latina, J Town, and Headwaters.

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