They call it “The southernmost city in the world” and “El Fin del Mundo” (The end of the world). No matter how you describe it, Ushuaia, Argentina, is pretty damn remote.
Ushuaia is not on the Straits of Magellan. It’s actually south of the Straits of Magellan, located along the Beagle Channel (named for Darwin’s ship) on the south shore of Tierra del Fuego. Some more facts:
- It’s on an island separate from the South American mainland.
- It’s the only city in Argentina on the far side of the Andes from the rest of the country.
- The PanAmerican highway ends near there – it’s over 11,000 miles to Alaska.
- The Andes end near there, too.
- A flight from Buenos Aires flying straight south takes 3½ hours.
- It’s twice as far from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires as it is to Antarctica.
See that little green triangle at the southern tip of South America? That’s Tierra del Fuego. And because of its remoteness, you find some pretty unique birds.
Tierra del Fuego has a great mix of habitats. The lowlands at the base of the Andes contain Patagonia nothofagus (southern beech) forest. The northern part of the island is the southern extension of the Pampas grassland and the wintering ground for several North American shorebird species as well as some unique breeding shorebirds. The Andes themselves provide some access to alpine areas at some fairly low elevations. And because it’s an island, there are also ocean going species.
So when I booked my Antarctic cruise, I knew I had to spend some time birding on Tierra del Fuego. Towards that, I hired a guide for three days of birding. This mini-tour constituted a day traveling from Ushuaia over the Andes to the city of Rio Grande on the Atlantic coast, a day birding in the grasslands around Rio Grande then traveling back to Ushuaia, and a final day birding in Tierra del Fuego National Park just to the west of Ushuaia (where the road ends near the Chilean border). I also spent an afternoon just wandering along the waterfront in downtown Ushuaia.
I ended up with 22 lifers and 74 species seen in those 3½ days. Of course, I don’t have pictures of everything I saw, especially since some of those species are pretty damn common (i.e. House Sparrow and Rock Pigeon). On the other hand, I did take pictures of a lot of the special birds of the area. Those are what I’ll be sharing with you today.
As might be expected on an island, waterfowl were fairly common, with geese being the most conspicuous. But the Patagonian geese are all small. They’re the size of a Ross’ Goose or a Cackling Goose. And they have little, tiny bills. However, unlike North American geese where the males and females look the same, some geese in Patagonia are “sexually dimorphic”, that is, the males and females have different plumages.
And one of the most extreme examples of sexual dimorphism is the Kelp Goose. This is a species that’s only found on Tierra del Fuego and the Falklands. Here is a male Kelp Goose I saw in Ushuaia harbor:
And here is the female who was with him:
Really different, huh?
Another sexually dimorphic goose species is the Upland Goose. Here’s a male from the grasslands south of Rio Grande:
And a female from Tierra del Fuego National Park:
This species is more widespread than the previous one. It’s found throughout Patagonia and winters almost as far north as Buenos Aires. There’s also a separate subspecies on the Falklands.
There are also a couple goose species that aren’t sexually dimorphic. A widespread one is the Ashy-headed Goose:
This species is mainly found at the base of the Andes in Patagonia. We found a flock of them at an old airstrip right after we crossed over the pass from Ushuaia to Rio Grande.
I’d seen all of these species before in Chile, but the final goose species in Tierra del Fuego was a key target for the trip. This is a Ruddy-headed Goose:
This species is the rarest of the four, as well as the smallest. It’s one of the specialties of the area. In South America, it’s only found in a narrow band near the Straits of Magellan. We saw a pair of these geese at an estancia (ranch) northwest of Rio Grande. To get there, we drove about 17 miles from Rio Grande along this road:
It gives you an idea why sheep ranching (and llama ranching) is so popular. And although it looks pretty barren, nature abhors a vacuum. There were plenty of birds to see along the way, as you’ll see below.
Of course, where you have geese, you also have ducks. The most common duck we saw was Crested Duck:
They’re fairly widespread throughout the Andes and the southern part of Patagonia. There were small flocks of these on all the lakes in Ushuaia and near Rio Grande, but this is the only one with a crest that I noted.
Next up is a fairly widespread Patagonian duck, the Flying Steamer-duck. Here’s a male we saw near Rio Grande:
And a group of females from Ushuaia:
They were lifers for me.
Why are they called “Flying” Steamer-ducks? As opposed to the Flightless Steamer-duck, duh. Actually, there are four species of steamer-duck – the others are Falkland Steamer-duck and Chubut Steamer-duck – but this is the only one of the four that can truly fly. I actually saw them do it! And they’re called steamer-ducks because the flightless species run along the water surface using their wings and feet to propel them, like an old paddle steamer. We also saw a couple Flightless Steamer-ducks in Tierra del Fuego National Park, but they were too far away to photograph.
Another Patagonian duck is the Chiloe Wigeon:
The wigeons are the two larger birds in the back with the white masks. They’re named after Chiloe Island in Chile. We saw these at the Laguna de los Patos (appropriately, the Duck Pond) just outside Rio Grande.
The smaller bird in the front is a Yellow-billed Teal. Here’s a better shot of them from Tierra del Fuego National Park:
They used to be called Speckled Teal, but Andean Teal was split off a separate species in 2008. So they renamed the southern species as Yellow-billed Teal. They’re found throughout the southern part of South America and along the Andes all the way to northern Perú. Other ducks I saw in TdF were Red Shoveler and Yellow-billed Pintail. These weren’t lifers and were usually distant, so I don’t have pictures of them.
There were also plenty of other big gaudy water-based birds. This is a Black-necked Swan:
It looks like a cross between our North American swans and the Black Swan of Australia. They’re found throughout the southern cone of South America. This bird was one of a pair in Tierra del Fuego National Park. I also saw a few in Buenos Aires.
Most people associate flamingos with the tropics. But there’s a flamingo that occurs in Tierra del Fuego:
The Chilean Flamingo is found from Ecuador all the way to Tierra del Fuego. They’re a lot paler than the Caribbean Flamingo and have pale legs with red “knees.” This bird was part of flock we saw outside Rio Grande. They were also fairly common in the north Pampas near Buenos Aires.
There’s nothing like a shag in the morning. So while it’s not the best picture, here are Imperial Shags (or Imperial Cormorants):
Back when I first saw this species in Chile, it was two species…the Imperial Shag and the King Shag. They differ by the amount of white on their faces. Soon after I saw them, they were lumped into a single species. But based on the old taxonomy, these would have been Kings. I saw these two in Tierra del Fuego National Park at the end of the road:
While we’re on birds around water we need to talk about gulls. The first is a Kelp Gull:
They’re found throughout the southern hemisphere including in Africa and Australia/New Zealand. We even had them in Antarctica. This one was in Ushuaia harbor.
Much more numerous in Ushuaia harbor is the Dolphin Gull:
It think it’s one of the more beautiful gulls. They kind of look like our Heermann’s Gull, but it’s not that closely related. It’s actually more closely related to Franklin’s and Laughing Gulls. For the record, ”zona de desagüe” means “discharge area.” So obey the sign and don’t go in the water.
Next comes a “gull on steroids” as I like to describe them. This is a Chilean Skua:
Skuas are in the group of birds known as tubenoses. They spend much of their lives on or near saltwater, so have the capability to reject concentrated saltwater through a little tube on the top of their bill. Skuas are scavengers who harass other birds to steal their food. We saw a few Chilean Skuas harassing gulls and ducks in Ushuaia, but this bird was flying along with our ship in the Beagle Channel:
And while this picture was taken on the Beagle Channel, it doesn’t show Argentina. It’s Chile.
Another bird from the Beagle Channel is the Black-browed Albatross:
This is the most widespread albatross species worldwide. They breed in Chile and the Falklands, where we saw a colony of thousands – including the bird above. There are other subspecies (or possibly full species) that are found throughout the southern oceans. It’s wingspan is only 7-8 feet, so that makes it a medium-sized albatross!
Not so much a water bird, but more a bird of wet meadows, this is a Black-faced Ibis:
Look at that dagger of a bill! So different from the ibises we have in North America. They’re found all along the coasts of Patagonia and in the foothills of the Andes. We had a small flock of them at a former mission outside Rio Grande and a few more in Tierra del Fuego National Park.
Tierra del Fuego doesn’t have many hawk species. But it has three different caracaras. The most common are Chimango Caracaras:
We saw them pretty much everywhere on the island, with dozens of them at the Ushuaia sanitary landfill (As I’ve often said, birders go to the most wonderful places). And why would we be at the sanitary landfill? To see one of the other caracaras – the White-throated Caracara. Ushuaia Landfill is one of the easiest places in the world to see them. Sadly, I don’t have pictures of that bird. I was too busy watching it being attacked by Chimangos. The landfill is also the only place I saw the third caracara of the island, Crested Caracara.
Time for a BIF shot of another scavenger. Here’s a bird that is emblematic of the Andes, the Andean Condor:
It’s another bird with a huge wingspan…it can be up to 10½ feet. Interestingly, we didn’t see this in the Andes, we saw three of them near an estancia in the grasslands near Rio Grande. That estancia was raising llamas:
As you can see there were fairly young animals in the flock (and I suspect the animal on the right is pregnant). I’m guessing the condors were scavenging when the llamas gave birth.
Next comes the bird that I most wanted to see in the forests of Tierra del Fuego, the Magellanic Woodpecker. Here’s the male:
This particular male was attacking his reflection in a window in the building in the background. It’s a wonder he didn’t smash the glass. But for what it’s worth, his mate below was like, “whatever”.
These are the largest woodpeckers in the
world Americas. They used to be the third-largest, behind the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and the Imperial Woodpecker. When those two went extinct, the Magellanic moved up to #1. Fortunately, they’re doing well, so it’s likely to keep the crown for a while.
The nothofagus forests of Patagonia also support a parakeet, the Austral Parakeet:
While parrots are more associated with the tropics, this species is found in temperate Andean forests as far north as Santiago, Chile. This bird was one of a pair we found in Tierra del Fuego National Park, near the end of the road. I also heard them at sunset near my B&B in Ushuaia, but finding them there was a whole other story.
As I mentioned above, the grasslands of northern Tierra del Fuego support several shorebird species. A family that’s unique to South America is the seedsnipes. This is a Least Seedsnipe:
They’re not snipes and they don’t eat seeds. They’re a shorebird, but they don’t live on the shore. In fact, they behave like grouse and ptarmigan. They live in grasslands and alpine tundra. This bird was at a saline pond outside Rio Grande, although we saw a few others including a pair at a cleared area slated for a housing development in suburban Rio Grande. We also tried for another seedsnipe species above the tree line near Ushuaia, but that one is a lot harder to find. We missed it.
This is a Magellanic Plover, a major specialty of the area:
It used to be classified with the rest of the plovers, but DNA studies found it’s in its own family. They’re found around saline lakes in the far southern part of Patagonia down to the northern part of Tierra del Fuego. This was one of pair we found near a pond outside Rio Grande. We found two other pairs along the road to the estancias north of Rio Grande.
There are also more conventional plovers in Tierra del Fuego. The most conventional-looking one is the Two-banded Plover:
It looks like a Semipalmated Plover, but it has two black bands on the breast like a Killdeer. We saw this one at Punta Popper, along the South Atlantic opposite Rio Grande. This one had a couple of fluffy young that were running around near her, but she was just sitting still (likely taking a break from the kids).
A much more photogenic plover is the Rufous-chested Dotterel:
Although it’s in the same genus as the killdeer, it’s much more ornate. I’m not sure why it’s called a dotterel and not a plover, but I suspect it’s because it looks like the Eurasian Dotterel. This one was one of a pair that were being chased by a Southern Lapwing in the housing development near Rio Grande. We suspect they had a nest there.
This is a Southern Lapwing:
They’re found from Tierra del Fuego all the way to Central America with the exception of the desert areas of Peru and Chile. We saw them all over Tierra del Fuego, including this one at the mission outside Rio Grande.
The last plover we saw is the Tawny-throated Dotterel:
Look at those bubblegum pink legs! They like dry short grass, including the high elevation Andean puna grasslands. As if to prove it, this bird was very near where the picture of the dirt road I included above was taken.
I don’t know whether this qualifies as a shorebird, but I’ll include it here. It’s a Magellanic Oystercatcher:
It’s found in the southern tip of south America and the Falklands. This one was at the duck pond near Rio Grande. There’s also another species of oystercatcher in Tierra del Fuego, the Blackish Oystercatcher, but we only got scope-views of that one at the end of the road in Tierra del Fuego national park.
Moving on to passerines, we have furnariids, aka ovenbirds. But while tropical furnariids such as spinetails, woodcreepers, and foliage-gleaners climb trees, the furnariids of Patagonia are mostly ground birds. These include birds like cinclodes (cinclodeses?) and miners.
This is a Short-billed Miner:
Miners got their name because they dig tunnels for nesting (I had to look that up). It’s been suggested that the Short-billed Miner is the southernmost breeding passerine in the world (the other candidate for that title is the South Georgia Pipit). This one wasn’t that far south – we saw it near Rio Grande at Punta Popper. We also saw a Common Miner along the road to the estancias, but I didn’t get pictures.
This guy is a Dark-bellied Cinclodes:
They like rocky shores and rivers in the southern Andes. In fact the name cinclodes derives from the greek for “resembling a water-side bird”. While it looks like he’s in the grasslands, in fact, this bird was in downtown Ushuaia in the rocks along the harbor. He only came onto the grass to scream at us when we played his call.
Another cinclodes is the Buff-winged Cinclodes:
This species prefers bogs and streams (as you can see). We found him at a small stream that crossed the dirt road to the estancias in the grasslands. This is one of my famous “out the car window” pictures, mainly because it was too windy to keep the camera still.
A more typical furnariid is the Thorn-tailed Rayadito:
Rayadito means “little striped one.” This one is a forest bird, and fill a similar ecological niche as the chickadees of the Northern Hemisphere. They also form small flocks and join in mixed flocks like chickadees. This one was in a mixed flock in Tierra del Fuego National Park.
Another bird in that mixed flock was the White-crested Elaenia:
Elaenias are small flycatchers related to tyrannulets. They usually have a small crest like this one, although the “white-crest” of this species is just a crown stripe. Some authorities consider this subspecies a full species that they call Chilean Elaenia.
Also in the mixed flock was this cutie, a Tufted Tit-tyrant:
This is a tiny flycatcher, roughly 4 inches long. As you can see, the name comes from the tiny crest on its head. This species is widespread in Patagonia, but a small population extends all the way up the Andes to Ecuador. In fact, the first one I ever saw was over 20 years ago outside Quito.
There are also flycatchers in Tierra del Fuego that forage on the ground. A very common species is the Austral Negrito:
It’s another small flycatcher – less than 5” long. As you can see they like the grass, although you find them along shorelines, too; pretty much anywhere it can find bugs. We saw many of these – including this one - in the grasslands outside Rio Grande, although I don’t remember seeing any females. They were probably nesting.
The next flycatcher is an Ochre-naped Ground Tyrant:
As you would expect from the name, ground-tyrants are another ground-based flycatcher. They’re all various shades of brown, grey, and black and behave more like thrushes than flycatchers. Most of them prefer rocky areas above the tree line. This one was at the base of the Martial Glacier above Ushuaia (elev. 3500’):
There used to be a ski area there, and you walk up the ski run to the former lodge, then a short trail across the tundra to the glacier. We also saw a Dark-faced Ground-tyrant up there.
Speaking of thrushes, there’s one of those in Tierra del Fuego, too. It’s called the Austral Thrush:
This is another bird that is found in southern Patagonia through the central Andes. This one was at the end of the road in Tierra del Fuego National Park, but they were pretty much anywhere in Ushuaia where there were trees, including the residential neighborhood where my B&B was located.
Where there are grasslands, there are meadowlarks. The one in Tierra del Fuego is the Long-tailed Meadowlark:
Interestingly, all of the meadowlarks in South America have red breasts like this one, not yellow breasts like our North American species. This one was outside Rio Grande at the duck pond, but we saw several of them in the grasslands.
The last bird of my little survey is a finch that’s actually a tanager. Here’s a Patagonian Sierra-finch:
Somewhere along the line, I’ve discussed the recent efforts to study the DNA of many passerines. In that work, some finches became tanagers, some tanagers became cardinals, and so on. And despite the fact they look like finches, with finch-like bills, the sierra-finches of the Andes were found to be tanagers, not finches. Go figure. These guys were pretty common in Tierra del Fuego National Park. This particular one was at the end of the Pan Am Highway.
So that wraps up my little journey to the end of the world, or as one tourist agency in Ushuaia put it:
Despite their opinion, I enjoyed my time there. I hope you did too.
So what’s going on in your neck of the woods?
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