Chasing Endemic Birds and Wildlife in Northern Patagonia

Guest Post by Stephan Lorenz

The Valdes Peninsula in the Chubut Province of Argentina is one of the country’s main ecotourism attractions due to the concentration of marine mammals found there. For visiting birders though, there are several hotspots to the south and north of the famous peninsula. The majority of visitors flock to the well-known whale watching sites, but birders are advised to explore further afield. To the south, Punta Tombo harbors Argentina’s largest Magellanic Penguin colony and to the north the resort town of Las Grutas sits amidst sand dunes and woodlands supporting a wealth of birds.

Punta Tombo: Where the Penguins Gather

Punta Tombo ©Stephan Lorenz

Punta Tombo ©Stephan Lorenz

About three hours south of Puerto Madryn lies Punta Tombo, one of the world’s largest Magellanic Penguin colonies. Several tourist agencies in Puerto Madryn offer day tours to see the spectacle, but it is best to visit by rental vehicle. The main road leads through the city of Trelew and heads south before the well-marked left turn to the colony. We took all day to visit the colony and stopped at several excellent birding locations en route.

Magellanic Penguin Punta Tombo ©Stephan Lorenz

Magellanic Penguin Punta Tombo ©Stephan Lorenz

The views during the drive to Punta Tombo were expansive with the road running arrow-straight through endless steppe of low shrubs and gravel. Alert passengers will likely spot Elegant Crested-Tinamou, a roadside bird in Patagonia unlike its shy rainforest cousins, and we counted no less than two dozen. Eared Dove occasionally flushed and we slowed down just enough to watch Patagonian Mockingbird and White-banded Mockingbird display atop shrubs.

Elegant Crested Tinamou Punta Tombo ©Stephan Lorenz

Elegant Crested Tinamou Punta Tombo ©Stephan Lorenz

At the Punta Tombo colony, the penguins are impossible to miss with a half million individuals scattered in dense clusters on the rocky peninsula. An extensive boardwalk leads through the preserve, allowing very close views of the confiding penguins. Elegant Crested-Tinamou wandered about, creating an odd juxtaposition of tinamous and penguins, plus scurrying yellow-toothed cavies, a small guinea pig relative. For birders, one of the rarer prizes at Punta Tombo is the recently described White-headed Steamer-Duck, a flightless sea duck endemic to this region of Argentina. I carefully scanned the bays from various lookout points and found at least five of these hefty ducks. One pair waddled ashore, revealing their over-sized orange feet.

Magellanic Penguin colony at Punta Tombo ©Stephan Lorenz

Magellanic Penguin colony at Punta Tombo ©Stephan Lorenz

Yellow-toothed Cavy Punta Tombo ©Stephan Lorenz

Yellow-toothed Cavy Punta Tombo ©Stephan Lorenz

If time permits, it is worth driving back along Route 1 towards Trelew. This quiet secondary road is gravel partway, but passable in a sedan, and offers access to quality steppe habitat. After some determined searching, I located the endemic Patagonian Canastero and the range-restricted Band-tailed Earthcreeper, both species part of the true ovenbird family, a speciose group of birds found throughout Patagonia. As luck would have it, I also found a pair of the Rusty-backed Monjita, a ground-dwelling, colorful flycatcher endemic to Argentina.

Mammals also abound in the open steppe habitats of northern Patagonia and it is not uncommon to see South American gray fox, hairy armadillos, and even lesser grison, a black and white weasel.

South American Gray Fox, Valdes Peninsula ©Stephan Lorenz

South American Gray Fox, Valdes Peninsula ©Stephan Lorenz

Las Grutas: A Hotbed of Endemics, Woodland Birds, and the Endangered Yellow Cardinal

Route 3 in Northern Patagonia, Argentina ©Stephan Lorenz

Route 3 in Northern Patagonia, Argentina ©Stephan Lorenz

The small resort town of Las Grutas, meaning the grottoes in Spanish, lies about 3 hours to the north of Puerto Madryn. It was an easy drive along the little travelled Route 3. Las Grutas is frequented by Argentinians who come here to enjoy the beaches and thus offers a wide range of accommodations and restaurants. Birders can visit a variety of interesting habitats that are located just a stone’s throw from town. In fact, the birding starts right along the waterfront where noisy Burrowing Parakeets flock to their colony of cavities dug into the low cliffs. The birds even perch on telephone poles and wires right in the middle of town.

Burrowing Parakeets Las Grutas ©Stephan Lorenz

Burrowing Parakeets Las Grutas ©Stephan Lorenz

Two or three miles south of town along the coast, extensive dunes and shrubby vegetation harbor another endemic bird species, the Sandy Gallito. The Sandy Gallito is a plain-colored tapaculo that runs rapidly across openings in the dense shrubbery, with its tail up in the air. During my visit, two or three birds braved the cold morning air and clambered to the top of a shrub to utter their loud, repetitive songs. With some searching it is also possible to find the localized Carbonated Sierra-Finch and with some challenging identification work, the Straneck’s Tyrannulet, a small, obscure flycatcher.

Sandy Gallito Las Grutas ©Stephan Lorenz

Sandy Gallito Las Grutas ©Stephan Lorenz

Driving east of Las Grutas along Route 3, past the town of San Antonio Oeste, it is possible to find remnant patches of calden woodland which harbor several bird species reaching the southern limits of their distribution here. A few stops along the main road revealed Green-barred Woodpecker, Stripe-crowned Spinetail, Yellow-billed Tit-Tyrant, Greater Wagtail-Tyrant, White-tipped Plantcutter, and Brown Cachalote among many other widespread species. Another Argentinean endemic species that lurks in the shrubby areas here is the White-throated Cachalote. A pair will cause a ruckus one moment and switch to stealth mode the next, making them easy and difficult to see depending on their mood.

White-throated Cachalote Las Grutas ©Stephan Lorenz

White-throated Cachalote Las Grutas ©Stephan Lorenz

In a particularly productive patch of forest I ran into a busy feeding flock. Suddenly a flash of yellow shot through the low trees, it was almost shockingly bright after sorting through plain flycatchers and dun-colored ovenbirds for a week. I located the bird again and my binoculars focused on a male Yellow Cardinal, an endangered finch now mainly restricted to Argentina. This species has suffered from trapping for the cagebird trade and habitat fragmentation. It was great to see not only the male, but also a female nearby. The Yellow Cardinal was not only a stunning bird, but it also gave me hope that the species somehow persists in the trackless expanses of northern Patagonia. I recommend to any birder to set out and visit this little known stretch of northern Patagonia.

A male of the endangered Yellow Cardinal near Las Grutas ©Stephan Lorenz

A male of the endangered Yellow Cardinal near Las Grutas ©Stephan Lorenz

Join High Lonesome BirdTours during the Best of Argentina Tour, which will include the best birding and wildlife areas of northern Patagonia.

Stephan Lorenz has traveled and birded in literally every corner of the continent, from the Aleutian Islands to Dry Tortugas, from Newfoundland to Baja, and south to the Darian Gap, Panama. He leads birding tours for High Lonesome BirdTours.