After leaving the Swedish birding group the I had spent the first 12 days of the trip traveling with, it was now time to turn up the effort level and go all in to get my target species on my own. The original plan was to stay in Argentina for nine extra days, from Nov 20th to Nov 29th, but since Argentina was hosting the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires, the domestic flights got shut down and I had to reschedule my flight back home. Fortunately for me, that meant a couple of extra days of birding, as my flight from El Calafate back to Buenos Aires got postponed to Dec 3rd.
I went to the Airport with the rest of the group flying to Ushuaia to pick up my rental car. When I got there, I realized they had already rented the car to another customer since I was set to pick it up at 10 but didn’t show up to pick it up until after 12. On top of that, I got the flu which had been going around the members of the group I traveled with. I had to return back to my accommodation in El Calafate without any car and with a rising fever. After a couple of dramatic hours I was able to pick up a Chevy Joy in town and get back to bed to rest. I started to feel very sick and decided to rest up since I had two nights in El Calafate before returning to camp at the Strobel Plateau at the Hooded Grebe site.
The original plan was to harvest from all the birding we’ve done in the same site. I was going to be in the right spot every morning and evening for my target species and make sure that I maximized my time there. We never spent that much time El Calafate, but I was also going to return here in the end of the trip, so I decided to take it easy and let the flu burst while I was in a fairly calm stage of the trip. Still, I couldn’t resist shooting in the evening light of the Lago Argentino lake shore at the outskirts of the town on the 21st. Opportunities were great and the shores were full of Geese, Ducks, Shorebirds and other waterfowl.
Birds at the shore of Lago Argentino, Nov 21st 2018
Showdown at the Strobel Plateau
November 22nd was a big day, the most important of the trip. This was the day I had been preparing for, when I would get my one and only opportunity of my lifetime to photograph the endangered Hooded Grebe, with a wild population of 1000 individuals or less. Thanks to our previous visit with the group and the help of Héctor I was able to come back and get permission to enter the land where they breed on my own. To do so, I had to drive 370 km north in my low and worn rental car to a shelter where the land owner would pick me up in a Toyota Hilux that could clear the last 15 km through the Basalt Desert Plateau called the Strobel Plateau. The first 200 km of the drive were completely undramatic as the paved roads took me away from Lago Argentino north through the Patagonian desert. Then, the asphalt disappeared and I had to drive extremely carefully to not wreck the car the last 150 km, a distance that took about four hours, while the first 200 km only took two. I arrived just in time even though I left with an hour margin to get to the shelter, got all my gear for the night and left the car behind. Here, in some of the windiest and most remote places I’ve ever been, I was supposed to spend the night camping in a crevice after photographing the grebes in their breeding lake dressed in a dry suit. The temperatures were almost freezing when I got there in the afternoon, with the wind chill it was definitely way below 0 centigrade so I dressed in as many layers I could. What a contrast to Buenos Aires two weeks ago!
I arrived to the lake in the afternoon, the winds were very strong from the west, the sky was grey and the odds for any sort of spectacular shots were very slim. Héctor told me the odds of getting calmer wind conditions and clear skies are better further into the summer season in January. I started by going down to the shore to have some sort of lunch/dinner combo, consisting of some pasta-broccoli salad I made in El Calafate before I left. As I was having my meal, both Silvery Grebes and Horned Grebes started to swim towards the sheltered edge where I was. Suddenly, they ended up diving super close to the edge so I had to take a break from my meal and grab the camera. The video below shows exactly what the conditions were like when I got those first shots. It was still overcast and very windy, but the skies were clearing up.
After securing my first shots I was far from happy, but at least a little bit relieved that I didn’t come back in vain. What was far more encouraging was the behavior of the birds. If was just moving slow and steady, they wouldn’t bother, in stark contrast to all Chiloe Wigeons and Red Shovelers on the lake who took off in a couple of hundred meters distance, due to hunting I guess.
I went back and put up my tent and got all my gear on. To be able to get all the way down to the edge of the water, I dressed in 5-6 layers, covered in waders and a dry suit. With this outfit, I could stay in the cold water for hours without having to worry about staying warm and dry. Getting soaked would be disaster since I was about to spend the night in the tent in temperatures below zero centigrade. I started scouting the area and found a corner where I thought the sun and wind would be aligned. Some of the grebes were swimming close to the shore in the same corner to avoid the wind and look at potential nesting site in the seaweed.
I got down to the edge of the water, while the grebes retreated about hundred meters back. My only chance now would be to wait and hope they accepted me without going to another sheltered place nearby. As I waited, the skies cleared up even more before the first pair of Silvery Grebes came back feeding in front of me. I didn’t have to wait long until as a mixed group of 20 Hooded and Silvery Grebes started feeding and then also collecting nesting material and displaying by dancing and rushing over the water in front of me, all in fantastic light conditions. There was still one thing bothering me and that was the strong wind, that just never seem to stop howling in Patagonia. As the sunlight got weaker, I followed two pairs of Hooded Grebes swimming away into a the calmest water surface around. I was able to walk on the bottom of the pond without disturbing them (if I would’ve got out of the water this would have been impossible), carefully wading with the water up to my shoulders. Then, I got the magic shot I’ve been wishing for, as the sunrays came though the clouds as I found a calm water surface with the reflection of the sun-lit slope to work with while the grebes started to get ready to sleep. To round it off as a perfect finale, a male Two-banded Plover was feeding on the shore, another great moment with a very confiding target bird.
That feeling, having spent so much time and effort to accomplish something and then to get all variables right at the same time, is the fuel that drives me to do these expensive and crazy projects on my spare time. What a fantastic moment it was!
Evening session with the grebes at Meseta Strobel.
I woke up early in the went the following morning. This was by far my coldest experience of the trip and a very big contrast to stay in a hotel in downtown Buenos Aires two weeks before. I looked out and saw it was overcast again, another proof of how lucky I was the night before. As the tent was in a sheltered place, a lot of birds were feeding close to the tent to avoid the wind. There was some birds I had troubles identifying, but I believe they were Scale-throated Earthcreepers and Cinnamon-bellied Ground-Tyrants. On a dried lake I found a male Least Seedsnipe that I followed for an hour before I got picked up but the land owner again.
Least Seedsnipe | mindre frösnäppa | Thinocorus rumicivorus
On the way down from the plateau I saw the only White-throated Caracara of the trip feeding on a carcass, as well as large amounts of Least Seedsnipes, Tawny-throated Dotterels, Chocolate-vented Tyrants and Guanacos. After a couple of hours on the bumpy roads I reached Estancia La Angostura again, where I would spend two more nights in the sheltered river valley. The home-made meal and heated room was very welcome after sleeping of bedrock in freezing temperatures the previous night.
Tawny-throated Dotterel | rosthalspipare | Oreopholus ruficollis
The next episode from the will feature the Rio Chico valley and the journey to Rio Gallegos and Cabo Virgenes, in the southeast corner of mainland Argentina.