Nov 15th to Dec 3rd – El Calafate – El Chaltén – La Angostura – Meseta Strobel – La Angostura – El Calafate – Meseta Strobel – La Angostura – Rio Gallegos – Cabo Virgenes – Rio Gallegos – El Calafate
We arrived at lunchtime in El Calafate on the 15th of November. The view from the plane coming down other Lago Argentino was nothing but spectacular with the ice blue Lago Argentino lake framed by the Patagonian steppe, snow covered mountains and glaciers.
We headed to the worst restaurant (the cantine at Walmart in Bahía Blanca didn’t even quality as a restaurant) of the trip, La Lechuza, to have cheese-drenched pizzas before instantly heading north to El Chaltén.
After a 4 hour journey on paved roads we reached El Chaltén in the evening and once again it was time for something to eat. I thought that was a bit too much food and little exercise, so I went up a mountain trail in search of Magellanic Woodpeckers instead. I didn’t find any woodpecker, but I did find a couple of very confiding Austral Parakeets, who were noisily flying around in the Southern Birch Forest. As I got above the tree line I reached a Mirador (viewpoint) overlooking the Chaltén river and the valley leading north towards Lago del Desierto. Magic view and extremely windy, must have been at least 25-30 m/s as I was struggling to stay on two feet at the viewpoint.
Next day we started with an early breakfast. The target today was to find as many forest birds as possible, most importantly the Magellanic Woodpecker. We headed north from the village towards Lago del Desierto.
At first, the area didn’t seem very birdy, but as we went on we found lots of cool new species like Spectacled Duck, Ashy-headed Goose, Chilean Flicker, Rufous-tailed Plantcutter, White-crested Elaenia, Great Grebe, Chilean Swallow, Thorn-tailed Rayadito, Patagonian Tapaculo and Black-throated Huet-huet.
It did take a couple of hours before we eventually also found our first Magellanic Woodpecker. It was worth waiting for though, as it turned out to be a very confiding individual, going down low on a trunk to start drumming on 15 meters distance. I probably could’ve got a lot closer if I’d wanted to.
At Lago del Desierto we had field lunch next to a tame Ashy-headed Goose while we heard another drumming Woodpecker from afar. What a birding day it was, in hindsight this is where I’d love to spend a couple more days if I could’ve planned the trip over again.
The following day we left El Chaltén to make the drive up to Estancia La Angostura. This remote Estancia is the only accommodation in the area close to the unpaved Ruta 40 north of El Chaltén. The drive was long and slow due to the road conditions. We stopped along the road and saw the first Least Seedsnipes and Tawny-throated Dotterels of the trip before visiting a lake for a field lunch stop.
The stopover site at lake was carefully chosen by our guide as there was a pair of Magellanic Plover there with a young. The young was already almost as big as its parents as these birds must have bred in early spring. I didn’t take many images as I planned to revisit the site on my own in better light at a later time.
After the lake visit, we drove the last hour north up to the Estancia, where birds were everywhere. The Estancia is situated in the Río Chico valley with large reedbeeds, open water and grasslands. Upland Geese were very common here and Crested Ducks, Yellow-billed Pintails, Yellow-billed Teals, Silver Teals, Chiloe Wigeons and Cinereous Harriers were all just outside the farm. I got some time to work on the various species during the evening while the others were doing their daily lists. Eventually I ended up taking one of the best images of the trip, as I was able to shoot a pair of Silver Teals while I was waiting under my camouflage net. I joined the rest of the group who were already having dinner and I was very proud to show the Silver Teal picture to the group.
The next day was a major birding day as we headed up on the Strobel Plateau. After a long, slow journey over bumpy gravel tracks we reached a spot where we abandoned our bus and got into a couple of Toyota Hilux pickups driven by the land owner and his staff. After 10 rough km’s of Basalt Desert tracks we reached the special lake where we saw at least 30 Hooded Grebes among many other Silvery Grebes and various swans and ducks. Along the way we enjoyed a White-throated Caracara, many Tawny-throated Dotterels, Common Miners, Chocolate-vented Tyrants and Least Seedsnipes among many birding highlights. I never took any pictures during the visit as the light was harsh and winds were exceptionally strong, full-blown storm conditions. Instead, I made plans with the help of Héctor to meet the land owner again a couple of days later, when I would camp in the area. The land owners at Estancia Laguna Verde mainly specialize in Trout fishing with guests coming from all over the world, but they were also very interested in the grebes and very helpful towards us in general. Héctor’s help was crucial to set everything up.
We returned to the Estancia where I enjoyed another fantastic evening session the waterfowl, while the group found the endemic and very rare Austral Rail.
After a fantastic morning photo session we left the Río Chico river valley for a fuel stop and our first cellular and WiFi reception in three days before heading south to El Calafate for our last night together. I got spectacular shots of a pair of Cinereous Harriers that landed in front of me (covered in camo) to mate on the ground. A fantastic end to my first stay at La Angostura, where I would return on my own a few days later.
We arrived in a dark El Calafate covered in low clouds and rain. After a short stop at the local reserve Laguna Nimez the headed to our hotel for a last dinner together. The following day we made a final morning trip to the Perito Moreno glacier, the main attraction of the tourist hub El Calafate. The rain was pouring down as we spent an hour there before heading back for lunch and the airport. The group moved on to Ushuaia while I started the second leg of my journey, where I was going to spend 13 days on my own in southern Patagonia.
Next episode ”The Lone Harvest” will follow.