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Destination Patagonia

All images are orignal images from the trip. Click on image to view at full size.

We began in Buenos Aires on the 14th Feb. I was accompanied by my fellow Wildlife Speaker and buddy Anthony (Anno) Brandreth. We would join Cunard’s Queen Victoria on the 15th to begin a journey around the southern half of South America, taking in the iconic locations of Peninsula Valdes, Cape Horn and the Beagle Channel along the way.

Jeff Clarke (Left) & Anthony Brandreth at Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires © Jeff Clarke 2020

Limited time and the extra-ordinary complexity of getting hold of Argentinian currency meant we restricted our birding explorations to Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve on the coastal edge of the city. Despite the location’s popularity with the populace and the high temperatures it proved to be full of wildlife.

It was great to finally catch up with some long-desired species that I’d somehow contrived to miss on previous visits to South America, they included Limpkin, Southern Screamer and Rufescent Tiger-Heron, I even managed to photograph the latter two species. The reserve is a former industrial lagoon location that has revegetated and well worth a trip for any visiting naturalists. It is full of common Argentinian birds like Rufous Hornero, and Bay winged Cowbird, as well as more unexpected species such as Guira Cuckoo, Chequered Woodpecker and Black-hooded Parakeets. Argentinian Tegu, a large fat lizard, Coypu and Brazilian Guinea Pig were among the none-bird fauna highlights.

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Southern Screamer & Rufescent Tiger-heron © Jeff Clarke 2020

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Guira Cuckoo and Chequered Woodpecker © Jeff Clarke 2020

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Rufous Hornero and Brazilian Guinea-pig © Jeff Clarke 2020

Black-hooded (Nanday) Parakeet © Jeff Clarke 2020

Our first port of call on the southward leg would be Puerto Madryn, as we cruised south I was delighted to catch up with two new species of Albatross, Grey-headed and Atlantic Yellow-nosed. Grey Petrels and Great Shearwaters were present in numbers, backed up by Manx and Sooty Shearwaters. I struggled to photograph the cetaceans, including a large pod of bow and wake-riding Short-beaked Common Dolphin as my 100-400mm Canon lens had developed a fault. Finding them with my 500mm prime proved impossible at times.

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Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross and Great Shearwater © Jeff Clarke 2020

We arrived in Puerto Madryn on the 18th and grabbed an independent guide (Victor) to take us out to Peninsula Valdes. This is an astonishing ecological hotspot of world renown, famous for Orca snatching seal pups off the beach. It would be low tide during our visit so we wouldn’t get to see that, but it proved a great trip all the same. Guanaco, wild ancestors of Llama, greeted our arrival alongside Elegant-crested Tinamou and a Red backed Hawk. A Burrowing Owl at a dust track junction just begged to be photographed and I duly obliged. The Mara proved impossible to photograph as they trotted across a heat-haze dustbowl, so I contented myself with a visual memory. Luckily the Big Hairy Armadillo proved more co-operative, as did Common Yellow-toothed Cavy and Patagonian Mockingbird.

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Guanaco & Elegant-crested Tinamou © Jeff Clarke 2020

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Burrowing Owl & Red Backed Hawk © Jeff Clarke 2020

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Big Hairy Armadillo & Southern Yellow-toothed Cavy © Jeff Clarke 2020

Patagonian Mockingbird © Jeff Clarke 2020

One of our first stops was a small Magellanic Penguin colony and a couple of individuals were too close to photograph with anything but my android phone. It was great to get up close to these characterful birds as previously I’d only photographed them from the deck of an ocean liner.

Magellanic Penguin @ Peninsula Valdes © Jeff Clarke 2020

The day was full of marine associated species, South American Sea lions, South American Fur Seals and Southern Elephant Seals, Snowy Sheathbills and Dolphin Gulls attended the gatherings alongside abundant Kelp Gulls. On our return to the ship South American Sea Lions had taken possession of Queen Victoria’s Bulbous Bow and South American Terns punctuated the jetty.

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Southern Elephant Seals immatures animals & South American Tern © Jeff Clarke 2020

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South American Sea Lions on Queen Victoria's bulbous bow, Puerto Madryn © Jeff Clarke 2020

As the ship departed, we got glimpses of distant Commerson’s Dolphin and slightly more showy Dusky Dolphins.

Our next destination would be Cape Horn and the journey there would provide a plethora of seabirds with 1000s of Shearwaters and Petrels, including Manx Shearwaters enjoying a southern oceans summer. Great Shearwaters and Sooty Shearwaters were in abundance, as were Black-browed Albatrosses and Wilson’s Storm-petrels A handful of 'Royal' Albatrosses added to the mix. Careful examination of our photographs seemed to confirm that the prions we were seeing included both Antarctic and Slender-billed Prions. My personal highlight was Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, a bird I had long desired to see, so I punched the air and clapped vigorously when a young bird flew by close to the ship.

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Manx Shearwater & Great Shearwater © Jeff Clarke 2020

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Black-browed Albatross & Sooty Shearwater © Jeff Clarke 2020

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Wilson's Storm Petrel & Antarctic Prion © Jeff Clarke 2020

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Light-mantled Sooty Albatross imm & Southern Royal Albatross © Jeff Clarke 2020

Cetaceans put in sporadic and brief appearances including smalls pods of Dusky and Peale’s Dolphin. We had to wait till Cape Horn itself before a small pod of Orca showed somewhat distantly and moving at speed.

Thankfully the seas around the cape were in very placid mode. Quite a relief, as I’d been thrown around the stage during a Force 10 during one of my talks, a couple of day previously and felt very ropey afterwards. I’m sure some were disappointed that they didn’t get a wild ride.

The Boyos Rounding Cape Horn Feb 20th 2020 © Jeff Clarke 2020

It was time to head toward the Beagle Channel and the delights of Ushuia. We were docked in this most southerly of towns by dawn. Anthony and I both had escort duties. I got the ‘long straw’ a catermaran trip along the Beagle Channel to the Penguin Colony at Martillo Island. As we travelled along we were accompanied by numerous Black-browed Albatross, Sooty Shearwaters and the ubiquitous Imperial Cormorants. The latter seemed to be breeding on every flat-topped island in the channel, on a few they accompanied Rock Cormorants that clung to the ledges on the steep sides. The bulk of the penguin colony is made up of Magellanic Penguins, we could hear their ‘braying’ well before we reached the main part of the island.

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Black-browed Albatrosses in the Beagle Channel 21st Feb 2020 © Jeff Clarke 2020

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Magellanic Penguin & Rock Cormorant © Jeff Clarke 2020

The boat drifts very close to the shore of the beachside colony. The season was well advanced and most of the young were fully feathered and some of the adults were moulting. A couple of Chilean Skuas loitered on the dge of the beach waiting for the main chance. On a raised part of the beach a small colony of Gentoo Penguins had established themselves and I persuaded the crew to take us closer to that part of the beach so we could take a closer look at the Gentoos. I’d never previously seen Gentoos. I always think of them as true Antarctic specialists. I’d hoped to get closer photos but the boat pulled away before I had chance to put on my 1.4 converter, a lady had dropped her phone in the water at the first stop and it needed retrieving. At least this gave me a second chance to enjoy the other penguin present on the island. A lone adult King Penguin that stood aloof from the Magellanic colony at the top of a grassy bank. A its feet a downy chick.  Single pair of King Penguins have nested at this site for several years. Two new penguins, one island. A very satisfying trip.

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Chilean Skuas & Magellanic Penguins © Jeff Clarke 2020

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Gentoo Penguins & King Penguin and Chick, Beagle Channel © Jeff Clarke 2020

Back at the harbour I just had time to nip along the coast to photograph some other classic Sub-Antarctic species. A small flock of Dolphin Gulls were clustered on a grassy bank, as gulls go these are genuinely good-looking birds and a few metres beyond them, along the shore, stood a handsome pair of Flightless Steamer Ducks.

Flightless Steamer Duck - Ushuia © Jeff Clarke 2020

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Dolphin Gulls - Ushuia © Jeff Clarke 2020

With just a few minutes to spare I was back aboard the ship ready for its cruise along the Beagle Channel. We actually passed Martillo Island again and by using the scopes Anno was able to see the Gentoos and King Penguins himself. Without doubt one of the highlights of the trip unfolded as we processed along the channel. Upwards of a million Sooty shearwaters gathered in swarming flocks as dusk descended. They were waiting for dark before heading to their island nesting burrows. It was a truly impressive spectacle.

A fragment of the Sooty Shearwater congregation Beagle Channel 21st Feb 2020 © Jeff Clarke 2020

The 22nd Feb. Today we would enter the famous Magellan Strait on route to the Chilean town of Punta Arenas. Things had been quiet until we began to approach the narrows where the ferries cross to Tierra Del Fuego We had been hoping for decent views of Commerson’s Dolphins and finally a small number of pods were sighted at close quarters. Several animals actually began surfing in the bow wave of Queen Victoria and this enabled me to grab some half-decent photos. Beautiful little dolphins and one of the main reasons Anno and I were on the trip.

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Commerson's Dolphins  - Magellan Strait 22nd Feb 2020 © Jeff Clarke 2020

On our previous visit to Punta Arenas we had just transferred from the airport to the ship and sailed away. This time we had a chance to explore a fraction of Patagonia. We grabbed a taxi and headed out. First stop was a Tres Puentes Wetland area on the edge of town. It was full of wildfowl. Chiloe Wigeon dominated, alongside Upland Geese, Yellow billed Pintail, Red Shoveler and Crested Duck. From here we headed north across the steppe of Patagonia. 

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Chiloe Wigeon & Yellow-billed Pintail © Jeff Clarke 2020

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Red Shoveler & Crested Duck © Jeff Clarke 2020

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Upland Geese (male left) Punta Arenas © Jeff Clarke 2020

Within an hour we had found one of our ‘most wanted’ target species, Darwin’s Rhea! As the Patagonian wind ruffled their skirts they reminded me of an old fashioned cotton mop-head. Thankfully they were close enough for decent photographs. A little further along the road I spotted a harrier quartering alongside a body of water. We stopped ahead of its approach and I climbed a bank. It was a male Cinerous Harrier. I was battling a fierce wind trying to get a sharp shot. The wind got the better of me on this occasion. I was just glad to have seen the harrier so well.

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Darwin's Rheas  - Patagonia north of Punta Arenas © Jeff Clarke 2020

Something all-together more massive overflew us a short time later. Andean Condors are truly huge. They made light of the gale whipping over the landscape, progressing in stately arcs, my images failed to capture their majesty, but again we had beaming smiles on our faces. On our last visit they had been mere specks high above an Andean-backed fjord. Another huge raptor swept by, this time a Black-chested Buzzard Eagle. I didn’t even have time to lift my camera.

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Andean Condor - Patagonia © Jeff Clarke 2020

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Southern Caracaras  - Patagonia © Jeff Clarke 2020

Thankfully the Southern Caracaras eating road-kill were a little easier to track and capture digitally. The few hours we had at our disposal literally flew by. Before long we were back Punta Arenas, with just a moment to photograph a roadside Southern Lapwing before getting back on the ship. Whilst we were out Anno had spotted some Tinamous. Had we understood the significance we would have made more of an effort to relocate them. Patagonian Tinamou was only confirmed to be breeding in Chile as recently as 2013 and is still exceptionally rare there.

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Southern Lapwing & Cinerous Harrier  -  Patagonia © Jeff Clarke 2020

Once back aboard the ship we decided to check the bay for Sei Whales, we had noted several here on our previous visit, within moments we had found several animals blowing in the bay. I let as many folks know as possible, I went down to the Purser’s Office and ask them to let the Navigation Bridge know about the presence of the whales, then I worked my way through the Lido Buffet, which I nearly cleared and soon Anno and I had at least 80 people with us watching the Sei Whales off the back of deck 9. It was at this point that the Captain came over the tannoy to inform the ship that the local pilot said there were Sei whales in the bay. Doh!

Before much longer we were underway and the ship proceeded along the Magellan Strait. We soon began to note Magellanic Diving-Petrels. They also frequented the fjords that we were about to explore. Whilst visiting two glaciers, Amalia and Pious XI, we had rather murky, misty conditions and it wasn’t a surprise that some birds came aboard the ship. We ended up rescuing 6 Magellanic Diving Petrels and 4 Wilson’s Storm Petrels, I was so concerned I got up at 4am two morning in a row to search for birds on the decks. Once petrels get aboard a vessel they cannot take off again. They need rescuing. It makes you wonder how many seabirds must die on ships! 

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Magellanic Diving-petrels © Jeff Clarke 2020

Scenically the fjords are magnificent, brooding and atmospheric, but wildlife-wise it’s generally thin pickings, so we were glad to begin the journey back towards the open sea. As we neared the mouth we picked up Dusky and Bottlenose Dolphins. And as we reached open water there was an upsurge in seabird activity, most notably in the form of Snowy Wandering Albatrosses. None of the adults came especially close to the ship but one immature bird put in several close fly-by appearances. I also photographed a slightly smaller ‘Wanderer’, that had I been off Kaikoura I’d have had little hesitation as describing as Gibson’s Wandering Albatross. It’s not supposed to occur in this area, but I cannot see why not as there are numerous Northern Royal Albatrosses hailing from the same vector, however based on locality it's probably a 'Snowy'. The most unexpected and significant bird sighting of the day was a single Mottled Petrel. A real rarity in Chilean waters.

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Snowy Wandering Albatross imm, south of Chiloe Island Feb 2020 © Jeff Clarke 2020

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Snowy Wandering Albatross Ad. male & Putative 'Gibson's' Wanderer south of Chiloe Island Feb 2020 © Jeff Clarke 2020

Sometimes you get a sense of a big moment approaching. As the ship headed towards Chiloe Island I got that feeling and minutes later I spotted a distant dark hump in the water. Instinct and experience suggested it was a ‘logging’ Sperm Whale, a few seconds later a low angled ’blow’ confirmed it. The whale was 12 ‘O’clock on the bow. Dead ahead! We got superb views as the ship closed on the whale. It was a big bull, probably 60ft in length. The ship however is vastly bigger and it did the sensible thing and got out of our way. As we got closer to Chiloe Island whale sightings became more frequent and we ended the day with a total of 15 Sei Whale. We had excellent views and I got some reasonable images. Just before the ship entered the Corcovado Strait two huge blows alerted Anno and I to another possibility. Were these Fin Whales or something even more significant? The animals heaved themselves in preparation for deeper dives and grey-blue mottled skin colour and the tiny nub dorsal fin confirmed Blue Whales, even more significantly this is part of a population of Pygmy Blue Whales and we would have another chance to sight them as we left Puerto Montt.

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Sperm Whale and Sei Whale south of Chiloe Island Feb 2020 © Jeff Clarke 2020

We awoke at anchor off Puerto Montt. This was a tendered port. Our day took an unexpected turn as the unforecast strong winds prevented safe tendering. The Captain made the decision to abort and head out to sea. Plans were quickly rearranged. I would do an additional talk and Anno and I would lead a quest for the Pincoya Storm-Petrel, only recently described by science and very range restricted. A big contingent of people joined us on the sides of deck three and right on que the Pincoya Storm-petrels duly appeared. Mission Accomplished. We advised people to be back on deck for when we hit the open sea as we would have a chance to see the Pygmy Blue Whales again. By the time I’d finished my talk, the sea had calmed and the wind was behind us. Perfect for a deck 9 watch for the whales. The deck was crowded and full of anticipation. ‘Boom’ the first big blow, then another. Before very long 4 Pygmy Blue Whales had given us a great show. I even managed a distant image of the pre-dive raised flukes. Beaming faces all around. Compensation for not getting ashore. I love it when a plan comes together! Surprisingly these were the last whales of the day but the seabirds kept us entertained.

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Pygmy Blue Whales NW of Chiloe Island Feb 2020 © Jeff Clarke 2020

Our final sea day was full of Albatrosses, Mostly Black-browed and Northern Royals, but as the hours ticked by the number of Salvin’s increased markedly. Indeed, it was a day full of birds including Juan Fernandez Petrels, De Fillipi’s Petrel, Stejnegers Petrel and Peruvian diving-petrel. Though these were comfortably outnumbered by hordes of Sooty Shearwaters, Pink-footed Shearwaters and White-chinned Petrels. We had primed folks for Fin Whales later in the day and as if by magic they duly appeared. Just four, on this occasion but they gave us excellent views and were a fitting finale to a fantastic cruise.

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Northern Royal Albatross & Salvin's Albatross - Humboldt Current, North of Chiloe Island Feb 2020 © Jeff Clarke 2020

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De Fillipi's Petrel and White-chinned Petrel © Jeff Clarke 2020

Fin Whale, Humboldt Current; South of Sab Antonio Feb 2020 © Jeff Clarke 2020

I’d like to thank my agents, Peel Talent, for arranging this speaker engagement on my behalf. Thanks to the staff at Cunard and to the crew and passengers of Queen Victoria for helping to make the journey so memorable and enjoyable. To the lovely people of Argentina and Chile who showed us nothing but kindness and a generosity of spirit. Also huge thanks to my companion Anthony Brandreth for all the laughs and the epic Ice-cream headaches.

This part of the world has a magical pulling power on me. I know I’ll be back sooner rather than later! Till next time…

All images copyright of the Author unless otherwise stated.

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