Thursday, November 30, 2017

Laguna Los Palos

Queridos amigos,

I promise I am having fun and not simply working. While my Canadian friends are gearing up for winter, the austral summer is gearing up here in southern Chile. In that vein, following a meeting with the local bird group here in Punta Arenas, a group of us went out to Laguna los Palos near Punta Areans to try and see nesting Magellanic Plovers, an iconic species of the region.

With four trusty companions, the 5 of us drove north from Punta Arenas excited by the prospect of the morning. Somber coloured and windswept, the patgonian steppe stretched out on our left not long after leaving the city. One road sign indicating a town  >1500 km away reminded me of the vastness of this area.

Arriving at the lake, we hopped the barbed wire fence and set off. Within an instant a plover was before us. This species is quite special. As a plover, the bird looks more like a elegant cross between a dove and a shorebird. Walking off around the lake we were treated to no less than 6 other individuals, 3 of which were banded. Banding these birds helps researchers identify the individual, and hopefully learn more about their movements, reproductive behaviour, site fidelity, landscape use, and survival. If our Motus towers are a success, they may even start radio tagging them!

Non-banded Magellanic Plover

As we wandered across the open landscape, I was drawn by a familiar sight. Overgrazing. The former grasslands are now flat turf, dominated by the common weed that sheep and cattle deem unworthy. Nonetheless, life still grows. Small, purple and pink flowers native of the patagonian steppe spread their petals to the sun. Like most flowering plants in open, cold and windy areas, they are small and grow low to the ground, spotted only by a discerning and careful eye.

Uninterested in tiny wildflowers, Upland Geese congregate on the flat turf, Southern Lapwings betray their presence with their incessant screeching, and a Cinereous Harrier swoops by. Southern Lapwings are pretty, but I am sure their raucous calls will eventually permeate into my dreams, robbing me of blissful slumber. Should you ever want to make a point with your neighbors, instead of blasting AC/DC to the high heavens at 2 am, give them 2 minutes of Lapwing calls and you will never have a problem with your neighbors again!

Parsing out the cry of the lapwing, an unfamiliar trill emanating from the scrub grabbed my attention, as an Austral Canastero, with its streaked back and spiky tail came into view. Canasteros, long-tailed and slim, are members of the ovenbird family (Furnariidae), a primarily South American family. Ovenbirds are so-called because certain members of this family, mainly the Horneros (horno is oven in spanish), build oven-shaped nests out of mud or clay. The canastero (basket-maker in Spanish) prefers to make its nests of large sticks and twigs. The Common Miner, also an ovenbird, picked away at the barren ground near the shoreline. Miners are so-called because they nest in holes in banks. All rather sensible naming if I do say-so myself! The Chilean Spanish names are also very practical, something the guardians of common English bird names may want to consider. Do we really care which name was given to a species first, when said name only offers confusion and leaves the would-be-birder lukewarm at the prospect of IDing a Connecticut Warbler in their mosquito-infested lair in the boreal forest? At Laguna los Palos, there are no mosquitoes or Connecticut Warblers to worry about, and with stout-hearted companions enraptured by nature, simply no worries at all.

I did manage to see one friend from Canada out on the flats. Baird's Sandpipers are fairly common in this part of Chile, passing the austral summer at the southern end of the Americas after nesting on Ellesmere Island during the boreal summer. Long-winged, Baird's Sandpipers are master flyers and as much Chilean as they are Canadian.

Baird's Sanspiper

Feeling satisfied with the day, we worked our way back to the car. Along a fence line, Jorge and I spot another iconic bird of Patagonia, a Lesser Rhea. Large and flightless like its relatives the Ostrich and Emu, rheas are South America's living dinosaurs. Running along the fence with 6 chicks in tow, we were all smiles, and not wanting to stress it out, hopped the barbed wire fence ourselves to give the bird and its young a wide berth. It was great seeing one alive-and-well. Just prior, we saw the remains of one still hanging from the same barbed wire fence, a sobering reminder of the effects of carving up the landscape for our own gain.

A sad way to go.

Leaving Laguna los Palos, it was time for one last stop. A friend of Jessica's had sent her a cellphone pic of an Austral Pygmy-Owl sitting atop a fence post. The word was that it had a nearby nest. Not sure exactly which post we were looking for, we drove along the road trying to identify fence posts from the grainy cellphone picture. Through sheer luck more than anything else, we found the spot. Two clear nesting holes in a tree gave it away. At first we were unsuccessful, then a sharp whistle from Pablo made me turn around. There perched in the open on a tree branch that I had just passed under was an Austral Pygmy Owl! Unperturbed by the 5 humans standing mere meters away, it carefully scanned the area, searching for its next juicy meal of siskin or sparrow. Smiles, handshakes and camera clicks abounded. As my friend Steve Pike would say, roasted and toasted!

Austral Pygmy-Owl

Smiles all around!

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