Ur­ban bird­ing

It may not ap­peal to the fair-weather bird­watcher but this (of­ten wet and windy) Chilean city of­fers some real bird­ing treats

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: DAVID LINDO

David Lindo ‘looks up’ and mar­vels at the wealth of birds he sees in the Chilean city of Punta Are­nas

PUNTA ARE­NAS (SANDY POINT), Chile, will not nec­es­sar­ily ring any bells of recog­ni­tion un­less you are a trav­eller, as this town, along with its twinned city Ushuaia in Ar­gentina, is the main gate­way to the great white con­ti­nent fur­ther south. It has a very scenic po­si­tion­ing, be­ing sited on the Brunswick Penin­sula, just north of the Strait of Mag­el­lan.

Its back­drop is some An­dean Con­dor fre­quented pic­turesque forested moun­tains. Wel­come to the Patag­o­nian re­gion. Sur­round­ing Punta Are­nas is a bird­ing won­der­land, with many ran­ger­e­stricted species. The ski re­sort be­hind the town has Chilean Fil­cker as well as sev­eral species of ta­pac­ulo, canas­tero and raya­dito – real South Amer­i­can spe­cial­i­ties. You could cruise to nearby Mag­dalena and Marta Is­lands to visit the ram­bunc­tious South Amer­i­can Fur Seals. Mag­dalena Is­land is home to a large Mag­el­lanic Pen­guin breed­ing colony that oc­ca­sion­ally hosts rarer pen­guins, in­clud­ing records of Lit­tle Blue Pen­guin all the way from New Zealand! Be­ing so southerly, don’t ex­pect great weather. They say the sun shines through side­long rain – it’s not par­tic­u­larly warm dur­ing the sum­mer either and can get pretty windy. In fact, ropes are strapped

around lamp­posts for peo­ple to cling onto should they need to! How­ever, for the hardy ur­ban birder there are re­wards to be had. Walk­ing the coast­line from the out­skirts into the har­bour where the cruise ships await can be sur­pris­ingly re­ward­ing. Dol­phins and whales, like Long-finned Pi­lot Whale, are fre­quent. Gulls are well rep­re­sented by Kelp, Dol­phin and Brown-headed Gulls. The lat­ter species is very like our fa­mil­iar Black-headed Gull, un­til you re­alise that it is a big­ger, stur­dier bird with whiter wingtips. It cer­tainly has a Mediter­ranean Gull vibe about it. They share the rocky coast with the cu­ri­ous look­ing Crested Duck that, if you squint your eyes and use a bit of imag­i­na­tion, re­sem­bles a large, fawn, ver­mic­u­lated Pin­tail. The smaller, and more nor­mal look­ing, Speck­led Duck can also be dis­cov­ered loaf­ing in an es­tu­ar­ine pool. Sev­eral of the en­demic geese species, plus both Flight­less and Fly­ing Steamer Ducks are pos­si­ble. The ducks are sur­pris­ingly hard to tell apart at first glance, de­spite one of them be­ing flight­less. The best dis­tinc­tion is not the wing length but gen­eral size as the Flight­less Steamer Duck is a mon­ster along­side its con­gener. A care­ful scan among the rocks them­selves may re­veal waders qui­etly for­ag­ing. The most likely can­di­dates will be the Two-banded Plover and the gor­geously marked Ru­fous-chested

Dot­terel. Both can al­low rea­son­ably close ap­proach, en­abling you to re­ally study them in de­tail. Coastal passer­ines are rep­re­sented by small flocks of scrawny-look­ing House Spar­rows that take to perch­ing on the coastal grasses be­fore scat­ter­ing at one’s ap­proach. Far more ap­proach­able are the en­dear­ing Dark-bel­lied Cin­clodes. The size of a small Star­ling, this de­curved billed in­sec­ti­vore is of­ten to be seen busily ek­ing tit­bits among the scant veg­e­ta­tion. Fish­ing away from the shore­line are groups of South Amer­i­can Terns, again, su­per­fi­cially sim­i­lar to our Com­mon Tern, yet sub­tly dif­fer­ent. Keep­ing a close eye on them are Chilean Skuas (above left), while the oc­ca­sional South­ern Gi­ant Pe­trel will swoop through the vista. But it is the con­stant pro­ces­sion of Im­pe­rial Shags fly­ing to and fro that will catch your eye. The adults sport a strik­ing black-and-white plumage, re­plete with a blue eye-ring of naked skin that gives rise to their al­ter­na­tive name – the Blue-eyed Shag. Num­bers of them col­lect in grebe-like rafts on the sea or, more con­ve­niently, sit on the derelict wooden jet­ties that ca­su­ally lit­ter the Punta Are­nas coast­line. With them are smaller num­bers of the all dark and red ey­e­ringed, Rock Cor­morant, their smaller cousin. Away from the coast, the town it­self is hard work when it comes to ur­ban bird­ing. Ad­di­tional birds, be­sides over­fly­ing gulls, can in­clude the rather com­mon Chi­mango Caracara. The size of a small kite, this rel­a­tive of the fal­cons, is a

small-time preda­tor go­ing af­ter large in­sects, and a big-time scav­enger. On some of the green spots you may find Aus­tral Thrush, more Dark-bel­lied Cin­clodes, plus the pos­si­bil­ity of Black-chinned Siskins and an Aus­tral Para­keet or two fly­ing over. A cou­ple of kilo­me­tres out­side of town and near to the air­port, lies Tres Puentes Wet­lands. De­spite be­ing small, it is one of the best places to go bird­ing lo­cally, with more than 100 species recorded. This is not bad when you con­sider that Chile’s na­tional list is just scrap­ing 500. Water­birds are the ob­vi­ous draw here for vis­it­ing bird­watch­ers, with species like Redgartered and White-winged Coots pos­si­ble. It is also a great place for pas­sage waders such as Baird’s and White-rumped Sand­pipers, and it is a reg­u­lar haunt for Wil­son’s Phalaropes. South Amer­i­can Snipe creep in the grass and there have been sight­ings of the far less of­ten seen Fue­gian Snipe, a stocky wader which is dark and about the size of a Wood­cock. As you can guess, Punta Are­nas’s ci­ti­zens are largely not in­ter­ested in na­ture, so many birds go undis­cov­ered. Also, as the town is a stag­ing post to Antarc­tica, many bird­ers with spare time by­pass it com­pletely to go on guided tours into the sur­round­ing hin­ter­land, to tick off the species on their shop­ping lists. But the ob­ser­vant birder who stays be­hind is in a good po­si­tion to reap ben­e­fits, as I did when I dis­cov­ered an im­ma­ture Sabine’s Gull on the shore­line. It turned out to be Chile’s most southerly record!

Mag­el­lanic Pen­guin (Sphenis­cus mag­el­lan­i­cus) Chiloe Is­land, Chile

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