Memories We Head North From Ushuaia Towards Rio Grande In Argentina October 2019

Having explored the area around the wonderful city of Ushuaia, the southern-most city in the world we took the road north towards the coastal city of Rio Grande. The road north climbed away from the coast into The Andes and immediately the scenery was breath-taking as the road snaked through towering snow-capped peaks. Even though we had a long drive ahead of us to reach Rio Grande and find a hotel for the night we could not resist an early stop to take in the mighty Andes. We were so lucky with the weather clear blue sky and sunshine and the mountains looked superb and to make it even better the spot we stopped at had Andean Condors soaring high above us, wow!

We dragged ourselves away and continued through amazing scenery and tried to keep the hire car on the tarmac and not be too distracted! We dropped down to sea-level again and ran alongside a huge blue bay with more snow-capped mountains beyond. At the end of the bay we saw a lake behind a shingle beach and thought it looked a good bit of habitat to check out. A dirt track ran along the shingle ridge giving great views over the shallow lake and we scanned the water and marshes behind. It was a paradise so many birds and beautiful warm sunshine to enjoy it all in.

These lovely Chiloe Wigeon showed well on the pool behind the beach.

It was a case of where to look first, there were ducks including wonderful Chiloe Wigeon, gulls including new for the trip Brown-hooded Gulls, waders both White-rumped and Baird’s Sandpipers and even passerines with super looks at Correndera Pipits and beautiful Long-tailed Meadowlarks we were loving this place!

Of course time was slipping by very fast as it always does when you are enjoying great birds so we had to reluctantly hit the road again and head north towards Rio Grande. The route took us across a flat plain with sparse grassland and some scrub but not much else for mile after mile what a contrast to the scenic splendour of The Andes. But we did spot some very exciting mammals – guancos – these lama like animals were on the grassland alongside the road. Of course we stopped to look and time ticked by as it does.

As we moved further and further north we left behind the clear blue sky and a low grey one replaced it and the wind picked up, rather bleak. Next we noted a lake alongside the road in the rolling plains and thought worth a look, even though a cold strong wind swept across the water. Plenty of birds here though many hunkered down against the bitter wind. We scanned the flocks of ducks and picked out two rather similar species – Speckled Teal and Yellow-billed Pintail – great to compare them at close range. Further out amazing Rosy-billed Pochard were just fantastic to see and then we saw Red Shoveler roosting in a bay and nearby yet another new bird for the trip Red-gartered Coot what a brilliant stop!

But we still had a way to go and so again dragged ourselves away from good birds and hit the road.

After a long, but easy drive seeing very few other vehicles, we reached a flat flood plain behind a long beach and we had our first look at the town of Rio Grande. It did not look inviting and low grey sky and strong wind surly did not help the town look at its best. A military check point lay alongside the road and signs warned us to slow down so we did. Coming up to the building we could see guys in fatigues and with guns but they barely looked up as we cruised by, one many just about lifted his hand to acknowledge our wave. A long bend took the road towards the out skirts of Rio Grande and on the right was a wetland area with a few birds so we pulled onto the hard shoulder and scanned but almost immediately a Police Car pulled up behind us and a cop jumped out shouting angrily, we drove off, he didn’t chase us thankfully!

Into the town and the traffic suddenly built up and we didn’t have a clue where we were going never a good feeling in a new place. We did know that there was a hotel in town with a room booked and we knew we needed food, eyes out on stalks looking for either we used Ruth’s mobile phone to get up a map of the town and without too much hassle we found the hotel. It was a small building near the seafront, just one street back and was clean and fine for a short stay. Bags were dumped and we drove back into the town centre and found a café and a much needed meal.

We were up early next morning to look for waders the main attraction in this area and one wader above all others – Magellanic Plover – a new bird for us and a very much wanted species. We had also learnt that the river mouth at Rio Grande was a shorebird reserve and well worth a visit. We figured that early morning would be best time to visit the estuary as the tide was rising and we hoped waders/shorebirds would be pushed in close. The weather was again grey and a cold wind was unwelcome but at least it was dry. The access to the reserve was on the opposite bank of the river, south of the town, and was tricky to find our way there but after a few wrong turns and u turns we found the bridge and then headed out to the mouth of the river. A headland stretched in front of us and a sign declared that this was Punta Popper Nature Reserve, great now where were the birds. The mudflats on our left were huge and grey and at first glance were bird less in fact the whole area seemed bird less! But we don’t give up and using the car as a wind-break set up the scope and scanned for waders. There were a few birds, not the wader spectacular we had imagined! Two-banded Plovers were feeding on the vast mudflats and would vanish into creeks to pop up yards away from where they were lost to view and none of these handsome birds came anywhere near close. The waters were rising and flocks of White-rumped Sandpipers flew in from the coast but again kept their distance. This was hard work.

Male Least Seedsnipe showed very in the sand dunes on the headland.

We decided to walk out on to the headland and see if more waders were at the point. A scruffy chap was sat in the dunes and we worried about the safety of leaving the car but figured there was not much in it worth stealing so kept going. Movement in the grass, a small bird ran ahead of us, focus bins and wow a Least Seedsnipe! What a wonderful bird and as watched we realised there were a pair of these tiny wader like birds the male very handsome decked out in black and grey where the female was much more cryptically coloured. These birds were a real thrill to watch and we managed a few photos despite the awful light. Out on the point there were no waders at all so we trudged back and found Short-billed Miner and Long-tailed Meadowlarks but that was it no other species! Maybe on a sunny day the place might have been more fun but on a grey windy cold day we were quite happy to move on.

We had heard that there were pools north of the town that might hold our most wanted bird the Magellanic Plover so it was back into town and then north along the seafront which reminded us of Rhyl back home in North Wales, a rather run down seaside town that was well past its best. On the beach there were more waders than at the reserve with hundreds of White-rumped Sandpipers and more Two-banned Plovers. Then real excitement as a flock of Hudsonian Godwits landed right opposite us wonderful to see these long distance migrants. We could see a car park up ahead and stopped here to look at a display of military hardware, tanks, field-guns and even a jet-fighter! We had stumbled across a huge memorial to the Argentine service personnel that lost their lives in The Falkland Islands conflict or The Malvinas as the Argentines call the islands. It was sobering and sad to see the long lists of names of the fallen and of course many British troops died in the battle for these remote islands. Being old enough to remember the conflict and having had friends that fought and one that was badly injured in the battle it was strange to see the war from the other side. Wars kill people and that is terrible regardless of the flag they fight under. These lost souls all had families and friends just like the British that died and we were saddened by these losses and wondered if the conflict could not have been settled peacefully? Both governments at the time were going through “bad patches” and needed a boost to their popularity was this the real reason both were prepared to go to war? The heroic efforts of the service personal fighting in desperate conditions can only be paid tribute too they gave everything, many their lives, fighting far from home we can only imagine the horrors they endured.

We left the memorial with very mixed feelings it is not often you are confronted with a completely opposite view of something that you thought you knew about. Having friends that fought in the war we had never really considered the conflict from the other side.

So we tried to get our heads back to birds and north of Rio Grande we turned inland, west, and checked roadside pools but again birds were in short supply. A few Southern Lapwing and White-rumped Sandpipers and then more Double-banded Plovers but not our most wanted bird. We could see a shallow lake further west so headed that way and managed to find a dirt road that ran alongside the lake. Again at first glance pretty dead but we kept scanning and the usual suspects were out their – White-rumped Sandpipers and Double-banded Plovers, groundhog-day! But then two different waders landed on the edge of the shallow water near a White-rumped Sandpiper and first thought was Ruddy Turnstone followed a split second later oh my god Magellanic Plovers!! Elation this was the bird we had driven all this way north from Ushuaia to see. The comparison with Ruddy Turnstone was not that far off rather similar in shape with a short stubby bill and short strong legs but these were bright pink legs. These wonderful waders kept their distance so photos were very poor sadly but views in the telescopes were great and we watched them for ages before they flew low along the shoreline and out of view. It is amazing how a small bird can produce so much excitement and pleasure the Magellanic Plovers were just brilliant!

Not a prize winning photo but what fantastic birds - Magellanic Plovers!

We followed the dirt track and saw the plovers again but even further away and we found plenty of Baird’s Sandpipers on the grasslands here and more Least Seedsnipe. Heading further inland following this good dirt track took us into a vast rolling plain with well not much. A farm steed was impressive in the middle of nowhere and we wondered what it was like to live in such a vast empty landscape. A few sheep were scattered about and we saw a gaucho on horseback but that was it. A small pool on the track side held three White-rumped Sandpipers and nice South American Snipe was a bonus. As we headed back towards Rio Grande three Andean Condors soared over the track always a thrill to see and we just stood in awe of these huge vultures.

Back in Rio Grande we headed for a meal and then back to the hotel well pleased with our Rio Grande adventure.

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