Saturday, March 20, 2010

Penguin Colony in Punta Tombo, Argentina

It is claimed that this is the biggest pinguinera (penguin colony) in the world with estimates as high as 500,000 Magellanic Penguins. It is located south of Puerto Madryn and easily accessible from Trelew via Route 3. There is a new asphalted road but still does not go all the way to the pinguinera.
As one walks into the rookery, the landscape looks like a battlefield full of artillery impact holes from WW I. These are penguins nests made in the brownish soil. The extent of the rookery is immense and penguins are everywhere. These birds walk long distances from the beach to get to their nests. They start arriving in September and leave by late March after the young have grown.

This a national park and it is very well organized with game wardens every where keeping and eye in the visitors. There is a restaurant by the entrance to the park. All is requested is to stay inside the roped trails and to “look but don’t touch”. These trails transect the rookery and when walking, penguins will cross the trail oblivious to the observers.

At times, a penguin will walk and stop in from of you to take a close view of the intruder, there is no fear, and then it will walk away. You can closely watch these cute birds, they can really get in your face is you seat on the trail.

The young penguin above is molting and the adult plumage is beginning to grow, at the end of the process it will look like the adult below. You may be able to discern the end of the bill that ends in sharp beak while the lower mandible ends flat creating a very efficient tool for feeding.
Adults feed the begging chicks by regurgitating the sumptuous meals of squids and fish. Some times there are spills but these do not go to waste, there are always skuas and gulls near by to pick the morsels.

The nests are everywhere and some are empty and others with young penguins or sleeping adults. These nests are shared with other animals, one that is common but I was not able to get a good image is the cuis, a small rodent, need to go back. There are also hairy armadillos, guanacos as well as gulls, hawks, skuas and a variety of smaller birds.

There is a continuous cacophony of noise, particularly among the chicks begging for food or adults quarreling. When calling, they stand erect with the bill pointing towards the sky while flipping their wings. These are territorial birds and fights are resolved by who can call the loudest but at times, short chases take place.

Lots of the chicks were molting and loosing their birthday suits, kind of a brownish color down. The young are also very promiscuous and seem to associate with other young ones for adventures and explorations. These are left alone while the parents are out fishing.

There is a beach that is the major access to the colony to the sea and the shoreline is full of thousands of penguins. Some arriving from their fishing trips, upon hitting the shore, they hurried up the hill searching for their dear ones. In the way to their nests they are accosted by chicks looking for a meal; no luck, these birds go straight to their siblings. It is entertaining to see the young penguins learning to swim under the close eye of a parent, once in the water they are dive and swim just as Esther Williams in a white& black bathing suit. Punta Tombo is one of those places where nature and human are peacefully getting along.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Trelew, Argentina

Trelew is a city of about 100,000 and I visited there because its airport that gives access to the Peninsula de Valdez, Punta Tombo (the largest pinguinera in the world) and other coastal areas in Patagonia. It started as a railroad town and was colonized by Welsh immigrants in the middle of the XIX century. I stayed day there in wait for a departure flight the next day. There is a university and next to it the Paleontologico Edigio Feruglio (MEF). The latter is quite a surprise and its collections of fossil dinosaurs and their displays among the best I have seen. There is a research room with a glass wall where you can see paleontologists cleaning and restoring their latest findings.

I was there in the middle of February and the first night at about 7 PM, I was walking around the lake next to the bus station. It is man-made and surrounded by a broad walkway and appears to receive water drainage from the city streets.

It was obvious that it was heavy polluted with a peculiar green color and a noxious odor. Nevertheless, it was a bird’s paradise. There were ducks, geese, the ever present gulls, stilts and flamingoes.

All of the sudden I saw a flock of little birds dropping in from the sky, settling on the water and starting to swim around in circles. This was on of those spectacles of nature that are overwhelming to witness. It appears this group of birds was just a scout group for a huge flight of migrating birds. Within minutes another flock started to drop from the sky followed subsequent waves, and suddenly, the whole surface of the lake was covered with these birds. They were Wilson’s Phalaropes…and I had not camera with me.

I had seen a similar occurrence in Texas more than forty years ago, where I visited to wait for the arrival of spring the migration of warblers who crossed the Gulf of Mexico. I was in a coastal area overgrown with bushes and small trees. Suddenly, small birds started to drop from the sky exhausted and perching in whatever branch had space for one more. There were several species of warblers and as in Trelew, arrived in consecutive waves. After a short rest period, they started to look for food. These birds were tired and did not mind the proximity of the bird watchers. Although the phalaropes in Trelew did not look exhausted, they were very busy feeding and ignored my presence.

I returned early the next morning and they were still there feeding in their funny way. They swim around in circles and this action seems to create vortexes in the water that disturb the bottom causing particles of food and small bugs to surface are rapidly picked by their slender beaks. The whole flock performs this behavior in unison and the feeding frenzy was continuous. These birds were in their winter plumage. By mid-morning they started to depart and by the time they arrive in North America they will sporting their breeding plumage.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Bustamante, Argentina

Lorenzo Soriano (1901-1987) arrived in Bahia Bustamante in 1953 after searching all over the Patagonian coastline to start a seaweed farm. It grew into several buildings including a school, a bodega and a church as well as accommodations for the workers. The seaweed harvesting operations ceased back in the 1990s but one of his sons converted the place into an ecological hacienda in 2004. Some of these facilities were upgraded and converted into cottages for the tourists.
Arrived in the evening at the administration building where a lady greeted us and started running looking for Sol? What did she mean? I turned out that Sol was not the Sun, but the young lady that seems to be everywhere and doing everything. She runs the place along with Nicolas. Sol takes care of housekeeping and the restaurant while Nicolas entertains the guests with nature tours, horse back riding as well as the boats excursion.

We settled (I went in this adventure with two photographer friends, at least they think they are) in one of the cottages that included a kitchen, dinning area, rooms with 3 beds and a bathroom. It was clean and neat and the only limitation it that electricity ran from 8-12 PM. This was not much of a hindrance since I have time to recharge the camera batteries, left early in the morning, and did not return to it until sunset. In the morning we were welcomed by a gorgeous sunrise.

There are roads in Bustamante but they are not marked so other than the directions provided by Nicolas we were on our own. The first morning we ended up at Penguin’s island. It is separated by a tidal basin from the mainland but luck had it that the tide was receding, so I waited for about ½ hour and walked to the island. It is low lying covered by shrubbery where the penguins have their underground nests.

We continued to explore the various trails the rest of the day. Late the first evening we ran into a fox family with 4 young ones. They have discovered what was I told a hairy armadillo but they did not seem to know what to do with it. These were very curious and allowed me to get some great images.

The last full morning we drove up to the Bahia del Medio, which turned out to be the best place for photographing. Most other places in the morning in Bustamante one finds himself facing east in the morning and shooting against the sun. In this location one can have the sun in the back having the sun falling directly into the wildlife. Here we found 3 dead pilot whales as well as a large kill of langostinos that covered the entire shore like a red carpet.

There were numerous shore birds such as American, Blackish and Magellanic oystercatchers; the later was a new species for me. Numerous flocks of plovers and sandpipers busily feeding for their upcoming migration north; these were not concerned with my presence. I wonder if I will see some of these waders in the shores of Virginia in the spring. The one below is a mystery; is it a Baird’s or a White Rumped Sandpiper?

One afternoon Nicolas took us in a boat to the bird and sea lions island. Amazingly when we approached the later, they stampeded towards the shore to welcome the visitors creating a dust cloud in their hurry. One came close to the boat for a closer look.

While visiting the sea lions, there were steamer ducks battling each other. Quiet a vicious fight, they grab each other by the bills and don’t let, quiet a battle until a referee appears and breaks the fight.
Although I had been many places, Bustamante is really a diamond for those interested in nature and photography in a pristine location. I visited other areas in Argentina last year and in this trip, so far this is my favorite place and in my opinion, more rewarding than the Peninsula de Valdez further up the coast.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Passage to Argentina and Chile

After almost a month of roaming the two largest Spanish speaking countries in South America,
I find myself recovering at home. Fortunately, I departed Santiago, Chile just the Thursday night before the earthquake. Some of those buildings I photographed in the city and now damaged as I had seen in the news. Wondered what happened to those fellow travelers who were headed for Easter Islands the next morning.

I started the trip by flying into Buenos Aires where I spent a few days and was amazed as to the construction activity going on compared to what I saw there year before in May. From there I flew to Trelew in the province of Chubut for my major destination at the Peninsula de Valdez, site of one of the largest national parks in Argentina. It was a desolate area mostly like a steppe of low rolling hills covered by low brushes and short grasses as seen above with steep cliffs making the beaches difficult to access. Most of the coastal area of this province has the same topography. My major purpose to go Valdez was to photograph orcas attacking sea lions on the beaches. Unfortunately I arrived a few weeks ahead of time and to access the areas where these activities take place, a permit must be obtained; an excuse to return next year.

From Valdez I drove down the coast to Bustamante, an isolated hacienda that back in the XX century started as a center of aquaculture where algae was collected and processed for food and pharmaceutical uses. Now it is a developing ecotourism center and the old housing for the workers has been fitted as cottages for tourists. It is a vast pristine area not yet widely known but I am sure it will become a center for nature lovers.

From Bustamante I roamed up the coast back to Trelew and visited the port of Camarones where I had the best seafood meal of the whole trip in an old gas station transformed into a restaurant by a couple of young entrepreneurs. Farther up the coast I ended up a Punta Tombo, the largest pinguinera in Argentina and perhaps the world. What an experience seen about 250 hundred thousands of Magellan penguins nesting over the hills along a small bay. No need to see another penguin for the rest of my life,a false statement, they are so cute and friendly.

From Trelew I flew to Calafate, where again I had visited in May of the previous year. In such a short time it has lost is quaint ways and is overcrowded with sprawling new real estate developments and hotels. Progress has paved the road to Perito Moreno glacier. After a couple of days here I departed for Chile.

I arrived in Puerto Natale which I visited in the last decade and rented a vehicle to go to Torres del Paine, probably my most favorite site in the world due to its massive granite towers, ice flows and glacial lakes.

I returned with 330 GBs of data or more specific about 24,000 images. Why so many? I took a lot of multiple photos for HDR images all over as well as wildlife. The trip went well when it came to transportation and accommodations but suffered photo equipment as well as some photographer’s failure. During my previous long trip to Africa last summer I ran out of storage space for the images but this time, one camera died and suffered from faulty exposure as well as the traditional autofocus problems. More to come from this wonderful trip.