Tuesday, March 25 (continued):
We’d arrived a bit early for our 4:30pm departure from the Punta Arenas docks, and milled around at the end of the road in the wind for a bit before they started letting folks board. The ship, a re-purposed auto ferry, was large and of a 1960’s vintage. We sat down in hard plastic chairs and steeled ourselves for the ~2-hour ride along the Straits of Magellan to Isla Magdalena, seasonal home to a colony of thousands of Magellanic Penguins. Although we were much too late in the season to see any young, we were assured that the adults were still plentiful.
Fortunately our boat had a small deck surrounding the sides and back of the cabin, and I spent much of the ride here, enjoying the pelagic birdwatching. Even if this had been in home waters, I’d have surely seen many interesting birds, as this was my first boat-based birding trip!
Tierra del Fuego’s hills loomed in the distance, and rainbows reflected in the damp air. Had the boat been a fast one, it would have been pretty chilly outside, however it plodded along at a leisurely 10 knots, and wind was not an issue (especially not aft).
I was happy to see that there were a pretty good number of birds (many of which I would have to identify after-the-fact, and with help from BirdForum, as I have no experience at all with pelagic birds!). Near shore Imperial Cormorants were numerous, and Chilean Skuas (LIFER!) made a few fly-bys.
Chilean Skua / Salteador Chileno
Skuas are extremely aggressive, piratical birds who survive by taking the prey (or eggs, or young) of other birds, and true to form, many of the ones we saw were actively chasing birds, and we saw one actually knock some fish from a tern’s grip and fly away with it!
That’s a 6 1/2 – 7 1/2 foot wingspan above!
Black-browed Albatross / Albatros de Ceja Negra
Farther out, more large, ocean-living birds. An extremely long-winged bird flew by in a unique wheeling style, flying low over the water, then circling up before gliding back low. From the ornithology class I took last year, I knew this must be some sort of albatross, and indeed it was, a Black-browed Albatross (LIFER!). We would see a good many of these super-sized gull-like birds throughout our ride.
South American Tern / Gaviotín Sudamericano
Along with the albatrosses, many terns gave us nice fly-bys. Again I had to ask the experts @ BirdForum, but they all turned out to be South American Terns (LIFER!)
Northern Giant Petrel / Petrel Gigante Subantártico
Another large albatross-like bird flew in front of the ship. At first I thought it was perhaps a juvenile, but some digging in my field guide showed it to be a (juvenile) Northern Giant Petrel (LIFER!). This is the first obviously tube-nosed bird I’d seen, and I saw only this one individual.
Albatross, Skuas, Gulls, and Cormorants, oh my!
An upwelling of something highly desirable was obvious, as one patch of water had hundreds and hundreds of birds diving, fighting, and flying about.
Finally we could make out the barren Isla Magdalena. This small’ish island is windswept and devoid of any sort of foliage, but does have a small lighthouse. A small pod of dolphins accompanied us in, and we soon “docked.” The docking made it obvious why a re-purposed auto ferry was used. There are no dock structures on the island, but rather the boat got close to a beach, then dropped its large front door and we just walked on out.
Magellanic Penguins (need i say it? LIFER!) were everywhere. Thousands and thousands of them! I’m not sure there was a single 3-foot-square patch that didn’t have at least one in it. Magellanic Penguins are also called Jackass Penguins or Burrowing Penguins, both names being obviously applicable. Their call sounds very much like a mule’s braying, and fairly substantial holes in the ground were all over, many with penguins inside.
The island is a reserve, so we were the ones confined (as it should be) to a roped off trail that meandered from the beach up to the lighthouse. Rather than pick just a couple of photos to share, instead see the montage below, and click any photo for a larger version on Flickr.
Lotsa Penguins! Click any image above for a larger version.
Rock Cormorants / Cormorán de las Rocas
On the island’s edge, Rock Cormorants (LIFER!), Kelp Gulls, and Imperial Cormorants rounded things out, and a trio of Chilean Skuas fought angrily over a morsel.
Imperial Cormorants, Kelp Gull, and a Magellanic Penguin
We were allotted 2 hours to walk around, which was about the right amount of time. Needless to say, it was absolutely amazing being around so many wild penguins, while standing on an island in the middle of the Straits of Magellan, with Tierra del Fuego’s northern hills visible to our south!
Rufous-chested Dotterel / Chorlo Chileno
As we walked back to the boat I saw a shorebird foraging in the rocks, a Rufous-chested Dotterel (LIFER!). With that, we reboarded our antique ferry and began the 2-hour journey back to Punta Arenas.
The return trip wasn’t nearly as interesting as the outgoing one, not least because the sun soon set and we had no entertainment options other than sitting in the uncomfortable plastic chairs and watching a REALLY bad Sylvester Stallone rockclimbing adventure movie (complete with dubbing and bad reception, natch!).
Back in Punta Arenas, Jim retired early while Sarah, Diane and I had a mediocre, but inexpensive, dinner at Sabor.
Wednesday, March 26:
After a no-frills breakfast, Sarah & I went downtown and had more success finding some last-minute Patagonia souveniers for the nice folks back home who were taking care of our cats, covering for me at work, and the like.
Downtown Punta Arenas
With stores open and many people out and about, Punta Arenas seemed less depressing than it had upon our arrival the previous day, but other than the immediate downtown squire, which did feature some nice early 1900’s architecture, there wasn’t so very much to see or do.
We had lunch at Restaurant Carioca, which was much better than Lomit’s, although Sarah’s pizza wasn’t very good. Once very nice feature of all of the restaurants we ate at in Chile was that smoking was either prohibited entirely, or allowed only in separate, walled-off rooms.
After lunch we returned to the hotel, rested, and packed up before setting out w/Jim & Diane to visit Parque Nacional Los Magellanes, a short distance above Punta Arenas. This proved to be a bust, as the park has two sides, one of which is only open on Saturday & Sunday (not helpful, this being a Wednesday!), the other apparently nothing more than a closed-for-the-season ski area. No signs or trails were to be seen anywhere in this sector of the park, so we gave up and returned to Punta Arenas.
Kelp and Dolphin Gulls
Instead we parked along the shore and went for a brief walk to see if there were any birds. There were — Dolphin Gulls, Kelp Gulls, Imperial Cormorants, Crested Ducks, and some far-off seabirds including some wheeling probable-albatrosses.
After our walk, we were entirely out of ideas of things to do, and not really feeling the love for Punta Arenas. It would have been nice to spend only one night here, but the penguin boat trips leave only a few days a week except in the high season, and with our return flight already booked, there wasn’t any choice but to stay two nights.
We returned our rental car, then had, finally, a great dinner at La Marmita, a cute little out-of-the-way place a few blocks off of downtown. An early bedtime was required, as our departure flight from Punta Arenas to Buenos Aires, where we would spend the last 9 days of our vacation, was at 6:30am.
Part 1: Getting to Patagonia
Part 2: El Calafate & Laguna Nimez
Part 3: Glaciar Perito Moreno
Part 4: El Calafate backcountry excursion
Part 5: Goodbye Argentina, hello Chile
Part 6: To Torres del Paine!
Part 7: Lago Pehoe and Paine Grande
Part 8: Mirador los Cuernos
Part 9: To Rio Verde and Punta Arenas
Part 10: Pelagic, Penguins, and farewell to Patagonia <– You are here!
Part 11: To Buenos Aires!
Part 12: BsAs’ Sunday markets and other diversions
Part 13: Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay
Part 14: Buenos Aires’ Jardin Botanico and Costanera Sur
Part 15: There’s no place like home