January 9, 2015, Santiago, Chile -- I rolled out of my bunk this morning just before the Akademik Ioffe tied up at the industrial dock in Ushuaia, Argentina, anticipating a long day. After a quick breakfast on board, I stuffed my backpack, said goodbyes to the ship's 80 passengers and 20 expedition staff, and walked away down the dock, suddenly feeling a bit alone.
That feeling didn't last long, as a local birder, Esteban Daniels, and his friend Roger (pronounced rather like "Russia"), were waiting for me just outside port security. Esteban is a bright birder and gregarious guide who moved to Ushuaia 30 years ago (from elsewhere in Tierra del Fuego) and never left; Roger is a photographer who likes snapping birds and other wildlife. The three of us had just a few hours to round up some Patagonian specialties before my afternoon flight to Santiago. Esteban drove, and our very first stop was the landfill (!), where we picked out two White-throated Caracaras from the hundreds of Chimango and Southern Caracaras and Kelp Gulls. From there, we continued to Tierra del Fuego National Park, 11 kilometers west of town.
The park had better vistas. It sits among pristine snow-capped peaks, clear rivers, and a deep green forest of deciduous beech trees, edging on the Beagle Channel. The Pan-American Highway, which extends all the way to Alaska, ends or begins here, depending on your sense of direction. We stopped at the literal end of the road, where a couple hundred tourists were milling around a parking lot jammed with buses (a guy from Iceland had just completed a solo Alaska-Argentina motorcycle ride), and walked down a quiet side trail where some delightful birds awaited: An Austral Pygmy-Owl, a skulking Magellanic Tapaculo, Andean Condors overhead, and my most-wished-for target of the day, a pair of impressively large and handsome Magellanic Woodpeckers! In just a couple of hours, I added 37 new year birds, upping the running total to 91.
Esteban and Roger dropped me at the airport in mid-afternoon for my flight to Santiago (via Buenos Aires, where I added Rock Pigeon and Gray-breasted Martin, #92 and #93, inside the boarding area). A few hours later, I landed in Chile, and breezed past the baggage claim - it's wonderful to travel with no checked luggage! - to find Fred Homer, a birder I first contacted months ago through a friend of a friend, waiting by exit #3 in a green hat. It was late, and we drove straight to his house to crash for the night, planning to rise at 5 am tomorrow. Chilean birds await at sunrise.