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ARGENTINA (Ushuaia) & Antarctic Peninsula

27 January - 06 February 2002

by Bob French


This report covers an 8-day cruise from Ushuaia, Argentina to the Antarctic Peninsula and So. Shetland Islands, with a couple days in Ushuaia after the cruise. I was in Ushuaia two years earlier at about the same time of year and have included some notes from that trip as well.  There were six of us:¨my wife Susan and I, our next door neighbors (one of whom just happens to work for the cruise company and who was able to secure an unbeatable price), and my brother and his daughter.

Although Argentina has been much in the news lately due to its financial meltdown, life seemed pretty normal in Ushuaia. You could still conduct business in US dollars, receiving an on-the-spot conversion rate of 1.4 to 1.6 to the dollar. (However, a gas station would not accept dollars, only pesos or credit card.) Prices in pesos didn’t seem much higher than two years ago, so things were actually cheaper now in dollars.

The cruise was on Orient Lines’ ship the Marco Polo. This is by far the largest ship that actually lands passengers in Antarctica. It was formerly the Soviet ship Alexander Pushkin, and has a reinforced hull enabling it to venture where conventional cruise ships should not go. Although the ship holds 850 passengers, it runs about half full on trips to Antarctica, mainly because it’s hard to get more people than that ashore on Zodiaks.

I’ve not been on any other Antarctic cruise so I cannot comment on whether the birding on more traditional, smaller “expedition” type ships is better. Certainly the best sea-birding is during the Drake Passage, which is probably comparable for all tours, with the edge perhaps going to the Marco Polo since it is bigger and therefore more stable. Probably smaller tours offer less restrictive shore excursions, but at each point we went ashore, there were a very small number of species, all readily visible, so that probably wouldn’t make much difference.  I suspect the biggest advantage one tour would have over another for birding is the exact itinerary.  These change year to year (e.g. next year the Marco Polo will include South Georgia, which should increase the bird variety.) Certainly the Falklands and So Georgia would add a number of good birds.

The ships staff includes a lecturer on birds (David Wilson), and one of the Zodiak drivers and one of the other passengers were also experienced sea-birders, so help on ID was usually available. There were only a few serious birders among the 400-odd passengers.

Field guides

Harrison, Peter; Seabirds of the World
Indispensable. A little dated and has nothing to say about the proposed split of Wandering Albatross into 3-4 species.).

De la Pena and Rumboll; Collins Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of Southern South America and Antarctica

Certainly a good fit for this itinerary, but the seabird pictures are useless, and a lot of the passerine pictures are very tough to use, with some colors WAY off. Fortunately I already knew most of the land birds here, but the first time around it was tough IDing things with this book.


Jan 27-28 Miami to Ushuaia

Our overnight ATA charter flight to Ushuaia with a stop in Buenos Aires went smoothly, and we had a few hours in Ushuaia to explore the waterfront before the lifeboat drill at 6PM.  Birds observed in a 3 hour walk along the shore east and west of the pier where the ship ties up included many Kelp Geese, Antarctic Skua, Southern Giant Petrel, South American Tern, Magellanic and Blackish Oystercatchers, Flightless Steamer Ducks, Great Grebe, Kelp and Dolphin Gull, Austral Negrito (no adult males), and Correndura Pipit.  We even had a couple immature Magellanic Pengiuns swimming right off the pier.

We left port at 8PM, and traveled east through the Beagle Channel. Black Browed Albatross were common the next 2 hours with many hundreds seen. As we drew closer to the channel entrance, Sooty Shearwaters became more common. David saw a few Magellanic Diving Petrels. (These are more easily seen on the various Ushuaia harbor tours on smaller boats, for example the trip out to the small seal colony.) Just at nightfall we were able to glimpse the Magellanic Penguin colony at Harberton.

Jan 29 Drake Passage

I came out on the back deck at 6AM, and the first birds I saw were my first Wandering Albatrosses! Although the old hands feared we would see little due to the very low wind, (5 foot swells and a 15Km wind are referred to as “dead calm” for the Drake Passage) we had 3-4 birds behind us most of the day: Wandering and Black Browed Albatross, Southern Giant Petrel, Wilson’s Strom Petrel, occasional White-chinned Petrels.  (Wilson’s Storm Petrels and Giant Petrels were around every day of the trip.) We also had two Black-bellied Strom Petrels, and a few Prions assumed to be Antarctic.  This was an ideal opportunity to study Wandering Albatrosses in various plumages, and to try and convert some of them into Royals.  

 A highlight came a little after noon, when David Wilson shouted: “Everyone get on that brown albatross and tell me exactly what you see.” What we saw was a Wandering size bird with a completely brown back and upper wings,  clean white cheek patch, a white breast, and a distinct dark brown band across the chest. The bird disappeared for an hour, then rejoined the ship. David claimed to be 80% confident the bird was an Amsterdam Albatross, one of the world’s rarest seabirds with only 8-9 breeding pairs.  We got a few pictures and some digital videos. Apparently, however, there is now considerable debate as to whether it is possible in the field to separate Amsterdam from “Antipodean” Wandering Albatross.  David intends to submit our documentation - we shall see.

Follow-up note:  David submitted our best pictures to Christopher Robertson, an Albatross specialist with the NZ Dept. of Conservation, who ruled out Amsterdam Albatross based on the lack of a black cutting edge on the bill.  Based on bill size and shape (slightly thinner than most Wanderers) and apparent wing length (shorter than most Wanderers), he concluded with “90% certainty” that the bird was from the Gough Island population in the Southern Atlantic which has been named D. dabbenena. If the proposed split of Wandering Albatross into 5 species becomes accepted, it will certainly be a problem for sea birders as no field guide or published paper addresses distinguishing these taxa in the field.  

Jan 30 Deception Island

Next morning at 6AM we approached Deception I. Our first Cape Petrels were following the ship (Actually they were flying laps around the ship while we were steaming at 17 Knots). We also saw small groups of Chinstrap Penguins porpoising , a few close enough to actually see the chinstrap. (There are several large Chinstrap colonies visible as the ship enters the bay, but at considerable distance.)

Our first Zodiak landing was at the site of former British and Chilean stations that were wiped out by a volcano-triggered landslide. The operation of rotating 430 people ashore in 14 -seater Zodiaks for an hour each actually goes remarkably smoothly. The area was bird-less except for a few Antarctic Terns, Kelp Gulls, and Antarctic Skuas. Many of us went for a soak in the geothermally heated waters. At this and all the landings, the passengers are restricted to a small area - you cannot go off exploring.  I doubt I missed any birds on account of this, however. .

From Deception I we traveled south through the Gerlache Strait, where we were suddenly surrounded by hundreds of Southern (Antarctic) Fulmars, along with good numbers of Humpback Whales. But the stars were the beautiful Snow Petrels, of which we probably saw 30 individuals.

Jan 31 Lemaire channel and Port Lockroy

The morning featured a cruise down the dramatically ice-clogged and photogenic Lemaire channel. We passed a few Adelie Penguins standing on ice floes (Crabeater Seals were the more common occupant), along with a number of small Gentoo colonies, often perched surprisingly high on the mountains surrounding the channel.  Antarctic terns, Kelp Gulls, and Skuas were the only other birdlife.

From there we returned to Port Lockroy, a former British Antarctic station where you can mail letters and get a passport stamp. A Snowy Sheathbill landed on the back deck as soon as we anchored. There is a Gentoo Penguin colony here that was doing very poorly due to a very heavy winter snowfall that had delayed nesting. At this and the other penguin colonies, there were always attendant Sheathbills, Skuas, and Giant Petrels, and a few Antarctic Shag typically occupied the highest ground.

Feb 1

Another Gentoo colony at a small Chilean station. This was the only place we actually went ashore on the Antarctic mainland. Same birds as Port Lockroy.  

Feb 2. Half Moon Island and start of Drake Passage NB

We anchored at 8:00 AM at Half Moon I, and went ashore to visit the Chinstrap Penguin Colony. Here we watched a Southern Giant Petrel eat a penguin, while the Skua that had killed the Penguin had to wait its turn. The usual Kelp Gulls, Antarctic Terns, Skuas, Antarctic Cormorants, and Sheathbills were present here. A number of Wilson’s Storm Petrels and Cape Petrels patrolled around the anchored ship - this was the first time I have seen the Storm Petrels “dance” on the water.

After lunch we left for Argentina, this time following a slightly more westerly route towards Cape Horn.
A couple of hours out of Half Moon I. the sea-birding really picked up, with rafts of hundreds of albatrosses including our first Gray-headed Albatrosses, and a couple brief looks at Blue Petrel. Towards evening the swells became large enough to reduce the dinner crowd significantly.
Feb. 3 Drake Passage Northbound

Despite the swells of the preceding night, by morning it was calm and fairly windless, and this time the calm conditions produced the expected result: no birds. For most of the day we didn’t even have any giant petrels. Finally, about 3 hours from Cape Horn, things picked up again. We had a couple fairly easy Southern Royal Albatrosses, one Northern Royal, and I finally got a close enough look at a beak to pick up Northern Giant Petrel.

By the time we entered the Beagle Channel we were seabirded-out. The ship docked around midnight, and we didn’t know who won the Superbowl. (Being New England fans, we feared the worst.)

Feb 4 Ushuaia

Three of us left the ship a little after 6AM and caught a taxi to Martial Glacier ($4), a small ski area near tree line in the mountains behind the city. The ski lift didn’t operate until 10, but the walk up, parallel to the lift, is not bad. The area above tree line here was long known as a site for White-bellied Seedsnipe and Yellow Bridled Finch. Apparently, however, the Seedsnipe has not been seen there for 3 years (I certainly didn’t see it.) And I have now seen the finch on just one of three visits (and I have yet to see an adult male). However, this area is good for some of the common passerines such as Thorn-tailed Rayadito, Black chinned Siskin, Bar winged Cinclodes, Dark-faced Ground Tyrant, etc. I saw the first Gray-flanked Cinclodes I felt confident in separating from the more common Dark Bellied Cinclodes. And we had a pair of Black-faced Ibis fly overhead.

We returned to town (its easy to catch a taxi back after 10 AM when the lift opens) and rented a car for 24 hours. (Rented from Localiza. The cost was 90 pesos inc. insurance with 150 KM free, but when we settled up, we paid in US cash for just $49. Two years ago I paid US $90.) We all had lunch at a traditional Argentinean barbecue place called Los Cutorros about 30km north of town. We did not bird along the way, but had some Southern Lapwings behind the restaurant.

The municipal dump on the road to the Nation Park west of town (the traditional spot for White Throated Caracara) is no longer in use. However, there is a de facto dump about 3 Km east of the pier in the industrial area. It is just after the main coastal road crosses a small stream, on the harbor side. This is a fairly vile dump, with quantities of sheep hooves lying about and huge pigs rooting in the garbage. But all three Caracaras are here, along with Antarctic and Chilean Skuas. There are also a number of waterfowl at the river mouth, including Southern Widgeon, Speckled Teal, Yellow-billed Pintail, Flightless Steamer Ducks, Kelp Geese, etc. Two years ago I had two Black Chested Buzzard Eagles here as well. In the species list that follows, any reference to “dump” is this location.

We also walked along the beach just west of the airport causeway, which had Blackish and Magellanic Oystercatchers and Rufous-chested Dotterel, along with various ducks and gulls.

That night we watched a re-run of the Superbowl with Spanish soccer commercials.

Feb 5 Tierra del Fuego National Park

The cruise provides a free bus tour of the park, but these tours are not of much use for birding, hence the rented car. Our first stop was at a sheltered bay on the Beagle Channel called Ensenada (first left after the entrance station.) Here we had a group of 5-6 splendid Magellanic Woodpeckers near the parking lot. (I found these woodpeckers in the nearby woods on my previous visit, so I believe this is the best bet in the park for them.)

We stopped about 5 Km further west along the main road at a small beaver pond. While examining a very bright Black-chinned Siskin, I realized there was an Austral Pygmy-Owl in my binoculars - extraordinary luck! We also had Tufted Tit-tyrant and Patagonian Sierra Finch here, not mobbing the owl but keeping an eye on it..

When the road reaches the Lago Roca outlet, there is an open field where we had Black-chested Buzzard eagle, many Austral Finch, and very distant views of Austral Parakeet. In the river opposite the Lago Roca campground were 6-8 Spectacled Ducks. There are always Patagonian Sierra Finches poking around the picnic tables.

(On a previous, more leisurely trip through the park I also had Long-tailed Meadowlark, Black-faced Ibis, Black-necked Swan, Fiery-eyed Diucon, and even a glimpse of an Andean Tapaculo in the park.)

At noon we returned the rental car, walked back to the ship, and prepared for our overnight flight back to Miami.

Species List

U = Ushuaia along shore, TDFNP = Tierra del Fuego Nat. Park, MG = Martial Glacier; F = lifer






Gentoo Penguin

Pygoscelis papua

The most frequently seen penguin


Adelie Penguin

Pygoscelis adeliae

A few on ice floes, Lemaire channel


Chinstrap Penguin

Pygoscelis antarctica

Deception I, Half Moon I


Macaroni Penguin

Eudyptes chrysolophus

A few groups in the middle of Drake passage (SB), not seen well


Magellanic Penguin

Spheniscus magellanicus

2 imm. in U, poor view of colony at Harberton


Great Grebe

Podiceps major



Wandering Albatross

Diomedea exulans

Common Drake Passage SB, NB


Royal Albatross

Diomedea epomophora

several Southern, 1 Northern on NB Drake Passage nr Cape Horn


Amsterdam Island Albatross

Diomedea amsterdamensis

?? Questionable - see text


Gray-headed Albatross

Thalassarche chrysostoma

~20 on NB Drake Passage


Black-browed Albatross

Thalassarche melanophris

Seen every day of trip, even in Ushuaia


Antarctic (Southern) Giant Petrel

Macronectes giganteus

Seen every day of trip, even in Ushuaia


Hall's (Northern) Giant Petrel

Macronectes halli

A few identified on NB Drake Passage nr Cape Horn


Southern Fulmar

Fulmarus glacialoides

Common in Gerlache Straits, not seen elsewhere


Cape Petrel

Daption capense

Present at most spots in Antarctica, only So. portions of Drake Passage


Snow Petrel

Pagodroma nivea

About 30 individuals, with Fulmars in Gerlache Straits


Blue Petrel

Halobaena caerulea

One identified Drake Passage NB


Antarctic Prion

Pachyptila desolata

Small numbers Drake Passage SB


White-chinned Petrel

Procellaria aequinoctialis

Small numbers Drake Passage SB


Sooty Shearwater

Puffinus griseus

Common in E. Beagle Channel, a few near Cape Horn


Wilson's Storm-Petrel

Oceanites oceanicus

Seen every day at sea


Black-bellied Storm-Petrel

Fregetta tropica

3-4 Drake Passage, NB, SB


Rock Shag

Phalacrocorax magellanicus



Antarctic Shag

Phalacrocorax bransfieldensis

A few at each major penguin colony


Imperial Shag

Phalacrocorax atriceps

Common, Ushuaia


Black-faced Ibis

Theristicus melanopis

2 flying overhead, Martial Glacier


Ruddy-headed Goose

Chloephaga rubidiceps



Upland Goose

Chloephaga picta



Kelp Goose

Chloephaga hybrida

Very common along Ushuaia shore


Flightless Steamerduck

Tachyeres pteneres

A few along Ushuaia shore


Chiloe Widgeon

Anas sibilatrix

small flock at Ushuaua dump


Speckled Teal

Anas flavirostris

Ushuaia shore, TDFNP


Spectacled Duck

Anas specularis

6, Lago Roca outlet at campground, TDFNP


Crested Duck

Anas specularioides

common Ushuaia shore


Yellow-billed Pintail

Anas georgica

2 at U dump, a few at Lago Roca


Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle

Geranoaetus melanoleucus

1, Lago Roca outlet


White-throated Caracara

Phalcoboenus albogularis

U. Dump


Southern Caracara

Caracara plancus

U. Dump, TDFNP


Chimango Caracara

Milvago chimango

U. Dump, TDFNP


Magellanic Oystercatcher

Haematopus leucopodus

small flocks along shore, esp. W of airport causeway


Blackish Oystercatcher

Haematopus ater

2-3 individuals, U. Shore


Southern Lapwing

Vanellus chilensis

inland at Los Cotorros restaurant


Rufous-chested Dotterel

Charadrius modestus

3 W of airport causeway


Baird's Sandpiper

Calidris bairdii

several flocks, U. Shore


Snowy Sheathbill

Chionis alba

5-20 at each major penguin colony


Chilean Skua

Catharacta chilensis

a few, U. Dump


Brown (Antarctic) Skua

Catharacta antarctica

seen every day


Dolphin Gull

Larus scoresbii

common, U


Kelp Gull

Larus dominicanus

seen every day


South American Tern

Sterna hirundinacea

small numbers, U shore


Antarctic Tern

Sterna vittata

small numbers each day in Antarctica


Rock Dove

Columba livia



Austral Parakeet

Enicognathus ferrugineus

a few in the distance, Lago Roca


Austral Pygmy-Owl

Glaucidium nanum

1 by blind luck, TDFNP


Magellanic Woodpecker

Campephilus magellanicus

5-6, Ensenada, TDFNP


Dark-bellied Cinclodes

Cinclodes patagonicus

common, U shore, TDFNP


Gray-flanked Cinclodes

Cinclodes oustaleti

1, MG


Bar-winged Cinclodes

Cinclodes fuscus

common, U, MG, TDFNP


Thorn-tailed Rayadito

Aphrastura spinicauda



White-throated Treerunner

Pygarrhichas albogularis

TDFNP, at Campground


White-crested Elaenia

Elaenia albiceps

Common MG, TDFNP


Tufted Tit-Tyrant

Anairetes parulus

1 at pygmy owl, TDFNP


Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant

Muscisaxicola macloviana

common, MG


Austral Negrito

Lessonia rufa

common, U shoreline


Southern Martin

Progne elegans

Buenos Aires airport


Chilean Swallow

Tachycineta meyeni



Correndera Pipit

Anthus correndera

U shore at a field near airport


House Wren

Troglodytes aedon



Austral Thrush

Turdus falcklandii

common TDFNP nr Lago Roca


House Sparrow

Passer domesticus



Black-chinned Siskin

Carduelis barbata



Patagonian Sierra-Finch

Phrygilus patagonicus



Rufous-collared Sparrow

Zonotrichia capensis



Bob French

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