An Avian Spectacle
Mr. Soto and I drove down a dirt road toward Bahía Posesíon, Possession Bay, an inlet of the Strait of Magellan, sandwiched between the mainland and Isla Grande, the largest of Tierra del Fuego’s islands. Sixty-foot sandstone cliffs, perfect falcon-nesting territory, run for miles along a deserted beach here. “This is not a tourist area,” Mr. Soto said.
Descending to the shore via a steep trail cut into the cliff, we approached a plywood shanty sheltered behind boulders. “I saw a pair of pallidos flying above the cliffs this morning,” the occupant, a fisherman in a black gaucho hat, told us. “Just head down the beach and you’ll find them.”
We hiked along a shoreline carpeted with mussel shells while scanning the cliffs — some bare, some blanketed in scrub and dwarf pine — for the aerie. Waves lapped over the shoal just off shore. Magellanic oystercatchers, black-and-white birds with elongated orange beaks, the better for plucking the meat from the bivalves’ shells, peeped hysterically over our heads. Southern giant petrels, big black seabirds also called Antarctic giant petrels, giant fulmars, stinkers, and stinkpots, flew in formation. Mr. Soto pointed out southern lapwings, cinnamon-bellied ground tyrants, and Austral negritos. The pallidos, alas, remained well concealed.
As we headed back toward Punta Arenas, one more avian spectacle awaited us. On a stretch of dirt road through the pampas, running parallel to the Bahía Posesíon, Mr. Soto motioned for me to pull over. Here, not marked on any map, lay a nondescript puddle, just a few dozen yards across, that seemed to have attracted every species of water bird in Patagonia. Thumbing through his guidebook, Soto identified red-gartered coots, white-tufted grebes, four varieties of ducks, blue-winged teals, silver teals, oystercatchers, upland and crested geese, tawny-throated dotterels, Magellanic snipe and, on hard ground yards past the pond, another cluster of flamingos.
We lingered for an hour, alone on the pampa, fascinated by the variety of avian life squeezed into such a small space. Our disappointment over missing the elusive pallid peregrine had receded. Mr. Soto tossed his bird book in the back seat, and we continued down the dirt track toward the Ruta del Fin del Mundo.
Joshua Hammer’s new book, “The Falcon Thief,” will be published by Simon & Schuster next year.
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