Ushuaia, Argentina: Birding El Fin del Mundo

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En route to the seedsnipe ridge high above the Beagle Channel Photo Stephan Lorenz

Literally the last city in Argentina, Ushuaia is a great destination in itself, but also the embarkation point for many Antarctic cruises. It is worth visiting the area for two or three days of birding (before or after a cruise to the White Continent for example). We had extra time and wanted to explore the mountains, spending six full days in the area.

Ushuaia’s classic birding spots include the famous landfill, the ski-lift area at the Martial Glacier, nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park, and Garibaldi Pass to the north of the city. It is alo possible to drive to Rio Grande to reach Patagonian steppe, but since the area did not hold any new birds we skipped it. All these sites are easy to find and accessible by regular rental car.
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Southern beech forest along the Estancia Tunel trail Photo Stephan Lorenz

 

When we arrived in Ushuaia 10/19/15 it was snowing heavily. We grabbed a taxi to an AirBB in a beautiful neighborhood up the slope at the edge of the city and met my brother who had arrived earlier. Our host, Jack, happened to be an accomplished mountaineer and I soon quizzed him about one of Ushuaia’s major birds, the White-bellied Seedsnipe, which can usually be found around the Martial Glacier (unreliably) and Garibaldi Pass (where birders seem to have more luck). Yes, Jack sees the birds rarely but regularly during his climbs and in fact had just seen two atop a ridge just behind the city. Plans were made quickly to include a climb up the mountain in the next few days and Jack volunteered to show us the way.
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View in Tierra del Fuego National Park Photo Stephan Lorenz

During our first full day in Ushuaia (11/20/19) we avoided the unseasonably heavy snow in the mountains and took the dirt road east out of town along the coast towards what is known as Estancia Tunel (this is also the way to reach the landfill). The scenery was stunning with windswept mountains rising at vertigo inducing angles from the rumpled, leaden waters of the Beagle Channel. Valleys and lower slopes were covered with deep-green southern beech forests and higher slopes gave way to snow. The dirt road ended at a small parking area and we hiked for about six hours along the undulating path that followed the winding coast.
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Estancia Tunel, the open area around here held many geese Photo Stephan Lorenz

We passed the Estancia Tunel and the open area of grass and coastline here held a sizeable flock of geese, including an approachable pair of Kelp Geese and two Ashy-headed Geese among the numerous Upland Geese. Scanning the waters of the Beagle Channel produced flyby views of Southern Giant-Petrels, Chilean Skuas, Magellanic “Rock”, Imperial, and Neotropic cormorants, and Kelp Gulls were of course common with much smaller numbers of the striking Dolphin Gull. A single Dark-bellied Cinclodes and several Blackish Oystercatchers patrolled the rocky shoreline. The trail passed though woodland and shrubby clearings which held Patagonion Sierra-Finches, Fire-eyed Diucons, House Wrens, and many Rufous-collared Sparrows.
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Rufous-collared Sparrows are abundant in the Ushuaia area Photo Stephan Lorenz

Along the higher slopes Andean Condors soared on massive wings, while Chimango Caracaras and to a lesser extent Southern Caracaras were constant companions. At one point a lone White-throated Caracara sailed past. When the trail reached a deep gorge we turned around and looped back through hills away from the coast where the larger beech trees held a party of four Magellanic Woodpeckers, once these noisy birds are located they usually allow close approach and we had great views of two males and two females.
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Chimango Caracara Photo Stephan Lorenz

The following day (11/21/15) we decided to hike into the mountains to search for the famous seedsnipe. Ushuaia (aside from locations in Chile) is the best place in the world to see the elusive White-bellied Seedsnipe, likely the toughest species among the quartet comprising the entire family  (Thinocoridae). The seedsnipes neither resemble snipes, having short bills, and mainly feed on leaves and other vegetation, but not seeds. Seedsnipes are superficially similar the northern ptarmigans, but completely unrelated. Seedsnipes are related to shorebirds, most closely to jacanas and possibly the Australian Plains-wanderer. This morning our host Jack would guide us partway up the mountain where we could begin our search for this difficult bird.
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Searching for White-bellied Seedsnipes high above Ushuaia Photo Stephan Lorenz

We drove out of town along a winding dirt road leading to a hotel atop a hill, but parked before its end. Jack, three dogs, and us commenced to walk through the forest off trail, scrambling over fallen trees and circumventing muddy areas. Heavy snow melt had flooded the trails and made the going tough. We tried to keep up with Jack, who clearly was at home in this terrain, as best as we could and soon emerged into an open area flooded by beavers. The American Beaver was purposefully introduced to Tierra del Fuego in the 1940s for fur trading, which failed. The fifty original animals found perfect conditions and currently number more than 100,000 altering the landscape dramatically by damming streams and rivers. We could see the damage ourselves and gray, weathered trunks were then only remains of the beech forest covering the valley. A large-scale eradication program is underway to stop the damage to the ecosystem.
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Beaver valley en route to the mountains Photo Stephan Lorenz

We crossed a stream, balancing on fallen logs, and started the climb. It took some time to reach the tree line where the slope steepened and the snow became heavier, fortunately the cold kept the deep snow relatively solid. As we reached the actual tree line the wind picked up and Jack and Claudia turned around. My brother and I continued to climb, kicking steps into the packed snow and reaching for handholds on protruding rocks. We climbed past the steepest section and found ourselves on the barren ridge where low vegetation was interspersed among boulder fields and snow, ideal habitat for the White-bellied Seedsnipe.
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Variable Hawks are relatively common in the mountains around Ushuaia Photo Stephan Lorenz

We walked further, but the increasing wind made the going tough and I decided to hike to the leeward side of the ridge, hoping that the birds would be feeding in that direction. We reached a point where snowfields and steep rock outcrops blocked further progress and decided to head down, looking for the birds along the flatter sections of the ridge. I walked zigzags to cover more ground when my brother yelled something to my left. He stood still, pointing right in front of him and I made out two football-shaped birds scuttling in crouching position among the mosses and rocks. Seedsnipes are incredibly well camouflaged and if the birds stopped moving disappeared. Fortunately the pair kept wandering slowly towards the edge of the ridge and we were able to get wonderful views.
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White-bellied Seedsnipe high above Ushuaia Photo Stephan Lorenz

At one point both flew, emitting the distinct yodeling call, but landed again within view. We watched them hiding among the rocks and methodically pick at the sparse vegetation. A few minutes later both took off and disappeared downslope. We sat for another few minutes, enjoying the views of the icy valley below and the city of Ushuaia backed by the Beagle Channel, the snowy mountains of Isla de Navarino, which lie across the border in Chile, rising in the mist to the south. The climb back down was a bit easier with the bird in the bag. We carefully descended the steeper sections and back below tree line slid down the steep snow, holding onto branches. We found our way through the dense forest and crossed the stream before finding a muddy trail back to the car. Exhausted, but pretty happy we rested for the remainder of the day.
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A pair of White-bellied Seedsnipe Photo Stephan Lorenz

The morning after the hike was predictably slow (11/22/15), but by mid-morning we still managed to set out towards Tierra del Fuego National Park. The park is easily accessible along the main road leading west from Ushuaia and protects beech forest, low mountains, lakes, and bays along the edge of the Beagle Channel. The scenery is actually somewhat less dramatic than areas to the north and east of Ushuaia, but many miles of trails offer access to a diversity of habitats. We drove to the terminus of route 3 and spent some time hiking a short trail to Bahia Lapataia. We passed the expected Patagonian Sierra-Finches and Rufous-collared Sparrows and at the end of the trail a pair of approachable Flightless Steamer-Ducks perched on volcanic rocks. Their stubby wings folded over their backs and large, orange feet splayed on the black rocks. Two more pairs floated in the bay, which also held Crested Ducks and Great Grebes. Kelp Gulls circled above while Magellanic and Imperial cormorants rested on rocky islets. Driving back along the park road I spotted some Austral Blackbirds in brushy, riparian growth and a pair of Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles flew over.
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Flightless Steamer-Ducks can easily be seen in bays around Ushuaia Photo Stephan Lorenz

We moved to a longer trail along the shoreline of the beautiful Lago Roca, its calm waters reflected the snowy hills. The trail followed the edge of the lake through beech forest and I quickly found White-throated Treerunner, many Thorn-tailed Rayaditos (a common bird in these forests), White-crested Elaenia, and Austral Thrushes. We hiked all the way to the end of the trail, which stops on the Chilean border marked by a small sign and decrepit, metal pyramid. A pair of Ashy-headed Geese allowed close approach, feeding right next to the shoreline. During the return hike we came across a pair of Magellanic Woodpeckers, noisily working on some snags and a flock of Austral Parakeets flew in.
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Austral Parakeets frequent the beech forest in Tierra del Fuego National Park Photo Stephan Lorenz

Most of the other trails were closed due to flooding and mud caused by the late snow and rapid melting. Overall it is worth spending a full day in the park, since most of the woodland birds typical of the southern beech forest can be found here. At night it is possible to find Rufous-legged Owl although we did not try.

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View of the Beagle Channel Photo Stephan Lorenz

In the morning (11/23/15) we visited Museo Yamana. Although small with some dusty exhibits it was still interesting to learn about the indigenous cultures of Tierra del Fuego and the different lifestyles they adopted to live in the harsh conditions. Unfortunately, most of the culture and people have disappeared with a handful remaining on Isla Navarino in Chile. Since the snow was still heavy in the mountains, closing most of the trails, we drove towards Rio Grande via the Garibaldi Pass. We stopped at the viewpoint and I was glad that we had already seen the seedsnipe since the mountain slopes near the pass were still covered with deep snow. This is usually the most reliable and most accessible location for the species. We made some stops for scenery along the enormous Lago Fagnano before returning along route 3 towards Ushuaia.
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Thorn-tailed Rayaditos are common in the woodlands around Ushuaia Photo Stephan Lorenz

The hiking itch kicked in after a long day in the car and we ended up sprinting up the trail towards Laguna Esmereldas in deep, wet snow. The scenery was definitely worth the hike and the snow covered cliffs above the frozen lagoon reflected the low evening light. The trail was relatively birdless, not surprising given the heavy snow and late time of the day.
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The beech forests near Ushuaia are an excellent place to see the magnificent Magellanic Woodpecker which can be almost common in places Photo Stephan Lorenz

During our last full day in the Ushuaia area (11/24/25) we wanted to tackle another mountain, snow or no snow. Our host recommended Cerro Medio, a bulky, rounded mountain rising just beyond the city’s edge. It was significantly lower than many peaks around and thus held less snow. We still enjoyed a tough hike, especially since we had to find a route through the beech forest and constantly sank into deep snow. We managed to find the main trail and followed the footsteps of other hikers. The real climbing began beyond tree line and after kicking steps across large snow fields we reached the summit ridge. The views were again stupendous. I had hoped to find more seedsnipes, but the only birds of interest along the entire route were a pair of Ochre-naped Ground-Tyrants that foraged on the snow free section of the mountain.
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Keep an eye to the sky since Andean Condors soar along the steep mountains near Ushuaia

We had to return the rental car by mid-morning (11/25/15), but made a short trip before breakfast to Ushuaia’s famous landfill. This is probably the best spot to see White-throated Caracaras, which are normally found in far-flung, rugged mountains. Within twenty minutes we found at least four White-throated Caracaras among throngs of Southern and Chimango caracaras. Although I had seen White-throated Caracaras flying in the mountains, it was nice to study the birds in the scope. The trash in the landfill was of course covered with gulls too, including thousands of Kelp and a few hundred Dolphin gulls. Combative Chilean Skuas patrolled the edge of the melee or flew above on powerful wings. We packed up the scope and headed back to the house to get ready for departure the next day, running some errands in town.
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Pretty neat looking for a gull at a landfill, Dolphin Gulls are common along the Ushuaia waterfront Photo Stephan Lorenz

Logistics: We stayed in an AirBB, but Ushuaia has also many hotels and more affordable hostels, although nothing is cheap at the end of the world. The restaurant we really liked was Ramos Generales (also a bakery) on Avenida Maipu. The Ushuaia waterfront also has excellent birding and is worth a visit, Kelp Geese congregated in large numbers towards the western side of the harbor. It’s a long way by bus to Ushuaia via Chile, and depending on ticket prices it is worth flying to Ushuaia and from El Calafate it was fairly affordable. It is easy to rent a car in town and we got a very good deal through a local agency.
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Chilean Skuas harass gull in the Beagle Channel and at the busy landfill, note the cinnamon throat and neck Photo Stephan Lorenz

Ushuaia Birding Map

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