flora and fauna of patagonia: birds, beasts, and beech trees

It is strange to know nothing about a place. No birds. No animals. No names for flowers or trees. But, after just one week in National Park, we have seen so many new things, it feels like we have just watched a National Geographic special on the flora and fauna of southern Patagonia. Along the lakefront in Puerto Natales, we spotted Cisneros of Black Neck, the elegant black-necked swan. Nandu (Lesser Rhea), ostrich-like birds, bounded awkwardly around the dusty foothills at the Park entrance.

Guanaco, a relative of the camel, wandered the grassy windswept slopes on the dry Eastern steppe, often at the edge of the road, or at times even in the road, blocking traffic when there was noone and seemingly nothing else in sight for thousands around. The guanaco's terrain and behavior reminded me of antelope in wide-open windy Wyoming, although Guanaco are clearly a bit less skittish with more of a camel's stubborn personality.

In the grassy marshy areas we spotted flocks of bandurria black-faced Ibis) and Southern Lapwings. We would venture north, both of these became common sightings, with the Lapwing's ruckous call serving as a daily dawn alarm clock whenever we camped near open meadows.

On ponds we saw ducks of all types. Sorry, we are amateur birders ... so the best we can say is "ducks". Well, I guess we did identify flocks of shovellers, red-gartered coot or two floating on a few ponds and the totally cool and flashy torrent duck running some pretty impressive class V rapids, so there is a bit of duck detail for you real birders.

In wet forests, we saw the Magellanic woodpecker or "Woodpecker", purported to be the largest woodpecker in the world, and sporting a spectacular firecracker red head with crest, certainly the prototype for Woody the Woodpecker of cartoon fame. Always a thrill to spot in an otherwise endlessly green forest.

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A bit further North, in areas dominated by bamboo forest, these common birds would be replaced by others such as the "huet huet", an elusive bird that has a call like chihuahua trying to deepen its yap. And the "swallow" a bird that incessantly works the shorelines of lakes and rivers searching for bugs, and finally, the chucao, the curious little ground dweller that always hopped out of amidst thick tangles of bamboo to further inspect the strange new addition to its environment that was our hiking boots. Always something to look at, something new.

Terrestrial dwellers were more rare. In camp one evening we saw a Patagonian red fox trotting through camp and across the bouldery riverbed in front of us. We heard that there were pumas, endangered huemel deer, pudu (the tiniest deer on earth!) And javali but these rare creatures remained hidden. Skunks or "chinque" were also out of sight although we caught a few whiffs that indicated their presence.

The flora ... always more confusing. But, generally, the forests of southern Patagonia, and specifically, Torres del Paine, are of two Beech tree varieties, endemic to southern South America - Lenga and Nirre (Antarctic Beech or Nothofagus). A wet meadow is called "mallin" and the "coigue of magellanes" is a low lying shrubby forest often anchored by wind resistant plants such as calafate bushes, mogotes, and brecillo, a heather like ground cover. Calafate bushes, have dark blue edible but acidic berries that ripen in summer. You're supposed to eat calafate berries to ensure a return visit to Patagonia. With a lot of sugar added, they also factor heavily into local summer cuisine- especially ice creams, fillings for alfajores, baked goods, jams, and sauces. If the rumor is true, we will surely be returning to Patagonia as we sampled our share.

But the best of all, deep in the western rainforest of the park, we got to visit with the ancient The Alerces trees and specifically, "The Grandfather", to 2,600 year old giant Alerces tree, similar in grandeur to our California Redwoods . In Los Alerces, we spent a truly spiritual day deep in the Patagonian rainforest visiting with all of these beauties.

  • Adam Floyd