6 wildlife to spot in Argentina
Introdcing some of the best and stangest of Argentina's creatures, great and small, you could expect to see on a visit to this south american country
1. Southern Elephant Seal
Standing on a beach beside a bull Southern Elephant Seal and his harem is an unforgettable experience. Males are around five metres in length and hit the scales at four tonnes. Females are much smaller; even so, they can still be twice the length (and ten times the weight) of their human observer. The harem is all about possession; the larger the group of females, the greater the male’s standing – and the wider his genes will spread. Should a rival male arrive, intent on stealing one or more females, the ‘beachmaster’ bull roars loudly at the interloper, inflating his elephantine muzzle and deploying it as a resonating chamber. Should vocal posturing not succeed as a deterrent, the dominant bull will hump like a cumbersome, gargantuan caterpillar to confront its rival. Should the aggressor still refuse to back down, the quarrel may turn bloodily visceral until one party retires, defeated.
Spotting tip: visit traditional breeding beaches on the Valdés Peninsula during September–November. From a respectful distance, spend several hours watching behaviours as diverse as nursing pups, mating and fighting.
Standing well over a metre high, this relative of the camel is South America’s tallest mammal. It is stockier than the Vicuña (Vicugna vicugna), with a longer, thicker neck, and has a horizontal rather than rounded back. The Guanaco is more a creature of open plains than the Vicuña, and, whilst inhabiting the Andes from Tierra del Fuego northwards into Peru, rarely has the same head for altitude as its more delicate relative. The Guanaco was domesticated several thousand years ago, and, through hundreds of generations of selective breeding, its descendents evolved into what we now know as the Llama (Lama glauca) and probably the Alpaca (Lama pacos). Historically Guanaco populations have suffered from hunting, and still number less than 10% of their original level. Argentina forms the species’s stronghold today – but even here, it is common only in Patagonia, and has been lost from both the Chaco and the Pampas.
Spotting tip: a typical first sight of a Guanaco is of long neck and erect ears protruding above breast-high vegetation. Where there is one, there are typically others, for Guanaco travel in small herds.
3. Patagonian Mara
There is no stranger Argentine mammal than the Mara. A relative of guinea pigs, the Mara’s appearance recalls hare and deer in equal measure. Stocky-bodied creatures, Mara typically amble while grazing. But they also hop like a rabbit, sprint like a hare, and even bounce on all fours like an antelope. There are two species of Mara, but visitors to the country typically only come across the Patagonian Mara, which occurs only in Argentina but is comparatively common on the Valdés Peninsula. Social structures are tight-knit, with pairs mating for life and colonies of up to 70 individuals having an inbuilt system of communal care for youngsters. Males serve as sentries, typically sitting alert at the edge of a grazing group, scanning the surroundings for predators such as foxes. A combination of habitat degradation, competition from non-native herbivores such as sheep and some hunting means that the Patagonian Mara is on conservationists’ ‘watchlist’.
Spotting tip: occurs in Patagonia’s sparsely vegetated terrain, particularly on the Valdés Peninsula. A telltale sign – easily seen even when driving – is large piles of earth outside entrances to the colonial burrow.
4. Strange-tailed Tyrant
Bouncing above the grassland in exuberant display flight is a black-and-white bird which has spread two excessively long tail feathers and is whipping them up and down. This male Strange-tailed Tyrant, an undeniably well-named flycatcher is defending a territory housing the nests of up to three mates. The ‘Strange-tail’ has become a charismatic figurehead for the conservation of South America’s natural grasslands. This striking bird is now cramped into but a tiny fraction of its original range, the contraction resulting from the rampant spread of intensive agriculture. Perhaps as few as 10,000 birds may remain in northern Argentina and southern Paraguay. Unsurprisingly, the Strange-tailed Tyrant is classified as globally threatened with extinction. Yet there is hope. Conservation bodies such as Aves Argentinas (BirdLife International in Argentina) have demonstrated that sensitively managed cattle-ranching, intertwining the fates of gaucho cowboy and tyrant, can benefit both beef production and biodiversity alike.
Spotting tip: in tall damp grassland of the humid Chaco or the Iberá marshes, tyrants perch prominently by the roadside. The species is gregarious, so where you find one, you should see others.
5. Magellanic Woodpecker
Ta-dap! A loud, abrupt double drum betrays the presence of South America’s largest and most stunning woodpecker. Magellanic Woodpeckers inhabit old-growth, moss-laden temperate beech forest throughout Andean Patagonia and onto Tierra del Fuego. The far-carrying double drum is both a territorial marker and a means for family members to locate one another. Pairs, sometimes accompanied by one or two offspring, travel widely through their large home range. While not uncommon, this low density can make Magellanic Woodpeckers tricky to track down. Once located, however, they are typically confiding – oblivious to the attentions of their human admirer. Even bigger than the Green Woodpecker that frequents many British parks and gardens, the Magellanic Woodpecker is an elegant black-and-white creature. Both sexes have yellow, staring eyes; the male has a straight flame of a crest, whereas the female has a curly sooty quiff.
Spotting tip: upon hearing a loud double drum in Patagonian beechwoods, grab a stone lying on the ground and imitate the sound on a tree trunk. With luck, a Magellanic Woodpecker will come and investigate.
6. Magellanic Penguin
Named in honour of the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, the Magellanic Penguin is one of a quartet of very similar-looking penguin species that occur in Africa and South America. Collectively known as ‘jackass penguins’ – on account of their braying, donkey-like display call – the four species share traits such as black bands on their underparts, unfeathered skin around their eyes and hefty black bills. The Magellanic Penguin breeds in large colonies around the coast of Argentina, Chile and the Falkland Islands. There may be as many as 20 nests – all in burrows – per 100 square metres. Typically tame, these penguins allow close approach; to sit amidst a breeding congregration of several hundred thousand birds is an experience like no other. After a winter at sea, males return to the breeding colony first, reclaim their burrow from the previous year. The female returns later – and listens for the call of her lifelong partner.
Spotting tip: on the Valdés Peninsula, road signs advertise the presence of breeding colonies that are open to visitors. Alternatively, head further south to Punta Tombo to witness the largest gathering of all.