Chile - Argentina 2000 : Birding Trip Report
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Chile - Argentina 2000: Peninsula Valdez

Sea lions, elephant seals, guanacos, rheas, Magellanic penguins and many other seabirds are present in large numbers on the beaches and headlands of one of South America's finest wildlife reserves, Peninsula Valdez, but the biggest attraction is the southern right whale Eubalaena australis, known in Spanish as the ballena franca.
Sheep estancias occupy most of the peninsula's interior, which includes one of the world's lowest continental depressions, the salt flats of Salina Grande and Salina Chica, 42m below sea level.
The small village of Puerto Piràmide is the only settlement on the Valdés Peninsula. Nestled in a deep bay off the Nueva Gulf, it is picturesque and peaceful, surrounded by beautiful natural scenery.
The coasts of Peninsula Valdés are the southern elephant seals' only continental breeding grounds. They are the world's largest seal species, males reaching 20 feet (6.5m) in length and females, 10 feet (3.25m). In July, the bulls return from the sea and establish their territories; later, the females arrive to form their harems, give birth, and then mate again.
During this period, visitors can observe the activities of these animals on the beach, such as the fierce fights between bulls defending their harems and territory, and the females nursing their pups. The best place for this is the Punta Cantor Wildlife reserve, where a great number of elephant seals gather each year.

  The Magellanic penguin is a member of the genus Spheniscus. The Magellanic has a typical penguin appearance with black-to-brown shading on the back and white coloring on the breast and trunk. The Magellanic can be distinguished with moderate attention by the two bands traversing the anterior surface of its neck.
Magellanic penguins average about 17.5 inches in height and weigh around 6.5 pounds. These figures place them in the category of "average" for penguin physical measurements. Both the male and the female exhibit the same color patterns (monomorphism).
The ecology of the Magellanic penguin is diverse. It inhabits the cold temperate subantarctic islands and the Chilean coasts. The Magellanic penguin both temporally and spatially overlaps with the Humboldt penguin, but they do not usually interbreed. When Magellanic penguins do breed, they do so on Juan Fernandez, Staten Island, Tierra del Fuego, and the Falkland Islands from late September to February. They do migrate during the year.
Their populations may be threatened by continued oil spills and other human activities, but there are an estimated 1.2 million pairs of these birds. Naturally, they are preyed upon by the Southern sea lion, the Dominican gull (chicks, eggs) and the Giant petrel (chicks, eggs). Their diet consists of primarily marine crustaceans and small fish.
The Magellanic penguin is sometimes called the jackass penguin.

Magellanic penguins come ashore at the same places to gather in the same nests with the same mates as years before to breed and hatch their eggs. The males begin to arrive at the end of August to get their nests ready to receive the females in September. After mating and laying their eggs, both males and females share the responsibilities of incubation for 40 days, after which their young hatch. Between February and March, the young are the first to take off for their almost yearlong stay at sea. The adults finally abandon their colonies in April to take to the sea, traveling as far as the latitudes of Brazil.

The largest colony of Magellanic penguins is on Punta Tombo in Chubut with a population of approximately 500.000 adults; there has been a considerable reduction in their numbers since the mid-1990s.

As human beings, we are accustomed to having practically all types of animals flee when we come near them. Few species show any curiosity for getting closer to us. But the whale offers a singular opportunity to establish a link, even if only a temporary one. And here, in Argentina, on the Valdés Peninsula,(Chubut Province), 1,400 kilometers south of Buenos Aires, travelers can witness one of the world's most famed natural spectacles, while enjoying the docile presence of these huge mammals.

This Argentine coastal region is one of the largest whale mating grounds in the world, ranking after South Africa, whose coastal waters receive periodic visits of between 2,000 and 3,000 whales out of the 6,000 that are estimated to populate the world's oceans.
Beaches still waiting to be discovered; an open untroubled sky, free of tall buildings and gray smokestacks, and the placid waters of the gulf: This is the scenario chosen as from May each year by the southern right whales. This tranquil seascape off the coast of the Valdés Peninsula is the place of preference for the reproductive cycle and most sublime moment in the lives of these 15-meter-long sea-going mammals. The mating rite is marked by the twists and turns of the courting dance, spectacular leaps into the air and crashing dives back into the sea, an exciting show that usually takes place a couple of kilometers off shore.

Several males at a time stir the foamy sea with antics that have little to do with their habitual behavior. They become aggressive with one another in their attempts to seduce the same female. The female resists at first, but eventually gives in to the charms of one of her suitors. The male's reproductive organs store an enormous amount of semen (some 500 kilograms per testicle), enough to impregnate several females. When the female finally accepts the male's overtures, coitus takes place with both whales in a vertical position, facing one another, with their heads out of the water. The joyous result of this encounter is the birth of a whale calf, about five meters in length, that grows at a rate of 35 centimeters a day thereafter. Whale cows give birth once every three years and the gestation period is 12 months.