Fauna of the South

Wildlife-spotting in Chilean Patagonia

With only four people per square kilometer, Chilean Patagonia is one of the country’s most sparsely populated regions. Its untouched parks and clean southern waters make this region especially friendly for a great diversity of wildlife.

Thursday, December 02, 2010  
Guanaco at Torres del Paine National Park. Guanaco at Torres del Paine National Park.
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Most visitors come to Chilean Patagonia for its surreal scenery and outstanding national parks, but these enormous stretches of unpopulated and undeveloped land also make this region ideal for wildlife spotting.

Austral bird life

Just outside Punta Arenas, Magdalena Island is the breeding ground for about 60,000 pairs of Magellanic Penguins between October and March. Crowded onto the island’s 200 acres (82 ha), these birds constitute roughly 95 percent of its wildlife population, making this the easiest place to see these birds in their natural habitat.

Along the Patagonian waterways, albatross and petrels are amongst the most commonly spotted birds. The Southern Royal Albatross, with an average wingspan of more than 9 ft (3 m), often follows in the wakes of ferries and ships, gliding on the air currents or wheeling low over the water. The hardy Giant Southern Petrel and Magellanic Diving Petrel, which return to land only once annually to lay eggs, are also common along these waterways.

One of the more peculiar birds found in the region is the Flightless Steamer Duck. White or gray in color, these ducks can weigh up to 33 lbs (15 kgs) and are entirely flightless. To move, the duck rotates its tiny wings through the water like the wheels of an old Mississippi steamer boat, hence its name.

The world’s southernmost parrot, the Austral Parakeet, can be found in Chilean Patagonia, as can large scavenger birds like the beautiful Andean Condor and the Turkey Vulture. Several species of cormorant, which typically weigh under 8 lbs (3.5 kg) can consume as much as 22 lbs (10 kg) of fish in a given day.

Aquatic giants and elusive land mammals

Though avian wildlife is the most frequently sighted along Patagonia’s channels and canals, the region is also home to large populations of sea elephants, sea lions and sea otters. In the open ocean Killer Whales are fairly common off the Patagonian coast, while Humpback Whales, which have their largest populations in the waters of the southern hemisphere, pass here while migrating to their polar feeding grounds near Antarctica.

Farther inland, the camelid Guanaco is a common sight in Tierra del Fuego as well as within the borders of Torres del Paine National Park. The elusive Huemul, a type of deer endemic to northern and central Patagonia’s forests, is endangered and rarely spotted, but is believed to have a fairly large presence within remote Bernardo O’Higgins National Park.

Like many regions of dense virgin forest, Patagonia does not offer its treasures readily, but instead rewards patience and a keen eye. Traveling the waterways of Patagonia offers ample opportunity for spotting sea birds, while tours to Magdalena Island can be easily arranged from Punta Arenas. Tourism geared toward wildlife spotting can also be organized with Torres del Paine National Park and elsewhere in the region.