Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Laguna Nimez Nature Reserve, El Calafate, Argentina

Laguna Nimez Nature Reserve, El Calafate
There's nothing quite as frustrating to a photographer as being unable to take photos when the opportunity arises. That's how I felt on our first day when we walked through the bird refuge in El Calafate. I saw new and fabulous birds at every turn in that park, but, as you may recall from a previous post, the wind was so strong that I could barely hold my small point and shoot camera up to my eyes to take the photos, let alone bring out the big telephoto lens. So I hoped and hoped that we would be able to fit in another visit under better circumstances. We lucked out on our last day in El Calafate. The weather was sunny and clear with little wind and we had a few hours before our flight, so we spent a nice couple of hours walking the refuge and making amends for the first day. I was in heaven! The refuge is a real gem. It is located on the edge of Lago Argentino, just a few blocks from downtown in El Calafate. It was very inexpensive ($10 pesos, or about $2 dollars), and yet provided some of the better opportunities to view wildlife that we saw on this leg of the trip. There are well marked trails with excellent signs identifying birds and plants, several bird blinds at the edges of the lagoon, and enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff. They even loan binoculars!
Bird ID's

Plant ID's
The trails take you through marshland, lagoon, dune, lake, and dry grassy steppe habitat. We used their  informative brochure (in English!) for the self-guided tour. We saw ducks, geese, raptors and small songbirds, as well as flamingoes, swans, gulls and ibises. I could have spent all day there, but we had to leave for our next adventure. However, we packed a lot of bird watching into those few hours! Here's just a sampling of what we saw.

Chilean Flamingos against the Mountains

Southern Lapwing

Crested Duck

Black Faced Ibis

Long-tailed Meadowlark

Rufous-backed Negrito

Red-gartered Coot and Chicks

Andean Ruddy Duck

Cinereous Harrier

Chimango Caracara

Upland Goose Family

Spectacled Tyrant

Patagonian Mockingbird

Correndera Pipit

Did I Mention Chilean Flamingos? 
For more views of birds from this preserve, as well as other birds of Argentina, use this link to my Smugmug photo website.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Parque los Glaciares, El Calafate, Argentina

It was with great anticipation that we boarded our plane heading south from Bariloche to El Calafate. Bariloche had been a wonderful surprise, with the meadows of lupines, majestic mountains and clear blue lakes. El Calafate was bound to be even better. We'd seen photos of the glaciers, but it was hard to put them into any context. We knew they would be wonderful, but we were not prepared for how truly magnificent they would be. As our plane descended to the airport, my husband and I both craned to see any sign of glaciers from the windows.
The View of El Calafate From the Airport

The Area Around El Calafate is Dry and Flat. Lago Argentino in the Background

What we saw below was flat, stark landscape dotted with bodies of turquoise water and patches of white that we figured were probably glaciers. We had no idea. The area reminded us vaguely of West Texas with the sparse vegetation  and vast horizons. It was extremely windy and we had a rough landing--so windy that when we later stepped out of the cab at our hotel, it was hard to walk forward or stand straight. Later in the afternoon we explored a bird refuge and the wind blew so hard that it was difficult to hold a point and shoot camera to take photos of the amazing birds there. Wind kept birds from being able to land on their nests and whipped up whitecaps on the pond. We enjoyed our walk in the brisk wind and decided to return on another, less windy day to get photos.
Chilean Flamingos and Whitecaps

Really Strong Wind!
The city of El Calafate is a bustling base camp and tourist town for the trekkers who are setting out for El Chalten (Mt. Fitzroy), and for the many tourists who have come to see the wonders of the glaciers. It's located on the shores of Lago Argentino, a huge, turquoise colored lake with with the occasional iceberg, either white or blue, depending on your angle. The turquoise color comes from the light colored rock that is scraped away by the glaciers and ends up as particulates in the lake.
Lago Argentino. Yes, those are Icebergs!
The climate in El Calafate is very dry and arid steppe and the vegetation is small and sparse as you get further east from the Andes.
The Steppe
Closer to the mountains, you'll find woods, dominated by trees such as the beech. The elusive Magellanic Woodpecker is supposed to live in these woods, but once again, we missed seeing one. El Calafate is a fairly small city, but per capita they have more outdoors equipment stores than I have ever seen in one place. It is quite far south and the sun rises at about 4am and it gets dark at about 10:00pm. The hotel rooms have thick, dark curtains so that you can get any sleep at all. The city is about 45 minutes away from the national park where the glaciers are located, on the other side of the lake. Most people take guided tours of one type or another because you are not allowed to walk on the glacier without a guide. Also, you can only see one of the glaciers from the main park trails. If you want to see others, you need to take a boat ride.
Mountain Forest
Our first trip to the Parque Nacional los Glaciares started with less wind, but it was raining. But this was a good thing, because as our bus reached the first view of the Perito Moreno Glacier, we saw it through a beautiful rainbow. The rain came and went all day, but it didn't dampen our spirits one bit. That first view of the glaciers was breathtaking. Perito Moreno glacier is one of just a few Patagonian glaciers that are growing, rather than shrinking. According to Wikipedia, it is one of the 48 glaciers of the Patagonian ice field--the world's third largest reserve of fresh water. The glacier is huge and stretches back miles. The face of the ice is 50-75 feet above the water and is an amazing blue color, due to the way the colors of light reflect from the ice. The more compressed the ice, and the less air trapped inside, the bluer it looks. We looked at the glacier from across the water at the main park for about an hour. We were able to see several chunks of glacier fall into the water below, which was quite exciting. The sound alone is thrilling. We were warned by signs not to get too close.
Rainbow Greets us at the Glacier

Vast Glacier Expanse

Perito Moreno Glacier

Perito Moreno Glacier

Perito Moreno Glacier

The Glacier and the Lake

After viewing the face of Perito Moreno Glacier from the park walkways, we took a boat ride to get closer still (safely), with the ultimate goal of walking on the ice with a guide. To walk on the ice, you need to strap crampons onto your shoes. The teeth of the crampons dig into the ice and keep you from slipping. It's important to wear gloves, because the ice is sharp and not at all like snow. If you touched the ice without gloves you would cut your hands. I was surprised at the texture of the glacier. It is not like an ice cube, nor is it like snow, but rather is like a snowcone, with largish chunks of wet ice. In some places it looked like the ice from a cooler. It was also soggier and wetter than I would have thought, but it was summer down there and perhaps it was melting a little. The surface appears dirty gray at the edges where the glacier has scraped against land, and gradually appears whiter as you move towards the interior. From a distance it looks bluer. There are crevasses and pools where the ice has melted, and the ice is a deep, sky blue. Ice at the front of the glacier is 500 years old and you can drink 500 year old water from the melted pools. At the end of our trek across the ice, the guides pulled out bottles of whisky and poured it into glasses filled with ice from the glacier. Marvelous experience!
Glacier Meets Land

Closeup From the Water

Hikers on the Glacier


Squeezing Through a Crevasse

Peering Down into the Glacier

Whisky on the Glacier Rocks

Intensely Beautiful

Chingolo, (Rufous-collared Sparrow) on a Calafate Bush Greets Us at the End of Our Hike

The next day we took the boat ride all around Lago Argentino to see some of the other glaciers, including the Upsala Glacier on another arm of the lake. We rode on the catamaran all day and visited several glaciers, all of which were shrinking. They were still huge. Our boat took us to the faces of the glaciers and gave us opportunities to take photos from quite close. The walls of the Upsala Glacier were higher than Perito Moreno--80 to 100 feet. The Spegazzini glacier was the smallest we saw. The weather alternated between rain and sun and it was cold and windy, which made standing out on the deck rather exhilarating. But it was wonderful to see the glaciers up close. Near the Upsala Glacier were huge ice bergs, chunks that had dropped off of the face of the glacier and were floating in the lake. They were icier than the glacier because they had been floating in the water, and had melted and formed into fascinating shapes and colors. They were the most incredible blues I've ever seen. As a lover of the color blue, I was in paradise. We saw several large pieces of ice fall into the water and it was very exciting.
On the Aqua Waters of Lago Argentino

Upsala Glacier

Upsala Glacier
Upsala Glacier






All the Strange Shapes

The colors change with the light


Perito Moreno from another Angle

Big Splash

Bigger Splash

Biggest Splash

I think that visiting these glaciers was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. They are among the most beautiful things that either my husband or I have ever seen. It just took our breath away. There is no way that photos can do justice to the actual objects, but we tried to take as many as possible anyway. I hope to go back again some day to make another pilgrimage to these magnificent works of nature.

Magnificent Blue 
The Most Amazing Colors

Click here for more of my photos from El Calafate.