wildlife in Peninsula Valdes

Peninsula Valdes Wildlife

wildlife in Peninsula Valdes

A Guide to Coastal Argentina’s Animal Species

Patagonia — the arid, relatively unpopulated region of South America that includes much of Argentina and Chile — is widely considered among the world’s greatest destinations for watching wildlife. It’s surrounded by three oceans teeming with animals, with all sorts of birds and mammals inhabiting its deserts, mountains, and grasslands.

In total, Patagonia encompasses 402,734 square miles of land — a vast expanse of rugged wilderness. So it seems significant that UNESCO saw fit to include Argentina’s 1,389-square-mile Peninsula Valdes on its list of World Heritage Sites, citing its “global significance for the conservation of marine mammals.” The abundance of marine life alone would be enough to earn the peninsula a spot on our list of the best things to do in Patagonia.

The peninsula (which is attached to the mainland by a thin strip of land) includes nearly 250 miles of shoreline, with the fertile Golfo San Matias to the North and Golfo Nuevo to the South. Its dynamic landscape offers a broad variety of ecosystems, from rocky cliffs and sandy beaches to coastal lagoons, mudflats, and wetlands of international importance.

As a result, the biodiversity of Peninsula Valdes wildlife is staggering for such a small region. There are 181 recorded bird species, of which 66 are migratory, including birds of prey, flamingos, and penguins. There are mammals ranging from the massive (see: huge herds of guanaco) to the diminutive (see: the tiny Brazilian guinea pig). And of course, there are cetaceans aplenty, including several species of dolphins and the world’s most important population of Southern right whales.

Here’s a look at some of the many intriguing animal species you may see when you visit the Valdes Peninsula on IE’s Wine & Wildlife of Argentina & Chile tour.

BIRDS OF THE VALDES PENINSULA

Black-Chested Buzzard-Eagle

This beautiful bird of prey has an array of nicknames, but it looks nothing like a buzzard (which, in the US, is essentially synonymous with turkey vultures). The “Chilean blue eagle” seems much more fitting for this powerful species, which measures 24 to 30 inches long and has a wingspan of more than five feet. The mixture of black, white and silver bars on its uppers, white spots on its black neck and white belly are striking as it soars high above the hills of the peninsula in search of its prey (especially rabbits).

Burrowing Parrot

This neotropical parrot, which comes from the Arinae wing of the family, is native to Argentina’s arid bush steppe, the Monte Desert. Also known as the Patagonian conure or the burrowing parakeet, small populations can be found in Chile and Uruguay (mostly during winter migration). Their sociable personalities have made these seven-colored beauties increasingly popular as pets, but their loud calls and need for lots of stimulation also make them a handful. Look for them nesting in the cliffs and note their lovely eyelashes, and the red belly patch males use to attract females.

Chilean Flamingo

wildlife in Peninsula Valdes

Closely related to the American and Greater flamingos, the Chilean flamingo stands 43 to 51 inches tall and usually lives in large flocks. It’s a little less pink than its Caribbean cousins and can be differentiated from other species by its grey legs (which have pink joints) and mostly black bills. Listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as near threatened, they are mostly found in salt lakes, lagoons and estuaries ranging from Patagonia north to Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru.

Great Grebe

With a range that includes extreme southeastern Brazil and Patagonia, this is the largest of the world’s grebe species. In terms of size, they look more like a cormorant or goose, measuring up to 32 inches long and weighing up to 4.4 pounds. Their unique coloration includes a soot-grey head with reddish eyes, rufous-buff neck and chest, black back and white belly. They’re often seen in huge flocks that number into the hundreds, usually in lakes, slow-moving rivers, and estuarine marshes. But you may also find them in the sea, where they feed in kelp, crabs, and fish.

Magellanic Penguins

wildlife in Peninsula Valdes

There are four species of penguin found in Patagonia, but the Magellanic penguin is the one you’re likely to see in Peninsula Valdes. There are seven colonies there, including around 200,000 breeding pairs at a colony in Estancia San Lorenzo (near Punta Norte), the fastest growing colony in all of South America. Magellanic penguins average 24-30 inches tall and 6 to 14 pounds, with white bellies, black back, two black bands between the head and breast, and a black head with white chinstrap bands. Males arrive in September, October is mating season, and they raise their chicks until April, when they head to warmer climates.

Rhea

There are two subspecies of the flightless rhea in Patagonia — the smaller Darwin’s rhea and the greater rhea. The former (a.k.a. the lesser rhea) is the one you’ll most likely see among the grass and shrubs on the Valdes Peninsula. It was named after naturalist Charles Darwin, who first documented the species during the second voyage of the HMS Beagle. They’re odd birds, with small heads and bills, long necks and legs, huge wings that propel them to 37 miles per hour on foot, and razor sharp claws (but, unlike other birds, only three toes).

Southern Giant Petrel

The largest seabirds in the southern oceans, the Southern giant petrel is a bird with many names. “Antarctic giant petrel” indicates the southernmost extent of its range. “Giant fulmar” comes from Old Norse words meaning “foul gull,” as they look like oversized seagulls. The more colloquial “stinker” and “stinkpot” refer to their ability to spit an odiferous concoction at predators. Whichever name you use, this is a massive bird (34 to 39 inches long, with wingspans up to 81 inches) you’ll know when you see it. And with thousands of mating pairs lining the Argentina coastline, see them you shall!

Variable Hawk

The variable hawk, as its name implies, is difficult to define. The polymorphic bird of prey is commonly found in open habitats throughout southern South America (including the Falkland Islands), but some scientists believe its three variations should be considered separate subspecies. Thus they vary in size (length 18 to 25 inches, wingspan 45 to 60 inches, weight 1.8 to 4 pounds); color (from white and reddish-brown to dark grey and black); and even breeding seasons and habitat. Look for them on raised perches such as signposts and trees, or soaring on thermals in search of prey.

LAND ANIMALS

Armadillo

Patagonia is home to two species of armadillo (Spanish for “little armored one”), the large hairy armadillo and the dwarf armadillo. The large hairy armadillo, which is more commonly spotted in the Valdes Peninsula, has an especially large head plate, long hairs sticking out of its body, and dense hairs on its underparts that range in color from off-white to light brown. The dwarf armadillo, which is known locally as the pichi, averages just 11 inches long and is the only armadillo in the world that hibernates.

wildlife in Peninsula Valdes

Brazilian Guinea Pig

Don’t let the name fool you: This medium-sized guinea pig (also known as the dwarf cavy) can be found throughout much of South America, from Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela down to Argentina. Brazilian guinea pigs are larger than the domesticated breeds you may be familiar with, averaging around 11 inches long and weighing about 22 ounces. They’re typically found in open savannah at altitudes ranging from 1,300 to nearly 10,000 feet. Look for them in the early morning and at sunset, when you may see their olive/brown/black fur as they forage among the grasses.

Guanaco

If Patagonia had a mascot, it would probably be the guanaco (a.k.a. Patagonian llama). With heights that can reach over four feet and weight of up to 200 pounds, guanacos are among the largest and most abundant of all wildlife in the region. They live in both plains and mountainous areas, in herds made up of females, their young and a dominant male, who kicks out young bachelors and defends the herd. Their reddish-brown coats stand out in striking contrast to the green flora of Peninsula Valdes, and their fur is highly prized for its warmth and soft, woolen feel.

wildlife in Peninsula Valdes

Humboldt’s Hog-Nosed Skunk

Commonly known as the Patagonian hog-nosed skunk, this small-but-stock skunk species is found in open grassy areas throughout Patagonia. It’s so closely related to Molina’s hog-nosed skunk, which is common in northern Argentina, that some experts believe they are, in fact, the same species. They have brownish-red fur with symmetrical stripes running down their side, with bare noses they use to search for beetles, crickets, carrion, and other food sources. You’ll most likely see them at dawn and twilight when they feed in grassy areas in summer and forests and mountains in winter.

Mara

Commonly found in the Patagonian steppes, maras are ginormous relatives of the guinea pig and can grow to more than 18 inches tall and weigh 25+ pounds. After capybaras, beavers, and porcupines, they’re the fourth largest rodent species in the world. They look a bit like oversized rabbits, with thick brown bodies, white bellies, long ears, and sharp-clawed digits. They can bounce on all fours, gallop like horses, or hop like bunnies, and run at speeds up to 18 mph. One pair of adults will keep watch over all the young, sending them to hide in a burrow should they spot danger afoot.

Sheep

OK, so sheep are obviously neither wild nor native to the Valdes Peninsula. But they are one of the most commonly spotted land animals in the area, and they’re an important part of the peninsula’s history. Sheep were brought to Valdes not long after colonists came to Argentina, and farming them quickly emerged as one of the area’s most prominent industries. Though their grazing did create competition with some of the area’s indigenous herbivores — and persecution of predators such as the maned wolf — the peninsula is large and undeveloped enough to support domesticated species as well as wildlife.

MARINE LIFE

Commerson's Dolphin

One of the numerous species of dolphins spotted off the coast of the Valdes Peninsula all year round, Commerson’s dolphin is also known as the panda or skunk dolphin due to its bold black (head and dorsal fin) and white (throat and body) coloration. It’s one of the smallest cetaceans in the sea, measuring just 4.5 to 5 feet long and weighing less than 100 pounds. They’re a popular sight on the area’s boat tours, as they swim along the surface near the bow, leaping in the wake, and often spinning in mid-air. Look for them in November, when they may have young calves in tow!

Dusky Dolphin

wildlife in Peninsula Valdes

The dusky (a.k.a. Fitzroy) dolphin is closely related to the Pacific white-sided dolphin, with a dark grey or black back, a two-toned dorsal fin, a light grey patch in front, and white throat and belly. They’re one of the smaller dolphin species, but the populations in Africa, Australia, and South America show noticeable size differences. They tend to travel together in pods of 20–100 dolphins and are most commonly spotted along the coasts of Golfo Nuevo and Golfo San Jose. They’re often seen relatively close to shore, and are known for putting on quite the acrobatic show.

Southern Elephant Seal

Named for its large proboscis and incredible size, the southern elephant seal is the largest member of the Carnivora order and the largest marine mammal that is not a cetacean. For comparison, a bull of this species can grow six to seven times as heavy as a polar bear or Kodiak bear (11,000 pounds vs. 2,000 pounds), the largest terrestrial carnivorans. Yet they’re amazing swimmers, spending 80% of their time in the water and diving for up to two hours. They congregate on the shores of Peninsula Valdes all year round, but September and October are the best time to see males fighting. From October to January, pups are endangered by Orca attacks.

South American Sea Lion

If swimming with sea lions is on your bucket list, the Valdes Peninsula ranks alongside the Galapagos Islands among the best places to do it. The area is home to thousands of South American sea lions, with Punta Piramides home to one of the largest reproductive colonies every summer. Pups are born in January and February, nursing from their moms until May. February through April is when orcas hunt them, both in the ocean and on the beaches at Punta Norte. To see sea lions in the water, go snorkeling or kayaking and you may catch sight of these exceptional swimmers diving down nearly 500 feet!

Orca

Did you know that the orca (a.k.a. killer whale) is technically a member of the oceanic dolphin family, of which it is the largest member? These apex predators are fearsome hunters who often work in cooperation, preying on seals, small whales, and even other dolphin species. The small population of orcas in the Peninsula Valdes area has become famous for a unique hunting technique in which they intentionally strand themselves on the shores in order to catch young southern sea lions and southern elephant seals. It’s one of the most fascinating cetacean behaviors you’ll ever witness.

Southern Right Whale

wildlife in Peninsula Valdes

According to UNESCO, Peninsula Valdes “contains the globally most important breeding grounds of the Southern right whale,” attracting more than 1,500 of these endangered cetaceans to the area annually. The species was nearly hunted to the brink of extinction during the commercial whaling era. Now, a total population of approximately 10,000 remains worldwide. UNESCO credits the ongoing conservation efforts in Peninsula Valdes with helping the species recover (citing a 7% annual growth rate). Watch for a unique playful behavior, known as tail sailing, in which whales hold their flukes in the air in order to catch the wind.

BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.