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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Chile: Top to bottom 24 in days. Nov. 14 to Dec. 8, 2006.,
In a word, Chile is sensational.
Maybe it should be stated up front that it does not have a huge bird list, particularly by South American standards – only some 450 species or thereabouts. But this turns out to be a trifling quibble. What the country does have is a diverse avifauna full of specialty birds, many of them quite spectacular, and with enough endemics and near endemics to add lots of spice - and not just, for example, intra-generic distributional replacements (that often fall into the category of minor “variations on the theme of” type species) but really different, fascinating birds. Most birds seemed fairly easy to see, repeat views were the norm and we did not get overwhelmed so that in the end there was a sense of comfort with the birds we’d seen. There were also some terrific mammals and much dramatic scenery. Plus, Chile is a safe, modern country, logistics are quite straightforward, excellent local bird guides live here and there is now even a company to set up your whole trip if you like (see Planning and Logistical Notes below). For us our trip goes down as one of our very best yet.
This is a very brief overview intended to provide a bare-bones backdrop. Information on specific sites appears in the itinerary and the daily log later in the report, where important birds are also highlighted.
Chile is known of course as the thin country with a north-south coastline stretching some 4300 km from the Peruvian border to Cape Horn in the south but on average only around 200 km in width. Ecological diversity almost defies belief, so birding trips commonly sample sites in 4 contrasting regions or “nodes” along this gradient in order to see representative and specialty birds of the different broad ecosystem types or biomes. Unless you have unlimited time at your disposal extensive but efficient and cost effective internal air travel becomes necessary.
Taking the country from north to south, most trips make sure to spend 4 to 6 days in far northern Chile near the border with Peru in the coastal area, and with Bolivia higher in the Andes. Several flights daily connect the capital Santiago with the small city of Arica situated at the mouth of the somewhat feeble Lluta River and smack in the Atacama Desert. Except for river valleys descending to the coast out of the mountains this northern area is extremely arid, parts of it ranking as the driest hot desert on earth where in fact no rain has ever been noted at some locations, at least since records have been kept. In some areas nothing whatsoever grows. But along water courses there is an eerie oasis effect, an often sharply demarcated brown/green line variable distances back from the streams and rivers, a few meters wide to maybe close to a kilometer near the coast although here the green effect is magnified by irrigation for crops. Small areas of native scrub still exist which are home to several good birds, new even for birders who have visited southern Peru. Some groups hire boats to go looking for pelagic sea birds off the coast in the Humboldt current. The coastline itself provides good birding and vagrants tend to show up at the Lluta River mouth a bit north of Arica.
Without exception I imagine, all birding groups head inland along the Lluta valley, at first over flat then gradually rising very dry country, and finally up vertigo-inducing steep Andean slopes to the little town of Putre at 3560m. This is the base of operations for visits even higher into sparsely vegetated dry puna and altiplano habitats (but with important lakes and mountain bogs too) in Parque Nacional Lauca, up to 4600+m elevation along the paved road through the park to the Bolivian border. Birding right in Putre and above it in the park is great. This is the region I feared we might have to cut from our preliminary itinerary in the face of time and cost considerations. Since we had birded similar mountain habitats above Arequipa in Peru I assumed there would not be all that much new. I was wrong and thankfully we had the sense to keep it in. There were many terrific highlights of great new birds and mammals and we would not have wanted to miss it.
The Santiago area in central Chile is essential birding on any itinerary. Several sites in the Andes east of and 2000m above the city provide a whole different aspect from that farther north - still dry, especially in the foothills, but in general moister and hence with a somewhat more arboreal component to the vegetation, although this is a matter of degree! Our day trips along the Maipo River ending at the El Yeso reservoir and the similar road to the Farellones ski resort area (both @2500m) were excellent for birds and extremely enjoyable. Close to Santiago (575m), and between the city and the coast, good roads pass excellent wetlands holding many fine waterbirds, and of course also traverse dry scrub (or matorral) habitat with other specialty species. There is good birding at the coast, including a Humboldt Penguin colony, as well as more wonderful freshwater marshes and small lakes. Though expensive every birding group should seriously consider doing a pelagic boat trip off this central coast to see albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters and much more. There are several possible venues. It takes 2 to 4 days to do justice to this coastal swing from Santiago.
The most problematic area for itinerary planning because of the multiple possibilities is the Araucania and/or Lake districts of south-central Chile. Here are the best moist forest habitats and some of the most charismatic birds, including several fabulous tapaculos, that make Chile such a great birding destination, all in a beautiful forested foothill/mountain/valley and coastal setting featuring many outstanding national parks. The forests mainly feature Southern Beech (Nothofagus) but this is also the region of the famous Monkey Puzzle-tree (Araucaria) forest, remnants at any rate. There are endless approaches as any reference to itineraries on various internet trip report repositories will quickly attest. We took a long time arriving at our own route and in retrospect it worked well, although with logistical considerations in a couple of places as indicated later. You could easily spend a couple of weeks in this region alone.
Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego have been magical, fabled names for me ever since poring through plates of sheldgeese, steamerducks and torrent ducks in Peter Scott’s little book on world waterfowl as a young boy. In short I have always wanted to see this region, collectively termed Magallanes in Chile, especially after a brief half-day glimpse near Ushuaia in Argentina. So we scheduled a week here. Some may not find the flat seemingly endless steppe covered in low shrubs and sparse bunchgrass from horizon to horizon (and usually with a fearsome wind whipping at one’s clothes) quite so romantic as I do. At first that is, until he/she lays eyes on, as just one example, the strange little Magellanic Plover by the shore of a shallow saline lake not far from the Strait Of Magellan. Elsewhere, as around and to the north of Punta Arenas, there is more Nothofagus forest in sheltered spots and lower mountain slopes, often a fascinating tangle of stunted or dwarf “trees” draped in scraggly green-grey lichens - it looks like it should be the habitat of elves. And everyone should make time to drive north 365 km from Punta Arenas (the gateway city to Chilean Patagonia) to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, easily one of South America’s greatest parks. It is a total experience with wonderful birds and spectacular last gasp views of glaciers and magnificent jagged Andean peaks just before they peter out southwards as rounded hills and finally slide gently into the ocean. The dirt road by-passing the park to the north into the stark Sierra Baguales holds excellent birds and more great scenery.
Chile has in the order of 440-460 species depending on how many vagrants and species restricted to oceanic islands are counted, and 11 or so appear to be endemics or near endemics (although it is surprising how variable both these numbers are among different authorities’ lists). Another whopping 60+ can legitimately be considered specialty species for sundry reasons, being range-restricted, generally rare, hard to see elsewhere or just plain spectacular birds. We saw nearly all of them, a testimony to the expert help we had and our rather long itinerary (24 days) compared to a lot of trips, but also to the fact that birds in Chile do seem to be pleasantly viewable. An annotated species list referenced to the 4 regions or nodes we visited can be accessed at the end of this report.
Perhaps the prime focal point for many birders contemplating a trip are the 8 tapaculos, 3 of which are endemic or nearly so. This family has a lot of tiny drab, skulking species but in Chile there are several big showy exceptions which everyone wants to see, and this can be done. We saw all 8 including point-blank looks at the 3 (relatively) huge Pteroptochos tapaculos, namely the 2 huet-huets and Moustached Turca. White-throated (endemic) and Ochre-flanked Tapaculos are tough because they are such skilful skulkers, even when recordings are used; the lovely Chucao is said to be easier and is quite a common bird within its habitat. Many of the tapaculos can be seen in the central Santiago region but the 2 huet-huets are basically forest species best sought farther south around Chillan and towards Temuco at some of the great national parks in what we called the south-central node. You would not want to miss seeing the Monkey Puzzle-trees in this area anyway. The relatively luxuriant humid Southern Beech (Nothofagus) forests of this south-central region are also the best place to find the spectacular Magellanic Woodpecker, easily the finest woodpecker we have seen to date in our travels. Other forest specialties here include the fantastic DeMur’s Wiretail and both Slender-billed and Austral Parakeets.
Not too surprisingly Chile is a renowned venue for Andean birds. Lauca National Park in the north and several easily accessible locations above Santiago in central Chile provide excellent and complementary packages. Although not quite what you might call spectacular any birder will be excited with all the furnariids – the miners (we saw 6), earthcreepers (5), cinclodes (5), tit-spinetails (2), canasteros (6) and the terrific endemic Crag Chilia on the road to El Yeso (and other sites) is a bird you will want to target specifically. Many odd-ball (for someone from North America) tyrant flycatchers are an attraction, the shrike-tyrants (saw 3), ground-tyrants (9) and tit-tyrants (2), as well as several more conventional flycatchers at lower elevations. The large family Emberizidae is a similar story, in North America represented by dozens of “sparrows” and in the Andes and foothills by several interesting sierra-finches (7 seen), yellow-finches (4) and 2 diuca-finches, not to mention the 5 possible siskins which of course are true finches in the family Fringillidae. High mountain bogs hold much sought species rivaling the tapaculos. For example Andean Goose is easily seen in Lauca and there are plenty more water birds too. You have to go to South America to see seedsnipes and 2 of the 4 species, Chestnut-bellied and Grey-throated, are Lauca bog specialties although the latter is also readily seen at El Yeso in central Chile. The bogs are home to one of the most charismatic birds of our whole trip, the strangely aberrant but so beautiful Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, likely easiest seen at El Yeso though it also occurs in Lauca NP.
These same 2 regions have characteristic dry, scrubby habitat at lower elevations where several endemics and range-restricted species occur. In the particularly arid north there are such birds as Tamarugo Conebill, Slender-billed Finch and Chestnut-throated Seedeater plus some prize hummingbirds: Oasis, Peruvian Sheartail and Chilean Woodstar. Around Santiago and towards the coast the dry matorral and other scrubby habitats have 3 endemics, Chilean Mockingbird and White-throated and Dusky Tapaculos, and the near-endemic Dusky-tailed Canastero. Somewhat unexpectedly fine wetlands dot this latter region which hold at least a dozen species of waterfowl (Anatidae) and such other goodies as Stripe-backed Bittern, Spot-flanked Gallinule, South American Painted-Snipe, Many-colored Rush-Tyrant and Wren-like Rushbird. The coast itself is both scenic and good birding: as examples you can view a Humboldt Penguin colony near Cachagua and 2 bulky dark-colored birds hang out among huge even blacker boulders: Blackish Oystercatcher and the near-endemic Chilean Seaside Cinclodes. And lastly, this is likely the best region for seabirds. Pelagic boat trips out of Quintero and other centers into the cold Humboldt Current can be set up; our half day cruise gave us 4 albatrosses, 9 petrels and shearwaters, 1 each of diving and storm-petrels, as well as Peruvian Booby and Pelican, 3 cormorants and so on.
Finally we get to what might be the most exciting region of all, fabulous Magallanes with its vast stretches of Patagonian steppe, the evocatively named Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego and the spectacular Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. The region is a bonanza for waterfowl lovers what with Black-necked and bizarre Coscoroba Swans, 5 species of exquisite sheldgeese, Flightless and Flying Steamerducks, the totally cosmic Torrent Duck, plus 2 species of rarely seen ducks, Silver Teal and Spectacled Duck. The other 2 world species of seedsnipes are here, Least and the remote, tough-to-see White-breasted. Chile must be about the only country where all 4 seedsnipes are entirely feasible in a single trip. Among more conventional shorebirds, albeit both upland steppe species, the exquisitely lovely Rufous-chested and Tawny-throated Dotterels certainly stand out. Passerine birds are perhaps somewhat less well represented, but there are some nice ones – large and striking Chocolate-vented Tyrants perched on roadside fences, uncommon Patagonian Mockingbird, and 2 extremely sharp finches, Canary-winged and Yellow-bridled. And you can visit a Magellanic Penguin colony. Multiple good views of Andean Condor are pretty much assured and the even less common White-throated Caracara is possible. How about dozens of massive gangly Rheas along the roads? I could go on.
PLANNING AND LOGISTICAL NOTES:
Actually, very little needs to be said. Several international airlines service Santiago daily from North America, Europe and all points in South America, including Chile’s good national carrier LAN. Visas are not required, but that does not mean you get off cheaply when you arrive. You must pay one of the new “reciprocal fees” (based on what Chilean nationals have to pay when entering your own country. For us (Canadians) this was pretty steep, $132 US each. Be sure to do this before you queue for immigration or you will have to go back to the end of the lineup. Unlike in many South American countries you are better off with Chilean currency (readily available from ubiquitous bank machines) rather than bringing US dollars for your “petty cash” requirements. Chilean currency is denominated in pesos, roughly 525 per $US, 460 per $Ca while we were there. So there are a lot of zeros on the bank notes that you must pay attention to.
Chile is a modern, up-to-date country with a good infrastructure, including great highways. All of our accommodations (mentioned individually in the Daily Log) were fine and in most places you can even drink the tap water if you want. The food was serviceable if less spectacular than the birds. But wines and beer were good, and pisco sours sublime. In terms of safety, health and bugs, they were all basically a non-issue and malaria is not a threat. Altitude-related sickness is a real possibility while staying at Putre. Hosteria Las Vicunas is situated at 3560m and birders commonly range to 4600m and a bit over during the day in Lauca National Park. Candy and I took (different) altitude medicines and were fine, the best yet, while one companion did suffer from headaches and nausea but he kept birding. Some degree of discomfort is not infrequent, particularly at night when sleeping can be difficult and uncomfortable, and the problem is potentially dangerous.
November and December is the Chilean spring and early summer depending where you are within the 35+ degrees of latitude. Santiago itself was cool when we arrived but progressively warmer each time we came back, and downright hot by the time we left. Arica was quite warm (>30°C) but dry and with a cooling breeze near the ocean. At Putre it was chilly in early morning with frost on the grass when we left to go birding, but when we returned in late afternoon short sleeves were comfortable for a little while anyway. But up in Lauca we needed a few layers, topped with a good windbreaker most of the time. On Day 7 we went through a hail shower, and later birded in a snow squall (Black Siskins!). In the sun temperatures reached at least 17°C at times even though a nearly constant wind made it feel cooler. South-central Chile in the Temuco region was comfortable, distinctly cool in the morning (for example ice built up on lawns where sprinklers ran all night) and quite warm later on, much like at home during spring birding in May. In areas Patagonia reminded me of the low arctic tundra where I spent several “summers”. Temperatures ranged roughly from 7 to 15°C during the day, and here too almost always accompanied by a rip-roaring wind. I normally wore 4-5 layers including fleece, down vest, windbreaker, wool hat and gloves (getting soft I guess). We lost no birding time during the whole trip to the few drops of rain we saw. Allowing somewhat for regional variation there was sufficient light to bird from about 06:00 to past 21:00.
Setting Up The Trip:
First we read trip reports to get an idea of the regions, sites and birds (eg, see www.birdtours.co.uk and www.travellingbirder.com - and many thanks to all who posted them). I then contacted 2 guides with stellar recommendations, Gonzalo Gonzales in Santiago (email@example.com) and Ricardo Matus in Punta Arenas, Magallanes (firstname.lastname@example.org). Gonzalo had just recently become associated with Latitude90, a travel company now branching into eco-tourism (www.Latitud90.com). After settling on an itinerary in consultation with Gonzalo Latitud90 arranged all aspects of our trip throughout the north, central and south-central regions, including all of our ground transportation, hotel reservations, Gonzalo’s services, and box lunches in the field. We bought our restaurant meals although nearly all breakfasts were included with the hotels. We had a travel agent in Toronto make all our air bookings including internal (domestic) flights because the latter were considerably cheaper when purhased via a LAN air pass, which apparently were available only when international flights were also booked with LAN or one of its partners. In Magallanes Ricardo was also a big help in planning our itinerary and then booking our hotels, vehicle rental, ferry reservations and so on. We used an inter-bank wire to pay Latitude90 before we left for Chile but in the south we reimbursed Ricardo for his cash outlays incurred before we arrived (eg, to hold reservations), then paid the rest by cash (mostly) or credit card (sometimes incurring a flat $3-5 surcharge) as we went along. A lot of detail was involved but in the event everything worked out pretty much as we had hoped.
In short, both Gonzalo and Ricardo were excellent guides, and knowledgeable ornithologists. They know the birds, they know the birding sites like the backs of their hands, they have sound equipment, they acted as drivers, and they worked long and hard every day to show us nearly all the birds we hoped to see - in fact we have seldom had such a high a success rate with target birds on any of our far-flung trips. Both guys speak excellent English and were very enjoyable companions. Of course this does not mean that there are not other good guides in Chile, as various trip reports make clear; however we can attest that you will not go wrong with either or both of Ricardo and Gonzalo.
Birds Of Chile (published in 2003) by Alvaro Jaramillo is the field guide of choice; it is easy to use for the most part, the illustrations are very good, and it fits very nicely into a vest or jacket pocket. It is also available in Spanish. I should mention that Gonzalo himself has written a field guide, in Spanish only: Las Aves de Chile. He kept a copy in the vehicle and we consulted it frequently. We bought Pearman’s Essential Guide to Birding in Chile (1995) but did not find it useful since it leaves out a lot of sites and does not cover Magallanes at all.
Day 1 (Nov. 14): Arrive Santiago 06:50. Airport to Hotel Bonaparte (575 masl) for early check-in. Rest a couple of hours. PM: to Lampa wetlands and Lake Batuco, @35 km, 30-40 min.
Day 2 (Nov. 15): Drive from Santiago west towards coast, stopping at unnamed wetlands. Along coast bird at Santo Domingo, Cartagena, Lago El Peral. To Quintero for night at Hotel Yachting.
Day 3 (Nov. 16): AM: Pelagic boat trip off Quintero. PM: Bird north along coast, visit penguin colony near Cachagua, return to Santiago stopping in the vicinity of Lago Penuelas. Hotel Bonaparte.
Day 4 (Nov.17): Day trip east along Maipo River and into Andes as far as Embalse El Yeso, 80km (2540m). Hotel Bonaparte.
Day 5 (Nov. 18): Fly Santiago (09:00) via Iquique to Arica (12:30). PM: Bird at/near Museo Arqueologico in Azapa valley 12 km east of Arica, and near mouth of Lluta River. Hotel Panamericana, Arica.
Day 6 (Nov. 19): Bird @1 hour in Lluta valley near Arica then drive east 145-150 km ascending to Putre (3560m). Bird “dry gorge” at Putre 14:15-18:15. Overnight Hosteria Las Vicunas 2 nights.
Day 7 (Nov. 20): AM: Bird “wet gorge” at Putre. 10:10 drive farther east and higher into Lauca NP. Many stops including near the small town of Parinacota and nearby Laguna Cotacotani (38 km, 4400m) and 25-30 km farther to Lago Chungara at Bolivian border (@4630m).
Day 8 (Nov. 21): AM: Back into Lauca NP as far as Parinacota with several stops along road. PM: Descend past Putre then south at Zapahuira to Polylepis forest remnant near Belen, 45 min. (3780m). Then continue back down to Arica. Hotel Panamericana.
Day 9 (Nov. 22): Bird coast at hotel and nearby lighthouse; then south 35 min. to Chaca River valley where several birding stops. 18:20 Fly Arica via Iquique to Santiago (22:45). Hotel Bonaparte.
Day 10 (Nov. 23): Fly Santiago (0810) to Concepcion (09:10). Drive east 1 hr to Chillan and beyond to Valle las Trancas (+1 hr 15). PM: Bird at hotel, up road to Termas de Chillan, and Shangrila road. Hotel Robledal.
Day 11 (Nov. 24): AM: Bird at hotel and road above Las Trancas to Termas de Chillan (1500m). PM: Drive west then south to Angol, 3 hrs. Then drive to PN Nahuelbuta (33 km, 1hr), 1175-1400m. Overnight Hotel Social Club, Angol.
Day 12 (Nov. 25): Drive back into PN Nahuelbuta. At 16:20 drive Angol to Temuco (@135 km, 1 hr 10). Hotel Frontera for next 3 nights.
Day 13 (Nov. 26): Drive east to PN Conguillio (@90 km,1 hr 50). PM: Drive back past Temuco and farther west to coast at Puerto Saavedra (80 km, @ 1 hr from Temuco).
Day 14 (Nov. 27): Drive to PN Huerquehue via Pucon (140+ km, 2 hr 30). Mid PM: To PN Villarrica and vicinity (45 min).
Day 15 (Nov. 28): AM: To Monumento Natural Cerro Nielol at Temuco. PM: Visit market, Temuco. At 16:55 fly via Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas (23:30). Hotel Tierra del Fuego.
Southern Chile (Magallanes)
Day 16 (Nov. 29): 09:15 Ferry across Strait of Magellan to Porvenir (2 hrs 30). PM: Bird Tierra del Fuego towards Bahia Gente Grande and Camino Solo de Verande. Stop at dump for gulls. Hotel Rosas, Porvenir.
Day 17 (Nov. 30): Bird Tierra del Fuego along south side of Strait of Magellan. Overnight at Hosteria Tunkelen, Cerro Sombrero
Day 18 (Dec. 01): To Bahia Azul ferry and across Strait (20 min). Bird Patagonian steppe north along and side roads off Pali Aike road. PM: Drive south-west along Strait past Punta Arenas (1 hr) then north to Puerto Natales on good highway (245 km, +3-4 hrs). Hotel Aquaterra.
Day 19 (Dec. 02): Drive north 90+ km past entrance to PN Torres del Paine, then 30+ km farther up into Sierra Baguales (signed to Las Cumbres); bird all day along road. Overnight at Hosteria Cerro Guido near park.
Day 20 (Dec. 03): Short drive into PN Torres del Paine through Portero Sarmiento. All day birding in park. Overnight Hosteria las Torres in park.
Day 21 (Dec. 04): Brief birding at hotel. Leave park, drive south back to Puerto Natales (lunch) and towards Punta Arenas with stops, notably at Seno Otway penguin colony. Hotel Tierra del Fuego next 2 nights.
Day 22 (Dec. 05): AM: Drive south on road towards Fuerte Bulnes; walk up mountain for White-bellied Seedsnipe. PM: Drive north and east from Punta Arenas then north on Gallegos Chico road to stake-out for Band-tailed Earthcreeper.
Day 23 (Dec. 06): 12:40 Fly Punta Arenas via Puerto Montt to Santiago, 16:55. Hotel Bonaparte next 3 nights.
Day 24 (Dec. 07): AM: Drive south from Santiago 87km to Rancagua and 55 km beyond to RN Los Cipreses (2½ hrs.). PM: Return to Santiago, bird at Parque Mahuida de la Reina in outskirts of Santiago.
Day 24 (Dec. 07): Drive up into mountains to the Farellones/El Colorado ski resort area for day (32 km, 1 hr, to @2500m).
Day 25 (Dec. 08): AM: Subway down town for sightseeing and to visit Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino. PM: rest a bit and late check out. 23:05 Fly Santiago via Miami to Toronto, arrive 11:10, 11 hr 55 in air.
Note that bird species seen on repeat occasions are normally mentioned only once or twice. See the annotated trip list for a more complete picture of species found in each region, at individual sites and the number of days seen. CLICK HERE for annotated species list.
Day 1 (Nov. 14):
Into Santiago on time at 06:50 after a 8 hr 20 min flight from Miami and 16½ hrs since departing Toronto. Immigration and baggage pickup goes like clock-work but, in virtually the only logistic foul-up of the whole trip, there is no one to pick us up so with a helpful taxi owner to the Bonaparte Hotel in the old leafy Providencia residential section of Santiago. A small pleasant hotel with nice staff. We had arranged for free early check-in and while waiting an hour or so for the room we are invited into the dining room for complementary breakfast. Gonzalo arrives and together with our 2 traveling companions who had arrived a day early we briefly go over the itinerary and discuss today’s outing. It should be noted that Latitud90 instantly instructed the hotel to reimburse us the $25 we paid for the taxi. So up to our room and we manage to log a couple of hour’s sleep.
We are outside the hotel by 14:00 in sunny 30°C weather watching White-crested Elaenias, Black-chinned Siskins, and best, a Rufous-tailed Plantcutter bringing twigs to its nest, invisible within a thickly foliaged tree beside the entrance. Gonzalo picks us up and we are away through the city then north 22 km before turning west another 15 km to where the road bisects an extensive shallow marsh (or wet field) system, the Lampa wetlands. This was 1 of only 2 places the entire trip where we needed rubber boots. Within a couple of minutes we flush our main target species, South American Painted-snipe, a dandy new family for Candy and me. Although a reliable site water levels are key to this species’ presence here and right now they seem perfect. In approximately ¾ hr we flush 12 to 15 birds. They are tough to pick out in the thick grassy vegetation in shallow water where the flushed birds always land, but in the course of repeat looks we eventually see the bill, head and back markings well.
We also visit Lago Batuco only a few km away and by the end of the afternoon have seen a nice assortment of representative Chilean marsh birds including a few lifers: White-tufted Grebe, 6 Black-necked Swans, 8 surreal looking Coscoroba Swans with young, 8 attractive Chiloe Wigeons, 200+ Yellow-billed Pintails, 10 Red Shovelers, 2 Rosy-billed Pochards, a Black-headed and a Lake Duck, maybe 350 White-winged Coots, nesting White-backed Stilts (complaining constantly with jarring, penetrating calls), 100+ similarly noisy Southern Lapwings, 2 Collared Plovers, 5 South American Snipes, 10 Brown-hooded Gulls, 8 Wren-like Rushbirds and 100 Yellow-winged Blackbirds. A good first outing.
Day 2 (Nov. 15):
Away from the hotel at 07:45 in rush hour traffic and it takes an hour to reach open road on Highway 78, first heading south from the capital then west towards the coast. We drive through agricultural country – grapes (this is wine country), melons, vegetables and fruit trees – and natural dry sclerophyllous bush or scrub, often termed matorral. Some of the produce we see will end up in Canadian food markets. Endemic Chilean Mockingbirds become a common sight on roadside wires. At 10:00 we are off the super highway, near Leyda I think, and onto a secondary road to the coast at Santo Domingo. Soon we are stopping beside the road, rather perilously at times, by a series of shallow lakes and associated wetland habitats chock full of waterbirds. There are many welcome repeats from yesterday but also new birds: Great and Silvery Grebes, 2 White-cheeked Pintails, White-tailed Kite, Cinereous Harrier, Harris’ Hawk, Red-gartered and Red-fronted Coots, and a few curious little Spot-flanked Gallinules.
By 11:00 we reach the coast at Santo Domingo near the mouth of the Maipo River. An assortment of seaside birds feeds and rests on the sand and rock beach and associated mud flats: fabulous big and colorful Peruvian Pelicans, always graceful Whimbrels, Surfbirds, Kelp, Brown-hooded and attractive Grey Gulls, 100+ Elegant and a few Common Terns, and 75+ Black Skimmers. Ringing the nearby estuary is a dense reed bed. Out comes the sound equipment and soon we have close views of 2 scarce Warbling Doraditos, and a couple of minutes later an endemic Dusky Tapaculo responds well from a patch of thick shrubs. Sharp looking Spectacled Tyrants fly about over the reeds and 3 Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetails feed in bushes near the edge.
We work our way north along the coast making several stops, most notably at a small artificial or reclaimed wetland at Cartagena, and the delightful Laguna El Peral reserve. Both places have an excellent cross-section of increasingly familiar water birds, giving outstanding views. At the former there are a lot of ducks including several perky Lake Ducks, and more Spot-flanked Gallinules. At Laguna El Peral we relax on sunny viewing stands set out in the marsh where colonial Brown-hooded Gulls are nesting all around us. We also watch swans and ducks, 2 different pairs of lovely Many-colored Rush-Tyrants busy with nest construction, more Wren-like Rushbirds, and eventually, stellar views of 2 Stripe-backed Bitterns alternately creeping stealthily then awkwardly hopping through the reeds. At 18:25 we drive farther north, by 20:20 arriving at the rather quaint and appealingly old-fashioned Hotel Yachting on the coast at Quintero.
Day 3 (Nov. 16):
Up to a pre-arranged early breakfast then with high expectations away at 05:45 to the docks, onto our vessel and
out into the harbor just after 06:00, for a nearly 7 hour pelagic trip on the Humboldt current. It is calm at first then with progressively rolling swells that after awhile have some of us turning a little green. Before long Sooty Shearwaters start zooming past the boat and a bit farther out Pink-footed Shearwaters appear; before the morning was over we’d tallied in the order of 200+ and 100+ respectively. Other procellariids include a couple of Southern Fulmars, Hall’s (Northern) Giant-Petrels, 15 Cape (Pintado), perhaps 25 Defilippi’s (Masatierra), 25+ White-chinned, a single Westland, and we think 2 Juan Fernandez Petrels. There are several Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and 3 Peruvian Diving-Petrels, thankfully because we missed the latter several years earlier in Peru. Large majestic Royal Albatrosses (15) occasionally pass by the bow then later settle into the wake when the crew start throwing out chum. We also see 25 or so Black-browed, @20 Shy (Salvin’s) and a single Buller’s Albatross, at least the others do but unfortunately I am at the front of the boat when I should be at the stern. Flocks of Peruvian Pelicans and Peruvian Boobies scud by at intervals, and we see several Guanay and a single Red-legged Cormorant. As we return to the harbor we get point blank looks at striking Inca Terns caring for young on massive girders under a huge shipping wharf, and 2 of us feel fairly confident with a Snowy-crowned Tern.
Back to wheeled transport, driving to the north. Just back from the coast at Costa Cachagua we have a first taste of forest birding in some native dry woodland as we eat our packed lunch: pretty Grey-headed Sierra-Finches, a striking White-throated Treerunner, our first little flock of Thorn-tailed Rayaditos and a Chilean Flicker. Then we enjoy the nearby Humboldt Penguin colony on an island just offshore from Cachagua, estimating 200+ in view altogether. Happily a terrific pair of large, nearly black Chilean Seaside Cinclodes make a conspicuous appearance on massive equally dark boulders along the water’s edge. Then we set off south-westwards back towards Santiago on another of Chile’s fast modern highways but exit somewhere near Lago Penuelas in dry matorral habitat and find several new species: Variable Hawk, Chilean Pigeon, Giant Hummingbird, a pair of near endemic Dusky-tailed Canasteros, Great Shrike-Tyrant, 3 nifty little Tufted Tit-Tyrants, and White-throated Tapaculo is conspicuously heard but not so much as glimpsed. We depart this good site near 19:30, arriving back at the Bonaparte in Santiago at 20:30.
Day 4 (Nov. 17):
Another keenly anticipated day with prospects for one of our most fervently hoped-for species. We depart the hotel at 08:00, detouring through streets clogged from a traffic accident then finally onto a road bordering the Maipo River and upwards through dry bunchgrass and shrub foothill habitats towards the El Yeso reservoir. At 09:50, 1365m, a Moustached Turca runs off the road and down onto boulders on the slope below us. Good looks at a terrific bird. Also: Black-winged Ground-Dove, huge numbers of White-browed Ground-Tyrants (100+), Blue-and-white Swallow and Band-tailed Sierra-Finch. At 1430m a pair of Torrent Ducks is spotted far below us in the white-water river, and through the scope we discover 4 downy young with them. The family by turns rests on rocks and plunges into the frothy torrent, emerging again a few meters downstream to preen. It is hard to believe how these ducks (never mind the young ones!) manage to navigate safely through the raging water and rocks.
By the time we reach 2380m we are driving past melting snow drifts and have racked up a nice list of Andean specialties: Giant Hummingbird again and White-sided Hillstar, many Rufous-banded Miners, Scale-throated Earthcreeper, 35 or more Grey-flanked and also Bar-winged Cinclodes, 9 Lesser (Sharp-billed) Canasteros, Cinereous and Black-fronted Ground-Tyrants, perhaps 75 Yellow-rumped Siskins, 150+ Grey-hooded plus Mourning and Plumbeous Sierra-Finches and a few Greater Yellowfinches, but so far we have dipped on the much sought endemic Crag Chilia. We reach the reservoir itself at around 2550m. A few ducks are loafing on the shore: Crested Duck, Speckled Teal, Yellow-billed Pintail, and there are 15 Baird’s Sandpipers.
Gonzalo creeps past a huge boulder that blocks half the track, on his left, maybe 6 inches away, a stomach-turning drop of a few hundred meters down to the reservoir. The rest of us get out! He almost makes it by but there are now fresh scrapes on his SUV. But better that than in the water below as he cheerfully admits. At the head of the embalse is a emerald green bog (or bofedal). I can feel tingling excitement as we pull on rubber boots and set off into a screeching cold wind. It does not take too long before Gonzalo motions and hollers “I’ve got them” and we are looking at a pair of exquisite little Diademed Sandpiper-Plovers. For close to an hour we watch, the wind ripping at our clothes and when I take my hands off the scope it blows over. Physically they don’t look much like plovers, but their periodic thinly whistled calls and the habit of making short sprints over the mossy surface do seem to give away their true affinity. It is a fabulous experience. Reluctantly but exhilarated we leave them, eat some lunch then head back down the mountain, in the process picking up matching scrapes on the left side of the vehicle.
Birding is not quite over. Gonzalo makes stops to broadcast his CD up at likely rock faces. Last chance at a favorite stake-out at 1435m, and yes!, 2 Chilias flutter down from the cliff to perch for a few moments on big boulders at the bottom, tails cocked upright and looking an awful lot like wrens. Then they are gone. For a birder days like this don’t come any better.
Day 5 (Nov. 18):
Our first travel day and long line-ups at the airport check-in counters throw a scare into us, but we make it OK onto the 09:00 flight north to Arica. We stop briefly at Iquique in the utterly desolate, forbiddingly brown Atacama desert, portions of which apparently have received no rainfall since Europeans came to Chile close to 500 years ago. I believe this - from the air there is just no green to be seen. The plane carries 2 other birding groups, led respectively by the author (Alvaro Jaramillo) and one of the illustrators (Peter Burke) of Birds Of Chile, and Alvaro patiently inscribes copies of his field guide while we are on the ground. Arica itself looks pretty stark too, but there is some greenery and even irrigated crops. Anything approaching what appears to be natural vegetation is sparse grass and scrub, except along streams where the scrub is greener, thicker and taller.
We collect the rental SUV, check into the quite modern and comfortable Hotel Panamericana, relax over a nice lunch at a seaside restaurant and by 15:30 are driving the few kilometers inland (east) to the Museo Arqueologico in the Azapa valley. It is >30°C in bright sunshine but does not feel oppressive in the dry heat. The grounds are planted with flowering shrubs and so are a magnet for hummingbirds, and birdwatchers. Immediately a ♀ Oasis Hummingbird is buzzing around, aggressively threatening all other hummers in sight, and she stays in command in the middle of the courtyard the entire time we are there. However a ♂ Peruvian Sheartail is able to establish himself for awhile on a high perch, looking bedraggled with part of his elongated tail plumes missing. We also see: Eared and Pacific Doves and the strange-sounding Croaking Ground-Dove (yes, like a frog), the northern subspecies of White-crested Elaenia (= “Peruvian”), Vermilion Flycatcher, Hooded Siskin, Cinereous Conebill, several Slender-billed Finches and Chestnut-throated Seedeater. We finish the birding day at the mouth of the Lluta River, checking out the small estuary and adjacent grass-and-scrub habitat. Several species of migrant shorebirds are present and a resident Killdeer here at the extreme southern edge of its range. A few thousand Franklin’s Gulls along with a handful of Belcher’s (Band-tailed) and Grey Gulls are on the beach along with Elegant Terns. A single Puna Ibis mixes with a few egrets and herons. Brilliant Peruvian Meadowlarks sing from nearby shrubbery, very similar to but shorter tailed than the Long-tailed Meadowlarks so common near Santiago.
Day 6 (Nov. 19):
Before breakfast we assemble with the other birders to examine seaside birds gathered on the rocks by the hotel. Chunky Blackish Oystercathers with bright orange bills are striking. A Southern Sea Lion has somehow bit the dust and come to rest in the rocks. Some 35 Turkey Vultures have congregated to feed on the carcass and hunker around the immediate vicinity, just a few meters from us. They look different from North American breeders, the deep rose-colored head making them appear almost attractive.
We are away from the hotel just before 09:00 on a overcast day in pleasant 21°C temperatures. Initially we spend some time birding semi-natural habitats near Arica, seeing a nice pair of Bran-colored Flycatchers and several species that were at the museum yesterday. After interminable stops for gas, lunch and so on it is not until 11:30 that we are on our way inland, at first along the flat Lluta River “floodplain” then gradually ascending into the Andean foothills. What a dramatic landscape - earth colors of all hues enveloping us, in the sand, rocks and more distant lower mountain slopes. And hardly a living plant except when we stop to view the river far below, where a neat greenish ribbon extends a short distance on either side. By noon it is sunny and 28°C at 1350m. At 2050m I am surprised to see a few widely dispersed columnar cacti as we enter a zone of minusculely greater moisture, apparently associated with air movement off the sea. Just below 3000m the cacti have disappeared but obviously there is even more moisture because the slopes now support sparse short shrubs in this the pre-puna shrub zone. Gonzalo explains the weather patterns that account for this, but I’m afraid I don’t quite get it all – must be the altitude already. We see birds: Greyish Miner, a pair of terrific Straight-billed Earthcreepers and several Streaked Tit-Spinetails. At 3500m, not long before we arrive at Putre, we add Dark-winged Canastero, Greenish Yellowfinch and Band-tailed Seedeater.
We pull into the Hosteria Las Vicunas just outside Putre at 13:45 and checking the altimeter I find that we will sleep tonight at about 3560m. As we settle in there are birds about: Bare-faced Ground-Doves, an Andean Hillstar with a nest under the eaves of one of the buildings, a pair of White-browed Chat-Tyrants, Hooded Siskins and Plumbeous Sierra-Finches. At 14:30 we head out to one of the well known local birding sites, the so-called dry gorge which is essentially a wide and deep shrubby canyon with evidence of a stream bed but not a drop of water. We have a great afternoon, new birds coming thick and fast: Puna (Variable Hawk), White-throated and Plain-breasted Earthcreepers, Canyon Canastero, Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant, jaunty little Yellow-billed Tit-tyrants, somber Chiguanco Thrushes, Blue-and-yellow Tanager, Golden-billed Saltator, Black-headed Sierra-Finch, and lots of species we’ve already seen – it’s a very birdy place. We finally climb back up the wall of the gorge, stopping frequently to suck in air. At the top a lovely adult Aplomado Falcon sits in a Eucalyptus, tearing apart a small bird. Some 30 Spot-winged Pigeons on wires and aerials around the houses are such new arrivals to Chile that they did not even make it into Jaramillo’s field guide published in 2003. Birdwatchers are thick on the ground when we return to Las Vicunas. In addition to ourselves and the 2 groups we met on the aircraft there 2 other large groups of more general naturalists, altogether some 80 people with enough interest in natural history to make the trip here, and a first-hand demonstration of the economic benefits of eco-tourism, at least on this local level.
Day 7 ( Nov. 20):
It is 6°C and frost covers the ground at 07:45. We spend an hour or so before breakfast at the “wet” gorge though with precious little water to be seen, and in fact with no new birds from yesterday. So we cut it short and just after 10:00 we head up towards Lauca National Park, soon stopping near the boundary (only @12 km, 4125m) to view new roadside birds: terrific Andean Geese, White-winged Cinclodes, Cordilleran Canastero, Puna and Rufous-naped Ground-Tyrants, Andean Swallows, and an Ash-breasted Sierra-Finch hops unconcernedly under the legs of my tripod as I watch the geese. A bit higher, at 4300m, we come to the first park checkpoint and are treated to dozens of strange and very tame (though watchful) Vizcachas – marmot-sized rodents with a rabbit’s ears and an opossum’s long (though furry) tail. And there is another much smaller rodent that looks very like a Pika but is called Big-eared Mouse. Also, all along this stretch of road we see Vicunas, members of the camel family and the wild counterpart of the domesticated Alpaca which is the source of wool for the lovely hand-made sweaters sold at Parinacota and Chungara villages within the park.
We walk in from the road to a nearby wet area, termed “bogs” here but bearing little resemblance to our Sphagnum bogs in North America. New birds keep appearing: Andean Gulls and Giant Coots in a pond, White-fronted Ground-Tyrant, Andean Negrito and at the bog itself we find our main quarry, both Grey-breasted and the grouse-sized Rufous-bellied Seedsnipes, the latter looking for all the world like a pair of ptarmigan on a patch of arctic tundra, but in fact they are members of the large shorebird order of birds (Charadriiformes). We hardly take time to notice the White-winged Diuca-Finches also sharing the bog. We are now well and truly in the high puna zone – rolling dry mountainsides covered in sparse tawny-colored bunchgrass and a few low shrubs, punctuated here and there with ponds, small lakes and the bright green bofedales or mountain bogs.
We continue through a hail storm to the picturesque Andean village of Parinacota by the shallow Lake Cotacotani. Which is full of waterbirds: White-tufted and Silvery Grebes, Puna Ibis, gorgeous Chilean Flamingos dozing in a tangle of graceful curves, 5 species of ducks of which Andean Duck is new, and Slate-colored (Andean) and more Giant Coots. Nesting is in full swing for many species. Just outside the village 20+ beautiful Andean Flickers are gathered outside their colony of nesting burrows dug into a roadside cut-bank. Farther still we reach the Bolivian border at Lake Chungara, topping out at just over 4600m. This lake is also packed with more great waterbirds, including the only Andean Lapwing of the trip, 30 lovely Puna Teal among the other ducks and even a couple of the altiplano subspecies of Black-crowned Night-Herons. Candy and I complete our buying binge of sweaters and other woven items, now with enough to fill a third duffel bag. But now all of our Christmas shopping is finished. So, appropriately, big wet snow flakes float down as we turn back. Flitting movement off the road materializes into a small party of sensational Black Siskins feeding in low shrubs and we scamper up a hillside through the snow for better views. A terrific day is capped off with 4 magnificent Puna Rheas striding through the bunchgrass not long after passing Parinacota again.
Back to Las Vicunas at 20:15. Everyone is tired but for Candy and I, thankfully, no sign of altitude-related discomfort although 1 of our companions is feeling nauseous with headache. The books always advise you not to drink alcohol when at altitude. We ignore this sound advice; we want to celebrate Lauca and Putre with a few Arequipenas, a brew brought in from nearby Peru. No problems.
Day 8 (Nov. 21):
Our luck holds; we slept well, and our friend seems much better. We take stock of our situation over breakfast and decide to go back up into the park for the morning to try for a couple of species missed yesterday. So away by 07:30, stopping first near the Vizcachas to check roadside Sierra-Finches for a possible White-throated but no joy. However Gonzalo suddenly stiffens and says “Tinamous calling”, but they are a long way off and we can’t really tell the direction. Soon we are clambering up hills, lungs working overtime. The birds call at intervals, but now from a different location? Our little party of 5 becomes fragmented as people head off towards various points of the compass after phantom Puna Tinamous. After several minutes Gonzalo, Candy and I see Sandra and Laird waving their arms – they have spotted 3 tinamous, on the far side of the road! We puff and wheeze up in time to get the ‘scope up and view the group in their mutual calling display, so nicely illustrated by Peter Burke in the Jaramillo field guide. Great sight. We still have a couple more hours so wander into an extensive “bog” system falling away down slope to our left at 4450m. There are beautiful alpine flowers, more ground-tyrants and White-winged Diuca-Finches, and we are in luck with another pair of ptarmigan, I mean Rufous-bellied Seedsnipes. Then the big surprise when a small snipe flushes, and later another – Puna Snipes, a tough bird in Chile.
Finally, if a little reluctantly, we start down, passing the road into Putre just after noon. An hour later at the tiny hamlet of Zapahuira (3363m) we turn south off the paved highway onto a dirt secondary road and proceed through empty countryside and out of the way little villages until at 14:00 we come to a remnant Polylepis “forest” (they tend to stretch some terms a bit in northern Chile), to us more like a patch of overgrown shrubs. Gonzalo found the first nest of Giant Conebill for Chile here, and that is the bird we want to see too. We have to walk up a steep hillside to where the trees are tallest and densest, still quite a lung-wrenching exercise at 3825m. Birds are scarce but Gonzalo and I catch a glimpse of an Ornate Tinamou in flight below us. We find a pair of D’Orbigny’s Chat-Tyrants easily enough, another Polylepis specialist, but despite repeated use of the CD there is no hint of a Giant Conebill. Finally we are standing around, hands in pockets, each person more or less acknowledging to himself that it is not going to happen today when I see movement in thick foliage a few trees away. It is the conebill, and all the sweeter too because we had all missed it 6 years earlier in Peru. It takes 40 minutes to drive back out to the highway, where a sign indicates 109 km to Arica. Two hours later it is a relief to again breathe sea-level air.
Day 9 (Nov. 22):
Once again we take time first thing in the morning to view birds on the rocks by the Panamericana, and later from a nearby large breakwall with a lighthouse. We have caught up with the other 2 birding groups once more, and Alvaro Jaramillo spots a storm-petrel out over the strangely placid ocean that turns out to be a White-vented (Elliot’s), very convenient for us since we missed it on the pelagic. Then we drive south for about 40 minutes to the Chaca valley, not arriving at our first stop until 11:25. We eat lunch by the little river, a warm day at 28°C but the strong gusty wind keeps blowing sandy grit into our sandwiches. None of our targets are here but we get good looks at Andean Swifts. The next stop does produce the pretty and now rare and endangered Chilean Woodstar. Evidently its numbers have declined steadily ever since Peruvian Sheartails invaded Chile several years ago, so I feel very fortunate. We also see the andecola race of Grey-bellied Shrike-Tyrant. Then to a dry stream bed lined on either side with Tamarugo trees, or maybe tall shrubs (here we go again). We stumble around and over the boulders, Gonzalo playing the CD when a small bird flutters out over our heads from the tamarugos trying to find the intruder, then it perches to permit fine views – it’s the Tamarugo Conebill and our last target. So back to Arica where we spend a little while at the Lluta River mouth again with relatively little to see this time. Our flight to Santiago, again via Iquique, leaves on time at 18:20 and everything proceeds routinely. Thus ends phase 2 of the trip and I reflect at 31,000 ft how unfortunate it would have been to cut out this part as we had contemplated doing just a few weeks earlier when it looked like we might be attempting too much.
Day 10 (Nov. 23): So on to the Araucania region. The plantcutter is singing outside the Bonaparte at 06:20 when Sammy picks us up and delivers us to the airport, in plenty of time for the 08:10 flight south to Concepcion where we touch down at 09:05; it’s always great to be back in solid contact with the good planet earth. Half an hour later we are making great time driving east on the ultra-modern highway to Chillan, passing through miles of monotonous commercial Eucalyptus and pine plantations. We’re through Chillan at 10:35 then onto slower roads towards Valle Las Trancas, arriving at our (good) Hotel Robledal just before noon (1185m). This is a tourist area, for Chileans as well as foreigners, and it reminds me of what we call cottage country at home. And (I must admit) it is true forest, where some of our “most-wanteds” reside. As we get situated we find that a pair of Thorn-tailed Rayaditos have a nest in a tree cavity just outside our window and a Green-backed Firecrown perches in the same tree. We walk a little way into the Coihue and Southern Beech (Nothofagus) forest behind the hotel where a Chucao Tapaculo calls loudly but will not show. But we see Fire-eyed Diucon and Patagonian Tyrant well, and enjoy small terrestrial orchids, white flowers with faint purplish stripes and a whorl of 4 basal leaves.
After lunch we drive slowly up the incredibly dusty road to the Termas de Chillan resort area featuring hot springs and skiing. Gonzalo says to keep a sharp eye out for Magellanic Woodpecker and we also make stops to look for Chestnut-throated Huet-huet, all without success. We are forced to turn around at the “grand hotel” and so repeat the process of drive-and-stop on the way down. I for one peer intently at the huge gnarled Nothofagus trunks, my eyes flitting up, down and sideways over every tree I can see. For awhile. Part of me becomes aware that my mind has wandered; I am no longer so systematically searching from tree to tree. When, as if a shotgun discharged right behind me, I am shocked out of my reverie by a full-frame view of a ♂ Magellanic Woodpecker right where I happen to be gazing, clamped onto the trunk of a massive Southern Beech. Then we have gone past. I manage to find my voice, we stop, pile out, run back up the road, and in fact there is a pair of these absolutely fantastic birds. We watch for half an hour, eye-filling ‘scope views before they move on. The female is particularly engaging with her plain black body plumage but gleaming yellow eye and rakish top-knotted crest (just look at the field guide). She smashes into a limb with fearsome whacks. For me this is not just one of the moments of the trip, but of all trips so far. Enough said, they are great birds. Then we drive up a horrible rough road towards “Shangrila” and see hardly a bird, but really who cares?
Day 11 (Nov. 24):
It’s very chilly as we take a short walk behind the hotel. Good views of Chucao Tapaculo for Sandra and Laird, and I catch a glimpse of a Chilean Hawk just as it drops from the perch where it had called and down into a ravine. Whether it has been unseasonably dry I don’t know but many residences have left sprinklers on all night and we view futuristic ice sculptures on lawns along the road as we drive up towards Termas. There is a lot of traffic already and it is still extremely dusty. Once again Gonzalo tries likely looking spots for Huet-huets and again we come up empty. Near the upper end of the road we stop once more and stroll into the forest, and literally blunder onto a pair of superb Chestnut-throated Huet-huets who are busy scratching in the leaf litter and cramming worms into their bills; obviously they have young nearby. I am surprised that they aren’t overly skittish and since the understory is quite sparse we get excellent views.
With the 2 big objectives achieved we are under way at 10:55, heading back west to Chillan (@75 km), then south to Angol, a further 230 km but on an extremely good fast highway. We arrive at 13:55 and check into the Hotel Social Club, an intriguing old establishment featuring a lot of dark wood and marble and with an appealing Art Nouveau or Art Deco feel to it. I would have liked to take home one of the neat old metal wall sconces from the bar and corridors. Soon we are en route to Parque Nacional Nahuelbuta about 33 km away via another dusty gravel road, finally steeply upwards past the park gate through Nothofagus forest to a seriously scenic lookout called Cerro Piedra del Aguila (1380m). It is quite magnificent standing under huge centuries-old Monkey-puzzle Trees (Araucaria araucana) and to look straight out into the crowns of others growing below. We can see large swollen flower buds close to blooming stage. A lot of scraggly lichens hang from branches and the bark forms a reticulated pattern of rough plates and deep fissures, looking like (so I imagine) fossil dinosaur scales might. The trees are valued for lumber so not surprisingly they have become depleted throughout Chile. Nahuelbuta is one the best places because you can still experience a forest vista rather than scattered trees. It is very impressive. Not many birds are in evidence up here although a lovely pair of Patagonian Sierra-Finches is welcome. However just after we leave the park someone spots 6 or 7 parakeets perched on tree tops. There is uncertainty and disagreement, some opting for Australs but I think the one I had in the scope was a Slender-billed.
Day 12 (Nov. 25):
Back to the park, taking an hour with no stops, and again up to the lookout. At 09:40 it is a chilly 7°C but a lovely clear day. Birds are more active this morning. A pair of Ochre-flanked Tapaculos sing persistently from thick shrubs, moving about in response to the tape but it is hard to get even a glimpse. Very gradually I assemble a composite image – the peculiar flat head now, a cocked tail with some rufous vent later, and so on. We walk along the trails at the top, Gonzalo leading, me right behind, then Candy. I notice she isn’t there any more when I hear a muffled call and she is frozen on the path behind. Gonzalo and I creep back and unbelievably there is (still!) a Black-throated Huet-huet not 5 meters from Candy and perched in full view near top of one of the dense clumps of bamboo, swaying and flapping to maintain its balance. It does not like the additional attention however and soon flutters awkwardly down to the ground, disappearing into the thick foliage.
We celebrate, more noisily than we should, but what a view, and photos. When, more incredibly, a tiny fox is suddenly 4-5 meters away on the trail. My first reaction was here comes a rabid fox so look out. But it is clear-eyed, calm, aware and exquisitely beautiful with grizzled dark grey pelage and much rich rufous around the ears. Over the next 20 minutes or so it prowls quietly around us on the trail and deep in the shrubbery, in the process disturbing the Ochre-flanked Tapaculos again so we get more brief glimpses of them. The most unbelievable thing of all is that Gonzalo has never seen one before, and he goes nuts with his camera. This is Darwin’s Fox (Pseudalopex fulvipes), now extremely rare with only @70 remaining on the mainland, all in and near Nahuelbuta, and 250 on Chiloe Island. Darwin first collected it there during his Beagle voyage in 1834, purportedly by whacking the fox on the head with a hammer when it walked up to him. At 12:00 the temperature is still only 13°C so we go lower to eat our lunch in the camp ground. An Austral Pygmy-Owl and a Chucao Tapaculo are enticed to vocalize, the owl finally coming out for good views but the tapaculo does not. As we leave the owl is still calling away. We make great time on the 6 lane highway (120 kph speed limit) to Temuco (241k population) only about 115 km from Angol and check into the Hotel Frontera at 17:40. The elevation at the hotel is 110m.
Day 13 (Nov. 26):
Off to Parque Nacional Conguillio just after 08:00, a surprisingly long drive and we do not arrive until 09:55. We drive up into the park to about 1150m, quite a bit of packed snow still remaining on the roads. It is a beautiful park with lush Nothofagus forest and a scattering of Araucarias, but there aren’t many birds in evidence. However, we stop at a lake and are happy to see a couple of pairs of very lovely Ashy-headed Geese plus Great Grebe and a few Black-necked Swans. And at another stop by a large thicket of bamboo we hit pay dirt. Several times on the trip already DeMur’s Wiretails have responded to their recorded song in a half-hearted way; this time a feisty hyper-active individual charges out to the edge of the thick bamboo. But it will NOT perch, or even pause for a split second it seems - it is mostly a tiny tawny blur of flitting, bobbing feathers. However with patience we begin to see it well enough and Candy even gets a couple of partial photos. Most importantly we see the long filamentous tail plumes, resembling perhaps (admitedly in a wildly fanciful way) a miniature bird-of-paradise, though no doubt a trifle drab one. One of Chile’s most charismatic passerines and a great bird to see.
After this it is extremely quiet again. Gonzalo concludes that passerine migration is late this year, and that our best strategy for the rest of the day is to rush to the coast at Puerto Saavedra, some 80 km back past Temuco. This we do but even here the normally birdy wetlands are disappointing, although we do see a single definite Snowy-crowned (Trudeau’s) Tern, and we North Americans are somewhat taken aback to find perhaps a dozen Sedge Wrens in low scrub back off the beach. It has been a long day with too much driving, the birding sites too distant from our base of operations in Temuco. Outside the hotel large numbers of noisy Chimango Caracaras keep Candy awake into the night. Caracaras are often held out as South American counterparts of crows but I did not realize the similarities extend even to communal roosting behavior in cities. But it is no problem for me – I just take out my hearing aids and all is quiet and serene.
Day 14 (Nov. 27):
Distances and driving times continue to strain logistics a little. I find myself thinking that despite Temuco’s conveniently central location it might actually have been better to lodge closer to the parks we wanted to visit. Parque Nacional Huerquehue is 141 km from Temuco by way of Villarrica and Pucon and it takes 2½ hours to get there, albeit through pleasant rural countryside of hay fields and pastures with lesser amounts of crop land. We stop for gas and sandwiches in Pucon and are entertained by Black-faced Ibises perched on TV aerials and Southern Lapwings patrolling roof tops. Finally into the park at 10:30 and we start walking through beautiful Nothofagus forest with scattered Araucarias (895m). Many hikers are already on the trail. Our first attempt is for Magellanic Tapaculo and it works, a little black bird with white cap emerges from the forest undergrowth and shows very well. We also see a pair of Patagonian Tyrants starting to build a nest. Chucao Tapaculos call from thick streamside vegetation and respond vigorously to the tape, working their way in very close yet we cannot see more than a bit of movement. Eventually I decide to sit quietly on a log over the creek while the others continue up the trail. Suddenly a tapaculo calls very loudly, it can only be a couple of meters away, yet I get merely a glimpse. Finally I am forced to abandon the approach as the others return.
Without a clear plan of action we leave Huerquehue and at 15:00 drive towards Parque Nacional Villarrica, another 45 minute drive. The 3 snow-capped volcanoes provide dramatic scenery, 1 of which is nearly always in sight, but the overall habitat is much drier and we cannot pin-point more Chucaos. However we get very close to 2 or 3 calling Black-throated Huet-huets and a bird flutters across the track in front of us (825m). Eventually we wander outside the park and try our luck in a degraded Nothofagus woodlot just off the road, heavily cut over with only a few widely spaced mature trees remaining and with a very dense understory of predominately Chusquea bamboo. We get a nice look at a Chilean Pigeon, perched for a change, and another Magellanic Tapaculo shows nicely. As we return to the car a Chucao calls near the edge of the woods beside the road. And actually shows itself. It isn’t perfect but I plainly see the rufous face and throat and the barred belly area. What a relief! Every trip brings its unexpected dips and it looked like the Chucao was going to be my nemesis this time. Elevation is 1450m.
Day 15 (Nov. 28):
Last day in the Araucania. We spend the better part of the morning at the Monumento Natural Cerro Nielol near the edge of the city, essentially a 90 ha hill about 120m in elevation and supporting mostly natural forest, with trails and an environmental interpretive center. There is a surprising array of good forest birds here. We see the common Austral Thrush and Austral Blackbird of course but also several Chilean Pigeons and a pair of Striped Woodpeckers. And an Ochre-flanked Tapaculo, 5 or 6 Black-throated Huet-huets and even a DeMur’s Wiretail call close by. At the lower mirador we watch a nice adult Rufous-tailed Hawk soar over the park and city (harassed by Chimango Caracaras), itself a rare sight but the more so since apparently this buteo actually soars rarely. Gonzalo is excited, this being only his 4th Rufous-tailed Hawk. Perhaps best for the rest of us is a flock of 10 or so Slender-billed Parakeets perched in a tree top down-slope, giving good side profile views of their bills. Now I am reassured that at least 1 of the parakeets we saw below Nahuelbuta on Day 11 was also a Slender-billed.
We head back into the city and visit the large central Mercado Municipal to eat a good authentic local meal and do some shopping. In mid-afternoon we drive to the airport to return the car and catch our flights, Gonzalo heading back to Santiago and the rest of us to Punta Arenas. Our flight has a fairly lengthy stop-over in Puerto Montt. Candy and I sit on a bench in the parking area listening to a Chucao Tapaculo sing nearby. Finally we are away and reach Punta Arenas on time at 23:30. Ricardo Matus is there to greet us and we are at the Hotel Tierra del Fuego by midnight in the surprisingly large far southern Patagonian city (population @125k)
Day 16 (Nov. 29):
The wind is literally howling, gusting to 100+ kph, and waves are lashing as we arrive at the dock at 08:00. There is some question whether the ferry can depart. But it does, at 09:15 and we huddle on the (more or less) sheltered side of the boat for the entire 2½ hour trip across the Strait of Magellan. Magellan sailed through here in 1520. It is frigid but we see seabirds: a few Magellanic Penguins, 25 Black-billed Albatrosses, 15 Antarctic Giant Petrels, 1 Southern Fulmar, 35 White-chinned Petrels, a probable Slender-billed Prion, 10 Wilson’s Storm-Petrels. No fewer than 30+ Magellanic Diving-Petrels give excellent looks on the water and in flight. There are Rock and Imperial Shags, 7 Chilean Skuas and several South American Terns.
It is a dream fulfilled as we roll onto Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, checking into the Hotel Rosas at Porvenir for a quick lunch then away northwards along the strait on the road to Bahia Gente Grande. We see Short-billed Miners and a large, attractive Chocolate-vented Tyrant. Then we pull into a private lane and another big moment has come. I wonder a little nervously if our great run of luck can continue. We park, zip up tight, lean into the wind, and walk alongside a shallow saline lake. There is a few minutes diversion when Ricardo spots a Magellanic Horned Owl day-roosting on a gravel bluff to our left, feathers ruffling in the wind. Then back to the serious business. We walk, periodically scanning the flats and finally Ricardo says simply “There they are, Magellanic Plovers”. For the next half hour or so we watch a pair of these strange, pale grey little plovers with pink legs. On many taxonomic lists they are treated as a monotypic family. Here too the scope wants to topple over unless I keep a steadying hand on it, but again, fortunately, no damage. At first they feed like proper plovers, making quick sharp pecks at the substrate. Then we are astounded when they rotate in slow circles, apparently digging into the wet sand and gravel to dislodge prey, looking something like lethargic dry land phalaropes. It is one of the great thrills of the trip. On the way back to Porvenir we stop at the town dump where there are thousands of Kelp Gulls, including a leucistic individual that had us thinking rarity for awhile.
Day 17 (Nov. 30):
A full day on fabled Tierra del Fuego, sunny and somewhat less windy so it is comparitively pleasant as we head northeast again. Soon we see Bar-winged Cinclodes and terrific Least Seedsnipes displaying in the sparse roadside vegetation, another wanted species. Various wetlands yield a fine assortment of waterfowl. We take a private road north through steppe vegetation towards the strait and finally onto coastal flats of very short grasses and herbs such as the salt tolerant Salicornia. The resemblance to the James and Hudson Bay tide flats in northern Canada is uncanny. We get good views of Austral Canastero and a pair of very sharp Rufous-chested Dotterels, followed shortly by 4 more in display flights. But the bird of the day is surely the elegant and surpassingly gorgeous Tawny-throated Dotterel. Altogether there are 5 including a marvelous pair next to the road. As we scan out towards the strait at 16:00 a shower system passes low overhead creating a dramatic mosaic of sullen dark clouds pierced here and there by oblique shafts of brilliant sunshine, extending around us in all directions. We continue to the tiny village of Cerro Sombrero where we stay at a new hotel with restaurant, the Hosteria Tunken, set up primarily to accommodate personnel servicing the recently developed Patagonian gas fields.
Day 18 (Dec. 1):
At this time of the year in Magallanes there is enough light to bird effectively from about 05:30 to well past 21:00. Early this morning South American Snipes whinny in display flights over the hotel and we also get good looks at one in a nearby ditch. We are off to the Bahia Azul ferry at 08:00, on the way spotting another Chocolate-vented Tyrant on a fence post then in flight; it reminds me of an old world cuckoo with its long pointed wings and elongated body and tail. Baird’s and White-rumped Sandpipers forage on the concrete ferry landing. Here the strait is only 3 km wide and takes just 15-20 minutes to cross so there are not many seabirds although we see 2 Commerson’s Dolphins.
By 10:00 we are driving north into the rolling Patagonian steppe with its spare cover of low shrubs and coarse brittle bunchgrass, I suppose possibly even the same species we saw high in the Andes in PN Lauca and near Santiago, but here at barely over 200m. First we travel roads near Punta Delgado and later the paved highway to Pali Aike but we also take excursions onto secondary tracks. The usual Patagonian wind is roaring and with the temperature at 9°C it feels cold. Signs warn of mine fields remaining from a 1978 disagreement with Argentina. Almost immediately we see our first splendid Darwin’s Rheas and we connect with Common Miner and 2 different pairs of the lovely Canary-winged Finch. And at a location with taller shrubs are 2 pairs of Patagonian Mockingbirds accompanied by young. We stop at several wetlands holding assorted Patagonian waterbirds. Many are repeats but with a few new ones too: Silvery (100+) and White-tufted Grebes, 20 Flamingos, a few Black-necked Swans, 10 Coscoroba Swans, 250+ spectacular Upland Geese (including males of both white-bellied and barred morphs as well as intermediates, much as with blue-phased Lesser Snow Geese at home), 15 Ruddy-headed Geese, 100 lovely Chiloe Wigeons, a few Cinnamon and many Speckled Teal (of the flavirostris subspecies), 50 Crested Ducks, Red Shovelers, 20 Rosy-billed Pochards, 2 Black-headed and 5 Lake Ducks. Best for me is another lifer duck in the form of 2 pairs of attractive Silver Teal with small young not long away from the nest.
The afternoon is taken up with a drive of some 250 km, first back west past Punta Arenas then northwards. South of Puerto Natales the landscape changes subtly as we begin to pass stands of scraggly Nothofagus, and there are now low mountains to be seen. We don’t have much time for birding but cannot resist stops to view the 100 or so Rheas we pass. At Puerto Natales we check into the Hotel Aquaterra. Before dinner Candy and I stroll down to the ocean where Chiloe Wigeons and Crested Ducks feed along the downtown waterfront, and there are even 50 or so Black-necked Swans of which one pair has 4 downy white young cradled cozily on their backs between the wings, which then clamber off into the cold water to forage by their parents.
Day 19 (Dec. 2):
We head north out of Puerto Natales at 08:00. Progress is slow through a long construction zone soon to be a fine highway but just now a rough dusty mess. It is still mainly a rolling steppe landscape at an elevation of around 215m. We keep going past the entrances to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, seeing more Rheas, 2 Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles and at least a dozen Andean Condors, several flying low and 4 actually on the ground; presumably there is a sheep carcass nearby. We also see Least Seedsnipe, Dark-bellied Cinclodes and Scale-throated Earthcreeper but in general biotic diversity is low. Then at 225m asl we begin to climb a bit more sharply, passing a sign pointing ahead to Las Cumbres near the Argentine border. We are now entering the Sierra Baguales, and we start to see more birds: Cinnamon-bellied and Ochre-naped Ground-Tyrants, another pair of Patagonian Mockingbirds and Greater Yellowfinches. Off the road to our left a Patagonian/Argentinean Grey Fox/Grey Zorro sits a few feet from its den, 1 young animal peeking out. We stop for lunch by a small stream at 575m, huddling out of the seemingly endless wind as best we can and watch Bar-winged Cinclodes and Cordilleran Canasteros. Before the trip I had particularly wanted to see Yellow-bridled Finch, described as a rare bird. I had not anticipated being able to study several at less than 5m by a scenic little creek while we munch sandwiches, and they eat Dandelion seeds. In fact they are common here today and we end up walking right past many – altogether we see in excess of 75, more than Ricardo has ever seen.
Finally we come to the locked gate of a sheep estancia and this is the end of the road, about 650m asl. From here we hike a couple of kilometers farther to a cliff beyond some out buildings that often holds the much sought after White-throated Caracara, and a Caracara does fly from then immediately behind the cliff, but unbelievably and disappointingly Ricardo concludes that it is a Southern Caracara. So we trudge back to the vehicle and begin our drive back. After maybe a kilometer Laird spots a raptor buffeting about in the wind over a distant ridge. We pile out to look but it has disappeared behind the ridge, then comes up again and finally it seems to land on a craggy cliff but we can’t see it. Ricardo kind of shakes his head and says, “Well that is the bird alright”. He thinks we should walk again, another 1½ km out over steep and rough rocky ground that now seems essentially like alpine meadow or even tundra to me, and crammed with lovely wildflowers. After several scans Ricardo finds the bird! It is on a rock face and is obviously calling, but in the wind we can’t hear anything – too bad because Jaramillo’s field guide says its voice is “not known”. Fine looks in the scope and finally it launches off the cliff and slides down the far side out of view. Great experience. Not too far from the boundary of PN Torres del Paine we pull into the up-market Hosteria Cerro Guido where we spend a comfortable though expensive night. Like housing prices, location means everything.
Day 20 (Dec. 3):
A rather idyllic day cruising the roads of PN Torres del Paine, terrific birds in a spectacular setting. We start at the marsh just inside the Portero Sarmiento, but though we hear Austral Rails very closely the nearest anyone comes to a sighting is a bit of movement in the Cyperus and Carex reeds. However this is nothing new because even by rallid standards the Austral is a nasty skulker. But we see several Sedge Wrens, Yellow-winged Blackbirds and a host of by now familiar waterbirds such as a pair of Upland Geese with 7 downies only 2-3 days old, and nearby a Guanaco curiously notes every move we make. Next we stop at a small patch of struggling forest where we get good looks at a pair of Grey-bellied Shrike-Tyrants, rare here. One of the many small lakes, or big ponds, has ducks, very happily including a lifer Spectacled Duck, at first snoozing but finally it feeds a bit, so showing its identifying features well, and there are 15 or so typically gorgeous Chilean Flamingos. A stop for lunch at one of the park lodges yields a Lesser (Sharp-billed) Canastero and in the parking area are 3 point-blank Austral Parakeets. Through the ’scope we watch a ♀ Condor far up on a cliff standing in front of a small cave or grotto.
In the afternoon we pay an obligatory visit to the Lago Grey glacier, now much shrunken (global warming strikes again?) so that the best views are from a high mirador on the road rather than at the now broad and barren beach by the lake itself. But we decide to go anyway and there are quite a few tourists about as we walk down the pathway to the lake, and to where you must first cross a small fast river via a swinging foot bridge, only 5 people at a time the sign says. As we wait our turn Ricardo mentions that sometimes there are Torrent Ducks here and as we stagger and sway out onto the bridge he spots a pair downstream. They hop onto rocks and dive into the frothy current, it would seem gradually working their way up towards us. They keep coming, the ♂ closely following the very perky ♀, but we can’t hold our bins steady to watch them. Will they actually swim under the bridge? We retreat as fast as we can and everyone scampers down under the bridge to kneel on the bank. And the pair of sensational Torrent Ducks comes right by us, less than 4m away I think. I can plainly see their long rudder-tails spread just under the water’s surface. To cut an even longer story short they swim back downstream through the fast current in the middle and then back up, this time along the far side. We saw many outstanding birds in Chile, including several fabulous lifers, but for me this is the moment of the trip.
And we are very fortunate in another way. Shortly after getting underway again we suffer our second flat tire in as many days, with no spare this time. Ricardo hopes the park service can make repairs and hitches a ride to the nearest outpost. They can, and they do, but it takes around 2 hours. We would never have continued on to the lake if the puncture had happened earlier. During the enforced wait Candy and I walk out into the adjacent meadow, sit down tolerably comfortably with our backs to the wind, and enjoy half a dozen splendid Black-faced Ibises who gradually work their way in to within 25-30 meters of us. And Correndera Pipits perform flight songs just overhead, although I don’t know how they could be heard by anything with the wind. In the gathering dusk we hurry towards our hotel but make quick stops for a juvenile Aplomado Falcon, an Austral Pygmy-Owl and a family of Chilean Flickers. Finally to the comfortable Hosteria Lago Grey, expensive also, but by Torres del Paine standards I suppose not extravagantly so. An action-packed day and it is thus easy to forget the nonchalant deer, an Huemel, browsing close to the road as we left Lago Grey.
Day 21 (Dec. 4):
Introduced European Hares are all over the grounds of the hotel early in the morning. We walk for perhaps half an hour to a Magellanic Horned Owl roost site and view 2 birds nestled in shrubby vegetation on a steep hillside. Then after an interminable check-out to correct gross errors that had us exorbitantly overcharged, we are finally underway at 10:30. From the park entrance it is 330 km back to Punta Arenas. As we drive out we are thrilled to see a male Rhea leading 18 chicks less than a week old, and to see him give a peculiar wing-flashing display obviously meant to collect the young because they all respond by hurrying after him. Then it is back into the construction zone until we reach Puerto Natales for lunch. Onwards without a stop until 16:30 when Ricardo pulls into a stakeout by a lake where gravel removal has created exposed banks. Patagonian Yellowfinches have excavated nesting burrows here and eventually we see birds entering and exiting.
This is our only chance to visit the Seno Otway Magellanic Penguin colony north and west of Punta Arenas, where we arrive in late afternoon. We keep our 3-day record intact with yet another flat tire, but again luckily, it happens in the parking lot after we get there. This time Ricardo ‘phones the car rental company to come out from Punta Arenas with a new tire while the rest of us make a tour of the colony. It is a private facility with board walks and signs all through low ocean-front dunes where the penguins nest, educational I suppose but seeming a bit obtrusive at first. Nonetheless we soon get to enjoying the birds – who wander here and there among the nesting burrows (one right under the boardwalk) and also stage on the beach to bathe before heading out to sea, or for those just arriving back at the colony, to relax a bit before plodding into the dunes to their nests. The penguins are wonderful, but a pair of Flying Steamerducks on a small creek steals the show for me. We have fabulous prolonged and close looks in the spotting scope. I had read that steamerducks, though appearing quite distinctive, are actually close to the mainstream dabbling ducks and watching the ♀ upending to feed in the creek it is easy to see this. At 20:00, just as the first hint of dusk adds to an already heavily overcast sky, the tire is replaced. And as we set out a Patagonian Hog-nosed Skunk has emerged for the night’s hunt, ambling along the edge of the parking area. It has to be noted once again that a flat tire is not always an unmitigated curse - we would not have seen the skunk otherwise.
Day 22 (Dec. 5):
Today was set aside during early planning stages to try for White-bellied Seedsnipe after Ricardo made it clear that a special effort would be necessary. So it was disappointing to learn just before we departed for Chile that his normal site was off limits while the landowner carried out logging in the lower sections of his property. However, Ricardo knew another site that he thought had possibilities although he had not been able to check it out yet – hence this was to be a strictly exploratory attempt with no guarantees. So away we go at 07:30 driving south on the road to Fuerte Bulnes. Not too far out of Punta Arenas we turn onto private land (at 56m) and start up a single lane track through lovely though cut-over native forest and spotting a Black-faced Ground-Tyrant on the way. At 450m we park and hike up a path through gnarled, stunted Nothofagus trees complete with drooping lichens, a bit like a fairy-land. Above us we can see treeless alpine slopes but Ricardo cannot yet judge their quality. It is a brisk climb and at 680m we emerge onto what amounts to alpine tundra. Seems promising from what I’ve read. I stop to take a photo of the habitat, Ricardo walking ahead, and through the view finder I see 2 birds flush in front of him, and I know they are the seedsnipes. We study these naive trusting birds with such lovely intricate plumage for close to half an hour at distances of less than 10m as they go about their business of feeding and resting or just peering around in their austere yet hauntingly beautiful habitat. It is a tough bird to see and we feel extremely fortunate.
After this we drive a short distance farther south on the Fuerte Bulnes road until we connect with a pair of Flightless Steamerducks on a shoal offshore, also seeing 3-4 Peale’s Dolphins in the process. We then reverse direction to hurry back past Punta Arenas and out onto the Patagonian steppe once more via the road to Gallegos Chico. There is a brief stop at a small shallow lake to identify 150+ Wilson’s Phalaropes then we stop in the middle of nowhere. It is one of Ricardo’s stakeouts, this one for Band-tailed Earthcreeper, which soon zooms into view in response to the minidisk. It is also scarce and we enjoy prolonged views of a charged up little bird, another furnariid that automatically makes one think of a wren.
Day 23 (Dec. 6):
I suppose we could have made an early birding foray, and I would not have minded a better look at Flightless Steamerduck, but instead it becomes the only non-birding day of the main itinerary. We have a bit of a lay-in. Part of the morning is devoted to settling up with Ricardo, then a bit of shopping, and it is time to go to the airport for our 12:40 flight to Santiago via Puerto Montt. We are back at the homey Hotel Bonaparte by 17:45, the temperature a very warm 31°C, and a big contrast from Patagonia.
Day 24 (Dec. 7):
Traffic is heavy as we drive south 87 km to Rancagua and 55 km farther to the Reserva Nacional Rio de los Cipreses, taking 2 hours 45 minutes including a rather lengthy stop to get sandwiches. Then another 25 minutes up into the park through dry sclerophyllous woodland turning quickly into really dry matorral with lots of large columnar cacti in flower. Finally we park and walk a short trail to the lip of a very deep river canyon, the walls nearly vertical in places. The altimeter reads just over 1050m. Below, likely all of 100m down, is a muddy river over which we can see the objective for the day, Burrowing Parrots. In typical parrot fashion they are milling around tree tops, some squabbling, some involved in mutual preening, and we can see copulations taking place. Others fly back and forth across the river and to the canyon walls where they land at entrances to nesting burrows. They are not close but through the ‘scope the colors and peculiar pushed-in face are readily visible. Park personnel tell us that in 1985 the parrots had declined to around 270 birds but today have increased to 1600. Following an alarm of some sort I think we can see 400+ in the air at once. A long drive, but a good outing. Not far south of Los Cipreses is the site of the notorious plane crash of Uruguayan soccer fans who were forced to cannibalize their dead companions, subsequently the subject of a book and the movie Alive.
After eating the sandwiches we head back to Santiago. Gonzalo is thinking about the few target species we have not seen yet, most notably Chilean Tinamou and White-throated Tapaculo. He knows a good place within the outskirts of Santiago that holds both birds, but to be sure both are difficult. It is quiet and hot when we arrive at the Parque Mahuida de la Reina though with a few birds about such as Eared Dove, Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetail, Dusky-tailed Canastero, Tufted Tit-Tyrant, Common Diuca-Finch and many Chilean Mockingbirds, and we also see 2 pairs of Striped Woodpeckers. And, Chilean Tinamous do call above us on the matorral covered slopes but we can’t seem to get near any of them by way of the trails. As the afternoon wears on the tapaculos begin to respond, as many as 6 or 7, likely the strangest yet most distinctive passerine song I have ever heard. But it is a typically frustrating experience, much like trying to get one’s eyes on an antpitta in tropical South America. However, Gonzalo keeps trying. Eventually we have a bird in a thick shrubby clump in front of and a bit below us, calling away, and finally I just do briefly get on a bird showing rich cinnamon on the head and back as it scampers nimbly along the ground under the low hanging branches.
Day 25 (Dec. 8):
It is our last birding day in Chile and we get away at the trip-record early time of 06:30 towards Farellones, a ski resort complex in the mountains above Santiago. The habitat seems roughly similar to that on the road to El Yeso (on Day 4) although with differences that are nevertheless hard for a neophyte visitor to pin down in words. At first we concentrate on Chilean Tinamou, stopping several times while driving up and down the dry scrubby lower mountain slopes below 2000m. We hear only 1 distant bird. Then Candy and Laird simultaneously glimpse a tinamou on a hillside above the car, but of course it can no longer be seen by the time we find a safe place to stop and get out. So we bushwhack up the hill in a disorganized pack. I am positioned highest and luck is with me when I spot the tinamou scurrying rapidly up the hill well in front of the others, then disappearing over the crest, not to be seen again.
Andean passerine birds are active. We’ve seen most species already including various miners, earthcreepers, cinclodes, canasteros, shrike-tyrants, ground-tyrants and sierra-finches, but all are nice to see again. And there are 2 Variable Hawks, a South American Snipe close beside the vehicle and a Moustached Turca. However, 4 Mountain Caracaras a bit above the tree line at around 2150m are new. Gonzalo says he never sees them at El Yeso and speculates that garbage from the ski resorts are the main attraction here, especially in winter. Lunch today is a relaxed, leisurely affair in a wonderful Andean setting, all the more so when Gonzalo pulls out a big jar of home-made pisco sour! Absolutely delicious and surely the most dangerous drink in existence, so good you could just keep sipping away, one after another. However, we can report that no especially outrageous extralimital occurrences made an appearance. But a beautiful Culpeo Fox does trot by us on the road, our third fox of the trip, and clearly larger than the other 2 species.
To round out the day we drive upwards past the ski village of El Colorado, its modern chalets and multi-story hotels looking surreal in a virtual moonscape devoid of significant vegetation. At 2475m we stop by a rocky alpine stream above the town and the minidisk produces a Magellanic Tapaculo, but quite distinct from the white-headed form we saw in PN Huerquehue. This one is all black and bobs around and on the rocks in the swift flowing stream like a small dipper. And a bit farther up at 2486m we get a good response from a pair of Creamy-rumped Miners collecting food for their young among rock piles, our last new tick of the trip.
Day 26 (Dec 9):
Our flight does not leave until 23:05 tonight so we arrange for a late check-out. After sleeping a bit late we do most of our packing then take the metro downtown to have a look around but mainly to see the extraordinary ancient textiles in the very fine Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino. Then some rest and finally to the airport in plenty of time for our flight. The homeward trip goes pretty much like clockwork, the only rub being the bottles of pisco we had to forfeit under new check-in procedures where only 4 oz quantities of liquids are allowed in hand bags. Be warned – pack your pisco well down in checked luggage. And also, we have to leave our companions behind because they cannot find the key, the only key, to the safe in their room, which contains their tickets and travel documents. Being a holiday the management is having a tough time locating a locksmith as we drive away. Happily an email a few days later tells us that just as we left someone did arrive to drill the lock, and they made their flight.
Back home 2 months later we are still sorting through huge quantities of digital images, but it is a great way to re-live a fabulous trip. And a message from Ricardo Matus tells us how lucky we were to find the pair of White-bellied Seedsnipes at Punta Arenas. He took birders to the site the week after we were there and they were not to be found. Hopefully it was just one of those unfortunate misses that occur from time to time because it would be very good to have a reliable alternate place to see this difficult bird.
CLICK HERE for the annotated species list.