by Alvaro Jaramillo
The rest of my group arrived ready to bird, even after an exhausting 18 hour Flight. We looked at a Blue-and-white Swallow at the airport and then went to the foot of the Andes to find some birds. We were lucky. In only a couple of hours of looking we found some nice species including the endemic Chilean Mockingbird and two endemic tapaculos: the huge Moustached Turca and the shy Dusky Tapaculo. In addition, we saw our first Giant Hummingbird, the largest of all hummingbirds. To top the day off, a majestic Andean Condor flew over a nearby ridge. We saw over twenty individual condors on our trip, dare I say its almost a sure bet in Chile?
We flew to Punta Arenas on our second day. As is usual, it was windy in the far south. Driving to the hotel we found ourselves along side the fabled Straits of Magellan, and true to form the birds were abundant there. Southern (Antarctic) Fulmars appeared to be everywhere, along with smaller numbers of their huge relatives, the Southern (Antarctic) Giant Petrel. We ate lunch watching Dolphin Gulls, Black-browed Albatrosses, Crested Ducks and Rock Cormorants - heaven. A short trip south along the Straits nabbed a few more species typical of the south, such as Black-faced Ibis, Ashy-headed Goose, Upland Goose, and Flying Steamer-Duck. We had fun studying the wintering flocks of White-rumped and Baird's sandpipers, a rather challenging ID in their dull winter plumages.
On our third day, we took a ferry to Tierra del Fuego, crossing the Straits of Magellan during a typical ferocious wind. Fortunately, the ferry was sheltered enough to allow for a pleasant, and birdy, crossing. We observed several Magellanic Penguins, many Black-browed Albatross, a few White-chinned (Shoemaker) Petrels as well as the alcid-like Magellanic Diving Petrel. Our short stay in Tierra del Fuego allowed us to observe our target species, the odd and enigmatic Magellanic Plover. Often this species is classified in its own family (Pluvianellidae), illustrative of the difficult time that taxonomist have trying to put this species in to an adequate category. We also observed another odd shorebird of southern South America, the Least Seedsnipe. This family only has four members, endemic to the continent. This was also the day when we observed the first members of several groups that are typical of the Andes and Patagonia, such as the Short-billed Miner, Scale-throated Earthcreeper, Grey-hooded Sierra-Finch and Patagonian Yellow-Finch. By the end of this trip we will have seen a large majority of the members of these groups.
Having seen the south, and Tierra del Fuego, we went north into Chile's Patagonian steppe on this fourth day of the tour. We spent the day searching the grasslands and shrublands for birds typical of this habitat, often we were following directly in the footsteps of Darwin and Fitzroy, visiting several areas they visited. Watching the huge, flightless, Lesser (Darwin's) Rhea was a treat, as were the dozen Andean Condors we saw on this day. This is a great place for waterfowl, such as Black-necked and Coscoroba swans, Speckled Teal, Chiloe Wigeon, Yellow-billed Pintail, and Red Shoveler. Towards the end of the day, and with tired eyes, we spotted a pair of the beautiful Tawny-throated Dotterel, one of our target species. Newly invigorated, we made our way back to Punta Arenas to enjoy a satisfying dinner.
On our fifth day we went into the Nothofagus forests near Punta Arenas, hopefully to find the Magellanic Woodpecker. On the way up Hue spotted a hawk, we stopped and were able to obtain distant, yet diagnostic, views of the rare Rufous-tailed Hawk, a Nothofagus forest specialist. The first birds we saw in the forest were noisy flocks of Austral Parakeets, the world's southernmost parrots. The forests provided good views of Thorn-tailed Rayaditos, "Chilean" White-crested Elaenias, Patagonian Sierra Finch, and White-throated Treerunner, but no woodpecker. Our search would have to continue!
The last day in the far south was spent visiting a nearby Magellanic Penguin breeding colony where we enjoyed close looks at these comical birds. En route we encountered many Darwin's Rhea, including one with over 15 striped chicks. The male is the sex that cares for the young in this species, this was one busy male! Once again we saw several close Andean Condor, one just cannot become tired of looking at this regal species. We returned early to catch our flight to Puerto Montt, where a new stage of our tour would begin.
We left Puerto Montt in the morning, heading north to Puyehue. A short stop in Puerto Varas allowed us looks at three species of grebe (White-tufted, Silvery, and Great) as well as the only Snowy-crowned Terns of our trip. This species is not as common on the Pacific as it is on the Atlantic. The day was cloudless, giving us a chance to enjoy the beautiful scenery of this part of Chile. The elegantly symmetrical Osorno Volcano was a pleasant backdrop as we observed Chilean Pigeons, Chilean (Bicolored) Hawk, and Torrent Duck. After settling in to our hotel, we went up to the old growth forests of Puyehue National Park. There we were able to bring out some of the skulkers found in thickets of Chusquea bamboo, such as Des Mur's Wiretail, a tiny bird with a long tail made up of six filament-like feathers; Chucao Tapaculo, a rather colourful tapaculo with an odd song; and the Magellanic Tapaculo, a small dark tapaculo of the notorioulsy difficult to observe Scytallopus genus.
Day eight brought us back to the park in order to search for some species that had evaded us thus far, including the Magellanic Woodpecker. We began the day with fine looks at a rather annoyed Austral Pygmy-Owl, this individual was of the "red" morph. We found the uncommon Patagonian Tyrant, a grey and brown species of the Nothofagus forests which is thought to represent a southern extension of the Andean chat-tyrant group. Driving up the road Jo Ann spotted a stunning Magellanic Woodpecker on a large snag. Another two came out, including a female, giving us the looks of a lifetime. WOW is all I can say. At higher altitudes we were fortunate to be able to observe both species of Enicognathus parakeets, the Austral and the endemic Slender-billed.
On our last day in the Puyehue region we were finally able to bring out a Black-throated Huet Huet. A huge black and chestnut tapaculo that wears blue goggles - success at last! We had heard many over the last couple of days, we were not ready to leave without a nice view. A group of Plumbeous Rails walking in a wet field was an added bonus. We had to make our way back to Puerto Montt where we caught our flight back to Santiago.
This was day ten of our trip. We spent the morning driving to Via del Mar with a productive stop at Lake Peñuelas. The drought had noticeably reduced the surface area of this man-made lake. Nevertheless, the ducks were here to be enjoyed. Lake Ducks made an appearance, as well as the nifty looking Rosy-billed Pochard. A White-cheeked Pintail, rare in the country, was a surprise. The target species here was the brood parasitic Black-headed Duck. This is the only duck in the world that does not raise its own young, much in the same manner as cowbirds and old-world cuckoos. We found three individuals of this rare duck. In addition, we observed three species of coots as well as the pretty Spot-flanked Gallinule. Our afternoon was spent on the Pacific Coast, a specially productive area provided nice looks as the threatened Humbolt Penguin, Peruvian Pelicans, Peruvian Booby, Guanay Cormorant, Red-legged Cormorant, Blackish Oystercatcher and the endemic Chilean Seaside Cinclodes. It was an incredibly diverse day.
Our 11th morning was spent in La Campana National Park, once again in Darwin's footsteps. We were somewhat hindered by dense fog, but not enough to stop us from observing the endemic White-throated Tapaculo and the near endemic Dusky-tailed Canastero. A drive to the coast, to a fine marsh that we located brought us a great assortment of species typical of this habitat such as: Specacled Tyrant; the gorgeous Many-coloured Rush Tyrant; Wren-like Rush Bird, the bird with a most mechanical sounding song; the shy Stripe-backed Bittern and a large group of Black-crowned Night Heron, here this species is sooty grey below, not the pale grey observed in the rest of the Americas. A little further south along the coast we were able to locate the handsome Inca Tern, small numbers of wintering Elegant Terns and the Collared Plover. Another wonderfully diverse day which was topped off by a nice pasta dinner accompanied by a fine Chilean Wine, a visit to Chile is not strictly about birds!
Day 12- The Pelagic. What can I say? Valparaiso is one of the foremost places in the world to take a pelagic trip, one need not go out that far in order to see many interesting species. Our five hour trip was a great deal of fun, and an adventure. We began early in the morning, under the cover of darkness. As the sun came up we began to see typical inshore species such as pelicans, boobies, great numbers of Franklin's Gulls heading south, and finally some different species like the threatened Peruvian Diving Petrel. Several individuals of this species were seen, some very close to the boat. Eventually we ran into a few Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters as well as the Salvin's Albatross.
Chumming brought in numbers of shearwaters, White-chinned Petrels, the small Chilean race of the Wilson's Storm Petrel (pehaps deserves to be split as another species?) and a couple of Southern Giant Petrel. Finally, once we had reached a good distance from shore we began to see Pterodroma petrels, first the DeFilippi's Petrel and later a few Juan Fernandez Petrels, both species nest in the Juan Fernandez (Robinson Crusoe) Islands. The fourty or more DeFilippi's petrels we observed was a rather high number. Also abundant where Red Phalarope, flying by in flocks as we steamed out, I couldn't help but to marvel at how these small birds can handle the fury of this ocean- whoever called it the Pacific caught it on the wrong day! Our steam back to shore was rather exciting, as the winds had picked up as well as the chop. We were a little wet once we arrived at the port, but exhilirated by the experience of being out on the ocean as well as the birds we observed while we were out there. An added surprise was being able to pull up next to Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior in Valparaiso and have a chat with the crew. After a well deserved lunch we made our way back to the Metropolis of Santiago.
Thirteen may be bad luck, but not for us. We had a great day in the high Andes of Santiago on our thirteenth day. The Yeso Valley does not dissapoint. In the low reaches we observed a fine pair of Torrent Ducks with chicks, it was a kick to watch the little fluffy chicks plunge themselves into the power of the torrent only to come out unscathed on the other side, they are masters of their domain. Further up we were able to bring out a pair of endemic Crag Chilias, an odd Furnariid which is proably related to the earthcreepers. We stopped for a picnic lunch at a spot where Jo Ann commented that perhaps this was the most beautiful place she had ever had a picnic in her life. Maybe her statement was swayed by the presence of Greater Yellow-Finches, Plumbeous Sierra-Finches, Bar-winged and the rare Grey-flanked cinclodes, and White-browed Ground Tyrants.
The boggy bits in the upper reaches of the valley were our focus for most of the afternoon. This was where we would hope to see the very weird, but beautiful Diademed Sandpiper-Plover. We arrived at my favourite spot to see this species and first located a pair of Grey-breasted Seedsnipe. As I focused the scope on the seedsnipe, a gorgeous Diademed Sandpiper-Plover appeared- Yahoo. As we looked at this bird, shared hugs of joy and accomplishment another came out, and another, and another... We saw at least five individuals of this species, including juveniles and a mating pair. They came in close allowing us to use up film like there was no tomorrow. In addition, there was a Puna Plover at this spot, this species was unknown this far south only a few years ago, now it is a regular here. The appearance of several other high country species such as Mountain Parakeet, White-sided Hillstar, Black-fronted and Ochre-naped Ground Tyrant kept our attention high even after the intense adrenalin rush provided by the Sandpiper-Plover.
This was another day where we began in the airport. The long ribbon-like shape of Chile makes it impossible to cover adequately without several internal flights. Flying in Chile is comfortable and the time spent in the plane did not hinder our birding whatsoever, in fact the rest afforded by the plane flights gave us energy to tackle our field observation with additional gusto. We arrived in Arica in the morning, ate and rested before heading to the nearby Azapa valley. Here we were able to locate some specialties like the near endemic Chilean Woodstar, the Oasis Hummingbird, the uncommon Slender-billed Finch, the striking Peruvian Meadowlark and two species of swifts, the Andean and Chimney. The latter species was not known to be of regular occurrence in the country only a few years ago. Now it appears that Chile may be its main wintering site, how little we know about even common North American birds! The oceans in Arica are exceedingly rich, from our hotel window we enjoyed large numbers of Grey Gulls, Franklin's Gulls, Inca Terns, Band-tailed Gulls and wintering shorebirds such as Surfbirds, Ruddy Turnstone, and Whimbrel.
The fifteenth day was started in the Azapa Valley again where we were able to find some species that had eluded us the evening before such as the Peruvian Sheartail, a tiny hummingbird with a long white tail, and the (Peruvian) White-crested Elaenia, perhaps a different species from the one in southern Chile. During the rest of the morning, we went up the next valley to the north, the Lluta valley. As we climbed we stopped in appropriate spots to find the Peruvian Thicknee, at the second stop Hue spotted one in a dirt field. Good eyes Hue! While we enjoyed this bird four Peruvian Martins went over, this species is little known, uncommon and sometimes lumped with the Southern Martin. Further up we found a large swallow and swift flock, exactly what we were looking for. In it we found several Chimney Swifts, Cliff Swallows and Bank Swallows. The two latter species were almost unknown in the country only a few years ago.
Just previous to the stop at the swallow flock we had what may have been the bird of the trip, unfortunately the look we had was not enought to identify it. A blue-backed martin flew over the town of Poconchile which showed a dark breast and white belly and vent. This bird was either a female Purple Martin or the Argentine Grey-breasted Martin, neither of which have been recorded from Chile! Leaving the Lluta valley behind, we climbed into the dry hills of the Atacama desert, a lifeless but intreaguing place. As soon as we picked up some vegetation we were able to find a small number of Greyish Miners, the species that lives in the most desolate and dry places in this region of Chile.
Our destination was the town of Putre at 3500m above sea level. After checking in to our hotel in Putre we did a bit of low intensity birding, careful not to over stress our bodies at this elevation, and saving our energies for the next day when we would go further up. Putre provided a nice sampling of birds including the Sparkling Violetear, Dark-winged Canastero, White-browed Chat-Tyrant, Blue-and-yellow Tanager, Golden-billed Saltator and Hooded Siskins. The most frustrating event of the trip was hearing a Peruvian Pygmy Owl in Putre, this species is not know from such a high elevation site. We heard this bird and attempted to bring it out, but to no avail. We had to be happy just hearing its song. The same event was repeated the following night.
Day 16 was one of the many highlights of the tour. Today we would climb up to 4600 m, to Lauca National Park and Chungara lake, the highest lake in the world. Not only is this place high in elevation, it is high in beauty. The sight of the twin Payachatas volcanoes and the deep blue colour of the lake is breathtaking. One of the first birds we observed was the Puna Rhea, along with groups of Vicuña, Llamas and Alpaca. The Guanaco, the fourth and last member of the South American camel family we also saw on this day. A stop at the wetlands of Lauca was very rewarding, allowing us views of Chilean and Andean flamingos, Andean Avocet, Puna Ibis, Puna Teal, Giant and Andean coots, Andean Lapwing and Andean Swallows. During the day we found other high Andean specialties such as Andean Flickers, White-fronted Ground Tyrant, Andean Negrito, Andean Gull, Mountain Caracara, Andean Duck, White-winged Cinclodes, Cordilleran Canastero, Puna Miner, Cinereous Ground-Tyrant and finally a species which we searched and searched for during the entire day - the rotund Puna Tinamou!! Not an uncommon species, but one that you can seldom count on seeing. We were elated and satisfied with this sighting at the end of the day. We returned to Putre for the evening.
Day 17 was spent making our way back to Arica from the highlands of Putre. We spent the morning in Putre locating species that we had not observed thus far, such as Aplomado Falcon, the rare White-throated Earthcreeper, the Straight-billed Earthcreeper, and the Black-throated Flower-Piercer. On our way down we made our way to a grove of Polylepis trees, a high Andean species of tree that is known to harbour severar specialty species. We were not able to locate the Giant Conebill, but the uncommon D'Orbigny's Chat-Tyrant was a nice surprise as were the great looks that were had of the northern subspecies of Mountain Parakeets. Making our way along the Lluta valley, we stopped at one of the bridges over the river where the Killdeer made an appearance. This is the southernmost known site in the world for this widespread species. Not a new species for the participants, but interesting nonetheless.
Our tour ended on day 18, after a morning flight to Santiago. All in all it was an exciting and enjoyable trip. A summary of all of the places we had seen and the birds we had enjoyed can only be encapsulated with one word, diverse. The essense of what made our stay interesting was the diversity offered by the trip. We observed a total of 257 species of birds, a high proportion of the species that have been found to be regularly occurring the country. Unfortunately we did not keep a checklist of the great foods, great views, nice people and good feelings we had during this trip, all of which were also high in quality.