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November 1999

by Terry Witt

Have just returned from an organized tour of Chile covering the country from end to end - 2900 miles!  There have been sporadic postings from time to time indicating a continuing interest in independent travel there, and with the publication of Pearman's birdfinding guide to Chile, perhaps more birders will be tempted to make the long trip south.  Rather than giving a daily list of hits and misses, this is intended to supply some current data and act more as a supplement to the Pearman book.

The country could really be considered as a unique type of island bordered by the Andes to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west and south and the Atacama Desert to the north, perhaps the driest place on earth.  Despite this there are only 9 birds that are truly endemic to Chile.  But there are a total of 75 species that are endemic to both Chile and southern Argentina, and many of them can be found more easily in Chile as they live in rather inaccessible areas of Argentina not covered on standard tours.  In addition, there are a number of potential splits found there, of species which have evolved to both look and sound different from their closely related but more northern S American relatives.  Interestingly enough, there is basically no dawn chorus and bird activity tends to be rather consistent throughout the day.  This can make for long days in the field as most visitors come in Austral spring, and daylight, depending upon latitude, may last at least until 8 PM.

Although travel without a guide is feasible, for birders with means, joining an organized tour will yield more of the difficult and localized species and reduce the hassles of the enormous amount of travel needed to cover this shoestring of a country.

Since the country may be roughly divided into 3 regions, these notes will follow our trip which started in the north.  Most persons fly from Santiago to Arica, internal air service on Lan Chile is excellent and dependable.  The standard route is to spend a day birding the coast and lower valleys, and then ascend to Putre at 10,500 feet elevation to spend the night and acclimate.  On the following day an ascent to 15,000 feet in Lauca National Park may be considered.

Firstly, there is now a dependable site for Tamarugo Conebill in the Azapa Valley and with tapes this bird could be expected.  Second, the risk of altitude sickness is very real, and perhaps underappreciated at least by me.  Despite some of our grouup taking prophylactic medicaton including myself, we suffered about a 50% rate of illness of varying degrees.  I have 2 suggestions to offer: 1.  Take Diamox (prescription but not expensive or hard to find) at the dose of 250 mgm twice daily and start at least one day PRIOR to ascent so therapeutic levels will be present before going up.  It has the unusual side effect of causing tingling in the fingertips but this is really not that troublesome and will indicate that the medication is in effect.  A consideration would be to ascend to Putre during one day, and then plan to spend at least half the next day birding in that area before going higher.  There are many interesting birds here but some of them are scarce and will require some time to run down.  We ended up missing the key White-throated Earthcreeper which while not endemic is quite restricted in range, and either missed or had very brief encounters with a number of other possibilities present here.  Diademed Sandpiper-Plover may be found in Lauca, but a fair amount of luck and time will be needed to find one as the population density is quite low.  Puna Rhea is also resident but quite uncommon.  One could easily spend 2 days here and hope to see some of the more unusual birds we missed such as Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe, 2 Tinamous, etc.

Moving to central Chile, we went back into the Andes and visited Farellones which yielded Creamy-rumped Miner high on the ski slopes but could not locate Crag Chilia there despite trying all afternoon near the road.  Black-fronted Ground- tyrant seems to be regular here as well.  This is an extremely scenic spot.  There has been a localized disaster in the El Yeso site.  This spring, 4 wheel drive afficianados have completely destroyed the habitat where the Diademed Sandpiper-Plovers were most dependable.  I'm not sure whether the birds are gone from this area forever, but at present.  this easily accessible and highly likely area for this most wanted bird is history!

There has been plenty of rain this year and all marshes are full of water and teeming with birds.  One side of La Campana Park is now closed due to problems with plumbing (temporary?).  Our boat trip out of Valparaiso was quite successful with 14 species of tubenose, but extremely rough seas.

Both Huet-Huets are quite shy and even with good tape are difficult to see.  If searching for Slender-billed Parakeets(endemic) at Parque Nacional Nahulbuta, check outside the entrance, especially early AM and late PM when they are most active.  Rufous-legged Owl also lives here and with good tape may be possible to see.  It is different from the Chaco bird of Argentina and probably a species novo.

Farther south in Chile is not covered in the Pearman guide.  There are many southern South American specialities present accessed by flying south to Punta Arenas.  There is a free lance bird guide who lives there and speaks reasonable English.  He is excellent and has sites for such goodies as Magellanic Plover, Black-throated and Yellow-bridled Finch, Spectacled Duck, Tawny-throated Dotterel and Rufous-chested Plover, Chocolate-vented Tyrant and others.  Many of these might be seen on southern Argentina tours, but may actually be easier and more dependable to see in Chile.  His name is Armondo Iglesias B and you may reach him at Sarmiento #1020, cell 093258501, Punta Arenas Chile.

Finally, we were somewhat successful in relocating the elusive Austral Rail.  They actually are common in appropriate habitat at Torres del Paine Park, and easily findable with tape.  The problem lies in seeing one as they live in the most impenetrable reed beds and refuse to show themselves.  Perhaps at a different season they might be more accessible but additional work is needed to develop a strategy in order to have any hope of visual contact.

I will be happpy to answer further specific queries.

Terry Witt
507 HIghland Terrace
Murfreesboro Tn 37130