On the 9th I went to the Santiago airport to meet Rodrigo Tapia, my northern Chile guide who works for Far South Expeditions. There I was joined by Peter and Felicity, Australian birders who would be my companions, along with Rodrigo, for the next 6 days. The flight to Arica in the far north of Chile took over three hours, just to give you an idea of the north-south expanse of Chile. We landed around noon and immediately began birding in the Arica area.
Arica is the northernmost city in Chile, just a few miles south of the border with Peru. The driest desert in the world, the Atacama, surrounds Arica on three sides, with the Pacific Ocean on the west. Arica serves as a seaport with large quantities of goods going to and arriving by truck from land-locked Bolivia over the mountain highway that lies in Chile but serves both countries.
Along the sea shore north of Arica we found numerous Peruvian Pelicans, Peruvian Boobies, Gray Gulls, Belcher’s Gulls, Inca Terns, along with a large number of migratory shorebirds, waders and seabirds familiar to North American birders. West Peruvian Doves were abundant. We left the coast and drove into one of the narrow valleys where we found Peruvian Meadowlarks, Chestnut-throated Seedeaters, Slender-billed Finches, and Chiguanco Thrushes. The valleys seem very narrow, and their greenness is threatened, it seems, by the vast and enormous sand dunes that rise abruptly from the valley floors.
The next day found us in the Andes in the Aymara Indian village of Putre, elevation about 10,500 feet. The buildings and street are very old and the streets have a gutter down the middle for drainage, making it a bit difficult to maneuver through. But our hotel, the Hosteria Q’Antati, at the far end of the village, was fine and in fact the breakfasts served there were the best of the trip. Dinners were at a nice little restaurant in the middle of the village.
Birding around the Putre area produced a good number of new birds, including great looks at an Ornate Tinamou, Bare-faced and Black-winged Ground Doves, Sparkling Violet-ears, Andean Hillstars (nesting under the eaves around our hotel), Giant Hummingbirds, Straight-billed and Plain-breasted Earthcreepers, a White-tailed Shrike-tyrant, White-browed Chat-Tyrants, Blue and Yellow Tanagers, Black-throated Flowerpiercers, Black-hooded, Ash-breasted and Band-tailed Sierra-Finches and Hooded Siskins.
The next morning we got an early start heading for the Surire salt pans, one of the most interesting sights in the Chilean Altiplano. The “lake” is the site of extensive salt mining operations, but nonetheless hosts all 3 species of Flamingos found in southern South America: James (Puna), Chilean and Andean. We were not disappointed. All 3 species were in plain view as we drove around the lake, giving me an amazing opportunity to compare the 3 and ultimately, be able to distinguish among the 3 species quite readily.
The trip also provided great looks at herds of wild Vicunas, the odd looking rodents called Viscachas, featuring a squirrel like-body with rabbit-like ears, and several handsome Andean Deer. At a stop early along the way we found numbers of Grey-breasted Seedsnipes and Andean Negritos. Later in the day we were treated to a somewhat distant view of Lesser (Puna) Rheas. On the return trip a brood of Puna Tinamous (12 chicks with the parent, probably the male) made a close up appearance as they scurried along the side of the road and into the cover.
After a very long day we arrived back at Putre and our hotel and went out for a late dinner. Tomorrow we would go to one of the other great attractions of the northern Chilean mountains, the Lauca National Park, the site of the highest lake in the world. The trip to and the hike around the lake produced good looks at Puna Ibis, Giant and Andean Coots, Andean Geese, Andean Avocets, Andean Lapwings, Andean Flickers, and more.
The day was beautiful, with towering, snow-capped mountains, crystal-clear lakes and ponds, green tundra-like areas and lots of birds. We hiked along the shore of the Lake where we saw Andean Ruddy Ducks, the 3 coots, Puna Teal, Canasteros, Andean Negritos, and much more. Andean Gulls, Andean Geese and herds of Vicunas provided close-up entertainment as I waited at a mid-point for the group to finish the hike, be picked up by our driver and return to Arica. I regretted having to depart from these beautiful mountains.
Our pelagic trip did not produce many new birds, but we did see a number of Elliot’s Storm Petrels, Humboldt Penguins and a few Peruvian Diving Petrels. The rest of our birding in northern Chile was centered around the valleys of the Arica area. Among the interesting new sightings were Oasis Hummingbirds, a single Mountain Caracara, Peruvian Thick-knees, a Burrowing Owl, Chilean Woodstars, and Peruvian Sheartails.
To summarize my entire trip, I was able to identify about 215 species, including both central and northern Chile, of which 108 were lifers, to bring my world-wide total to 2,935. The guides, both from Albatross and Far South, were excellent, personable and hard-working. In particular, the office staff at Albatross was extremely helpful in organizing my last minute itinerary and setting up, in meticulous detail, my transportation and lodging requirements in arriving and departing Santiago. I was impressed by the country of Chile itself. It is clean, modern, well-governed and the people are hospitable and helpful even if you don’t speak much Spanish. I would go back again, perhaps next time to see southern Chile and its natural wonders.