Birding Northern Chile —- December 9-14, 2015

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.









Birding Central Chile —– December 2-8, 2015

On December 2 my guide from Albatross Birding and Nature Tours, Rodrigo Reyes, picked me up at my hotel in Providencia and we drove to the Lampa/Batuco area northwest of Santiago.  At these wetlands we found Coscoroba Swans, a single, laggard Andean Goose, 8 species of ducks, 3 grebe species, 4 heron species, several Cinereous Harriers and Variable Hawks, many Chimango Caracaras, 3 Coot species, several shorebirds, Brown-hooded Gulls, Correndera Pipits, and other species common in the area.

My favorite finds here were the Many-colored Rush Tyrants (which came close and showed off their amazing colors), the secretive Wren-like Rushbirds, Austral Negritos, Common Diuca Finches singing all around, a few Grassland Yellow-finches, many Yellow-winged Blackbirds, and colorful, red-breasted Long-tailed Meadowlarks.

We returned to Santiago to explore the urban park, Parque Bicentenario.  Although it is surrounded by the city, it boasts a surprising number of interesting birds.  Among them were a number of colorful Spot-flanked Gallinules, Plain-mantled Tit-spinetails nesting in a lamp post, surprisingly obvious Rufous-tailed Plantcutters (great name), Chilean Mockingbirds, and the ever present Rufous Collared Sparrows.  Here also we saw several Long-tailed Meadowlarks at close range.

On the 3rd we drove southeast of Santiago to Lake Colbun and from there northeast to Vilvhes Alto where we spent the night.  The next day we hiked a long way among the wonderful trees in the Altos de Lircay National Park.  An old North American friend, California Quail, introduced to Chile long ago, were seen in several locations.  Among the new and interesting sightings were Picui Ground Doves, Chilean Pigeons, Chilean Flickers, Magellanic Woodpeckers,  Austral Parakeets,  a couple of Green-backed Firecrowns, Thorn-tailed Rayaditos, Dusky-tailed Canasteros, White-throated Treerunners, White-crested Elaenias, Fire-eyed Diucons, Chilean Swallows, Patagonian Sierra-Finches and Austral Thrushes.  We returned to Santiago for the night.

On the 5th I was picked up at the hotel by a different Albatross guide, Paola Soublette.  We drove first to the Yerba Loca and Farellones areas east of Santiago where we spent the entire day.  Highlights were the Crag Chilias, the amazingly close and long view of a perched adult Andean Condor (plus a dozen or more overhead),  Black-chested Buzzard Eagles, Black-winged Ground Doves, a most cooperative Magellanic Great Horned Owl, great looks at a Giant Humming bird at the same time that we were looking at a Striped Woodpecker on its nest, Rufous-banded Miners, Scale-throated Earthcreepers, Cream-winged and Gray-flanked Cinclodes, Cordilleran Canasteros, a spectacular Chest-nut throated Huet Huet, perky Moustached Turcas in relative abundance, White-browed Ground-tyrants, Black-billed Ground-tyrants, Gray-hooded Sierra Finches, Mourning Sierra Finches, Greater Yellow-Finches, and Yellow-rumped Siskins.  A very productive day.

The next morning we left Santiago to drive down to the Rio Maipo estuary and to spend the day birding northward on the coast.  We finished the day at the seaside village of Quintero and spent the night at a beautifully located, older hotel with a view of the sun setting over the Pacific.  Not only was the view great, but the dinner at the Hotel’s dining room was among the best of the trip.

Along the way we found Black-necked Swans, Silvery Grebes (Occipatalis subspecies), Peruvian Pelicans, Peruvian Boobies, Red-legged Cormorants, Guanay Cormorants, a surprising (to me) Stripe-backed bittern, a Collared Plover, American and Blackish Oystercatchers, several common shorebirds, a single Gray Gull, Kelp Gulls, beautiful Inca Terns, South American Terns, Elegant Terns, a flock of thousands of Black Skimmers, a closeup Seaside Cinclodes, and one of the most interesting birds of the trip, Des Murs Wiretails (after a short but strenuous walk along the river bank in brush and mush).

On the 7th I joined several other birders for a pelagic trip on the Pacific led by Rodrigo.  My new birds for this pelagic trip were Humboldt Penguins, Royal Albatross (Southern subspecies), Royal Albatross (Northern subspecies), numerous Salvin’s (Shy) Albatross, a probable juvenile Chatham Albatross, Westland Petrels, (close and plentiful enough to learn to distinguish them from the similar White-chinned Petrels).  Several other pelagic species that I have previously seen were somewhat common.  Among the “misses”, at least missed by me although seen by some of the participants, were Peruvian Diving-petrels and a possible Juan Fernandez Petrel.  We returned to shore about noon, had lunch and a short rest and then I joined Paola again for the trip back to Santiago, including some more birding along the way.  We saw many of the same species that we had seen the day before, some of them far better.

On my last day in central Chile, Paola drove from Santiago up to the Yeso Valley.  The main target of the quest was the iconic Diademed Sandpiper Plover.  Along the way we were able to find a few new trip birds, including Torrent Ducks, Band-tailed Earthcreeper, Crag Chilia, and Yellow-rumped Siskins.  The road was very rough, narrow and high.  Not only that but this was a holiday in Chile, and there were lots of vehicles vying for road-space.  Paola had her hands full and several times we had to stop perilously close to the cliff-edge to make way for opposing traffic.  Finally, we reached the Yeso Reservoir, and traveled on upward to the very end, where we hoped to find the Diademed Sandpiper Plover.  This required a very wet hike through in a soggy bog.  Along the way we encountered a nice flock of 20 or so Upland Geese, that were willing to allow us to pass nearby without flushing.  An hour or so into the hike, I spotted the target bird only a few feet from me, feeding in a shallow pool.  I spent the next half hour, simply gazing at this beautiful bird, time enough for Paola to try for a video in which both I and the bird appeared.  After a long and close look at this, one of the most beautiful of birds, we started back.  As we were leaving the bog we were fortunate to find another one of my top 2 targets of the trip: Seedsnipes.  Seedsnipes are a family found only in South America and primarily only in Chile.  I had never seen any species of this family and wanted to add it to my list.  A pair of Gray-breasted Seedsnipes circled us and gave us a relatively close view, before we had to depart to return to Santiago, and go down the awful road we had come up.

I wanted to buy some lapis lazuli jewelry for my wife, whose birthday occurred while I was in Chile.  Lapis lazuli, a semi-precious metal, is mined in Chile (and Afghanistan) and local artisans create some beautiful pieces.   Thanks go to Paola who took time out from our birding to take me shopping in the old market in Santiago.  (She did not think much of my original plan to find something at one of the airport shops).  The market was an interesting place to visit and we found a lapis lazuli butterfly pendant and earrings that I liked very much, and so does Barbara.

Sorry, I have no pictures to include in this Blog.  Maybe I will have some photos on my next trip, when Barbara accompanies me and exercises here photographic magic.