In 20 years of trips to Chile, the fabulous little Diademed Sandpiper-Plover always gets voted one of the top birds – and with good reason. Photo: Steve Howell
A fascinating collection of birds coupled with some of the most spectacular scenery on earth makes birding in Chile a superb experience. This narrow strip of territory, 150 miles wide by 2,500 miles long, is a land of immense variety and beauty: the grandeur of wave-dashed Pacific beaches; the solitude of high Andean lakes; the rolling plains of Tierra del Fuego; and the utterly barren Atacama, the most perfect of deserts. Traveling the length of the country impresses upon one the remarkable similarities of climate, vegetation and topography, not to mention convergent evolution, between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Our tour of Chile is the equivalent of going from southeastern Alaska to southwestern Mexico! Birders today can thank Goodall, Johnson, Millie, and Philippi, who brought to the fore our knowledge of Chile’s avifauna through their extensive field work from the 1920s through the 1950s. The triumphs and failures of this pioneering work are conveyed in Johnson’s classic Birds of Chile, now sadly out of print. Their work showed that Chile has a birdlist combining high quality and high visibility. The avifauna ranges from penguins, rheas, flamingoes and a superb selection of southern waterfowl and shorebirds to 30 species of ovenbirds (furnariids), eight tapaculos (three of them endemic), nine sierra-finches, and five siskins.
Our tour coincides with the austral spring, when bird activity is at its height, and is designed to take in all the major regions of this diverse land. Chile is throughout a safe and friendly country in which to travel, and has an excellent infrastructure for tourism.
Day 1: The tour begins this morning in Santiago. If flight arrival times allow, we’ll visit some nearby areas for an introduction to the birdlife of Chile’s Central Valley. Night in Santiago.
Day 2: This morning we’ll take the spectacular flight south to Punta Arenas on the northern shores of the Straits of Magellan. The bleak, gray stone buildings of Punta Arenas belie its people, mainly of eastern European descent, who are as warm and hospitable as one finds anywhere, while the rocky coast and rolling grasslands, with their enclaves of European sheep farmers, suggest northern Scotland. Ancient forests of twisted, stunted Nothofagus (southern beech) trees reflect the harshness of the southern temperate climate and contribute to the distinctive flavor of Patagonia, a world apart from the rest of South America. Birding in the vicinity after our arrival will produce a taste of the wealth of waterbirds for which the area is famous, including Imperial Shag, Upland Goose, Flying Steamer-Ducks, Two-banded Plover, Chilean Skua, Dolphin Gulls – and Magellanic Penguins at a colony near town. The tiny and endearing Austral Negrito is ubiquitous. Night in Punta Arenas.
Days 3-4: We’ll have two full days to explore the vast, windswept Magellanic region. One day we’ll take the short ferry ride across to Tierra del Fuego, where we should see Magellanic Diving-Petrel, Southern Giant-Petrel, and perhaps the beautiful Commerson’s Dolphin. One of our main goals on Tierra del Fuego will be to find the enigmatic and dove-like Magellanic Plover (placed in its own family, Pluvianellidae), nesting at this season amid migrant Baird’s and White-rumped Sandpipers. Other breeding shorebirds include the handsome Tawny-throated and Rufous-chested Dotterels. The numerous lakes of southernmost Chile are often alive with waterfowl such as Black-necked Swan, Ashy-headed and Ruddy-headed Geese, Crested Duck, and Speckled Teal. Darwin’s (Lesser) Rheas dot the landscape in many areas, and we’ll plan to visit a colony of the burrow-nesting Magellanic Penguins. Time and weather permitting, we may also visit a new King Penguin colony. Landbirds include Short-billed and Common Miners, Patagonian Yellow-Finch, and with luck the little-known Austral Canastero and the striking Chocolate-vented Tyrant. Nights in Porvenir and Punta Arenas.
Days 5-6: This morning we’ll fly north from Punta Arenas to Puerto Montt, gateway to Chile’s picturesque lake district, from which we’ll drive north through the Chilean lake district to Antillanca, our base for the next two nights. The pastoral scenery en route strongly recalls parts of northern Europe, and the architecture and cuisine reflect the preponderance of German immigrants who have made the region their home. Our hotel, however, sits amid spectacular old-growth temperate rainforests in the heart of Puyehue National Park. The huge trees are in stark contrast to the open wilderness of Patagonia, and the forests ring with the calls of two striking tapaculos, the Chucao Tapaculo and the Black-throated Huet-huet. We’ll spend most of our time birding in the forest around our hotel, seeking in particular the impressive Magellanic Woodpecker and the skulking Ochre-flanked and Magellanic Tapaculos. The supporting cast includes Austral Parakeet, Des Murs’s Wiretail, White-throated Treerunner, and Black-chinned Siskin. We’ll also drive to some nearby lakes and rivers in search of the remarkable Torrent Duck. Nights in Antillanca.
Day 7: After a morning birding around our hotel we’ll drive, birding along the way, through the lake district back to Puerto Montt for our flight north to Santiago. Night in Santiago.
Day 8: Central Chile, at the same latitude as southern and central California, has a Mediterranean climate and chaparral-like vegetation known as matorral. Extensive vineyards and the introduced California Quail, California poppy, and towering eucalyptus trees cultivate the illusion that one is in the Northern Hemisphere. To dispel any doubts we’ll spend the day birding our way to the coast at Viña del Mar, passing through a variety of habitats where birds include Spot-flanked Gallinule, Wren-like Rushbird, and Rufous-tailed Plantcutter. We’ll make a special effort to see the handsome Many-colored Rush-Tyrant and the endemic White-throated Tapaculo. Along the coast we should see Peruvian Booby, Peruvian Pelican, and the beautiful Inca Tern. Night in Quintero.
Day 9: Today we’ll make an early departure by boat a short distance offshore into the famous Humboldt Current which, by upwelling like its northern counterpart the California Current, provides a nutrient-rich base that supports a vast seabird population. Up to five species of albatross are possible including Salvin’s, Buller’s, and Royal, while Southern Fulmar, De Filippi’s and Westland Petrels, Peruvian Diving-Petrel, and others are regularly seen. To bring us back to earth, we’ll spend the afternoon looking for land birds along the coast. Night in Quintero.
Day 10: We’ll make a full-day birding trip north along the coast with lunch by a colony of Humboldt Penguins. Species we’ll be looking for in the matorral-covered valleys leading down to the coast along our drive include Giant Hummingbird, Great Shrike-Tyrant, and the endemic Dusky-tailed Canastero and Dusky Tapaculo. We’ll be sure to stop and watch the Chilean Seaside Cinclodes feeding along the wave-splashed seashore amid migrant Surfbirds. Night in Santiago.
Days 11-12: The magnificent High Andes, their snow-capped peaks dominating the eastern horizon, are only a short drive from Santiago and will be our venue for the next two days. We’ll visit two sites with slightly different avifaunas, both in spectacular rugged settings. The birdlife of this region includes the flashy White-sided Hillstar, Gray-breasted Seedsnipe, numerous ground-tyrants, sierra-finches, and ovenbirds (including the endemic Crag Chilia), the comical Moustached Turca (a roadside tapaculo!), huge Andean Condors, and with luck the ultimate shorebird – Diademed Sandpiper-Plover. Nights in Santiago.
Day 13: A morning flight will take us north, leaving the cultivated Central Valley and heading over the bleak expanses of the Atacama Desert to the coastal town of Arica in the extreme north of Chile. Most of the day will be spent on the leisurely drive from Arica through the oasis-like Lluta Valley up to Putre, a small town nestled in a relatively lush valley at about 11,500 feet. As we climb, birds range from Croaking Ground-Dove and Peruvian Meadowlark in the lowland oases, through Greenish Yellow-Finch and Straight-billed Earthcreeper in the arid, scrubby foothills, to Andean Hillstar and Band-tailed Seedeater, both nesting at our hotel. Night in Putre.
Day 14: We’ll spend the whole day in and around Putre, taking our time with the almost completely new avifauna and also acclimatizing to the new elevation. We’ll see that the characteristic European face of central and southern Chile is gone. The terraced alfalfa fields and herds of Llamas and Alpacas, tended by Indians clad in brightly-colored wool garments, reflect the close cultural ties between northern Chile and the high Andes of Peru and Bolivia. Birds we can expect to see around Putre include Bare-faced Ground-Dove, White-throated Earthcreeper, Yellow-billed Tit-Tyrant, White-browed Chat-Tyrant, Black-throated Flowerpiercer, and Blue-and-yellow Tanager, and there’s a chance for Ornate Tinamou and Golden-billed Saltator. Night in Putre.
Day 15: Today will arguably be the highlight of the tour. We’ll take the entire day to visit Lauca, often acknowledged as the most impressive national park in the Americas. There are no adequate descriptions for the breathtaking (literally!) scenery of the puna plains and bogs below snow-capped volcanoes. The park includes Lake Chungara, at 15,000 feet the highest lake in the world and covered with thousands of birds, among them Silvery Grebe, Puna Teal and Giant Coot. Other birds here are Andean and Puna Flamingos, Puna Plover, Andean Flicker, White-winged Cinclodes, White-winged Diuca-Finch, Black Siskin, and White-throated Sierra-Finch. Common mammals in the park include the elegant Vicuña and the sleepy Vizcacha, which looks like a cross between a hare, a squirrel, and a kangaroo. Night in Putre.
Day 16: After a morning birding around Putre we’ll work our way back down to the coast and our beachfront hotel in Arica, where we can look out at hundreds of Gray Gulls and Elegant Terns. Birds on the way down may include Peruvian Thick-knee, Oasis Hummingbird, and perhaps the spectacular Giant Conebill, recently discovered in Chile. Night in Arica.
Day 17: We’ll spend the morning around Arica looking especially for two tiny and very local hummingbirds, Chilean Woodstar and Peruvian Sheartail. These, and several other species we’ll already have seen, are endemic to the coastal lowlands of Chile and adjacent southern Peru. Other birds this morning will include Blackish Oystercatcher, Belcher’s Gull, Cinereous Conebill, and Chestnut-throated Seedeater. We’ll then fly back south to Santiago, where the tour concludes in time to connect with international flights to the US.
Updated: 13 December 2012
- 2013 Tour Price : $6,950
- Single Occupancy Supplement : $800
* Tour invoices paid by check carry a modest discount. Details here.
This tour is limited to eight participants with one leader, or up to 12 participants with two leaders.