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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Chile: Tierra del Fuego to the Atacama Desert

2017 Narrative

IN BRIEF: As well as incredible scenery, good food, and good company, our trip was blessed with mostly good weather. Covering such a span of latitude, this trip always impresses with its contrasts. From a colony of stately King Penguins at a bleak beach in Tierra del Fuego to majestic Andean Condors soaring over the snow-capped Andes; from albatrosses in the Humboldt Current to Diademed Sandpiper-Plovers at an Andean bog; from the iconic Magellanic Woodpecker in impressive southern beech forests to absolutely nothing in the utterly barren Atacama Desert; from shady bamboo thickets ringing with the songs of tapaulcos to wide-open Andean vistas with hanging glaciers and snow-capped volcanoes; from a cryptic Magellanic Plover on a stony lakeshore to the bold patterns of four species of sheldgeese in one afternoon; from the stately beauty of Inca Terns to roadside Moustached Turcas and the tiny Chilean Woodstar; and from a Lesser Grison prowling among the rocks to leaping schools of dolphins and diving squadrons of Peruvian Boobies.

IN DETAIL: All arrived safely and on time, and after lunch we headed out to some nearby wetlands for a pleasant introduction to local birdlife under sunny spring skies with the snow-capped Andes visible to the east. A selection of waterbirds included the striking (visually and vocally!) Southern Lapwing and White-backed (Black-necked) Stilt, plus several ducks and finally, with no little effort, the much sought-after American Painted-snipe. While much of the landscape recalled the Northern Hemisphere, the blackbirds were yellow-winged not red-winged, the meadowlarks red-breasted not yellow-breasted and instead of crows there were Chimango Caracaras. A good dinner at the hotel was followed by a good sleep.

An early start got us to the airport for our flight south to Punta Arenas, which featured some spectacular views of the ice caps and glaciers. We arrived to some pleasantly mild and not very windy weather, apparently having just missed two days of heavy rain! On the way to our hotel we stopped at some bird-filled wetlands, with numerous new species including Upland Goose, White-tufted Grebe, Austral Negrito, Flying Steamer-Duck, the handsome Ashy-headed Goose, and the increasingly rare Ruddy-headed Goose—a great start! After checking into our hotel we headed south along the coast, beside the Strait of Magellan, where birding from the bus was very productive. Handsome Imperial and Rock shags dotted rocks along the beach; a Two-banded Plover with chicks showed well, as did some fishing South American Terns; giant-petrels, Antarctic Fulmars, and Black-browed Albatross ranged offshore; and waterfowl included a group of non-breeding Kelp Geese and a few pairs of Fuegian (Flightless) Steamer-Ducks. All too soon it was time to return for dinner and a good sleep.

We awoke to find continuing mild conditions and light winds, which made for a very comfortable ferry crossing that featured Magellanic Penguins, Fuegian [Wilson’s] Storm-Petrels, close Black-browed Albatross, and numerous Magellanic Diving-Petrels. After a photo op on arrival in Tierra del Fuego (where the naval cadet straightened his RRs for us!) we headed to a nearby lake for a picnic lunch and good views of the enigmatic Magellanic Plover. Benign weather continue for our long, Guanaco-punctuated drive to the newly founded King Penguin colony at Bahía Inutíl (Useless Bay), and our onward drive (on paved road!) to Cerro Sombrero for a good dinner and well-deserved sleep.

The Ruby-eyed Pluvianellus

A bird to make some people jealous

It’s unlike any other

Not really a plover

For a family of one’s what they tell us           

The next day dawned a little cooler and windier, but was still warm by local standards. Our drive to the Bahía Azul produced Tawny-throated Dotterel, White-rumped Sandpipers, and nesting Cinnamon-bellied Ground-Tyrants, followed by a short but atmospheric ferry crossing back to the mainland. Birding at some wetlands and grassland produced a good selection of new species, including Patagonian Silvery Grebe, Silver Teal, Darwin’s Rheas, and a vagrant Cliff Swallow, plus a Hairy Armadillo trundling along. Moving on to an area of relatively ungrazed steppe we found the stunning Canary-winged (aka White-bridled or Black-throated) Finch, plus a confiding Least Seedsnipe, Chocolate-vented Tyrants, and more rheas, guanacos, and Tawny-throated Dotterels. The ‘long drive’ back (through a tiny corner of Patagonia) to Punta Arenas featured the rather local Band-tailed Earthcreeper and the Patagonian form of Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetail. All in all, an amazing visit to this wonderful part of Chile.

Another mild day bade us farewell from Punta Arenas and a morning flight took us north to Puerto Montt, gateway to the picturesque if ecologically devastated Lake District. In overcast (but not rainy!) weather we could see parts of the nearby snow-capped volcanic peaks as we drove to Puyehue National Park, with stops along the way for scenery photos plus the endemic Slender-billed Parakeet. Arriving at the lodge we were greeted by several inches of recent snow and rather cold conditions, but the snug rooms and a good dinner were a nice way to end the travel day.

The next morning we awoke to overcast skies, and with great luck along the road after breakfast we quickly found two female Magellanic Woodpeckers, feeding low and close! Then it was time to drop into denser forest (a beautiful temperate broadleaf evergreen rainforest, complete with rain!) and be indoctrinated into the shady world of tapaculos, dominated the ringing songs of Chucao Tapaculos and the mocking hoots of the elusive Black-throated Huet-huet. With some work the forest yielded some of its birds, including members of the ‘tapaculo quartet,’ the poorly known White-throated Hawk, and the rather local Patagonian Tyrant, plus attractive Thorn-tailed Rayaditos and White-throated Treerunners. We headed out of the park for a picnic by a rushing river where Green-backed Firecrowns showed well, and then back to the forest to renew the tapaculo quest before a good dinner and sleep. Our last morning dawned rainy and gloomy, which worked in our favor as we found a late-hunting and very serendipitous Rufous-legged Owl along the road, and later a very obliging Chilean Tinamou on our drive to Puerto Montt, whence we took a flight north to Santiago. The Black-faced Ibis colony was also notable, right in town!

Our first full day in central Chile was spent exploring a diversity of habitats from beaches, lakes, and marshes to matorral with its diverse flora (including both Chilean Puya and Blue Puya in flower), starting in drizzling overcast conditions and slowly becoming brighter. We found a great variety of birds, featuring a good selection of waterbirds (including Black Skimmers skimming, Hudsonian Godwits, and the obligate parasitic Black-headed Duck), endemic White-throated and Dusky Tapaculos, the rather local Ticking Doradito, handsome Many-colored Rush-Tyrants, and the impressive Giant Hummingbird. An early start the next day found us heading out into the Humboldt Current for a wonderful pelagic—perfect birding weather and masses of birds! As well as being memorable for the wonderful close-up albatrosses, the sheer number of birds was impressive, including high counts for both Royal and Buller’s Albatrosses amid the numerous Salvin’s and Black-browed, plus the usual suite of petrels, shearwaters, and storm-petrels. After lunch and a siesta we birded along the nearby coast, where numerous Inca Terns were the undoubted highlight, along with handsome Red-legged and Guanay Shags, and big swells crashing in along the rocky shore. A good dinner and sleep rounded out a fabulous day.

A relaxed start the next morning found us moving north along the coast, with the first stop being to watch Surfbirds feeding in their winter home. More matorral, with spring flowers and birds, was followed by a beach walk to a colony of Humboldt Penguins amid cactus and displaying Peruvian Pelicans, a trio of Marine Otters, and a Peregrine Falcon hunting Eared Doves. After a very pleasant lunch ‘in the park’ we headed back to base in Santiago.

Two days spent within striking distance of the central Andes showcased another distinct avifauna amid mind-blowing scenery (obscenery?), from lush green bogs to massive scree slopes and hanging glaciers. Our first morning started out cool (or cold, depending on one’s home country) and cloudy but became sunny later, and the second day was remarkably (frighteningly?) hot, sunny, and not windy. Highlights included an adult Andean Condor perched high above us before it sailed off right over our heads, walk-away views of a feeding Moustached Turca (rolling stones down the mountain!), and great views of a pair of the sought-after Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, one of the best shorebirds anywhere on Earth. Also notable were the various ground-tyrants; a Crag Chilia dusting its crown with golden pollen as it probed into a Blue Puya; a ‘green-flash’ male White-sided Hillstar; a family of the iconic Torrent Duck; numerous Gray-breasted Seedsnipe; Mountain Parakeets feeding on the grass with finches; and excellent views of the scarce and very local Thick-billed Siskin. What an amazing two days. The second day we returned to the hotel in good time to relax and repack before a great dinner and the last leg of this amazing tour.

The flight north to Arica, in the heart of the Atacama Desert, brought us to a very different part of Chile, both in terms of avifauna and culture. After some birding at the Lluta River mouth and lunch we headed inland and up to Putre, arriving in good time to settle into our home for the next two nights. Leaving the bird-filled coast, with a surprise Andean Flamingo at the beach (!), we passed through the green Lluta Valley, home to Rufescent Flycatcher and Peruvian Meadowlark, and through ultra-desert up into Andean shrub-steppe at 11,500 feet. Our first day was spent acclimating in and around Putre, where the suite of new birds included Andean Hillstars, Black-throated Flowerpiercer, Giant Hummingbirds of the Andean persuasion, various canasteros, earthcreepers, and sierra-finches, and a most accommodating Aplomado Falcon. After a picnic lunch at the edge of the altiplano, roadside birding produced Ornate Tinamou, flashy Black Siskins, Andean Geese, Torrent Ducks, and incredible views of the rarely seen Lesser Grison! Oh, and then there were the sleepy Vizcachas and plenty of Vicuñas!

Our morning in Lauca National Park was amazing. The literally breath-taking vistas of frosted altiplano bogs, plains, and flamingo-dotted lakes under towering snow-capped volcanoes and recently snow-dusted mountains defy words. Our early start was rewarded with good views of all 3 flamingo species, often side-by-side for comparison. Among the morning’s many other highlights were the aptly named Giant Coot, handsome Andean Flickers, Andean Lapwing, Puna Plover, Puna Teal, Bright-rumped Yellow-finches, and even some craft shopping. We then drove back down to the oxygen-rich lowlands, via Oasis Hummingbirds and Burrowing Owls, to end with hordes of Gray Gulls on the beach outside our rooms. What a day!

On our last full day we spent the morning in the Camarones Valley, where large areas of native vegetation still remain. Highlights included the fancy little Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant, dashing Andean Swifts, the poorly known Raimondi’s Yellow-finch (our seventh species of yellow-finch for the trip, although now we’re told they’re really tanagers), and superb views of the very local Chilean Woodstar, a beautiful little hummingbird in real danger of extinction. How much longer can it prevail against the conversion of its desert habitat to covered crops sprayed with pesticides? After lunch we took a mini pelagic into a much calmer region of the Humboldt Current, home to Elliot’s Storm-Petrels dancing like butterflies on slick water, along with hundreds of Peruvian Boobies plunge-diving into schools of Long-beaked Common Dolphins, and of course point-blank views of the stunning and iconic Inca Tern and Red-legged Shag. We returned to the hotel in time for showers and pisco sours before a fine final dinner, accompanied by the sound of surf and Gray Gulls.

Flight times meant a bit of a lie-in on the last morning and only a brief stop at the Lluta River mouth, where a handsome male Blue-winged Teal was a fun way to end the trip—only about the fourth record for Chile of this vagrant from the north! Then all too soon it was over. Thanks to all for making it such a fun and bird-filled adventure!

-Steve Howell

Created: 20 November 2017