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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Chile: Tierra del Fuego to the Atacama Desert

2022 Narrative

IN BRIEF: The spectacular country of Chile rewarded us this year with a long list of wonderful birds and impressive scenery. It’s hard to choose the best memories, but a short list would include the group of King Penguins packed on a windy Tierra del Fuego beach, a pair of Magellanic Plover displaying on the shore of an emerald lake, a group of Lesser Rheas running together with Guanacos on the Patagonian steppe, the comic Moustached Turca running on the barren slopes of the impressive Andes while a group of Condors soar high in the sky, so many albatrosses of no less than 5 species following our boat during our pelagic trip, the waterbirds concentration on the Chungara lake and at the Lluta estuary… and the list goes on!

Even if we experienced colder temperatures than expected in the Puerto-Montt and Santiago area, the entire trip went very well with wonderful blue skies in the Andes and a quiet sea during our pelagic trip off Valparaiso. Beside excellent birding and stunning sceneries we also experienced great Chilean food and had a chance to try several of the local specialties paired with well-known wines and fantastic artisanal beers.

IN DETAIL: After a first meeting and our first lunch together, our trip began with a sunny and pleasant afternoon at the Lampa wetlands only half an hour from our Santiago hotel. As the wetlands were extremely dry this year, we only visited the La Cadellada sewage plant attracting lots of waterfowl. Even if the location was not very attractive, we were delighted to find an impressive number of Andean Geese. Breeding at high elevation in the Andes, the population from central Chile winter here in the lowlands near Santiago and these birds will soon migrate back to their breeding grounds.

We found plenty of other waterfowl, such as Red Shoveler, Yellow-billed Pintail, Yellow-billed and Cinnamon Teals, Red-fronted and White-winged Coot, a few wintering Baird’s Sandpiper and Lesser Yellowlegs and the elegant Black-necked (White-backed) Stilt. We also found 100+ Black-headed Ducks, a large number for this usually elusive species and only parasitic duck in the World! We also had very close views on a beautiful Many-colored Rush-tyrant (in Spanish this bird is called “Siete Colores”, or Seven Colors), and a Plumbeous Rail gave a great show on the shore of the pond!

Our visit to the Chilean Patagonia began with a morning flight to Punta Arenas, more than 1,300 miles south of Santiago. Arriving there at mid-day, we drove straight to our hotel for check in and lunch. During the afternoon, we headed south along the coast, driving through the dramatic landscape of Chile’s Patagonia region: forests of stunted trees tormented by the wind, grasslands covered by flocks of Upland Geese, and snowcapped mountains dominating the background. Thanks to some good winds, we were able to seabird from the shore (or from the bus!) enjoying great numbers of Black-browed Albatross, a Southern Giant Petrel, two Antarctic (Southern) Fulmars and a few dozen distant Magellanic Diving-Petrels. Birding along this coastal road was very productive. We found a large flock of hundreds of Kelp Gulls and Imperial Shags fishing together while about 30 Chilean Skuas were trying to steal their preys, and we also found our first Dolphin Gulls. Waterfowl took the prize, however, with great views on both Flightless (Fuegian) Steamer-Ducks and Flying Steamer-Ducks, excellent views of at least five of the rare and threatened Ruddy-headed geese, and numerous Crested Ducks. We also found the three possible species of oystercatchers present in Chile: Magellanic, Blackish and American! Being able to observe a pair of each of these species, side by side, was invaluable to compare them. We finally stopped by an old peer where are breeding a few hundreds Imperial Shags together with a few Rock Shags, before we returned for dinner and a good sleep.

On our second day in the far south of Chile, we birded the Continental Patagonian steppe before crossing the Magellanic Straight to reach Tierra del Fuego. Our first stop was for a lovely Short-eared Owl perched on a close fence post, soon followed by another stop to admire the charismatic Darwin’s (Lesser) Rhea grazing together with a few sheep. At Laguna Los Palos, we quickly found a few of the unique Magellanic Plover, a superb bird with pink bubble gum legs, the only species in his family. We had time to walk close to the shore and enjoy fantastic views of this beautiful bird; two of them were even displaying and vocalizing! At the same spot we also had nice views on Patagonian (Common) Miners, Patagonian Yellow-Finch, wintering Baird’s Sandpiper, Two-banded Plovers, and our first Buff-winged Cinclodes. Following our way through the steppe, we had great views on a few stunning Tawny-throated Dotterels including a pair with two chicks, a superb Chocolate-vented Tyrant, the fantastic Canary-winged (White-bridled) Finch, a male Cinereous Harrier, a pair of Cinnamon-bellied Ground-Tyrant, Austral Canastero, Rufous-chested Dotterel, and more! We even had excellent and close view on no less than eight Elegant-crested Tinamou, a species increasing its range southwards and who recently colonized this part of Patagonia. After a fantastic birding day, it was now time to cross the Magellanic Straight at the level of the Primera Angostura, enjoying great views on the lovely Commersson’s Dolphin, and to drive to our comfortable hotel in Cerro Sombrero.

After a night in the small and isolated village of Cerro Sombrero, we traveled through the northern part of Tierra del Fuego towards Bahía Inútil to visit a colony of King Penguins. On the way, we did a stop to enjoy close views on a few displaying Short-billed Miner, and then spent one hour with the penguins. About 70 of them were waiting for us, including five chicks born the last spring, and we really enjoyed watching these charismatic birds in the beautiful landscape of Tierra del Fuego.

We then drove to the town of Porvenir, to cross back the near-mythical Strait of Magellan on the daily ferry between Punta Arenas and Porvenir. We had a pleasant crossing, finding a few Magellanic Diving-Petrels, Black-browed Albatross, Southern Giant-Petrels, White-chinned Petrels and Chilean Skuas. Crossing the Strait of Magellan reminded us of the amazing courage of Magellan and his men who sailed in these inhospitable seas for the first time!

Once back on the continent, we stopped at the “Tres Puentes” wetland just at the edge of town, where birds are really used to people and can be seen at very short distances. We had amazing sights of Magellanic Snipe foraging just a few meters from us, a White-tufted Grebe swimming a short distance away, Flying Steamer-duck, a pair of Crested Duck defending their young chicks, a few Black-faced Ibises, and dozen of the stunning Upland Goose were grazing in the nearby fields along with a few equally elegant Ashy-headed Geese.

Because our flight company LATAM changed our flight schedule, we had an extra day to spend in Patagonia as we only flew in the late afternoon to Puerto Montt. After breakfast and leaving Punta Arenas, we visited a small lake occupied by a few hundreds Patagonian Silvery Grebe, as well by a few Black-necked Swans, and more waterbirds. In the nearby shrubland we had one more view on a very cooperative Austral Canastero and many Austral Negrito, and the australis subspecies of Rufous-collared Sparrow. Suddenly a Patagonian Hairy Armadillo appeared on the roadside, and Quillén was fast enough to catch it so we could all study and photograph this fantastic and unique animal! In this beautiful Patagonian steppe dominated by incredible skies, we also had fantastic view on a pair of majestic Andean Condors flying low probably looking for some carrion.

We then headed towards Bahia Laredo, where we embarked a small touristic boat taking our group to Magdalena Island where breed 10 to 14 thousand pairs of Magellanic Penguins. Even if most of them where at this time of the year inside their burrow to incubate their eggs, we had fantastic views on many of them at very short distance! What a unique experience! Hundreds of pairs of Kelp Gull and Imperial Cormorant are also breeding on the island, and we also enjoyed some very close views to both Slender-billed and Patagonian (Common) Miner. Leaving Magdalena Island, the boat did a short loop around the small Marta Island where a few Southern Sea Lion are breeding, amongst which we have been able to spot the unique Snowy Sheathbill! It was now time to say goodbye to the Chilean Patagonia, and to fly towards the beautiful Lake District.

For our first morning here, we birded the beautiful Nothofagus forest of the Lahuen Ñadi National Monument. It was a relatively cold morning and the birds were very quiet, but we managed to have a great view on a close Chucao Tapaculo, a Black-throated Huet-huet running fast in the open, a few Thorn-tailed Rayaditos, our first Chilean (White-crested) Elaenias and Green-backed Firecrowns, and heard an Austral Pygmy-Owl high in the canopy of the majestic trees!

After birding in the impressive forest speckled with red by the Notro trees in bloom, we headed back to Puerto Montt. At a popular restaurant we enjoyed a delicious local dish, the Curanto, a specialty from Chiloe Island mixing seafood, sausage, smoked pork, chicken, and potatoes! Sumptuous!

After a deserved rest following such a meal, we headed towards the Alerce Andino NP, protecting a few millenary ‘Patagonia Cypress’ or Alerces Fitzroya cupressoides. There we had more views of the common inhabitant of the Nothofagus forest seen in the morning, adding Patagonian Sierra-Finch, a pair of White-throated Treerunner, a pair of the unique Des Murs Wiretail, a dull but cute Patagonian Tyrant and the lovely Fire-eyed Diucon. The whole group experienced a “Tapaculo quest”, i.e. patiently waiting in or in front of dense vegetation in the hope of seeing one of these secretive species attracted by the playback of its song. After several tries, we had a chance to see no less than three Chucao Tapaculo coming well in the open, an elusive Black-throated Huet-huet, a Magellanic Tapaculo coming in the open, but the Ochre-flanked Tapaculo stayed on the heard list!

After our picnic dinner in the park, part of the group preferred to drive back to the hotel for a good night rest, while others choose to stay until dark to look for nightbirds, and had great views on two Rufous-legged Owl!

We spent the next day on Chiloe Island. After crossing the Chacao straight, and finding our first Red-legged Cormorants and Peruvian Pelicans, we headed towards the Puñihuil Islets. During a short boat ride there, we had fantastic views on Magellanic and Humboldt Penguins seen side-by-side (both are breeding here), the superb Red-legged Cormorant on their nests, a dozen of Kelp Goose whose sexual dimorphism is extreme (female being by far more beautiful than the uniform white male) and several Flightless (Chiloe) Steamer-duck (not described yet, even if very different from the ones seen in Patagonia). For lunch we had an excellent fried merluza (hake) and fries, and then headed towards Caullin Bay for more afternoon birding. On the way, Quillen spotted an Austral Ringed Kingfisher (good candidate for a forthcoming possible split) followed by a group of Slender-billed Parakeet, our first Chilean endemic! At the Caullin Bay we were welcomed by 2,000+ Hudsonian Godwits! The mudflats of the protected bays of Chiloé Island are the main wintering grounds of the Alaskan population of this species, and it’s a treat to see such number of this amazing migrant! Between the numerous godwits we also found a dozen of Red Knots, as well as some Whimbrels and Greater Yellowlegs. Hundreds of Black-necked Swans were also feeding on sea kelp just on the shore, and suddenly a beautiful adult in breeding plumage of Snowy-crowned Tern came to fish close to us! What a fantastic way to end our time on Chiloe Island!

After a week birding Patagonia and the Lake District we expected much warmer temperature in Central Chile, but this year was quite unusual and we had pretty cloudy and cool temperature in Central Chile too. We spent a full day birding the coast around San Antonio, one of the main Chilean harbors. During our first stop we birded a remnant patch of native vegetation where the succession of new birds seemed to be endless! Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetail, Rufous-tailed Plantcutter, Dusky-tailed Canastero, Black-chinned Siskin, and more appeared successfully and gave us very good views. But the star of this location was our first Chilean Giant Hummingbird, the largest hummingbird in the world, feeding on the beautiful flowers of the ‘Chagual’ or Puya chilensis. The uniform dark grey Dusky Tapaculo did his best to attract our attention, singing on the top of dead branch for a while (very unusual for that secretive species!), but his close relative White-throated Tapaculo stayed hidden in the dense vegetation!

The same morning, we visited the Maipo estuary, one of the most important coastal wetlands in Central Chile. This is a very dynamic wetland, whose topography changes under the influence of the river and the ocean. We had great views on a flock of 1,000+ Black Skimmers, two Snowy-crowned and a few Elegant Terns, as well as a pair of Striped Woodpecker! For lunch we enjoyed Reineta or Pacific Pomfret, a delicious local fish, with a stunning view on the rocky shore and three displaying Seaside Cinclodes. In the afternoon our birding took us to Cartagena lagoon, a nice conservation initiative where we had very close views of White-tufted Grebes, Lake Ducks, Red Shovelers, and a few Coscoroba Swans together with Black-necked Swans. We also saw a few Coipu, a huge rodent native to Chile, swimming between the ducks.

We had another full day to explore the coast, visiting a few more wonderful places, beginning with the rocky shore of Reñaca where we enjoyed the early morning light on the stunning Inca Terns and Red-legged Cormorants, and found a Humboldt Penguin feeding his large chick. A little group of Southern Sea Lions added smell to the great sights. Following our way north we stopped at a few locations, finding Band-tailed Sierra-Finch, Common Diuca-Finch, several Giant Hummingbirds, and numerous Grassland Yellow-Finches. Stopping at a small estuary, we had very close views of a Great Grebe singing just a dozen meters from the shore!

That morning we also visited the beautiful Zapallar Bay, where the unique native vegetation not only pleased the botanists of the group, but also attracted a few Fire-eyed Diucon and Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetails. After a lunch of delicious fried ‘cheese and shrimps’ empanadas in Zapallar, we visited the Ligua Estuary where we had great views on several Chilean Mockingbirds, a very responsive White-throated Tapaculo and three charismatics Moustached Turcas singing and scratching the ground close to the group.

The Humboldt Current, running along the Chilean coast from South to North, attracts birds from all over the world. White-chinned Petrel that breed in New Zealand, Jaegers that breed in Alaska, Black-browed Albatrosses that breed on Sub-Antarctic islands, and Fulmar that breed in Antarctica; all gather here with the resident species to feed on these productive waters. Obviously, sailing on the Humboldt Current is an obligation for those who want to see some of these fascinating seabirds, and we organized our pelagic trip of Valparaiso. Our trip out on the water was absolutely wonderful and very successful! Leaving the harbor, we first saw some coastal species including Peruvian Pelicans or a few migrating Franklin’s Gull. Once far from the shore the truly pelagic species began to appear, including Salvin’s and Black-browed Albatrosses, Northern Giant Petrel, White-chinned Petrels, Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters and the graceful Fuegian [Wilson’s] Storm-Petrel. Among the numerous seabirds attracted by the chum, we spotted at least three Buller’s Albatrosses, two Northern and one Southern Royal Albatross, a Pintado (Cape) Petrel and no less than five DeFilippi’s (Masatierra) Petrels were also spotted today and came sometimes very close to our boat. Back on land and after a nice meal at the harbor restaurant, we drove back to Santiago for a deserved rest.

After three days on the coast, we spent the following two in the impressive Andes dominating the city of Santiago. Both days were absolutely fantastic, with lots of great birds seen in the most scenic backgrounds. On our first day, near the ski resort area of Farellones and Valle Nevado, we first stopped at a mid-elevation location and were rewarded by a prolonged view on an Austral Pygmy Owl. Continuing our way toward higher elevations, we successfully found more and more species, including Spot-billed Ground-Tyrant and Rufous-banded Miners. Above us, a few Andean Condors were beginning to soar high in the sky, and we will have several great views of these masters of the sky. At a higher elevation, the species seen earlier in the morning were replaced by White-browed Ground-Tyrants, Greater Yellow-Finches, Creamy-rumped Miners or Sharp-billed Canasteros. A sparkling White-sided Hillstar also gave a great show deploying his beautiful gorget in the sun, just for us!

Some of these birds even came to share our picnic lunch set amongst the amazing scenery of the High Andes. We ended our day at Valle Nevado, where we found our first Black-fronted Ground-tyrants and where a few Andean Condors gave us a nice show, flying low with an amazing scenery in the background; one of them even landed on the building roof allowing us to have incredible close views!

Our second day in the Andes above Santiago was absolutely stunning too! After driving up the Maipo valley, an area well-known by wine enthusiasts, we headed into El Yeso Valley where we quickly found a lovely Chilean endemic: the Crag Chilia. One of this superb bird came close to us, attracted by the playback of his call, giving us great opportunity to take pictures. We also found a pair of Torrent Ducks swimming in the tumultuous river with their three young chicks! Continuing toward higher elevations, the ever-changing scenery of the green, red, grey and black mountains was simply stunning. The spectacular Yeso Lake was an obligatory stop for a few pictures. Later, we drove towards a well-known stakeout for Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, where several of the elegant Gray-breasted Seedsnipe were found, as well as Yellow-rumped Siskin, Black-winged Ground-Dove and a Magellanic Tapaculo.  As we couldn’t find the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover there, we headed higher up in this beautiful valley, and after a long search finally found a pair with two fluffy chicks! What a view on one of the most beautiful shorebirds in the world! During our lunch surrounded but one of the most impressive landscapes of the tip, four more condors visited us and soared very close to us, giving one more impressive view on these majestic birds.

The last leg of our trip took us in the extreme north of the country with a morning flight to Arica, just a few miles from the Peruvian border. After our early arrival we visited the amazing Lluta estuary, finding nice flocks of Grey, Franklin’s and Belcher’s Gulls, as well as a few Andean and Kelp Gulls. A section of the beach was covered by a carpet of Sanderlings, and even a vagrant Tricolored Heron was found here! After lunch, we headed towards Putre at 11,500 feet (approx. 3,500 meters) in elevation, doing a few stops on the way. Putre is a small and charming Andean village surrounded by ancestral terraces and wonderful mountains in the background and whose inhabitants mostly belong to the Quechua and Aymara cultures. We spent the first morning birding the area around the village, enjoying the impressive diversity of birds found at this elevation: Dark-winged [Creamy-Breasted] Canasteros, White-throated Earthcreepers, Streaked Tit-Spinetails, Spot-winged Pigeons, Bare-faced Ground-Doves, Yellow-billed Tit-Tyrants, Black-hooded Sierra-Finch and more. Lots of superb Andean Hillstars were buzzing around. In the afternoon we reached the entrance of the Lauca National Park, at almost 14,000 feet. We did not have to walk very long to find a few Cream-winged and White-winged Cinclodes, Plumbeous Sierra-Finches and Puna Ground-tyrants just a few meters from us. We also saw a few Glaciar (White-winged Diuca-) Finches, and several groups of the elegant Vicuña were seen close, but not as close as the numerous Viscacha seen only a few meters from us. From the bus we also found a group of six Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe, and even spotted a male Puna Tinamous followed by nine small chicks! Tired because of the high altitude, we came back to our lodge for a great dinner and a good sleep.

Our next morning was dedicated to the astonishing Lauca National Park. Thanks to wonderful weather, we had superb views on the perfectly triangular and snow-capped  Parinacota and Sajama Volcanos, in the background of the beautiful Chungara Lake. But that morning was not only about stunning landscapes; we also saw wonderful birds such as all three species of flamingoes (Chilean, Andean and Puna), ‘red-legged’ Giant Coot breeding on Chungara Lake, elegant Andean Avocets and Puna Plovers, flocks of Puna Ibis plus huge numbers of waterfowl including Andean Ducks and Andean [Silvery] Grebes. We also had great views on a few Black Siskin, two Buff-breasted Earthcreeper and the common Cordilleran Canastero. We also found several Andean Flickers, one of the few colonial woodpeckers in the world. On the way back to Arica, we made a stop in the Azapa valley, finding a cute pair of Burrowing Owl, a female Peruvian Sheartail and a few Peruvian (White-crested) Elaenias. We then reached our hotel in Arica, and after two days spent at very high elevation, we appreciated not only his coastal location and his great restaurant, but also the Grey Gulls roosting on the nearby shore.

Having a full day around Arica, we decided to spend a full morning in a nearby valley to look for the very endangered Chilean Woodstar. This species is seriously threatened by agricultural development in the riparian strips of northern Chile rivers and the most pessimistic prognosis is that the species may not survive the next few years… Fortunately, at a known lek, we were able to admire at least five males, with the hope the species will be able to survive here. In the same area, we found a few of the stunning Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant, several Slender-billed Finches, a few West Andean Swifts, two Peruvian Pipits and a large flock of Raimondi’s Yellow-Finches! On the way back to Arica we also stopped in the Chaca valley and found a pair of the very local Tamarugo Conebill, and in the Azapa Valley we also spotted a recently splited Rufescent Flycatcher, as well as a pair of Chestnut-throated Seedeater.

We celebrated that last wonderful day and an exceptional trip with a much-appreciated farewell dinner, during which we remembered some of the best birds of the trip: King Penguin, Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, Chucao Tapaculo, Many-colored Rush-Tyrant, Magellanic Plover, as well as Andean Condor, Buller’s Albatross, Inca Tern, Crag Chilia, Moustached Turca, Magellanic Penguin, Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant, Canary-winged Finch, Elegant-crested Tinamou, and so many more!

As LATAM changed our flight back to Santiago to a very early one, arriving at 10h30 in Santiago, we decided to visit the Batuco wetlands, for some birding and a last lunch of Chilean empanadas and Mote con Huesillo! In the reedbeds, beside many birds already seen during the tour, we found a secretive Stripe-backed Bittern, ending nicely a beautiful trip!

                                                                                                                                                                            - Fabrice Schmitt

Created: 23 November 2022