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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Chile: Tierra del Fuego to the Atacama Desert

2019 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 ultra-confiding 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 snow-capped volcanoes; from cryptic Magellanic Plovers on a stony lakeshore to stately rheas on Patagonian steppe and puna; from the handsome patterns of Inca Tern and Rufous-chested Dotterel to roadside Moustached Turcas and the tiny Chilean Woodstar; and from the flashy patterns of Chocolate-vented Tyrant and Many-colored Rush-Tyrant to the subtleties of De Filippi’s Petrel and cryptic species of Royal Albatross.  

IN DETAIL: All arrived safely in time for lunch and the intro meeting, after which we headed to some nearby ‘wetlands’ for a very pleasant introduction to local birdlife on a warm spring afternoon. A selection of waterbirds included the striking (visually and vocally!) White-backed [Black-necked] Stilt, plus several ducks including the brood-parasite Black-headed Duck, and a vagrant Ashy-headed Goose (!) with a large flock of Andean Geese. Also notable were superb views of Plumbeous Rail, a stunning male Cinereous Harrier, and the beautiful little Many-colored Rush-Tyrant. Although 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 earth-shaking 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, where we arrived to cold driving rain—oh. But the birding was still amazing. 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, and Flying Steamer-Duck. After checking in and lunch we headed south along the coast beside the Strait of Magellan, in mostly dry and sunny weather, but still windy. Birding from the bus was very productive, with handsome Imperial and Rock shags on rocks off the beach; albatrosses and giant-petrels ‘following’ the bus; scope views of Magellanic Penguins, then Austral Parakeets in a roadside tree; plus varied waterfowl including a few pairs of Fuegian [Flightless] Steamer-Ducks and superb views of Ruddy-headed and Ashy-headed Geese. All too soon it was time to return for dinner and a good sleep—but not before a complete surprise King Penguin on the beach beside the road just south of town—wow, a show-stopper to end the day.

We awoke to find continuing howling wind and light snow flurries, but most of the day was dry, including a very productive ferry crossing that started at the dock with point-blank Southern Giant-Petrels wheeling all around us, plus close Black-browed Albatrosses and our first Fuegian [Wilson’s] Storm-Petrel. The crossing produced numerous Magellanic Diving-Petrels, although it took a bit of time for everyone to see them in the choppy seas, and then we pulled into Porvenir and found some handsome Great Grebes in the bay. Then it was on to a nearby lake for a picnic lunch and superb views of the enigmatic Magellanic Plover before the long, Guanaco-punctuated drive (plus our first Andean Condor and the elusive Short-billed Miner) to the newly founded King Penguin colony at Bahía Inutíl (Useless Bay), where the wind was howling at 60+ knots—impressive! Our onward drive (on paved road!) to Cerro Sombrero included stops for some Chilean Flamingos and a trio of Chocolate-vented Tyrants before a filling dinner and well-deserved sleep. All in all, quite the day at the end of the Earth.

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 still windy, but was warm by local standards. Our drive to the Bahía Azul ferry produced Tawny-throated Dotterel and Rufous-chested Plover along with Two-banded Plovers and Least Seedsnipe—a very nice quartet of austral-breeding shorebirds at one spot! At other stops we enjoyed roadside flamingoes plus Patagonian Yellow-finch and nesting Cinnamon-bellied Ground-Tyrants. The short ferry crossing back to the mainland featured superb views of diving-petrels. Birding at some wetlands and grassland we found a good selection of species, including Silver Teal, Rosy-billed Pochard, Darwin’s Rheas (with one chick snatched by a Southern Crested Caracara!), and a nice Austral Canastero. Moving on to an area of relatively ungrazed steppe we found the stunning Canary-winged (aka White-bridled or Black-throated) Finch, plus confiding Least Seedsnipe, Correndera Pipits, and a fine pair of Chocolate-vented (or Sartorial?) Tyrants. Wow, what a day! Something had to give with our luck, and it was the bus. But with planning this cost us only 10 minutes in making a swift change of vehicles and then we watched the windswept scenery and the rheas pass by on the ‘long drive’ back (through a tiny corner of Patagonia) to Punta Arenas. All in all, an amazing visit to this wonderful part of Chile.

A cool but sunny morning bade us farewell from Punta Arenas for our flight north to Puerto Montt, gateway to the picturesque if ecologically devastated Lake District. All prepared for rain, we were astonished (at least, the leaders were) to arrive under cloudless blue skies with stunning views of snow-capped volcanoes, shimmering blue lakes, and green fields dotted with ibis, lapwings, and caracaras. Our drive to Puyehue National Park included stops for scenery photos plus a picnic lunch with Spectacled Tyrant and Austral (née Sedge) Wren. We arrived at the lodge in good time to settle in, surrounded by 360o of temperate broadleaf rainforest.

The next morning we awoke to more cloudless blue skies and with great luck along the road after breakfast found a male Magellanic Woodpecker in record time! Then it was time to drop into denser forest 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 three members of the ‘tapaculo quartet’ plus the demure little Des Mur’s Wiretail, along with attractive Thorn-tailed Rayaditos and White-throated Treerunners. Our picnic by a rushing river was followed by a pair of Torrent Ducks and a stooping Rufous-tailed Hawk that narrowly avoided hitting the bus! And so back to the forest, where Patagonian Tyrant showed well before our memorable excursion up the beautiful snowy crater, where patience was rewarded with superb views of the handsome and very local Yellow-bridled Finch. What an amazing day! Our last morning dawned clear and sunny again, and our travel day back to Puerto Montt and on north to Santiago featured good views of Ochre-flanked Tapaculo, plus some 11th hour Slender-billed Parakeets and a bonus Striped Woodpecker. The Black-faced Ibis colony in downtown Entre Lagos was also notable, along with the recently arrived (in Chile) Saffron Yellow-finch.

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 Chilean Puya in flower), starting in cool overcast conditions and slowly becoming brighter. We found a great variety of birds, featuring a good selection of waterbirds (including squadrons of Peruvian Boobies, a nest-building Seaside Cinclodes, beautiful little Stripe-backed Bitterns, the understated Great Shrike-Tyrant, endemic White-throated and Dusky Tapaculos, the rather local Ticking Doradito, 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 (arguably too calm!) 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 De Filippi’s Petrel, Peruvian Diving-Petrel, and both Royal and Buller’s Albatrosses amid the numerous Salvin’s and Black-browed, plus the usual suite of petrels, shearwaters, and storm-petrels—and, finally, the rare Chatham Albatross. Our trip coincided with a national strike and the afternoon was spent resting and watching some minor riots and water cannons in action from the safety of our hotel rooms! 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 snazzy Inca Terns at an inshore rock that also held Peruvian Boobies and Southern Sealions, followed shortly by Surfbirds feeding in their winter home. A wetland stop produced a pair of nest-building Wrenlike Rushbirds plus nice views of rush-tyrants, plantcutters, and of course the Chilean Mockingbird. We rounded out the morning with a delightful beach walk to a colony of Humboldt Penguins amid cactus and Peruvian Pelicans, plus frolicking Marine Otters, and ‘the usual’ fly-by Peruvian Boobies. After a pleasant lunch we headed back to base in Santiago via a relaxing ice cream stop by the highway.

Two days spent within striking distance of the central Andes showcased another distinct avifauna amid mind-blowing scenery including relict glaciers, massive scree slopes, and towering moraines. Our first morning started out unusually mild and cloudy but became sunny later, and the second day started cool but soon became warm and not too windy. Bird-wise, the first morning started with a bang—Moustached Turca, Chilean Tinamou, and Austral Pygmy-Owl at the same spot within 15 minutes—and the second day concluded with a family of Diademed Sandpiper-Plovers in ‘attack mode’ as they advanced right to us and then past us within a few feet. Wow! In between, other highlights included low-flying Andean Condors (and a group of 11 soaring with a ‘small’ Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle), road-running Moustached Turcas, an obliging Crag Chilia, the striking Mountain Caracara, various ground-tyrants including the local Black-fronted, and a flock of flashy Yellow-rumped Siskins. What an amazing two days. The second day we returned to the hotel in good time to relax and repack before a good dinner and the last leg of this remarkable 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 vagrant Roseate Spoonbill at the beach and a pair of confiding Peruvian Thick-knees, we passed through the green Lluta Valley, home to Croaking Ground-Dove and Peruvian Meadowlark, and through ultra-desert up into Andean shrub-steppe at 11,500 feet, home to Straight-billed Earthcreeper and Dark-winged Canastero, plus a superb Aplomado Falcon. Our first day was spent acclimating in and around Putre, where the suite of new birds included green-flash Andean Hillstars, Black-throated Flowerpiercer, Giant Hummingbirds of the Andean persuasion, various canasteros, earthcreepers, and sierra-finches, and even an Ornate Tinamou. After a picnic lunch at the edge of the altiplano, our (mostly roadside) birding produced flashy Black Siskins, White-winged Cinclodes, Gray-breasted Seedsnipe, and another Diademed Sandpiper Plover! Oh, and then there were the sleepy Vizcachas and plenty of Vicuñas, including two warring males.

Our morning in Lauca National Park was amazing. The literally breath-taking vistas of 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 side-by-side for comparison. Among the morning’s many other highlights were the aptly named Giant Coot, stately Puna Rheas, handsome Andean Flickers, Puna Plover, Puna Teal, Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant, and even some craft shopping. We then drove back down to the oxygen-rich lowlands, via serendipitous Grayish Miners at the roadworks stop, plus Oasis Hummingbirds, a male Peruvian Sheartail, and Burrowing Owls, to end with hordes of Gray Gulls on the beach outside our rooms. What a day!

Our last full day we spent the morning in the Camarones Valley, where large areas of native vegetation still remain. Highlights included the snazzy little Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant, dashing Andean Swifts, swarms of 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), some surprise Peruvian Pipits, and superb views of the beautiful but very local Chilean Woodstar, a tiny 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 enjoyed the blizzards of terns and gulls at our hotel, took a siesta, and headed out to the Lluta river mouth for some final birding, which featured more dizzying numbers of birds—tens of thousands of gulls, terns, and sundry other species swarming over the inshore waters, sweeping into the river mouth, and packing the beach. We enjoyed good views of our only Hudsonian Godwit, caught up with White-cheeked Pintail, found a vagrant Gray-hooded Gull, and saw some fledgling Markham’s Storm-Petrels rescued from the city lights and due for release somewhere dark in the coming night. We returned to the hotel in good time for showers 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, with some optional birding at the hotel for the tern-and-gull spectacle and a stop at the Lluta River mouth, seeing a good selection of the ‘usual’ suspects—which won’t be ‘usual’ the next day. Then all too soon it was over. Thanks to all for making it such a fun and bird-filled adventure!

-Steve Howell

Created: 26 November 2019