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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Chile: Tierra del Fuego to the Atacama Desert

2018 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 highlights include the group of King Penguins packed on a windy Tierra del Fuego beach, a pair of Magellanic Plover on the shore of an emerald lake, a group of Lesser Rheas running together with Guanacos on the Patagonian steppe, a curious male of Magellanic Woodecker voted as ‘bird of the trip’ seen on our first day in Patagonia, the comic Moustached Turca running on the barren slopes of the impressive Andes while a group of Condors soar high in the sky, oodles of 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, etc., etc., … and the list goes on!

We did experience heavy rain in the Puerto-Montt area, but overall the entire trip went very well with wonderful blue skies in the Andes and a quiet sea during our pelagic trip off Valparaiso. In addition to excellent birding and stunning scenery 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, which was attracting a lot of waterfowl. Even if the location was not very attractive, we were delighted to find an impressive number of Patagonian Silvery Grebe with more than a thousand of these beautiful austral migrants on the main pond, and several pairs displaying very close from the shore. Among the numerous grebes, we found plenty of other waterfowl, such as Red Shoveler, Yellow-billed Pintail, Lake Duck, Red-fronted and White-winged Coot, and we even found a pair of Black-headed Duck, the only parasitic duck in the world. We also had very close views of the beautiful Many-colored Rush-tyrant (in Spanish this bird is called “Siete Colores”, or Seven Colors), and even found a Wren-like Rushbird singing from his nest.

Our visit to the Chilean Patagonia began with a very early flight to Punta Arenas, more than 1,300 miles south of Santiago. Arriving there mid-morning, we had some time to do some birding before to check-in at our hotel. 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. One of the most amazing sights of the morning was a South American Snipe foraging and then sleeping by the roadside just a few meters from us. At the same time a pair of White-tufted Grebe were swimming a short distance away and a family of Flying Steamer-duck with 5 young chicks reminded us we were in full spring even if the temperature was relatively brisk (around 50°F/10°C). Several dozen pairs of the stunning Upland Goose were grazing in the nearby fields along with a few equally elegant Ashy-headed Geese.

After checking into our hotel and lunch, 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, Southern Giant Petrel and 100+ of Antarctic (Southern) Fulmar. Birding from the bus was very productive—and comfortable. Handsome Imperial and Rock shags dotted rocks along the beach, and we also found our first Dolphin Gulls. Waterfowl took the prize, however, with Fuegian (Flightless) Steamer-Ducks, and excellent views of Ashy-headed and the rare and threatened Ruddy-headed geese. And during one of our stops to admire a beautiful pair of Spectacled Duck, we found an unexpected male Magellanic Woodpecker!  It even perched just a few meters from us for five long minutes, giving us the best views ever one could hope for. A pair of both Two-banded Plover and Least Seedsnipe, and a close flock of South American Terns added diversity before we returned for dinner and a good sleep.

On our second day in the far south of Chile, we crossed the near-mythical Strait of Magellan on the daily ferry between Punta Arenas and Porvenir. We had a pleasant crossing, finding on the way a few Magellanic Diving-Petrels, Magellanic Penguins 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. After arriving in Porvenir, we drove straight to a scenic lagoon, where we immediately found a pair of the unique Magellanic Plover, a superb bird with pink bubble gum legs. We enjoyed a fantastic lunch of Pejerrey, a succulent local fish. We then headed towards Bahía Inútil to visit a colony of King Penguins at the end of our journey. Forty one of these splendid penguins were waiting for us, including eight chicks born the last spring, and we really enjoyed watching these charismatic birds in the beautiful landscape of Tierra del Fuego. During our drive in the Patagonian steppe, we also found a large flock of the stunning Rufous-chested Dotterel, two Cinnamon-bellied Ground-Tyrant, and a few Short-billed Miners.

After a night in the small and isolated village of Cerro Sombrero, we traveled through the northern part of Tierra del Fuego towards Primera Angostura where we crossed back over the Strait of Magellan. On the way, we had great views of a stunning Tawny-throated Dotterel and a pair of Chocolate-vented Tyrant feeding chicks. Back on the main continent we made a few more stops on the way back to Punta Arenas, adding more and more Patagonian specialties to our list: the fantastic White-bridled Finch, a few Patagonian [Common] Miner, and the charismatic Darwin’s [Lesser] Rhea. At a little wetland, we enjoyed great views of the colorful Chilean Flamingo and the stunning Silver Teal, while a few Magellanic Snipe where displaying overhead. We also had quick view of a Lesser Grison, probably looking for one of the numerous geese or coot chicks. But the most amazing find was without any doubt three Patagonian Tinamou crossing the road, one of them even staying on the roadside and allowing us to take excellent pictures! This is an extremely rare species, barely present in Chile, and only heard once on a previous WINGS Chile tour!

After Patagonia, our trip took us to the beautiful Lake District. We had a morning flight to Puerto-Montt, from where we headed towards the Llanquihue Lake and to a little wetland for a picnic lunch. While eating our delicious empanadas, a Chilean specialty, we saw a beautiful male Spectacled Tyrant, a few Yellow-billed (Speckled) Teal and a pair of Black-crowned Night-Heron perched in the reeds. We traveled through the village of Frutillar and Puerto Octay, where the strong German influence due to past immigration gave us the feeling of traveling in Europe. During a restroom stop, we found a perched flock of Slender-billed Parakeet, our first Chilean endemic, and latter during the drive we spotted two Austral (Ringed) Kingfisher while scanning some rivers edge. Our final destination was the Antillanca Sky Resort, settled into the stunning Nothofagus forest of Puyehue National Park, were we stayed two nights. We spent a full day birding this splendid forest were the commonly seen species were Chilean [White-crested] Elaenia, Thorn-tailed Rayadito, Patagonian Sierra-Finch, Fire-eyed Diucon and Green-backed Firecrown. Others common species included three species of Tapaculo, the Black-throated Huet-huet, Chucao and Magellanic Tapaculo, but these species were mostly heard rather than seen. The whole group experienced a “Tapaculo quest”, i.e. patiently waiting in 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 all three species, including a pair of Chucao Tapaculo coming very close to us, a Magellanic Tapaculo coming in the open, and a pair of Black-throated Huet-huet intrigued by the playback and showing well. In addition to these difficult species, we also had good views of the rare Patagonian Tyrant and no less than two different Austral Pygmy-Owls. We also had one more prolonged view of a male Magellanic Woodpecker, largest woodpecker in South America.

On our last day in the Lake District, we stopped at the Lahuen Ñadi National Monument on our way to the airport. Between two rain showers, we enjoyed a walk in the beautiful forest protecting a few millenary Alerces Fitzroya cupressoides, and also had fantastic views of two Chucao Tapaculo and four Black-throated Huet-huet.

The temperatures the last few days in the Patagonia and the Lake District were quite cool, so we enjoyed the warmer temperature of Central Chile. 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, Tufted Tit-Tyrant, Dusky-tailed Canastero, Black-chinned Siskin, and more appeared successfully and gave us very good views. But the stars of this location were the numerous Giant Hummingbirds, 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 (very unusual for that secretive species!), and his close relative White-throated Tapaculo also behaved very well, giving us some good views also perching on some dead branches! 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, and during our visit most of the mudflats were gone, as were the associated waterbirds. We still had great views of a flock of 1,000+ Black Skimmers and a few Elegant Terns.

Birding the nearby fields, we had good views of the smart Rufous-tailed Plantcutter, only representative of the Cotinga family in Chile, and a few Picui Ground-Dove. For lunch we enjoyed Reineta or Pacific Pomfret, a delicious local fish, with a stunning view of the rocky shore. After lunch, while scanning the seabirds far away from the coast, François did an amazing find: an adult Red-footed Booby was foraging together with a group of Peruvian Booby. Amazing! This is the first continental sighting of that species in Chile, and we were able to document it with pictures. Definitely the rarest bird seen on the tour. In the afternoon our birding took us to Cartagena lagoon, a nice conservation initiative where we saw Whimbrels in big numbers and 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. And to properly end the day, we stopped at a known stake-out for Stripe-backed Bittern, where we had a perfect view of one individual of this usually difficult-to-find species.

Because of strong winds and heavy swell, we had to postpone our pelagic trip off Valparaiso. We had the whole 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 Shag. A pair of Seaside Cinclodes was breeding in a concrete wall, and a little group of Southern Sea Lions added smell to the great sights. Following our way north we stopped in a sandy field where it didn’t take long to stop a pair of displaying Chilean (Common) Miners, as well as Band-tailed Sierra-Finch, Chilean Flickers and Common Diuca-Finch. We then headed to the scenic Humboldt Penguin colony near Cachagua. It was very pleasant to walk along the shore and enjoy great views of a few dozen pairs of these endangered penguins. Also here were a few Peruvian Pelicans, breeding Neotropic Cormorants and Kelp Gulls. This morning we also visited the beautiful Zapallar Bay, where the beautiful native vegetation not only pleased the botanists of the group but also attracted a pair of the uncommon Great Shrike-Tyrant, largest tyrant-flycatcher in the World. We had our picnic lunch in the lovely village of Papudo. During the afternoon we also stopped at the Ligua Estuary where we had great views of several Chilean Mockingbirds, our first Moustached Turca, a lovely Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetail and a nice male of Striped Woodpecker visiting a nesting cavity.

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, Red-legged Cormorants, and a few migrating Franklin’s Gull. Once far from the shore the truly pelagic species began to appear, including numerous Salvin’s and Black-browed Albatrosses, 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 four Buller’s Albatrosses, one Northern Giant Petrel, six Northern Royal Albatross and even two DeFilippi’s Petrels. A Peregrine Falcon even appeared during the chumming operation, attracted by the amazing flock of seabirds, but he failed to catch one of them. Just when we decided to sail back towards the coast, a fantastic and critically endangered Chatham Albatrosses appeared, adding lots of excitement on the boat. No less than 5 species of albatrosses in a single morning. Back on land and after a nice meal at the harbor restaurant, we drove back to Santiago for a well-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 after some active searching were rewarded by a prolonged view of two Chilean Tinamous. It’s a rare day that one sees tinamous that well. Continuing our way toward higher elevations, we successfully found more and more species, including the charismatic Moustached Turca, and the lovely Band-tailed, Mourning and Grey-hooded Sierra-Finches. Above us, a few Andean Condors were beginning to soar high in the sky. At a higher elevation, the species seen earlier in the morning were replaced by White-browed Ground-Tyrants, Rufous-banded Miners, Greater Yellow-Finches, Sharp-billed Canasteros. After some search we also found three Magellanic Horned Owl on their day roost, offering fantastic pictures opportunity. We even had a very cooperative Creamy-rumped Miner coming within only few meters of the group. 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 four Black-fronted Ground-tyrant and where a dozen of Andean Condors gave us the most amazing show, flying at eye level with an amazing scenery in the background, only to then land on the building rooftops they use as roosts, 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 our first target of the day: the endemic 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. 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 the first shorebird seen was the elegant Grey-breasted Seedsnipe. Arriving at the famous bog, we found a nesting pair of the fantastic Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, taking turns to incubate their eggs. With the morning light, we couldn’t expect a better view of one of the most beautiful shorebirds in the world. On our way back to Santiago, Luke also spotted a pair of Torrent Duck with four little chicks, and watching these guys rafting on tumultuous river was a great end to the stunning day.

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 and a lunch at the Lluta river mouth, we headed towards Putre at 11,500 feet (approx. 3,500 meters) in elevation, doing several birding 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, 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 Cinclodes, Plumbeous Sierra-Finches and Puna Ground-tyrants just a few meters from us. We also saw a few White-winged Diuca-Finches together with White-throated Sierra-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 15 Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe, suddenly joined by three Puna Tinamous! Tired because of the high altitude, we headed 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 of 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 [Ruddy] Ducks and Andean [Silvery] Grebes. We also had great views of a few Black Siskin, a 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, and a few Oasis Hummingbird and a female Peruvian Sheartail were visiting a feeder. We then reached our hotel in Arica, and after two days spent at very high elevation, we appreciated not only the hotel’s coastal location and great restaurant, but also the hundreds of Grey Gulls, Willet and Surfbirds 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 five years… Fortunately, at a known lek, we were able to admire at least two males and two females, 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 large flock of West Andean Swifts and Martine even found a male of the extremely rare Peruvian Martin.

On the way back to Arica we also stopped in the Vitor valley and found a pair of the very local Tamarugo Conebill, and also walked through a colony of Markham’s Storm-Petrel in the middle of the Atacama Desert. It was really impressive to discover active nests of that poorly known seabird in a so dry and unique location. After lunch and a nap at the hotel, we headed to the Arica harbor for a short boat trip. We enjoyed close views of Inca Terns and Red-legged Shags on the peer, as well as of a few dozen Southern Sea Lions. We spent the rest of the afternoon at the amazing Lluta estuary, where the migrating Elegant Tern was the most common species with, for sure, more than 12,000 individuals. Mixed with the Elegant Terns, we found hundreds of Grey, Franklin’s and Belcher’s Gulls, as well as a few Andean and Kelp Gulls. We found no less than 13 species of shorebirds, including Least Sandpiper, American Golden Plover, Killdeer (local breeder), and a few Sanderling. Really a stunning place, where we could have spent several days!

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: Magellanic Woodpecker, Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, Patagonian Tinamou, Andean Condor, Chilean Woodstar, Chucao Tapaculo, Chatham Albatross, King Penguin, Spectacled Duck, Black-throated Huet-huet and Inca Tern. On the last morning of the trip we had an early flight towards Santiago, followed by international connections for most of the group.

-Fabrice Schmitt

Created: 16 November 2018