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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Chile: Tierra del Fuego to the Atacama Desert

2011 Tour Narrative

As well as incredible scenery, good food and good company, our trip was blessed by unprecedented weather – barely a drop of rain fell on us the entire time! A dinner toast of “two tinamous and three flamingoes!” (species, not individuals!) for a remarkable day in Lauca National Park typified how each and every day of this diverse tour was full of great experiences. Moving up and down in both elevation and latitude, we traveled the length of Chile from the enigmatic Magellanic Plover and roaming groups of Guanacos on Tierra del Fuego to pink swaths of flamingoes and sleepy Vizcachas on the altiplano of the northern Andes; from seeking BIG tapaculos in temperate rain forest (and on open roadsides!) to watching magnificent albatrosses sail over the Humboldt Current; from a confiding group of Magellanic Woodpeckers to an even more confiding Diademed Sandpiper-Plover; from Commerson’s Dolphins “charging” the ferry to stately Humboldt Penguins at their nesting colony; from raucous flocks of Gray and Franklin’s Gulls “swimming” in a pulsating carpet of Sanderlings to the buzzing of tiny male Chilean Woodstars – each day there was so much. 

All arrived safely to a quiet Sunday in Santiago, with time to rest a little before our introductory meeting and lunch. For the afternoon we headed out for a pleasant introduction to local birdlife under sunny skies. Although the weather and vegetation suggested a spring day in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere, there were clues we’d switched to the south: the blackbirds were yellow-winged and the meadowlarks red-breasted, and the pintail were brown (both sexes) but the wigeon bright (both sexes); Cattle Egrets, Snowy Egrets and even Burrowing Owl were the same, though, and the handsome male Cinereous Harrier looked similar to a Northern or Hen Harrier. But instead of crows we had Chimango Caracaras, and the unsilent Southern Lapwings were striking. Oh, and the spectacular snow-capped peaks of the Andes defining the eastern horizon were a bit of a giveaway. Best of all were the handsome Many-colored Rush-Tyrant and a wonderful Plumbeous Rail with its neon bill colors. A good dinner at the hotel was followed by a good sleep. 

An early start got us to the airport for our spectacular flight south to Punta Arenas, with impressive views of the snow-capped Andes and the active Puyehue Volcano spreading an ash cloud over Bariloche, Argentina. After checking in to our hotel we headed out for a picnic lunch and on to the Seno Otway penguin colony. A moderate onshore gale made for an invigorating walk, but we enjoyed wonderful close-up views of the Magellanic Penguins, plus point-blank Darwin’s Rheas, a distant Andean Condor, singing Sedge Wrens battling the wind, confiding Correndera Pipits and negritos, a group of Patagonian Yellow-Finches, superb views of displaying Magellanic Snipe, and a good variety of waterfowl. A fine dinner and good sleep rounded out the day. We awoke to a glorious sunny morning and near-calm Straits of Magellan before driving to the ferry terminal in perfect time for a trio of fly-over Kelp Geese. Our crossing to Tierra del Fuego bordered on warm (!) and we enjoyed good views of Magellanic Diving-Petrel, Antarctic Fulmar, Black-browed Albatross and a record high (related to calm seas?) for Wilson’s Storm-Petrel. After check-in we headed into the field for a picnic lunch and Austral Canastero, followed by stately Guanacos and handsome Two-banded Plovers, before finding our goal – a fine pair of Magellanic Plovers. The warm and near calm continued, although the sky looked increasingly pregnant with moisture, and our late-afternoon birding produced good views of Short-billed Miner, Fuegian Steamer Duck and a surprise Barn Swallow. The next day we drove through a vast tiny corner of Patagonia, north from Porvenir to the short ferry crossing at Bahia Azul, up to some less-grazed steppe and back to Punta Arenas. As we’d come to expect the weather was changeable, but overall windy, with attempted rain showers briefly in the morning. Birds included a selection of waterfowl and shorebirds (or waders) such as elegant Ruddy-headed Geese, numerous Coscoroba Swans, a group of Hudsonian Godwits and handsome Rufous-chested Dotterels in display; plus nesting Cinnamon-bellied Ground-Tyrants, flashy Chocolate-vented Tyrants, flashy Canary-winged Finches and even some flamingos! But ‘bird of the day’ award perhaps went to the trio of beautiful Commerson’s Dolphins that ‘charged’ the ferry and great views of two species of foxes. 

The erupting Volcán Puyehue caused no problems with flights in and out of Puerto Montt, and added another scenic dimension to an already spectacular tour – plus we enjoyed solidly glorious sunny weather in the Lake District for our whole visit! We arrived in Puerto Montt in time for an impromptu mini-pelagic in the Seno Relocavi, although sadly we didn’t find the new storm-petrel. But it was a beautiful trip with atypical blue skies and sunshine, a skyline of snow-capped peaks and a very pleasant lunch on the yacht. Back on land we drove north through the Lake District, with stunning snow-capped volcanic peaks as constant companions. Stops along the way produced Des Mur’s Wiretail and great views of a feeding swarm of Slender-billed Parakeets. We awoke to a refreshing light frost, and the pre-breakfast walk produced fabulous views of a group of Magellanic Woodpeckers before we headed down to the elevation of elusive tapaculos. Our amazing luck with the weather held and we enjoyed spectacular views of the Puyehue Volcano and also its ash in a nearby river – where a male Torrent Duck showed beautifully. Forest birding produced, with some work, great views of the handsome Chucao Tapaculo, photo views (!) of the normally very elusive Ochre-flanked, some superb Austral Parakeets and a confiding Patagonian Tyrant. The next day dawned sunny (yet again!), and after loading the bus we watched a pair of Magellanic Woodpeckers and a handsome Striped Woodpecker. But better was to come – in 100 yards and 30 minutes we all got to see all four species of tapaculo, and some folks even managed photos of three species! After this unparalleled tapaculo fest we headed on to Puerto Montt, via some flashy Spectacled Tyrants for our flight back north to Santiago. 

Our first full day in central Chile we spent exploring a diversity of habitats from beaches, lakes, and marshes to matorral with its diverse flora, again in amazing weather. We found a great variety of birds, including hundreds of Whimbrel packed into their roosts, stunning Black-necked Swans, nest-building Giant Hummingbirds, brilliantly blue-billed Lake Ducks, the endemic White-throated and Dusky tapaculos and a skulking Spot-flanked Gallinule. Our pelagic out into the Humboldt Current was memorable for great albatross diversity and ‘perfect’ weather – high overcast and low seas. Birds were nearer shore than usual, related to an inshore run of spectacular squid, which was no doubt also linked to the Sperm Whale we saw. Good numbers of albatrosses and petrels were in constant view, including the ‘regular’ Salvin’s, Northern Royal (displaying on the water!) and Black-browed Albatross, Westland Petrels, Fuegian [Wilson’s] Storm-Petrel, Pintado Petrels and several De Filippi’s Petrels. Other highlights included a stunning Southern Buller’s Albatross, a bonus Wandering Albatross and an immature Shy Albatross – a real rarity in Chile. After lunch and a siesta we birded at some nearby lakes where a good variety of water included a handsome male Black-headed Duck and a family of Coscoroba Swans. Our last ‘lowland’ day we birded from beautiful rocky and sandy coasts to matorral woodland in sunny spring weather amid carpets of wildflowers and symphonies of bird song. Birds ranged from Rufous-tailed Plantcutters to Humboldt Penguins, Chilean Seaside Cinclodes to Surfbirds and Giant Hummingbird to the very local Great Shrike-Tyrant. A Lesser Grison dashing across the road was a bonus for those who glimpsed it. 

Our two days in the central Andes showcased another distinct avifauna and flora amid more stunning scenery, bringing to mind the parallel habitats and life zones in California. Other than California Quail, however, the birds were rather different – from roadside tinamous and tapaculos to good numbers of majestic Andean Condors and the local Crag Chilia. Also notable were our first Gray-breasted Seedsnipe and, with persistence, the skulking Sharp-billed Canastero. The next day we climbed through more mind-blowing scenery (and more roadside turcas!) into El Yeso Valley and the famous bog. With remarkable ease we found a very confiding Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, one of the best little shorebirds anywhere on Earth, as it fed unconcerned at close range. The magical scenery and calm sunny weather made for a truly special experience amid hooting Gray-breasted Seedsnipes, singing cinclodes (both Bar-winged and Gray-flanked) and sweeping bands of ground-tyrants. After a picnic lunch we headed back down the valley, via more ground-tyrants and handsome Yellow-rumped Siskins, to arrive in Santiago in good time to relax and repack before the last leg of this amazing tour. 

After playing musical gates at the Santiago airport we boarded for our flight north to Arica and arrived in time for an empanada lunch at the Lluta river mouth under sunny skies with a refreshing onshore breeze. After a pleasant beach walk, featuring Killdeer, Andean Coot and Belcher’s Gull among others, we headed inland and on to Putre, our base for three nights. Stops on the way produced Peruvian Thick-knee, Straight-billed Earthcreeper and our first Vizcacha! Arriving in time to settle in and enjoy a beautiful sunset in clear air, we headed for dinner, after which a near-full moon bathed the snow-dusted volcanoes behind our hotel. We spent a day acclimating in and around Putre, where the suite of new birds included Black-throated Flowerpiercers, Mountain Parakeets, Giant Hummingbirds and various canasteros, cinclodes and sierra-finches. Our picnic lunch at the edge of the altiplano was memorable for stunning scenery, brewing storm clouds and a couple of condors – oh, and then there were the Vizcachas and plenty of Vicuñas! Our day in Lauca National Park was a literal and metaphorical high point of the tour (despite the road ‘construction’ and attendant dust!). The breath-taking vistas of altiplano bogs, plains and lakes under towering snow-capped volcanoes defy words – and the lake reflections were also amazing.  Our early start was rewarded with a roadside Ornate Tinamou and then a trio of rather distant Ornate Tinamous. Some of the day’s other many highlights included pink swaths of flamingos (three species!), flashy Black Siskins, the aptly named Giant Coot and shopping for a variety of alpaca garments before we headed back to the oxygen-rich elevation of Putre (at about eleventy-five hundred feet…) for a relaxing late afternoon before dinner. 

After breakfast on our last full day we headed back down to the bird-rich Lluta Valley through the varying Atacama Desert zones of barren, more barren and beyond lifeless, with a memorable group photo stop en route. New species came thick and fast when we reached the lowlands, from handsome Slender-billed Finches to the enigmatic Rufescent Flycatcher, from the sought-after Chestnut-throated Seedeater to fiery male Vermilion Flycatchers. Before a fine picnic lunch we enjoyed a beach walk adventure, with an unplanned paddle thrown in, amid thousands of gulls, terns and a pulsating carpet of Sanderlings. Then it was on to the Azapa valley where we found tiny male Chilean Woodstars showing off well, plus wonderful Burrowing Owls and Peruvian Thick-knees. We checked in with good time to relax or take a beach walk before a fine final dinner accompanied by the sound of surf and Gray Gulls. Having basically ‘seen everything’ meant a lie-in or an optional morning beach walk by the hotel, where we added the expected Willet to the trip list plus the unexpected Elliot’s Storm-Petrel. A drive and pleasant walk around the Alacran causeway provided our last taste of Chile’s rich and varied avifauna before heading to the airport for the flight back to Santiago and our various onward travels. Thanks to all for making this such a fun and bird-filled adventure!

Steve Howell

November 2011

Updated: November 2011