Trip report: Chile, Atacama to Tierra del Fuego (Nov 2008) by Tropical Birding

Guided by Nick Athanas and Sam Woods.

When you first glance at Chile’s bird list (just over 470 species), it would be easy to think that it does not have much to offer, compared to other more diverse South American countries. However, what Chile may lack in quantity it more than makes up for in quality. This is not only in the high class birds themselves, but also in a diverse country with some of the most spectacular settings on Earth to do your birding in. We saw much of this first hand on this short custom tour. Chile is a long, thin country, stretching over 4,000 miles from north to south. The tour took the form of three distinct stages, covering the three main regions of Chile, (by way of Chile’s well-developed domestic air services, and the odd ‘few’ hours on the road), that are well defined in terms of the birds that are found there. We began in Central Chile, where the inevitable focus was the Chilean endemics, and the smart set of tapaculos that dwell in the nathofagus forests there; from there we headed down south into the heart of Patagonia, covering the windswept steppes and grasslands, and also visited the fabled Tierra del Fuego at the ‘end of the world’. Lastly, we ventured into the extreme north, birding close to both the Pervian and Bolivian borders.  In this section we first found ourselves birding lush green oases valleys within the hot, dry Atacama desert. We finished by passing through some of the most barren, desolate looking habitat in order to climb up to our highest point of the tour (around 4,600m), where we experienced some classic high Andean birding on the open altiplano, in the shadow of the snow-capped Paranacota volcanic cone, surrounded by grazing vicunas.

Highlights on this varied birding tour included some ‘tasty’ tapaculos in Central Chile, including the giant Black-throated & Chestnut-throated Huets-huets, and the elusive White-throated Tapaculo in the chapparal of La Campana NP. All the Chilean endemics, including a showy Chilean Tinamou that walked out on the road beside us, and several noisy flocks of ‘well-endowed’ Slender-billed Parakeets. However, the real showstopper in Central Chile came on our day trip into the Andes from Santiago, when we not only came across our main target for the whole tour – Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, but were treated to outstanding views of a family of them along a quiet Andean stream, that comprised of two newly fledged chicks running along the shore. The beautiful Andean setting, the exquisite shorebird itself, and the outstanding views were impossible to beat, and were considered the overall trip highlight.

In the far south, the grassy plains were just as windy as expected, although the birds did not seem to mind, and we found some really cool shorebirds, including five handsome Rufous-chested Dotterels, along with ten superb Tawny-throated Dotterels in the same Patagonian reserve. Three ‘Magic’ Plovers (Magellanic Plovers), were also watched feeding in their characteristic spinning way along the shoreline of a large salt-encrusted lagoon in the ‘land of fire’, Tierra del Fuego. A rare close-up sighting of a pair of Austral Rails in the mighty Torres del Paine NP was especially noteworthy, as it is a scarce bird with notoriously shy and retiring habits. The assortment of ducks and wildfowl on this tour is also one big appeal, with the beautiful sheldgeese in Patagonia providing some memorable moments. We encountered the rare Ruddy-headed Goose on three occasions on Tierra del Fuego, and the butch Andean Geese of the Altiplano in the northern Chilean Andes were also quite a sight in this magnificent volcanic setting. Another star waterbird was pulled out during a final few hours birding in central Chile, when a pair of Black-headed Ducks were found a short time before out final departure. Not particularly colorful, although a bird with a unique life history, being the only parasitic duck in the world.

In the north, one Oasis Valley provided some price views of a pair of the scarce Tamarugo Conebill, before we made our ascent into northern Chile’s high Andes. Some of the most spectacular scenes of the tour were played out there. Herds of roaming wild Vicunas could be seen grazing across the Andean plains, with the impressive snow-capped volcanoe of Parinacota looming large in the background, this spectacular landscape being dotted with lakes and pools that played host to vast numbers of Giant Coots, Andean Geese, a few Puna Plovers and Gray-breasted Seedsnipes, while flamingos feeding on the salty edges brought a splash of color to this magical Andean scene. Bird wise the puna and altiplano there brought us some very special mountain birds, with sightings of a pair of Rufous-bellied Seedsnipes, along with a few Andean Avocets feeding around the flamingo-fringed pools.

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