Chile: Atacama to Tierra del Fuego

While its birdlist may be smaller than that of its tropical neighbors, Chile’s habitat diversity, spectacular birds, and breathtaking scenery more than make up for it. If scouring high Andean bogs for Diademed Sandpiper­-Plovers, stalking huet-­huets in lichen­ draped forest, or sifting through vast flocks of seabirds in the Humboldt Current sounds like fun, check out this fascinating tour. Wine lovers will also have ample chances to sample the exquisite local harvests.

 

The following itinerary offers an excellent cross-section of Chile, and for custom tours we can modify it to suit your needs. Shorter itineraries are possible and still very productive.

Day 1: Santiago. Your flights arrive in Santiago, and you’ll be transferred to our hotel for the night. Since most flights arrive in the morning, we’ll have some afternoon birding at wetlands near Santiago to look for Many-colored Rush-tyrant, Wren-like Rushbird, Stripe-backed Bittern, and other marshland species.

Day 2: Santiago to the Pacific Coast. We’ll head westwards towards the ocean, stopping at a large lagoon for the uniquely parasitic Black­-headed Duck. On the coast we’ll search for our first endemic, Chilean Seaside Cinclodes, and check offshore for Humboldt Penguins riding the waves and flocks of Inca Terns hanging in the wind. We’ll spend two nights in Viña del Mar on the coast.

Birds like this dapper Cape Petrel feature on the pelagic
Birds like this dapper Cape Petrel feature on the pelagic (Andrew Spencer)

Day 3: Humboldt Pelagic. This seabird spectacular is often described as the best in South America. The nutrient rich Antarctic waters of the Humboldt Current come loaded with seabirds. Giant ocean wanderers like Salvin’s and Buller’s Albatrosses will vie for our attention with large rafts of Pink­-footed Shearwaters, Cape Petrels, Peruvian Boobies, and Guanay and Red-­legged Cormorants. Other possibilities include Peruvian Diving­-Petrel, and Wandering and Northern Royal Albatross.

Day 4: La Campana NP. The mixed heath and oak woodland in this park is the best site for the tricky endemic White­-throated Tapaculo. If you have looked for dowdy black tapaculos in the Andes, think again, as many Chilean species are huge and attractively patterned. While searching we may also find the endemic Dusky­-tailed Canastero on the scrubby hillsides. In the afternoon, we head to Guayacán for a two-night stay, stopping at a marsh to look for Many­-colored Rush­ Tyrant and Wren­-like Rushbird en route.

Day 5: Embalse El Yeso. Today we’ll head into the high Andes for the first time, the realm of the unique Diademed Sandpiper­-Plover. The scenic mountain road leading up to the reservoir provides some outstanding Andean birding ­ we’ll check the rocky boulders for bold Moustached Turcas using them as calling-posts, and for the endemic Crag Chilia.

The Holy Grail of South American shorebirds:
The Holy Grail of South American shorebirds: "DSP" (Andrew Spencer)

Day 6: Guayacán to Talca. We have a fairly long drive south to the town of Talca, where we spend the night. In the afternoon we’ll visit Altos de Lircay, a Nothofagus forest reserve that holds some of Chile’s most wanted birds: the giant Chestnut­-throated Huet­-huet, the impressive Magellanic Woodpecker, and the nuthatch-impressionist White­-throated Treerunner.

Day 7: Reserva Lircay to Angol. After another morning in Lircay, we’ll visit the banks of a large river where the lovely Burrowing Parrot can often be found. In the afternoon we head to Angol, where we will spend one night.

Day 8: Nahuelbuta NP to Osorno. An early morning departure will see us overlooking some hillside fields at dawn, scanning for the shy Chilean Tinamou. Once in the park we enter one of the most distinctive and atmospheric forests in the Americas, with an interesting mix of beech and Araucaria trees. We’ll check out thick stands of bamboo for the strange Des Murs’s Wiretail, and two more impressive Chilean tapaculos: Chucao Tapaculo and the giant Black­-throated Huet­-huet. Once the activity dies down, we’ll continue south to Osorno.

Slender-billed Parakeet is found on Chiloe Island
Slender-billed Parakeet is found on Chiloe Island (Andrew Spencer)

Day 9: Puyehue NP to Punta Arenas. Fields near Puyehue often have large feeding flocks of the endemic Slender­-billed Parakeet, while the forest inside can be good for shy species we may still need, such as Ochre­-flanked Tapaculo. In the afternoon we’ll take a short ferry ride over to Chiloe Island where we’ll have a good chance at Magellanic Diving­-Petrel, Magellanic Penguin, and Rock and Imperial Cormorants, and maybe even the newly-described Pincoya Storm-petrel sometimes seen in the area, and which is currently only known from this area. We will then take a late afternoon flight to Punta Arenas, where we overnight.

Day 10: Punta Arenas to Tierra del Fuego. An early morning departure will take us north to the moorlands of Pali Aike National Park, which play host to two impressive shorebirds, Rufous-chested and Tawny-throated Dotterels, in addition to Least Seedsnipe and Chocolate-vented Tyrant, a remarkable ground-dwelling flycatcher. We’ll take then take and afternoon ferry to Tierra del Fuego and travel to Cerro Sombrero on the northern end of the island.

Day 11: Cerro Sombrero to Porvenir. We will spend the day on Tierra del Fuego; this is the best place for the rare Ruddy-headed Goose, though finding them requires sifting through throngs of the more common Upland Geese and Ashy-headed Geese. Other possibilities include Coscoroba Swan, Short-billed Miner, and Aplomado Falcon. The end of the day will find us in Porvernir, where we’ll overnight.

One of Chile's ultimate avian prizes: Magellanic Plover, a must-see for family listers
One of Chile's ultimate avian prizes: Magellanic Plover, a must-see for family listers (Andrew Spencer)

Day 12: Tierra del Fuego to Punta Arenas. In the early morning we will make our way to a series of large saline lagoons where we’ll search for the monotypic Magellanic Plover, while Chilean Skuas haunt the skies above. A recently discovered King Penguin colony may also be visited before we board an early afternoon ferry back to Punta Arenas. We have one night in Punta Arenas.

Day 13: Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine NP. An early departure from Punta Arenas will bring us north to Torres del Paine NP, with its dramatic mountain scenery; we will stay here one night. A large reed fringed lake in the park holds the rare and seldom seen Austral Rail, in addition to Silvery Grebe and waterfowl.

Parts of Chile are often touted as hosting the finest landscapes in all of South America
Parts of Chile are often touted as hosting the finest landscapes in all of South America (Andrew Spencer)

Day 14: Torres del Paine to Puerto Natales. We’ll explore some snow dusted valleys outside the park that hold the scarce White­-throated Caracara, and if we are lucky we may also find a flock of the rare Yellow­-bridled Finch feeding in an alpine meadow. Good numbers of regal Andean Condors are also expected. We’ll spend the night in Puerto Natales.

Day 15: Punta Arenas to Santiago We’ll drive south to Punta Arenas and fly back to Santiago, arriving in mid afternoon with plenty of time to connect with international flights home. If you are joining the extension, we will spend this night in Santiago.

Lesser Rheas are all along the roadsides north of Punta Arenas
Lesser Rheas are all along the roadsides north of Punta Arenas (Nick Athanas)

__________________________________________

Atacama and Lauca Extension (5 days)

Day 1: Santiago. This is the same day as day 15 of the main tour. Due to flight schedules, we will spend the night in a hotel in Santiago.

Day 2: Santiago to Arica. We’ll take a morning flight to Arica in northern Chile. We’ll bird the “oasis” valleys in the dry parched Atacama Desert. These islands of greenery are vital for some localized birds that have tiny populations in Chile. Slender-billed Finches are regular in this area, although our main quarry will be the dapper Tamarugo Conebill, a small population of which still exists in the area. We will also visit a hummingbird reserve in the Azapa Valley, where Peruvian Sheartails and Oasis Hummingbirds fight around the abundant blooms in this specially designed hummer garden. Occasionally the now very rare Chilean Woodstar also puts in an appearance. We spend the night in Arica.

Day 3: Arica to Putre. If we have missed anything around Arica, we’ll target them this morning before starting to ascend into the high Andes. As we climb higher up the Lluta Valley, passing through some of the most barren habitat in Chile where little plant life is evident, we eventually emerge into the pre-puna zone, where low scrub covers the hillsides. We will spend the afternoon in a dry gorge close to the town of Putre, checking these scrubby areas for a whole new suite of birds, like the very local White-throated Earthcreeper, Black-throated Flowerpiercer, exquisite Andean Hillstars, and both Canyon and Dark-winged Canasteros. We will then spend two nights in a nice hotel in this tiny Andean town.

Rufous-bellied Seedsnipes can be surprisingly hard to find up in the puna
Rufous-bellied Seedsnipes can be surprisingly hard to find up in the puna (Nick Athanas)

Day 4: Lauca NP. This day will see us ascend further to one of the most scenic spots of the whole tour – Lauca NP. Driving from Putre we will emerge out of the scrubby zone below into the puna plains of the altiplano, a distinctive high Andean landscape. Open undulating plains are dotted with large lagoons and bright green bofedal bogs, that are home to some of the coolest birds and animals in the Andes. Andean Geese are common up here, as are a whole range of ground-tyrants – including the largest of them all – White-fronted Ground-Tyrant. A pink haze of flamingos can be found amongst the larger ponds, that in some years include three species, including Puna and Andean. While we search through the flamingo horde for the rarer species we are also likely to encounter Andean Avocets on the same large lagoons, and the muddy edges play host to small numbers of Puna Plovers. Lauca is a stronghold for the local Giant Coot, which can appear to be in almost plague-like numbers in some years. These scenic grasslands have the dramatic backdrop of the snow-topped Parinacota Volcano, while in the foreground herds of wild camels roam the puna, including the delicately built Vicuna, and more robust Guanacos. There are optional hikes around the high bogs up at Lauca to search for Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, Rufous-bellied and Gray-breasted Seedsnipes, and the local White-throated Sierra-finch.

Giant Coots nest on some of the lakes at Lauca NP
Giant Coots nest on some of the lakes at Lauca NP (Nick Athanas)

Day 5: Putre to Arica. We will have another morning to explore this varied and visually spectacular area. Depending on what we need we can return to the high Altiplano, or spend further time in the pre-puna zone around Putre to search for birds like Golden-billed Saltator or Andean Swift. We will also ensure we visit a remnant patch of polylepis woodland, a severely threatened high Andean habitat, little of which now remains in Chile. There we will search for Polylepis specialists such as D’Orbigny’s Chat-Tyrant, Thick-billed Siskin and if we are lucky, Giant Conebill. In the afternoon we’ll return to Arica and catch an afternoon flight to Santiago. This flight is scheduled to arrive at 9:30pm (flights from Arica are quite limited at the moment). This will allow time to connect with early AM flights. Should your flight schedules require an overnight in Santiago, we would be happy to arrange it for you (please note that this night is not included)

________________________________________

TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

CLIMATE: Warm and sunny with some rain in Central Chile, cold and windy in Patagonia.

DIFFICULTY: Easy in most places, but the high elevation on a couple of the days makes even level walking physically challenging. We’ll reach 14,000 ft (4300 m) on the extension. Since the key birds are spread widely over this long country, we stay in most hotels for only one night.

ACCOMMODATION: Good to very good throughout.