Chile: Birding Journeys in a Thin Country
Chile, a Geographic Extravaganza! That’s is the most perfect summary of what is the general aspect of this long and narrow country throughout most of its range.
In truth, Chile is an ecological island in its own right. In the north sits the driest desert in the world, The Atacama. To the east, the magnificent Andes climb more than 18,000ft, bearing a vast salt pan, impressive peaks and numerous lakes. Further south, dense forests and pristine sub-Antarctic woods stretch into the distance. And then, where the world ends, the mythical Patagonia begins. Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego (the Land of Fire) are home to the furious fifties – the infamous local winds – cold, vast, bleak steppes and glacial fjords. Last, but not least, in the west, the Pacific Ocean, nourished by the fertile waters of the Antarctic, is one of the richest oceanic areas on the planet.
This is a land of dramatic and great biological and geographic contrasts. During the birding trips we have prepared for you this year, will bird the major habitats of this 2,800 miles long, ribbon-shaped country, following Darwin’s footsteps amongst a number of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth.
Central coast and Coastal wetlands | We start our journey surveying the avifauna of the central coast around the pleasant cities of Valparaiso and Viña del Mar. Exploring the coastal habitats we have a good chance of seeing the remarkable Giant Hummingbird and the endemic Chilean Seaside Cinclodes. We will try also to find fascinating birds in the reed-fringed wetlands such as the Stripe-backed Bittern, Black-headed Duck, the striking Spectacled Tyrant, and the stunning Many-coloured Rush-Tyrant.
The Humboldt Current | One of the highlights of birding in Chile is to take a pelagic trip through the cold waters of the Humboldt Current. This biologically productive oceanic current is only 100 miles wide, but over 2,000 miles long and the temperature remains at a steady 58-64°F throughout its length. Just a few miles offshore, there are dramatic underwater cliffs guiding the current northwards. The Peru-Chile Trench is actually deeper than the Andes are tall. The nutrients are further enriched by upwellings from the ocean floor along the entire Chilean coast, and is considered as one of the world’s most fertile places and one of the best pelagic birding locations. We expect to see a great array of tubenoses such as Black-browed, Buller’s, Salvin’s, Chatham Island, and Northern Royal Albatrosses. We should also find Southern and Northern Giant Petrels, White-chinned, Westland, Pintado Petrel and Masatierra Petrels, Pink-footed and Sooty Shearwaters, Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, and Peruvian Diving-Petrel. Other seabirds we may encounter include Humboldt Penguins, Inca Terns, and Chilean Skuas.
Matorral and Broad-leafed Forests | We visit La Campana National Park searching for another Chilean endemics, including White-throated Tapaculo, Moustached Turca, Dusky-tailed Canastero and Chilean Mockingbird. Darwin describes on his chronicles his extensive expedition to the Bell (Campana) of Quillota, the remarkable 6400ft-high mountain which dominates the park, making some remarks about the curious name of the White-throated Tapaculo: “it is called tapacolo, or “cover your posterior”; and well does the shameless little bird deserve its name; for it carries its tail more than erect, that is, inclined backwards towards its head.”
The Central Andes | In March 1835, Darwin reached a singular basin-like plain, called Valle del Yeso in the Andes around Chile’s capital, Santiago. Precisely here, we will scan along the craggy ravines, in search of the endemic Crag Chilia and Dusky Tapaculo, the local Creamy-rumped Miner, and a representative sample of Andean birds including Gray-breasted Seedsnipe, White-sided Hillstar, Cinereous, Black-fronted, White-browed and Rufous-naped Ground-Tyrants, Greater Yellow-Finch, Yellow-rumped Siskin and one of the most beautiful shorebirds of the world, the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover.
Monkey-puzzle and Temperate rainforests | From dense temperate rain forests, amongst a landscape dominated by impressive mountains and snow-glazed volcanoes, to a land dissected by fjords and islands, this part of our trip in the Lake District of southern Chile offers the opportunity to discover its wealth of habitats and birdlife. Several species of this region are endemic to the temperate Nothofagus beech forests present along both slopes of the southern Andes. We drive through magnificent national park to search the dense forests for the skulking and tiny Des Murs' Wiretail, Patagonian Tyrant, Fire-eyed Diucon, Chucao, Ochre-flanked and Magellanic Tapaculos, Black-throated Huet-Huet and the striking Magellanic Woodpecker. The singular Chucao Tapaculo was seen by Darwin: “The Chucao frequents the most gloomy and retired spots within the damp forests…is held in superstitious fear by the Chilotans, on account of its strange and varied cries” as also the Huet-huet: “This latter name is well given; for I defy anyone at first to feet certain that a small dog is not yelping somewhere in the forest”. We travel to Chiloé Island, where we have the opportunity to see the Flightless Steamer-Duck, Silvery Grebe, Black-necked Swan, and wintering flocks of Hudsonian Godwit. Exploring the native forests of the area, we search for the endemic Slender-billed Parakeet and Chilean Pigeon. Entering the temperate forests again we should see the beautiful and active Green-backed Firecrown and the migratory White-crested Elaenia, as well as birds that inhabit open fields such as Chilean Flicker, Common Diuca-Finch, Austral Thrush and Long-tailed Meadowlark.
Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego | Further south we will discover the southernmost birdlife of the American continent amidst one of the wildest landscapes on Earth, Patagonia. Beginning in Punta Arenas, our home town, we will explore the mythical Straits of Magellan, enjoying the company of the graceful Peale's and Commerson’s Dolphins and porpoising Magellanic Penguins. In Tierra del Fuego Island we explore the saline ponds of the area searching for the rare and odd-looking Magellanic Plover and specialties such as Rufous-chested and Tawny-throated Dotterels, Austral Canastero and the stunning Black-throated Finch.
Torres del Paine | Another essential highlight of Chile is a visit to Torres del Paine National Park. The vertical pink-grey granite peaks, the clarity of the light, the myriads of flowers, the raging wind, and the lakes of incredible colors, combined with its rich diversity of birds and mammals, give this park a unique character. We will spend two days searching for birds and other wildlife within this fascinating Biosphere Reserve. Our visits to subantarctic woods will provide plenty of opportunities to see Thorn-tailed Rayadito, White-throated Treerunner and Austral Parakeet. We will explore mountain slopes looking for specialties such as White-throated Caracara, Grey-breasted Seedsnipe and Yellow-bridled Finch. We will scan the fast-flowing rivers hoping to find the remarkable Torrent Duck. In the eastern side of the park, we will delight in seeing groups of Lesser Rheas and the most southern representative of the camelid family, the Guanaco.
The Atacama Desert | The north of Chile takes us to the fringes of the driest desert in the world, the inhospitable Atacama on the border with southern Peru. The center of this lifeless desert is a mountainous area and the rugged coast facing the deep blue ocean, has few suitable openings used as ports and raises as a series of tall sterile cliffs, where at least the air become cool enough to condense the moisture. This unique area is home to such diverse species as flightless Giant Coots to the tiny Chilean Hillstars. We start our trip in Arica, Chile's northernmost city. We will investigate the desert valleys, haunt of such specialities as Chilean Woodstar, Oasis Hummingbird, Peruvian Sheartail, Peruvian Meadowlark and the odd Slender-billed Finch. After some further birding at the coast, we ascend to the Altiplano or Puna Zone more than 10,500ft above sea level. En-route we may find Peruvian Thick-knee and Greyish Miner.
The Altiplano | The altiplano grasslands hold wild vicuñas grazing in small herds and Lesser Rheas. Specialities such as all three Chilean species of flamingos (Chilean, Andean and James’), Andean Avocet, Giant and Andean Coots, Chilean Woodstar White-throated Earthcreeper, Black-throated Flower-piercer and Slender-billed Finch await! The pleasant hamlet of Putre will be our base here. Sparkling Violetear, Dark-winged Canastero, Blue-and-yellow Tanager, Golden-billed Saltator and Hooded Siskin are among a range of exciting birds that occur here at the southern limit of their range. We hope to locate Aplomado Falcon, Mountain Parakeet, the very scarce White-throated Earthcreeper, Straight-billed Earthcreeper, Black-throated Flower-piercer and D'Orbigny's Chat-tyrant. Established to protect the highest lake in the world, Lauca National Park supports a great diversity of Andean specialities. Chilean and Andean Flamingos, Andean Avocet, Puna Ibis, Puna Teal, Giant and Andean Coots, Andean Lapwing and Andean Swallow head an impressive cast. We may also encounter the likes of Andean Gull, Andean Flicker and Cordilleran Canastero.
Explore and experience Chile firsthand this upcoming fall, following Darwin’s footsteps and enjoying its unique birdlife. I will have the great pleasure of introduce you to the country I proudly call home. The wine flows freely, our natives are friendly and the sight of the Condor soaring overhead will linger long in your memory – we promise you.