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We are Birders - We are Leica

We are Birders - We are Leica

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Pelagic Birding in Chile


Birding guide and naturalist Rodrigo Tapia while guiding one of our pelagic trips off Valparaiso, central Chile © Claudio F. Vidal, Far South ExpeditionsMonday 26 May 2014

Text and Photos by Rodrigo Tapia

Copyright © Far South Expeditions, Chile


If you live by the seaside, then seabirds might be a common sight, at least coastal seabirds like gulls, terns or cormorants that live on and near the shore. Pelagic or offshore seabirds, on the other hand, have always been sort of a separate world, spending most of their lives like they do in an environment that is so strange and inhospitable to us that we seldom visit it.

This gives them an aura of mystery and puts them altogether in a class of their own, making them a magnet for keen birders all over the world who travel to far away places to board an offshore bound boat and see with their own eyes what most people never get to see, pelagic seabirds in their natural environment.


One of the reasons why relatively few people go pelagic birding, besides from the obvious distance and cost involved, is because sailing in offshore waters for hours can be quite tiring, and people who are prone to seasickness can feel uncomfortable if seas are rough and they don’t take simple precautions.

But any discomfort is well worth it; with pelagics any sacrifice pays.


After all, special birds call for special birders…


Photo: Wandering Albatross, Diomedea exulans

At Far South Expeditions we have a long tradition and experience with pelagics, dating back to the mid- and late- eighties when we started doing the first pelagics off Valparaiso, Valdivia and in the Pacific coast of central Chile.

A common feature that was as key to a successful pelagic back then as it is nowadays, is the active involvement of Franco Romo, the only pelagic-specialized skipper in central Chile, one of the few in the country and probably one of the people who has done more of these trips in the world. His invaluable experience and ability to “read” the waters has proven to be of paramount importance in finding and attracting the birds.


The author and skipper Franco Romo while watching seabirds off Valparaiso, Chile  © Claudio F. Vidal, Far South Expeditions

Photo: The author and skipper Franco Romo scanning for seabirds off Valparaiso © Claudio F. Vidal, Far South Expeditions


Only a few places in the world enjoy the concurrence of factors like cold currents, seabed topography and upwelling nutrients that account for very productive and diverse marine ecosystems.


The Humboldt Current, which draws cold water from the Antarctic into the Pacific along the coasts of Chile, Peru and Ecuador, is the largest and most productive of them all, a perfect spot for pelagic birding, supporting millions of tonnes of plankton, crustaceans, molluscs, fish, marine mammals and seabirds, both coastal and truly pelagic.


Photo: Pink-footed Shearwater, Puffinus creatopus

In Chile, more than sixty species can be found in pelagics from Arica south to Cape Horn and Drake Passage, most of them associated with the Current.


With a few exceptions, coastal birds like cormorants, gulls and terns are generally found close to the land and on the way to open sea, and to see the true pelagic birds you have to go several miles offshore.


Most pelagic seabirds are related, being placed into a single group, Order Procellariiformes, also known as Tubenoses after the particular anatomy of their nostrils. This order is divided into four families, Diomedeidae or Albatrosses, Procellaridae or Petrels & Shearwaters, Hydrobatidae or Storm Petrels and Pelecanoididae or Diving Petrels.


Although belonging to another seabird family, Sphenicidae, within its own order Sphenisciformes, Penguins are also highly pelagic birds and are often found in offshore waters.


Photo: Wilson’s Storm Petrel, Oceanites oceanicus


Chile can be roughly divided into seven areas regarding pelagics, Northern (Arica), Central (Valparaiso), Reloncavi Sound and Gulf of Corcovado in Los Lagos, Patagonian Fjords in Aysen and Magallanes, Drake Passage, Juan Fernandez Islands and Rapa Nui (Easter) Island.



Northern Chile


Usually departing from Arica, this is a fine place for several Storm Petrels like Markham’s, Elliott´s and Hornby’s, and a host of seabirds endemic to the Humboldt Current like Peruvian Diving Petrel, Humboldt Penguin, Peruvian Pelican, Guanay Cormorant, Peruvian Booby, Grey Gull and Inca Tern. The threatened Peruvian Tern and rarities like Waved Albatross and Swallow-tailed Gull make occasional appearances.


Photo: White-chinned Petrel, Procellaria aequinoctialis

Photo: Elliott’s Storm Petrel, Oceanites gracilis

Photo: Guanay Cormorant, Phalacrocorax bougainvilli


Photo: Grey Gull, Leucophaeus modestus

Photo: Humboldt Penguin, Spheniscus humboldti


Central Chile


Departing from Valparaiso or Quintero, this is the best of Chile pelagics in terms of diversity, with up to six species of albatross (Wanderer, both Royals, Salvin’s, Buller’s, Black-browed and Chatham’s), Southern & Northern Giant petrels, Cape Petrel, White-chinned & Westland petrels, Juan Fernandez & Masatierra petrels (two Pterodroma or Gadfly petrels), Pink-footed and Sooty shearwaters, Southern Fulmar, Wilson’s Storm Petrel and Peruvian Diving Petrel.

Other non-tubenose seabirds here are Guanay and Red-legged cormorants, Peruvian Pelican, Peruvian Booby, Grey Phalarope, Chilean Skua, Grey, Kelp, Brow-hooded and Franklin’s gulls, Inca, Elegant and South American terns.


Rarities like Manx and Buller’s shearwaters, Waved Albatross, Sabine´s and Swallow-tailed gulls have all been recorded here several times, too.


Photo: Northern Royal Albatross, Diomedea sanfordi


Photo: Salvin’s Albatross, Thalassarche salvini

Photo: Peruvian Diving Petrel, Pelecanoides garnotii

Photo: Chatham Albatross, Thalassarche eremita

Photo: Peruvian Pelican, Pelecanus thagus

Photo: Southern Fulmar, Fulmarus glacialoides


Reloncavi Sound & Gulf of Corcovado


Reloncavi Sound is a body of water immediately south of Puerto Montt, and a new species of storm petrel was recently discovered here.

Gulf of Corcovado is a portion of sea between the continent to the east and Chiloe Island to the west that opens to the south, and both are good places for Black-browed Albatross, several shearwaters and petrels like Cape Petrel, Pink-footed and Sooty shearwaters, Southern Fulmar and Southern Giant Petrel, Common Diving Petrel, Wilson´s Storm Petrel and the newly-described Pincoya Storm Petrel.


Photo: Black-browed Albatross, Thalassarche melanophris

Photo: Cape Petrel, Daption capense


Patagonian channels, fjords and archipelagos


This is the part of Chile where the coast dismembers into a maze of scattered archipelagos, thousands of islands and islets formed by the sinking of the Andes and the retreat of the glaciers that opened the way for the sea to advance into these glacial valleys and form a myriad fjords and channels.

These waters are good for Southern Giant Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, Southern Fulmar and Black-browed Albatross, and the islets can hold nesting sites for Imperial, Magellanic and Red-legged cormorants, South American Tern, Dolphin Gull, Peruvian Pelican and Chilean Skua.


Photo: Chilean Skua, Catharacta chilensis


Photo: Black-browed Albatross, Thalassarche melanophris

Photo: Magellanic Cormorant, Phalacrocorax magellanicus

Photo: Red-legged Cormorant, Phalacrocorax gaimardi

Photo: Southern Giant Petrel, Macronectes giganteus


Drake Passage


The Drake Passage is the stretch of ocean where the Pacific meets the Atlantic between Cape Horn and Antarctica, and crossing it in either direction is a superb chance to watch iconic seabirds as Wandering, Southern & Northern Royal, Antipodean, Grey-headed, Black-browed and Light-mantled albatrosses, both Southern & Northern Giant, Cape, White-chinned, Antarctic, Blue and Soft-plumaged petrels, Southern Fulmar, Antarctic Prion and Wilson’s & Black-bellied storm petrels.


Photo: Wandering and Southern Royal albatrosses, Diomedea exulans & D. epomophora

Photo: Antarctic Petrel, Thalassoica antarctica


Photo: Soft-plumaged Petrel, Pterodroma mollis

Photo: Antarctic Prion, Pachyptila desolata

Photo: Northern Giant Petrel, Macronectes halli

Photo: Black-bellied Storm Petrel, Fregetta tropica


Photo: Light-mantled Albatross, Phoebetria palpebrata


Juan Fernandez Islands


Several petrels and shearwaters like Juan Fernandez & Masatierra petrels and Pink-footed Shearwater are breeding endemic or near endemic to this little group of three islands off the coast of central Chile, and Stejneger's and Kermadec petrels are also found here.


Photo: Juan Fernandez Petrel, Pterodroma externa

Rapa Nui (Easter Island)


The pelagic seabirds in this volcanic island in the middle of the Pacific basin are mostly concentrated as breeders in a few small islets or rocks off the main island, being of particular importance a group of gadfly petrels, genus Pterodroma, like Herald, Kermadec, Phoenix and Henderson's petrels. Other seabirds found here include Brown Noddy, Great Frigatebird, White-tailed Tropicbird and Masked Booby.


Photo: Northern (L) and Southern (R) Giant Petrels, Macronectes halli & M. giganteus


If you feel like having a blast with legendary pelagic seabirds, then you might like to know more about our programme, Albatrosses & Petrels in the Humboldt Current. Book now and get your sea legs, ahoy ship!!!


If you want to peek into the wonderful world of offshore waters and pelagic seabirds, why not take a look at our pelagics photo gallery before going for the real thing?

Last Updated on Wednesday, 28 May 2014 18:43