Thursday, January 28, 2021

Southern Cone: ChAr 2016, Part 3 - South-central Chile

Jan 12

Today ended up being a write-off for birding, as the bus heading southward wasn't until late in the morning. In planning the trip, we had decided a key stop would be somewhere between Santiago and Puerto Montt, to bird the Nothofagus forests for a few specialties. The most accessible by public transit on a tight schedule appeared to be Altos del Lircay near Talca, which had the added bonus of a large-ish lake nearby, so it was to Talca we went. After sleeping in and packing our stuff, we caught a cab to the bus terminal. A four-hour bus ride later and we were in Talca. After a brief search, we found a hostel to stay at for the night - Residencial la Calma (not recommended - more on this later), which, at 8000p seemed like a bargain compared to other places we'd stayed. From there we tried to find a bus out to Lago Colbún, but it turned out there weren't any this late in the day, and a taxi would be too expensive. Accepting our fate, we used the time to buy groceries for the upcoming days and found a decent pizza place to have dinner. We then spent the evening talking with the owner and his brother in broken Spanish and English before calling it a night.

Running trip list: 172

Jan 13

We were up in time to pack our stuff and catch the 07:15 bus, but the owners were nowhere to be found to see if they could keep our stuff safe, as we wouldn't be back until later in the day. We ended up piling everything into one room and heading out with our daypacks, bound for Altos del Lircay. The bus dropped us off not far from the entrance to the park, and by 08:50 we were birding our way up the hill after paying our entrance fees and checking in at the gate house ( We spent the majority of the morning birding the Alimenmawida trail, which held loads of White-crested (Chilean) Elaenias, White-throated Treerunners, Thorn-tailed Rayaditos and Green-backed Firecrowns. We also encountered several groups of Chestnut-throated Huet-Huets, eventually managing glimpses of one individual skulking through the undergrowth later in the morning. At a small stream, we played hide-and-seek with a Magellanic Tapaculo before it eventually came out on the bridge, far too close for us to focus our cameras, and at one point it actually crawled across our shoes. Farther up the trail, we arrived at a lookout and stopped to have lunch (tuna and crackers with juice, our typical fare), while scanning the sky for raptors. Our hoped-for Rufous-tailed Hawk never appeared (we missed this and Patagonian Forest Earthcreeper for the trip), but a pair of Austral Parakeets made a few passes, giving us good in-flight views. Along the trail, Chucao Tapaculos called but remained out of sight, and somewhere along the entrance road on our way back down, we heard a Patagonian Tyrant - a species that would remain heard-only for us for the entire trip. We were beginning to lose hope on one of our main targets here, when Josh stopped us. Sure enough, a Magellanic Woodpecker was calling off in the distance, and after some brief playback, two females swooped in and gave us quite a show. We never did manage to see a male though. Patagonian Sierra-Finches were our other new bird at Lircay, before we had to catch the 14:00 bus back toward Talca.
Magellanic Woodpecker

Magellanic Tapaculo

Forest at Altos del Lircay

View from the overlook
We got off at the intersection with the highway, and walked down the road toward Lago Colbún a ways before finding a shady spot with a cherry tree to sit and wait for a bus, where we added Southern Caracara for the trip ( Filling our bellies with ripe cherries, a bus eventually arrived and took us the rest of the way to the lake. We misjudged our stop though, and ended up having to walk a fair ways to the productive area of the lake after getting off the bus ( We spent the next 2.5 hours birding the river and the east end of the lake, adding Spectacled Duck, Rosy-billed Pochard, Andean Duck, White-winged Coot, Black-faced Ibis and Burrowing Parakeet to the trip list. The lake was loaded with waterbirds, and my small scope I had brought in carry-on simply wasn't up to the task of identifying the most distant of them. One of the downsides of travelling light and cheap!
The river just above Lago Colbún
Satisfied that we weren't missing anything, we grabbed a bite to eat at a little roadside restaurant, then hopped on a bus back to Talca. In town, we booked our bus tickets southward, then headed back to the hostel, where the lady at the front desk insisted we owed her money. Not understanding why, we dropped off our stuff and went back to the pizza place, which was closed, and ended up eating dinner at a rather terrible burger place. If you're wondering why we're eating at places that sound Canadian, it's because local food in Chile seemed to be almost entirely American-style, but lower quality - it was really difficult to find anything cheap and 'local' besides empanadas in most of the towns we visited! Anyway, back at the hostel we packed up our stuff and went to pay at the desk, where they again insisted we owed more than the 8000p we had already paid the day before. They tried to tell us that was for 12h only (not for the night as is normal), and we had used the room for 30h at this point, so we owed them another 12000p each. After a bit of pointless arguing, we walked out, having paid for the one room we had put all our stuff in that morning since they weren't around to inquire about lockers or safe storage. We refused to pay their ridiculous fee for the rest of the time though. Due to this kerfuffle, we arrived at the bus station where we'd bought our tickets 1.5h early, and sat around waiting for our midnight bus. Midnight came and went, as did many other buses, but not the one we had tickets for. At 01:00 we were quite tired and frustrated, so I went up to ask the driver of one of the buses where our bus was, who told us that Turbus uses a different terminal, located a block away. Argh! We went over there, where we were informed (unsurprisingly) that our bus had come and gone. As that was the only bus to Puerto Montt until the next night, we figured we were screwed, and weren't sure what to do, as there was no way we'd find anywhere to stay at that hour, and none of us relished the thought of being stuck in Talca for another day, given our poor experiences with the town thus far. Luckily, while looking at the schedule and figuring out our options (which seemed to be that we were going to sleep at the bus station), the guy working at the counter told us there was a bus to Temuco arriving in 5 minutes, and from there we would have more options for buses to head south. So it was that we hopped on the 01:40 bus to Temuco, and gratefully settled in to our seats to get some sleep.

Running trip list: 187

Jan 14

Our bus got in to Temuco at 06:45, and we quickly found a bus headed for Ancud, departing at 07:00. This turned out to be a bit of a milk run, as it stopped in every town along the way (Valdivia, Osorno, Puerto Montt were the major stops), but we lucked out in that we did not need to switch buses in Puerto Montt as originally planned. While waiting for the ferry to Chiloé, we hopped off the bus to check out the birds around the docks. On the ferry crossing, we were treated to a load of activity, with thousands of birds foraging in the channel ( Our lifer Magellanic Penguins and Diving-Petrels distracted us from the massive flocks of South American Terns, and we also added Black-necked Swan, Imperial Cormorant, Flightless Steamer-Duck and Hudsonian Godwit for the trip. Our main target failed to appear however, the localized Pincoya Storm-Petrel which had been recently described. Once we got to Ancud, we checked in at the 13Lunas Hostel (13000p each/night), where we had a four-bed dorm room to ourselves. After a bit of a trek around town to try to find the local buses, we eventually found a bus back to Chacao, and went for another ride on the ferry, this time as walk-on passengers ( We somehow managed to get the return trip for free, but had to contend with our first rain of the trip and a fair bit of wind. The huge numbers of shearwaters we had seen earlier had mostly cleared out, but the tern numbers had built up, and we estimated at least 5000 South American Terns were foraging over the channel. We managed to pick out one Arctic Tern among them, but unfortunately still no sign of the hoped-for storm-petrels, although we saw some Peale's and Chilean Dolphins. Afterward, we caught a bus back to Ancud where we had a very late dinner before calling it a night.

Running trip list: 194

Jan 15

After a few days in a row of late nights and poor sleep, we slept in a bit. This was also partially due to the fact that our hostel had an included breakfast, which didn't start until 08:30. After breakfast, we caught a bus out toward the Estación Biológica Senda Darwin, where we hoped to pick up a few of southern Chile's specialty birds. Of course, we had no idea how to actually get to the station, so we hopped off the bus near where the pin on the map was, and walked down a side road that we figured must lead to it ( This mistake turned out to be a great decision, as we quite quickly picked up Ochre-flanked and Chucao Tapaculos and a few Des Murs' Wiretails. Farther down the road, the lush roadside vegetation opened up into some fields, where we found some Austral Negritos and a pair of Hellmayr's Pipits - the latter not supposed to be found anywhere near Chiloé. Throughout our time here, small groups of Slender-billed Parakeets flew by overhead, and we eventually got decent looks at some perched birds.
Austral Negrito

Slender-billed Parakeets
We did eventually discover that the road didn't, in fact, go to the biological station, so we walked back to the main road, finding the correct entrance road not far down the highway. We wandered around the grounds for a while after paying our entrance fees, but other than a heard-only Black-throated Huet-Huet we didn't add anything new here ( Some of the birds were quite cooperative, however, with a Plumbeous Rail posing nicely at the entrance bridge.
Plumbeous Rail

Deciding we needed lunch, we headed back out to the highway, where a bus eventually picked us up and took us back to Ancud. In town, it started pouring rain, and we grabbed lunch at a real local restaurant, having curanto - a local seafood dish that's mostly meat. Once the rain let up, we set off on foot, heading to a spot west of town that looked like it still had some decent forest, as seen on Google Maps satellite view. As the walk was a bit farther than we'd anticipated, we eventually flagged down a taxi to take us the rest of the way. The driver seemed a bit confused as to why we wanted to be dropped off at the spot we requested, but he didn't ask too many questions. Wandering up the road, we quickly discovered that we had made the right decision, and through our loop of the back roads south of the highway, most of the forest birds were fairly common ( A Bicolored (Chilean) Hawk was our only new bird of the trip, but the numbers of Chucao Tapaculos, Des Murs' Wiretails, Slender-billed Parakeets and others more than made up for that. We heard another Patagonian Tyrant that remained frustratingly out of view, and eventually we found some Black-throated Huet-Huets. These toyed with us for some time, before we eventually caught a glimpse of a dark shadow moving through the bamboo. That was to be our only look at this species though.
Blurry photo of a Chucao Tapaculo - these skulkers were tough to photograph!

Making our way back to the highway at the end of the loop, we ended up having to cross a field, as the logging road we were following ended up on someone's farm. While walking back toward town, we found a family of Flying Steamer-Ducks on the waterfront, and added Ringed Kingfisher for the trip. We eventually managed to flag down a taxi, and made it back to our hostel for a very late dinner.

Running trip list: 202

Jan 16

Once again, we had our breakfast at 08:30, and then spent most of the morning trying to figure out how to book a flight to Punta Arenas on the Sky airlines website. Eventually we had to get Josh's partner Laura, who was living in Scotland at the time, to book us tickets using Josh's card, as the website wouldn't work on any of our phones. Surprisingly, she was successful in this venture, and with tickets booked, we were off to find a taxi. On the west side of the island is a penguin colony, and that was our destination for the afternoon ( Monumento Natural Islotes de Puñihuil is a popular tourist spot, and the tours were well-organized as a result.
Loading onto the boat
After a bit of waiting around, we were loaded onto a boat and taken for a tour around the colony, where somewhere around 100 Magellanic Penguins were in residence, with at least 6 Humboldt Penguins among them. A few Magellanic Cormorants and Kelp Geese were new for us, and we had great looks at nesting Red-legged Cormorants. After our hour on the boat was up, we paid 500p each to walk up a trail to a viewpoint, where we saw at least 10000 Sooty Shearwaters streaming by offshore. While watching the shearwaters, we had a small group of Blue Whales spouting off in the distance! The scenery at the top was also well worth the trek up the hill.
Kelp Goose

Humboldt and Magellanic Penguins

View from the lookout

Patagonian Sierra-Finch
Back at the bottom, our cab driver was still waiting for us (we had negotiated this earlier), and we made it back to Ancud in time to have lunch, pack our things, and hop on the 15:40 bus bound for Puerto Montt. We again birded from the ferry, and again were disappointed by a lack of storm-petrels on what was now our fourth voyage through these waters ( Arriving in Puerto Montt, we quickly found a hostel up on a hill (Vista Hermosa) with a view over the waterfront, where a tiny room cost us 36000p for 3 beds. Once we were checked in, we went off to find dinner and run some errands, as I'd discovered I had forgotten my pack towel at our hostel in Santiago. Luckily, they had the Chilean version of MEC there, and I found an almost identical replacement towel. We then retired to our room late in the evening and split a cheap bottle of Chilean wine to celebrate our success with this part of the country.

Running trip list: 205

Jan 17

After a bit of a sleep-in, we spent part of the morning trying to figure out Josh's credit card, which had unsurprisingly been put on hold (since it was being used in Scotland and Chile almost simultaneously when Laura booked our flights for us!). For some reason, we were unsuccessful in this venture, so we decided to head out for some birding, since our flight wasn't until the evening. Down at the docks, we inquired with the local fishermen about chartering a boat to get out on the water, with the hopes of finally seeing a Pincoya Storm-Petrel. They weren't having any of that though, so we looked at the maps and figured our best bet would be a ferry. Since we had already tried the Chacao ferry four times with no luck, we hopped a bus to La Arena where we rode the ferry that goes across to Puelche. On the way, I started to feel quite dizzy, but I powered through it and made the rather quiet return journey on the ferry (in terms of birds, anyway - We did have a few Magellanic Penguins and a Diving-Petrel, but no storm-petrels.
Views on the La Arena ferry

We grabbed lunch in La Arena before hopping a bus back to Puerto Montt, and spent part of the afternoon sitting on the steps of the hostel we'd stayed at while Josh made a Skype call to sort out his credit card. By this point in the day I was feeling truly horrendous, with a pounding headache, dizziness, fever and general delirium. Popping an Advil I hoped for the best as we headed for dinner and then caught a bus to the airport. At the airport, we had made it through security when I was called back upstairs. Turns out they didn't know what my scope was, so I had to explain it and show them before they would let it through! I rushed back through security and made it on the flight just a few minutes before take-off. The three of us tried to get some sleep as we cruised southward over the Andes, bound for Patagonia.

Running trip list: 205

Monday, January 25, 2021

Southern Cone: ChAr 2016, Part 2 - Central Chile

Jan 8

Arriving in Santiago, we met up with my friend Adam Timpf who had arrived on an overnight flight from Toronto, and hung out in the airport, getting some Chilean pesos and his luggage. Regan then caught her flight back home, and eventually our third musketeer (or stooge) showed up (Josh Vandermeulen - see his trip report here:, and we were off to find our rental car that we'd booked a few days earlier. The check-in process went smoothly, and by 14:00 we were off, heading west on one of Chile's rather fantastic highways (smooth pavement and 120km/h speed limits! A novelty in Latin America). Along the way, we chatted about birds we'd see and my time in the north, and I added a few birds to the trip list (, as the avifauna here was almost completely different to that found in the Atacama. Reaching our destination at the Maipo river mouth, south of San Antonio, we found a place to park the car and were off, quickly finding new birds as we walked along the path through scrub, trees and reedy marsh to the river mouth proper ( I added 46 new birds for the trip here, almost all of them lifers as well, so I won't list them all, but some highlights were the Chilean-endemic Dusky Tapaculo and Chilean Mockingbird, along with some other targets like Ticking Doradito, Gray Gull, Rufous-tailed Plantcutter, and a bird I had long wanted to see - the Many-colored Rush-Tyrant. We actually ended up seeing a dozen of this latter species!

The beach held vast flocks of Franklin's Gulls, and offshore our first Peruvian Boobies and Peruvian Pelicans cruised by, while the mudflats and the river itself held nice flocks of shorebirds and waterfowl.
Many-colored Rush-Tyrant

Elegant Terns, Gray Gulls and Franklin's Gulls

I think we all enjoyed our time here, but before long we had to get moving. Back in the car, we worked our way up the coast, stopping in at Laguna el Peral where the hoped-for Black-headed Duck failed to materialize ( After a quick dinner, we carried on to Punta de Tralca (, a rather scenic beach spot much-enjoyed by the locals. We opted to skip the beach though, and headed out to the rocky coastline where we quickly found our main target, the endemic Seaside Cinclodes. Some Guanay and Red-legged Cormorants flying past with the big groups of Peruvian Boobies were also lifers for all of us, and a distant Giant-Petrel remained unidentified.
Seaside Cinclodes

Colourful vegetation at Punta de Tralca
Punta de Tralca
As we still had a bit of a drive ahead of us, we headed out after thoroughly enjoying the view over the Pacific, stopping briefly at a little roadside wetland where we added a few trip birds ( We eventually made it to Viña del Mar well after dark, where our lack of planning bit us a little. We drove around for quite a while before eventually finding a decent and reasonably-priced hostel to stay at (Marisol, 11000p per person), that had a safe parking area for the car. By 23:30 we crawled into bed, eagerly anticipating what tomorrow had in store.

Running trip list: 120

Jan 9

We awoke at some early hour, and were quickly packed and on the road, cruising through the quiet streets in the predawn gloom. We arrived in Quintero in time to find our boat and get acquainted with our fellow birders who would be going on the pelagic as well. The water was almost glass calm as we departed the harbour, which the on-board guide warned us might mean the birding would be a little slow.
Our boat for the morning
He was right, and the trip ended up being a bit of a bust by local standards, but for us basically everything was new, and despite missing a few semi-expected species, we all had a great time. Not far out of the harbour, our first Chilean Skuas appeared, along with a distant Inca Tern, and shortly thereafter we had our first of several Peruvian Diving-Petrels. As we got into deeper waters, the true pelagic species started to appear, and it wasn't long before the call went up - Albatross! A Salvin's Albatross came gliding gracefully over the swell to check out the activity around our boat (they had started to chum by this point), easily dwarfing the numerous Kelp Gulls. This was the first albatross any of us had seen, and by the end of the morning we had a total of 21 Salvin's and 2 Black-browed Albatrosses. Some of them came quite close to the boat, providing spectacular views. The pelagic list was rounded out by White-chinned and Westland Petrels, Pink-footed and Sooty Shearwaters, and some Wilson's Storm-Petrels (
Out on Big Blue

Salvin's Albatross

Pink-footed Shearwater
Our time offshore flew by, and before we knew it, we were heading back to the harbour, picking up another Inca Tern, some Blackish Oystercatchers and several Seaside Cinclodes on the way in. Shortly after noon, we were back in the car and headed toward our next destination, making a stop for lunch and picking up Cattle Egret for the trip en route to La Campana. The park holds a nice mix of matorral scrub and forest, and has a few Chilean endemics. We arrived right in the heat of the day, and birded the entrance road for a while before we accepted that it was simply too hot for there to be much bird activity. We did, however, score our first Giant Hummingbird of the trip, along with Chilean Pigeon, Fire-eyed Diucon and Striped Woodpecker ( Deciding that we would return once things cooled down in the evening, we went off to find accommodation for the night. Since we wanted somewhere that was relatively close to the park, and reasonably priced, it took us longer than we would have liked to find a place (1.5h), and we eventually ended up going back to the first place we had checked. The La Campana Tourist Info Centre runs a hotel/restaurant, and it ended up costing us 59000p for a room with three beds, a bit more than we would have liked, but it came with a pool. After a late second lunch (it was around 16:00 when we got to the hotel) and a bit of a rest, we headed back up to the park, and mostly birded the road and the Mina Nueva trail until it got dark ( Moustached Turcas, Dusky-tailed Canasteros, Tufted Tit-Tyrants, Thorn-tailed Rayaditos and a Great Shrike-Tyrant entertained us, while our first White-throated Hawk went by overhead. We eventually stumbled across some rayaditos making a fuss, and looking down a gulley we saw the reason - an Austral Pygmy-Owl was sitting in a low tree, staring back at us. All throughout, White-throated Tapaculos were heard calling, but remained frustratingly out of sight for Josh and I, while Adam had only a brief glimpse of one. An Andean Fox (Culpeo) made a brief appearance at the trailhead, and as it got dark we made our way back toward the taller forest along a stream, where we heard a distant Rufous-legged Owl calling. As we were all pretty exhausted by this point and the bird sounded quite far away, we decided to call it a night and headed back to the hotel for some pizza and beer, and a late-night swim in the pool once the day visitors had cleared out.

Running trip list: 145

Jan 10

We were back at La Campana in the morning, with a goal of actually seeing a White-throated Tapaculo ( While we didn't add anything new for the trip, we had some success with the tapaculos, and eventually got decent looks at one. We also finally saw a Dusky Tapaculo, having only heard them on our two previous encounters. Otherwise, the birding was about the same as the previous evening, with a little more activity in the cool morning hours.
La Campana
By 09:00 we were back at the car, as we had some ground to cover. Heading through the hills, our little rental car barely made it up some of the steeper sections, but eventually we were over them, and found a pair of Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles soaring over the road near Tiltil ( Our first stop en route was at Laguna Batuco (, where we wasted a fair amount of time trying to figure out how to access the lake, which seemed to be a popular stop on birding tours. We eventually parked the car along a dirt road on the east side, and walked through some unfenced fields to the lake edge. It was much reduced, as we were there in the heat of summer, but still held plenty of waterbirds. Our first Cinereous Harriers cruised over the grasslands, and a couple of Austral Negritos were nice to see, along with more Many-colored Rush-Tyrants. Our main target here, however, was the Black-headed Duck, which we eventually had good looks at before it disappeared into the reeds. Lake Duck and White-faced Ibis were also new for the trip. Our next stop was not far away, at the Lampa 'wetlands', which seemed like a good spot for the local subspecies of Black Rail - a potential future split. One had been seen only a few days before, but when we arrived at the spot, it was almost completely dried up, and no rails were to be had in the afternoon heat ( Cutting our losses, we headed onward to the high-elevation Andes just east of Santiago, at the ski-resort area of Farellones ( On our way up, we stopped at a few spots to enjoy the scenery and scan for birds, and at one stop had decent looks at a Chilean Tinamou across a gully.
On the way up to Farellones
Farellones has two main roads, and we took the southerly fork first, to Valle Nevado. A good diversity of tyrants, Sierra-Finches and Rufous-banded Miners greeted us, and at the ski resort area, numerous Andean Condors hung out on the buildings. Up the hillside on the ski slopes, a little colony of Coruros (a type of rodent) provided some entertainment as we struggled to catch our breath at the high elevation.
Andean Condor
After we'd had our fill of condors and ground-tyrants, we headed up the other fork to the Los Condores side, and stopped at a small stream near La Parva. This proved to be quite birdy, and we added Magellanic Tapaculo, White-sided Hillstar and Scale-throated Earthcreeper for the trip, and I got better looks at Spot-billed Ground-Tyrant. In the general vicinity, Dark-bellied and Gray-flanked Cinclodes were new for the trip, along with Chilean Flicker and Greater Yellow-Finch. After cleaning up most of our targets in the four hours (we missed Creamy-rumped Miner for the group, and Mountain Caracara for Josh and Adam), we headed back into Santiago, where some Monk Parakeets flew over the road as we found a place to eat.
Birdy stream near La Parva
Unfortunately, our decision of a Chinese restaurant proved to be a terrible idea - the food was horrible on take one, and we were cheap enough to bring the leftovers for lunch the next day for take two... This was followed by a bit of a fiasco trying to find a place to stay on the southeast edge of Santiago in the dark. After driving around the sketchy neighbourhoods of Puente Alto for a while, we stopped in at a gas station to ask where the nearest hostel or cheap motel was. We were informed that there were no hotels at all in Puente Alto, and it was a dangerous area to be at night - we'd be better off going into downtown Santiago. As we had no desire to do that, we kept going up the road toward San Jose de Maipo, where we eventually found a place that had some cabins. Despite the place being empty (it was actually closed when we arrived after 23:00 - the night guard called the owner for us), they refused to budge on their price of 80000p for a night, so we carried on, not wanting to spend that kind of money. As we got closer to our destination for the next morning, we eventually conceded that there were no other options for places to stay, so we simply found a pulloff well up the El Yeso road and set up camp. Adam and I slept in the car, while Josh had luckily brought a thermarest and sleeping bag, and he slept under the stars beside the car. By 00:30 we were all asleep.

Running trip list: 166

Jan 11

After our fiasco the night before, we were a little sluggish in the dawn gloom. After packing up and having a quick breakfast, we slowly made our way up the El Yeso road toward the reservoir, stopping at a few likely-looking cliff faces. It wasn't long until our first target made an appearance - two pairs of Crag Chilias were foraging on one such face! We spent a while enjoying the company of the chilias before continuing on past the reservoir, to a grassy hillside.
Crag Chilia

El Yeso reservoir

A rather birdy stop
Culpeo (Andean Fox)
The road from here up toward the hotsprings was loaded with birds, and we spent most of our time here walking the road past the gate ( We didn't make it as far as the hotsprings though, as we realized the habitat probably wasn't quite right for our target bird, and Josh started to feel the effects of the altitude. Highlights of this stretch were Buff-winged Cinclodes, Sharp-billed Canastero, and Cinereous and Black-fronted Ground-Tyrants, all new for the trip. We also had great looks at a male White-sided Hillstar, a few Andean Condors and quite a lot of Gray-breasted Seedsnipes. Still no luck with Creamy-rumped Miner though, or our main target up here.
Scenery up the El Yeso road

Greater Yellow-Finch
With our time running out (we had to have the car back by 14:00 or we risked paying late fees), we reluctantly made our way back toward the reservoir. As we were about to leave the valley, we noticed a wet area beside the road that we had seen on the way up, and figured we'd give it a few minutes of searching. It didn't take long before Adam waved his hands, and Josh and I ran over to where he was standing and began excitedly taking photos of a Diademed Sandpiper-Plover and its chick! We decided to risk the late fees at this point, and spent some extra time with these charismatic little shorebirds. Crouching down in the wet marsh, the adult walked right up to us and foraged not 2m away, seemingly not caring about the trio of giants that had invaded its territory.
Diademed Sandpiper-Plover

DSP habitat
Thoroughly soaked, muddy and happy, the three of us piled back into the car and raced toward the airport, hoping to avoid an extra day being tacked on to our rental. Despite arriving back several hours late, we were not charged any penalties, and they also didn't notice the small hole Josh had put in the bumper when he backed into a rock wall at La Campana - a stroke of good fortune after a few misadventures! From the airport, we took a bus into the city centre and found a hostel close to the train/bus station (La Casa Roja, 11000p each - we actually got the last three beds in the whole place). There we enjoyed a few of the typical Chilean 1L cervezas and chatted with the other world travellers for the evening.

Running trip list: 172

Friday, January 22, 2021

Southern Cone: Chile and Argentina 2016, Part 1 - Northern Chile

(Note: report written Feb 2019)

Yet another long-overdue trip report. Luckily for this one I have some notes (although most of my notes from the first ten days or so were lost!), my photos, and eBird lists to help piece it together. Hopefully in the future I'll get these things written up in a more timely manner.

In planning this trip, I didn't really plan a lot! I booked my flights only a few weeks before departure, as I had originally planned to go to Brazil with some friends, but we discovered we wouldn't get our visas in time, so I had to do some last-minute reorganizing. I basically made a list of all of the Southern Cone (Chile, Argentina and Uruguay) specialty birds (218 species at the time), with some likely spots to find each one (pulled from eBird), and then devised a loose route that could get us to most of them efficiently. Other than my international flights, and the internal flight to northern Chile, nothing was booked ahead of time. This meant that we could explore each region and give it the amount of time we felt necessary when there. If we saw all our target birds, then we'd move on - otherwise we would stay an extra day or two and see if our luck changed. This worked out well for the most part, with only a few hiccups and a lost day or two along the way. When you have 10 weeks to work with though, a down day here and there can be a good thing. Of the 218 Southern Cone specialty birds, 10 were not possible on the trip (endemic to offshore islands like the Falklands or Juan Fernandez), leaving a pool of 208 possibilities. I managed to see 187 of these, and hear another 9, missing only 12 specialties between the two countries. Maybe some day I'll make it back to try for them!

Prices for hostels/trips/goods will be listed in the local currency. At the time of my trip, one Canadian dollar was worth about 500 Chilean pesos, and anywhere between 9.5-12 Argentine pesos. Prices in Argentina changed significantly even over the few weeks that I was there, so these probably won't mean much anymore, but I've included them anyway.

Now, without further ado - on to the trip!

January 1, 2016

I began the trip by hopping on the 20:05 flight from Sault Ste. Marie to Toronto, having spent Christmas and New Year's with my family. Unlike some of my previous trips out of the Sault in winter, this one departed on schedule and I arrived in Toronto on time, only to discover that my flight to Santiago had been delayed over three hours. What had originally been a planned 23:45 departure turned into 02:00 and then 03:00 as the plane was having issues. With my $20 meal voucher in-hand, I ate a midnight dinner courtesy of Air Canada and settled in on one of the free tablets to kill time. We eventually made it into the air, and I tried to get some sleep on the 11h+ flight.

Jan 2

I arrived in Santiago 2.5 hours late, but thankfully this meant my long layover there was significantly shortened. Waiting for me at the arrivals gate was my friend Regan, who I'd be travelling with in the north of the country for the next week. Since I flew with only carry-on luggage, we made our way through the airport to our gate for our next flight, to Calama. Regan had been in the country for a few weeks already, exploring the southern part and volunteering at a park, so we had some catching up to do as we waited for our departure. I also used the opportunity to add my first species to the trip list (, with my lifer Chimango Caracaras being the first birds I saw, and the obvious highlight of my time in the airport. Eventually it was time to board our plane, and we took in the spectacular scenery on our way north, while watching a movie on the onboard entertainment network. Arriving in Calama around 19:30, we decided to head onward to San Pedro, instead of staying in Calama as we'd originally planned. Hopping aboard one of the shuttle buses, we were off through the Atacama desert, getting our first taste of this hyper-arid landscape. It was pretty surreal to see a giant area with no visible life, save the few cars we passed on the highway en route.
First views of the Atacama from the shuttle bus
As we neared San Pedro de Atacama, we entered into a little oasis just as it was getting dark, and the shuttle dropped us off somewhere in the heart of town. We wandered the streets for a while, checking out hostels in the dark, and being told time and again that they were all full. Turns out San Pedro is a very popular town with tourists, and we were beginning to regret our choice to come here instead of staying in Calama. Eventually though, one hostel owner phoned around for us and gave us directions to her friend's hostel that still had two beds. Our half-hour of wandering town in the dark paid off, and we ended up at the IntiPara hostel on the north edge of town, which turned out to be one of the cheapest at 9000 pesos per person, and also one of the nicest, as it was away from the hubbub of town and had a nice courtyard. After settling in to our dorm with some people from Brazil, I finally got to sleep around 23:00 after quite a long journey!

Running trip list: 4

Jan 3

After a much-needed sleep-in, Regan and I grabbed breakfast and then went for a walk out to Pukará de Quitor, just northwest of San Pedro ( The road here followed along the river through a dry valley, and had quite a few trees and shrubs, providing habitat for some quality birds. Chiguanco Thrushes, West Peruvian Doves and Rufous-collared Sparrows were common, and after walking a ways we eventually found a few Black-winged Ground-Doves, our first of many Mourning Sierra-Finches, Greenish Yellow-Finches and Yellow-rumped Siskins, and my lifer Mountain Caracara and Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetail. Our main target, however, was the range-restricted Tamarugo Conebill, which had been reported there recently. After finding some tamarugo trees, we stopped to look for activity, and were quickly rewarded with a pair of the conebills foraging among the branches. I was secretly hoping we'd get these birds just when we did, as among the nine lifers I saw that morning, they were #2000 for my life list!
Tamarugo Conebill

The road to Pukará de Quitor
With that success under our belts, we birded around a little more and then headed back to town. We spent the heat of the day exploring the town, buying some groceries and booking some tours for the next couple of days. There are quite a few tour agencies in the town, and we went with Desert Adventure Tours, which turned out to be a good decision, as we later discovered. We mainly went on the tours as Regan wanted to do some 'touristy' things, and the ones we booked lined up nicely with the birding hotspots in the area, and didn't cost much more than renting a car would have. After a siesta, we headed back out to Pukará for an evening walk, mostly seeing the same birds as in the morning, with the addition of a Gray-bellied Shrike-Tyrant (
Overlooking the oasis of San Pedro de Atacama
The church in San Pedro

An arch in the desert

Running trip list: 18

Jan 4

We were up early, to be picked up by the tour bus at our hostel, and quickly hit the road out of town. Our destination for the morning was the altiplano lakes (Lagunas Miscanti y Miñiques) to the south of San Pedro. Along the way, I birded from the window while Regan napped, adding quite a few lifers ( Thankfully, there weren't any drive-by species that I didn't see better later in the trip, although the Mountain Parakeets and Puna Miner were the only ones I saw in Chile. Arriving at the lakes, we had the place to ourselves, as the other tour companies seem to arrive at the spots later than Desert Adventures (at least this is how it worked when we were there). This suited us just fine, and Regan and I scoped Miñiques from the overlook while our driver got breakfast set up. We had also made friends with our tour guide on the drive up, a Russian girl named Margarita who had been travelling in South America and liked it so much she decided to stay. She turned out to be quite interested in the birds, and we were to have a little adventure the next day because of it, but more on that later! The altiplano lakes held quite a few waterbirds, and around the shorelines were some of the high-elevation specialties we hoped for - of the 20 species we saw at the lakes, 14 of them were lifers for me ( The main attraction here was the Horned Coots, as this is one of only a few accessible places where they breed, and it was neat to see them alongside Baird's Sandpipers, one of the few species Canada has in common with Chile. Bright-rumped Yellow-Finches and some Ash-breasted Sierra-Finches kept us company while we ate breakfast and tried some coca tea. The tea is apparently good for keeping altitude sickness at bay, and it seemed to work, as Regan and I both felt fine despite the high elevation (~4100m here).
Andean Gull

Scenery near the lakes

Laguna Miñiques
After a walk along a pathway by Miscanti, where most of the Horned Coots were, we hopped back in the van, driving past a few Lesser Rheas on our way down from the lakes. We made a few stops, in the small towns of Socaire and Toconao, to check out some of the local farms (this arid region is surprisingly important agriculturally, with many small oases growing all sorts of things), a church, and for people to buy souvenirs and the like (
Next up was a stop at Laguna Chaxa, an alkali lake and salt flat that held nice flocks of flamingos and shorebirds ( The path here wasn't very long, and after the introductory tour, Regan and I spent some time photographing the Puna Plovers and flamingos. We managed to get looks at all three species of expected flamingos here, however the James's were too distant for photos. A few Andean Avocets were also out on the salt flats, providing us both with a lifer.
Andean Flamingo

Puna Plover

Laguna Chaxa
All too soon, it was time to go, and on our way back to town we added an American Kestrel to the trip list. We spent the afternoon relaxing at the hostel and checking out the town a bit more. I should also mention just how dry the place was! Perhaps not surprising in a place that receives hardly any rain, but the hygrometer on my phone pretty consistently read below 10% relative humidity, reaching as low as 6 or 7% a few times. It was so dry that my nose bled at one point, and the blood dried before it even left my nostril... Keeping hydrated was also a challenge, as it didn't seem to matter how much water we drank - we always needed more.

Running trip list: 48

Jan 5

An even earlier morning, and once again Margarita was our guide for the day. The reason for the early departure (05:00 pickup) was that, in order to fully appreciate the El Tatio geysers, one has to be there just before sunrise. After loading up the van, we were off in the morning gloom and headed up in elevation, arriving at our destination at about 06:45. We had been told to bundle up, as it can be pretty cold up there before the sun rises. I had put on all the clothes I had with me, but after acclimatizing to 30C sunshine, I was not really prepared for the -5C temperatures at 4300m! After a tour around the main geyser field and a breakfast break, we were given an hour or so of 'free time'. Most people went for a swim in the hot springs, while Regan and I wandered around the area in search of birds, rocks, and other cool things. There weren't a lot of the former to be had; some Andean Gulls, a flock of Andean Flamingos, some calling Puna Tinamous and a couple of sierra-finches and Puna Plovers ( The geysers were quite scenic though!
The geyserfield at El Tatio

One of the hot pools with colourful minerals
After our free time, we all piled back into the bus and headed back toward San Pedro. On the way were two stops that we had been waiting for, but just before we arrived at Vados del Putana (a high elevation bog formed by a small river), we spotted a Lesser Rhea wandering around the desert. We pointed it out to Margarita and Mauricio (our other guide), and they quickly told the driver something that we couldn't hear. Without skipping a beat, he pulled the bus off the road, and we were cruising through the desert toward the rhea! All the other tourists were wondering what was going on, and when we got closer they pointed the rhea out to everyone. I'm not sure if anyone but us thought much of it though. Once we arrived at Putana, we had some time to scan the bog while the guides took everyone else around, pointing out some of the more charismatic birds ( Puna Teal, Giant Coot, and Andean Negrito were all new for us, and we got better looks at some birds we had seen the day before on the drive to the altiplano lakes. We also saw our first Viscacha here, a chinchilla-like mammal of the high Andes.
Giant Coot
A few minutes down the road, we stopped at a small wetland that had some Llamas feeding in it - the locals tie coloured ribbons to the Llamas so they can identify them. Not long after, we pulled in to the small village of Machuca, located beside another high-elevation wetland. The main draw here is a restaurant that offers Llama steaks for the tourists to try. We did want to try them, but after seeing the lineup and being told we had about 50 minutes here, we decided to skip that experience and wandered off down a dirt road beside the wetland, keeping an eye on the time ( This was definitely the best birding spot that we visited around San Pedro, and we quickly added Yellow-billed Pintail, Yellow-billed Teal and Rufous-naped Ground-Tyrant to our life lists. A bit of searching turned up a female Andean Hillstar and a few Red-backed Sierra-Finches among the more common sierra-finch species. The roadside shrubs were crawling with Cordilleran Canasteros, and the marsh held quite a few waterfowl, cinclodes and Andean Negritos. It was quite fun to watch the antics of the negritos as they foraged in the bog.
Red-backed Sierra-Finch

Andean Negrito

The wetlands at Machuca
Once we figured we'd seen everything along the road, we headed back to check out the area on the east side of the bridge. A couple of Gray-breasted Seedsnipe and a Puna Snipe rewarded us for our efforts here, and then it was time to head back to the bus. Back on board, we didn't make it far before our next stop - at a small lake that held a large flock of flamingos and some Silvery Grebes. Despite scanning the flamingos several times, I was unable to turn up any James's among them. Then we were off, heading back through the desert toward San Pedro, where we spent the afternoon and evening relaxing at the hostel with some other backpackers, a few of whom were also Canadian.
Descending from Machuca towards San Pedro
Running trip list: 58

Jan 6

After two early mornings in a row, we had a bit of a lie-in and were off to a slow start. I think I spent most of the morning on eBird, making a plan of attack for the upcoming days. After a late breakfast (more like lunch), we walked over to a bike rental shop we had seen during our earlier explorations of town, and rented a couple of bikes for the afternoon, for a reasonable price. Our first mission with the bikes was to make it farther down the river valley north of town, and we biked past Pukará on our way to Catarpe. In the heat of the day, there weren't a ton of birds active, but I did manage to finally get photos of a White-winged Cinclodes, and the Gray-bellied Shrike-Tyrant we had found a few days earlier was still there, and posed for photos this time ( We made it as far as the gate near the end of the road before turning around, and explored a few side trails on our way back. The only new bird was a young Variable Hawk, hiding in a dead tree beside the road. The scenery was quite nice though, and made the ride well worth it.
The valley on the way to Catarpe

Interesting rock formations
Back at the hostel, we rested up a bit and got some food, and then headed out on our next mission. One of the 'must-see' attractions in San Pedro is the sunset at Valle de la Luna. You can book a tour to do this, but we opted for the more adventurous (and cheaper) way to get there. It took us 1h20 to do the 12 km uphill bike with the wind blasting in our faces the entire time, but we did make it there, and after locking up our bikes we hiked up the giant sand dunes and rocks to the top, in time to watch the sun going down.
Regan with the sunset at Valle de la Luna
A few minutes before the sun dropped though, we realized we had to get going if we were to make it back in time to return our bikes. The bike shop owner had been quite adamant that we'd have to pay for an extra day if we were late, and so back toward town we headed. With the wind at our backs and a downhill slope the entire way to town, we made it back in 50 minutes, including stopping several times to take photos of the scenery and sunset. We pulled in to the bike shop just a few minutes before our 21:00 deadline, returned the bikes and then went for dinner, our last in San Pedro.
Taking a break to watch the sunset
Running trip list: 59

Jan 7

We packed up our stuff after breakfast, said goodbye to our fellow travellers and the hostel owner, and headed off to find the bus station. It proved more difficult to find than we had anticipated (it was on the opposite side of town), but we made it there just in time to board the 09:45 bus to Calama. On the southern outskirts of Calama, we had an Oasis Hummingbird coming to a flowering tree right beside the bus when we were stopped for some traffic, the only one I'd see for the entire trip. Getting in to town, we hopped in a cab and headed to Hotel Atenas, where we arranged a room for the night (21000p for a room with two beds). I don't really remember why we chose this one in particular, but it was decent enough. After dropping our bags, we caught a colectivo up to the Codelco office at the north end of town, in time to catch the 13:00 tour of Chuquicamata. It was pretty interesting, going around the abandoned mining town which is slowly being buried as the mine expands, checking out a museum and learning about the mining process before actually going in to the edge of the mine. Chuquicamata is one of the larget open-pit mines in the world, at something like 5 km long and over 1 km across. It was truly vast, as were the enormous dump trucks that were carrying rock and ore out of it - at 8m tall, they dwarfed our bus quite easily.
Panorama of the mine
After the tour, we walked the 3 km back to our hotel, grabbed our birding gear and then walked another 2.5 km to a spot on the Rio Loa ( The neighbourhood here was a bit sketchy, but nobody bothered us as we searched for our target. The search didn't take long, and after only a few minutes I found a small family group of Slender-billed Finches. This is the southernmost limit of their range, and the only chance we'd have on our trip! A skulking Common Gallinule was also new for our trip list here. After this success, we called it a day, and grabbed some empanadas for dinner on our walk back to the hotel.

Running trip list: 62

Jan 8

Our flight the next morning was at 06:30, so we were up early to pack our stuff and hop in a taxi to the airport. On our way back to Santiago, most of the country was clouded in, so we didn't have the spectacular scenery to look at - only the in-flight entertainment. Touching down in Santiago, our time in the north of the country was officially over, so I'll end this post here. With 62 species and almost all of our hoped-for targets, we were quite happy with our five full days around San Pedro and Calama! Most birding tours go farther north, to the Arica-Putre-Lauca areas. This adds a few species that barely make it into Chile from Peru/Bolivia, and has the added bonus of a chance at the endemic Chilean Woodstar, but misses out on Red-backed Sierra-Finch and Horned Coot. In this case, the trade-off was finding enough touristy things to keep Regan happy while also providing a chance at some northern Chile specialty birds for me, and it worked out quite well!