Rodrigo Tapia, Claudio F. Vidal and Enrique Couve, Far South Expeditions
Chile, a Geographic Extravaganza! That would be a perfect summary of this long and narrow country, placed between the imposing Andes Mountains and the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.
Biogeographically speaking, Chile is an island in its own right, isolated from the rest of the Neotropical region by barriers in all four cardinal points. The driest desert in the world, the Atacama, a barren expanse of rock and sand sprinkled with oases and ravines, binds it to its north. To its east, the magnificent Andes rise to more than 18,000 feet like an impregnable fortress, a chain of majestic summits interspersed with hidden alpine valleys, high plateaus, vast saltpans and turquoise glacial lakes, which separates it like a massive curtain from the rest of South America.
To the south, dense and pristine old-growth sub-Antarctic temperate forests stretch into the distance. And then, where the world ends, begins mythical Patagonia. Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) are endless, windswept expanses of land where the furious fifties – the infamous local winds – roam freely, howling through cold steppes and glacial fjords, to end in the stormy Drake Passage, true home of the gale and the natural gap between South America and Antarctica. And, last but not least, to its west, the mighty Pacific, biggest of oceans, nourished by the fertile waters of the Antarctic and one of the richest areas on the planet, extends into the horizon as far as the eye can see.
These four invincible natural barriers have, to a great extent, shaped the peculiarities of the evolution of Life in this 2,800 mile-long ribbon of land that runs from north to south along the backbone of the South American continent.
This was first noticed first-hand back in the 1830s by a young and inquisitive Englishman by the name of Charles Darwin, and our birding trips follow in his footsteps, birding Chile’s major habitats and some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring landscapes on Earth.
The Atacama Desert
Northern Chile holds the driest desert in theworld, the inhospitable Atacama on the border with southern Peru. This unique area is home to such diverse species as the huge, flightless Giant Coot, to the tiny Chilean Woodstar. The centre of this lifeless desert is a mountainous area and the steep coast facing the deep Pacific Ocean, has few suitable inlets used as ports and raises as a series of tall sandstone cliffs, where the air becomes cool enough to at least condense some moisture.
In the coast lies Arica, Chile’s northernmost city, with beaches, river estuaries and desert valleys, haunt of such specialties as the critically endangered Chilean Woodstar, Peruvian Thick-knee, Oasis Hummingbird, Peruvian Sheartail, Peruvian Meadowlark and the odd Slender-billed Finch.
Ascending to the Altiplano or Puna, more than 10,500ft above sea level, we may find birds like Andean Swift and Greyish Miner en route to the Andean plateau.
Pre-Puna and Altiplano
The pleasant hamlet of Putre is the perfect base to bird the surroundings. Sparkling Violetear, Puna Hillstar, 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. Aplomado Falcon, Mountain Parakeet, the scarce White-throated Earthcreeper, Straight-billed Earthcreeper, Black-throated Flowerpiercer and White-browed and D’Orbigny’s Chat-Tyrants can all be spotted here, too.
Moving further up the Andes, the High Andean Plateau, Puna or Altiplano, is one of the highest altitude ecosystems found on Earth, and despite being an hostile environment due to its sheer altitude, its freezing low temperatures and cold winds, its moors and bogs are one of the richest bird habitats, and Lauca National Park is one of the finest spots to explore it.
Established to protect the highest lake in the world, this park supports a great diversity of Andean specialties: Puna Rhea, all three Andean species of flamingos (Chilean, Andean and James’s), Andean Avocet, Giant and Andean Coots, Puna Hillstar, Puna Tinamou, Puna Shrike-Tyrant, Puna Ibis, Puna Teal, White-winged Diuca Finch, Red-backed Sierra Finch, Puna Miner, Andean Lapwing and Andean Swallow are all part of an impressive cast. We may also encounter the likes of Andean Gull, Andean Flicker and Cordilleran Canastero, and grazing herds of wild Vicuña and other mammals like Vizcacha and Southern Grey Fox.
Central coast and Coastal wetlands
Surveying the avifauna around the pleasant cities of Valparaíso and Viña del Mar, in the central Chilean coast, can produce some interesting birds. Coastal habitats like boulder and sand beaches are good for birds like the endemic Chilean Seaside Cinclodes, a peculiar passerine that never strays far from the spray zone where it spends most of the time hunting for prey, or various sandpipers and other shorebirds like Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone and Surfbird, and gulls and terns like Kelp, Brown-hooded and Grey gulls and South American, Inca and Trudeau’s terns. Fascinating birds such as Stripe-backed Bittern, Black-headed Duck, Wren-like Rushbird, the striking Spectacled Tyrant, the stunning Many-coloured Rush Tyrant and the endemic Dusky Tapaculo can be found in the reed-fringed wetlands and surrounding scrub both north and south from Valparaíso, together with Cocoi Heron, Red gartered, White-winged and Red-fronted coots, Plumbeous Rail, Black-necked and Coscoroba swans, Chiloe Wigeon, Cinnamon Teal, Red Shoveler, Yellow-billed Pintail and a host of other waterfowl.
Valparaíso, Chile’s oldest and main port city, is also the perfect gateway to launch an unforgettable pelagic birding trip to the Humboldt Current in the South-eastern Pacific Ocean.
The Humboldt Current
One of the highlights of birding in Chile is to take a pelagic trip to the cold waters of the Humboldt Current. This highly 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. The Peru-Chile Trench, running parallel to the coast, is actually deeper than the Andes are high, and just a few miles offshore, dramatic submarine cliffs run parallel to the coast, guiding the current northwards. When the cold mass of water in the current collides with these underwater cliffs, nutrients from the bottom are pushed and driven to the surface, and it is these upwelling and mixing of bottom and surface waters that further enriches this system.
Considered as one of the most fertile places and one of the best pelagic birding locations in the world, the Current is a preferred feeding ground to a wide array of tubenoses such as Black-browed, Buller’s, Salvin’s, Chatham and Northern Royal Albatrosses, Southern and Northern Giant Petrels, White-chinned, Westland, Pintado and Masatierra Petrels, Pink-footed and Sooty Shearwaters, Wilson’s Storm Petrel, and Peruvian Diving-Petrel. Other seabirds found here include Humboldt Penguin, Inca Tern, Guanay Cormorant and Chilean Skua.
Matorral and Broad-leaf Forests
Central Chile is one of the most interesting places in our country from a biogeographical point of view, as it contains the eco-region of Mediterranean Chile, one of the biodiversity hotspots in the world and an area of endemism. Not surprisingly, almost all of the Chilean endemic species of birds are found here. We visit La Campana National Park searching for these endemics, including White-throated Tapaculo, Moustached Turca, Dusky-tailed Canastero and Chilean Mockingbird.
In his chronicles Darwin describes his intensive expedition to Mount La Campana (The Bell) in Quillota, the remarkable 6,400ft high mountain which dominates (and gives its name to) 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 remarkable Giant Hummingbird, largest of hummingbirds, is a regular here during Spring and Summer, and Harris´s Hawk, Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, American Kestrel, Striped Woodpecker, Chilean Pigeon and Tufted Tit-Tyrant are all common in the park, too.
The Central Andes
The Central Chilean Andes are an impressive collection of peaks and river valleys that are home to many very specialized birds adapted to high altitude and cold weather. In March 1835, Darwin reached a singular high altitude basin-like plain called Valle del Yeso in the Andes east of Santiago, Chile’s capital.
Precisely here, scanning the craggy ravines produces rare songbirds like the endemic Crag Chilia and Dusky Tapaculo, the local Creamy-rumped Miner, and a representative sample of Andean birds including Mountain Parakeet, Grey-breasted Seedsnipe, White-sided Hillstar, Cinereous, Black-fronted, White-browed and Rufous-naped Ground-Tyrants, Greater Yellow-Finch, Yellow-rumped and Thick-billed siskins and one of the most beautiful shorebirds of the world, the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, an enigmatic inhabitant of high Andean bogs whose very name tells about how puzzled early ornithologists got when confronted with this sandpiper-like long-billed plover.
Lake District, Araucaria and Temperate rainforests
With dense temperate rain forests, big lakes nestled among impressive snow-capped volcanoes, and a coast shattered in a myriad of fjords and islands, this part of our trip in the Lake District of southern Chile offers the chance to discover its wealth of habitats and diverse birdlife. Several species of this region are endemic to the temperate Nothofagus (Southern Beech) forests present along both slopes of the southern Andes. Magnificent national parks with dense forests are home for birds like the skulking and tiny Des Murs’ Wiretail, Patagonian Tyrant, Fire-eyed Diucon, Chucao Tapaculo, Ochre-flanked and Magellanic Tapaculos, Black-throated Huet-Huet and the magnificent Magellanic Woodpecker, one of the largest woodpeckers in the world.
Chiloe Island is a magical land with its own traditions, customs, legends, cuisine and music where time has stood still since the first Spaniard settlers arrived and mixed with the native people back in the XVI (16th) century. This green island is populated by scattered villages and small towns where people still build houses, churches and boats using materials and ancient techniques passed from one generation to the next, and fish, collect seafood and cultivate crops like potatoes, of which this island is one of the main centers of origin and dispersion in the world, with dozens of varieties grown here. The island is the home of birds like Flightless Steamer-Duck, Silvery Grebe, Black-necked Swan, and wintering flocks of Hudsonian Godwit.
The singular Chucao Tapaculo was observed and studied by Darwin here: “The Chucao frequents the most gloomy and retired spots within the damp forests…breath is held in superstitious fear by the Chilotans, on account of its strange and varied cries”. The Black-throated Huet-huet was also mentioned: “This latter name is well given; for I defy anyone at first to feel certain that a small dog is not yelping somewhere in the forest”. Agricultural fields are an ideal habitat for Black-faced Ibis, Chimango Caracara, Southern Lapwing, Chilean Flicker, Rufous-tailed Plantcutter, Common Diuca Finch and Grassland Yellow Finch. 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 Common Diuca-Finch, Austral Thrush, Correndera Pipit and Long-tailed Meadowlark.
Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego
Further south from the Lake District lies mythical Patagonia, a magical realm, a windswept land of rolling hills, endless plains and wind-bent trees with landscapes so vast and majestic that it is no wonder it has fascinated and captured the imagination of countless explorers who have visited it over the centuries. What a setting to discover the southernmost birdlife of the American continent!
Punta Arenas, our hometown, is the capital city of the Magallanes province, the southernmost in Chile, and the ideal place to start exploring the shores of the legendary Straits of Magellan before crossing it to Tierra del Fuego island, and sail enjoying the company of the graceful Peale’s and Commerson’s Dolphins and porpoising Magellanic Penguins.
In a remote bay in Tierra del Fuego stands the only King Penguin colony in mainland South America, and scanning the saline ponds of the area can produce the rare and odd-looking Magellanic Plover and specialties such as Rufous-chested and Tawny-throated Dotterels, Austral Canastero and the stunning White-bridled 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 colours, 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.
A visit to subantarctic woods provides with plenty of chances to see Thorn-tailed Rayadito, White-throated Treerunner, Magellanic Woodpecker and the southernmost of all parrots, the Austral Parakeet, and we we’ll 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 observing bands of Lesser Rheas and herds of the southernmost representative of the camelid family, the Guanaco.
Explore and experience Chile firsthand this upcoming fall, following Darwin’s footsteps and enjoying its unique birdlife. We will have the great pleasure of introducing you to the country we proudly call home. The wine flows freely, people are friendly and the sight of the Condor soaring overhead will linger in your memory for a long time to come.