Southern Chile – Part I of South America, April 10-18

Ross and I left Pittsburgh, PA at 7AM on April 10th and we arrived in Santiago, Chile at 3AM on April 11th. Two layovers and 20 hours of travel later we arrived in South America, only to find that our bags had not arrived with us. To make matters worse, we had yet another flight five hours later and there was no trace of our bags in COPA Airline’s system. Not knowing when they would arrive, we decided to just move on without them and the next morning we got on yet another plane and flew even further south. We arrived in our final destination of Punta Arenas, after approximately 33 hours of travel! Our original plans obviously included having our gear so we were forced to change plans and splurged on a hostel for the night. (Because sleeping in a car with temperatures in the mid-30s sans jackets and sleeping bags would be unbearable!) Thankfully our lost luggage saga was over quickly and our bags were found and shipped the same night.

After a good night’s rest in our hostel, we woke up early and went on our way to explore Southern Chile and tick off a few target birds. We began the morning at dawn watching the sun rise over the hills while searching the edges of nearby Lake Palos. At this location we had several species of waterbirds including Crested Duck, Chilean Flamingo, Silver Teal, Yellow-billed Teal, Chiloe Wigeon, and Silvery Grebe, as well as some small land birds such as Austral Canastero and Patagonian Yellow Finch.  Unfortunately however, our beautiful morning weather deteriorated quickly and we were forced to move on, unable to find our main target of Magellanic Plover.

Crested Duck

Crested Duck

The day did prove to be a successful one as far as birding is concerned as we spent the day simply driving around, stopping periodically to check out the birds flying by on either side while en route to Puerto Natales. Once arriving in Puerto Natales, we spent two hours driving along the shoreline and seeing new birds such as Magellanic Oystercatcher, Black-necked Swan, and Coscaroba Swan. 

Magellanic Oystercatcher

Magellanic Oystercatcher

Ross scanning for Magellanic Oystercatcher

Ross scanning for Magellanic Oystercatcher

After a salmon filet for lunch in this little fisherman’s town, we continued on to Torres Del Paine National Park. After a succession of photo stops and some unanswered attempts for Austral Rail, we found ourselves at our campground for the night.

The early morning views of the Torres Del Paine mountain range are unparalleled and at every bend of the road another scenic view just as beautiful as the last greets you in all of its splendor. The granite tower peaks that the park is known for made for a spectacular backdrop as we spent the morning and afternoon birding the park.

Torres Del Paine Mountain Range

Torres Del Paine Mountain Range

Breath taking right?!

Breath taking right?!

That morning, our destination was a small trail along the famous Lago Gray. This glacial lake offers picturesque views of the surrounding mountains as well as views of the great Gray Glacier. While en route to the trail, Ross stopped the car after spying a flock of Austral Parakeets in the nearby trees. We hopped out and spent some time watching, photographing, and recording the birds like we usually do when we see something of interest. We then heard the drum of a woodpecker in the nearby vicinity, so we abandoned the car and tracked down a pair of unmistakable Magellanic Woodpeckers.

Male Magellanic Woodpecker

Male Magellanic Woodpecker

Magellanic Woodpecker

Magellanic Woodpecker, note the vibrant red head on the male. There is a curly black crest on the female but sadly we have no photos of her.

We finally reached the trail-head to do a little hiking all-the-while knowing that the majority of our target birds would be located elsewhere, however we were still able to catch up with two Patagonian Tyrannulets and a flock of Patagonian Sierra Finches along the way. The views of Glacier Gray off in the distance coupled with large chunks of blue-white ice floating in the water made for some amazing photo-ops along the trail and spending the time here was well worth it!

Glacier Gray is the white "mountain" off in the distance.

Glacier Gray is the white “mountain” off in the distance.

Blue ice!

Blue ice!

Bridge at the start of Lago Gray Mirador Trail

Bridge at the start of Lago Gray Mirador Trail

Couldn't resist a selfie!

Couldn’t resist a selfie!

On our way out of the park we stumbled upon two Mountain Lions at extremely close range! These elusive cats are next to impossible to see in the wild, let alone see well, so our dip on Austral Rail was more than made up for in the form of these spectacular mammals!

Mountain Lion

PUMA!

Mountain Lion at 10 yrds away!

Mountain Lion at 10 yrds away!

Just as we had left the park, we stumbled upon this adorable Pichi Armadillo! We walked up to him and watched as he pressed his belly into the ground so that only his hard shell was exposed (a defensive technique used against predators). This particular armadillo species is only found in Argentina and Chile.

Pichi Armadillo (Dwarf Armadillo)

Pichi Armadillo (Dwarf Armadillo)

Me with Pichi Armadillo as he was playing dead.

Me with Pichi Armadillo as he was playing dead.

We left the park and followed the windy gravel road that is Route 9 through a series of valleys and cattle guards until its eventual dead-end at a Chilean homestead.

The end of the road

The end of the road

White-throated Caracara

White-throated Caracara

Aside from a group of White-throated Caracaras that were flying around at the end of the road, the biggest highlight however was watching a Guanaco (a relative of the llama) attempt to jump over a fence. Unfortunately he caved under the pressure of an audience and leapt too soon causing his front legs to hit the top of the fence and propel his entire body towards the ground, resulting in him somersaulting over the fence, landing on his head, and ungracefully making his way back to his feet. In case you were wondering, the Guanaco are very abundant in Patagonia and are often grazing in the fields, however this single event might have been the highlight of the trip thus far and left both Ross and I laughing for the entire drive home.

Guanaco standing in the field.

Guanaco standing in the field.

Our original plan was to spend the night here and bird in the morning, but it was apparent from the lack of bird-life present that several key species had already flown north for the winter. Instead, we decided to head back to Puerto Natales for the night. On the way back out, we did catch up with Band-tailed Earthcreeper, a very localized species with only two known locations to find this bird in Chile.

Band-tailed Earthcreeper

Band-tailed Earthcreeper

The next morning we spent almost the entire day driving Route 405 across the northern section of southern Chile, keeping parallel with the Argentinian border as we traveled through the vast grasslands. The landscape of Chilean Patagonia consists of low, rolling hills covered in small patches of brown grass which stretch as far as the eye can see.

The view

The view

Lesser (Darwin's) Rheas roam the fields alongside the Guanaco.

Lesser (Darwin’s) Rheas roam the fields alongside the Guanaco.

Early that morning we had a very cooperative Austral Pygmy Owl sitting on a power line, and other highlights from the drive included Rufous-chested and Tawney-throated Dotterel, White-bellied Seedsnipe, Short-billed and Common Minesr, and White-bridled Finch.

Austral Pygmy Owl

Austral Pygmy Owl

Tawney-throated Dotterel

Tawney-throated Dotterel

White-bellied Seed Snipe

White-bellied Seedsnipe

By late-afternoon/early-evening, we arrived at the end of the road, and already having most of our targets in the bag, decided to take the quick, 20-minute Punta Delgada ferry ride over to the famed island of Tierra Del Fuego, which literally translates to “Land of Fire”. By this time however, winds had picked up in speed and the unfavorable weather conditions made for a rocky ferry ride and produced very few pelagic birds. Had we waited and taken the ferry in the morning when the winds were calm, we most likely would have seen countless birds and even Commerson’s dolphins along the way. Unfortunately hindsight is always 20/20. Despite our losses we had no choice but to continue onward. Thankfully while driving to the small town of Porvenir, we came across one of our main targets, Ruddy-headed Goose.

The next morning, Ross and I set out to find a rare shorebird (one Ross said he would not leave Tierra Del Fuego without seeing) and soon found ourselves at the edge of a nearby lake. The weather conditions from the night before did a 180 degree turnaround and that morning the skies were blue, the sun was shining, and the wind was nonexistent. Being in such a remote part of the world led us to periodically stop and savor the sounds of nothingness around us. It’s hard to adequately describe such a feeling as most parts of everyday life have various sounds going. But here we were standing at the edge of a lake at dawn with not even a sound to be heard. It was tranquil and it was beautiful. We also were able to find a single Magallenic Plover and two dueting Flying Steamer Ducks at the edge of Laguna Verde making for a perfect morning.

Magellanic Plover

Magellanic Plover

Beautiful conditions for standing at the edge of a lake in the middle of nowhere.

Beautiful conditions for standing at the edge of a lake in the middle of nowhere watching a rare shorebird.

That afternoon we set out to Tierra Del Fuego’s newly established King Penguin colony. The road to get there veered as close to the seashore as one could possibly be. Ice-covered mountains could be seen off in the water’s distance. Being such an avid sea-bird watcher, Ross naturally had to stop several times along the way to scan the open seas. We ended up making it to the penguin colony 2-hours behind “schedule.” Thankfully our schedule is whatever we want it to be and the detours along the way were worth it as Ross scanned through hundreds of birds finding Southern Fulmers, Black-browed Albatross, Sooty Shearwaters, and Flightless Steamer Duck.

Flightless Steamer Duck -- Check out the stubby wings. This bird cannot fly hence the name!

Flightless Steamer Duck — Check out the stubby wings on this guy. This bird cannot fly hence the name!

Imperial Cormorant

Imperial Cormorant

The penguin colony was extremely neat to see. We saw 68 adult penguins and 2 pulli (aka baby penguins) while we were there. Watching these birds is truly an awesome experience.

King Penguin Colony

King Penguin Colony

King Penguins

King Penguins

The next morning, we woke up with no other targets on the agenda so we drove around Porvenir photographing the birds that called this little town home. Ross was able to get some nice pictures of several birds such as Kelp Goose, Dolphin Gull, and Kelp Gull.

Male (white) and Female Kelp Geese

Male (white) and Female Kelp Geese

Dolphin Gull

Dolphin Gull

After that, we once again headed out to do some sea watching. Any birds we missed from the day before were found in abundance such as Southern Giant Petrel, Magellanic Penguin, Chilean Skua and South American Terns.

Keep in mind that the peak season for birders to visit Southern Chile is November through January as that is their austral summer. Nonetheless, we decided to add Chile to our “big year” anyway as there are still several species that should still be present this time of year and we haven’t regretted it at all! So far our trip has been very successful. We have a flight out of Punta Arenas tomorrow afternoon and from here we move on to central Chile! Looking forward to the next set of adventures!

Here’s a few more photos just in case this blog post didn’t have enough already:

Spectacled Duck

Spectacled Duck

Chimango Caracara

Chimango Caracara

Tufted Tit-Tyrant

Tufted Tit-Tyrant

Hasta luego for now! (“see ya later” in Spanish!)