Hola from central Chile!
Ross and I have been in this part of the country for 9 days already! We landed in Santiago the evening of April 18 and headed to La Campana National Park, our first stop in central Chile. Since then we’ve done a ton of moving around the long and narrow country, requiring many hours of driving. Our itinerary for central Chile (aka the Santiago – Puerto Montt area) looked a lot like this:
April 18 -19. We arrived in La Campana National Park just after dark on the 18th. I think we initially planned to go right to sleep, but we heard owls very close so we decided to do a little exploring in the dark! We walked one of the trails and heard 2 adult and presumably 2 juvenile Rufous-legged Owls! It was a little bittersweet because we stood directly under the owls at multiple locations but we were still unable to see any! The next morning we woke up early to see if we could finally get a sighting of those Rufous-legged Owls that were so close the night before and just before the sun came up we went hiking again! We walked up the trail and caught sight of 4 Magellanic Horned Owls instead. Technically not the owl we were looking for, but a great substitution!
We continued our morning hiking La Campana National Park and our efforts did produce sightings of Dusky Tapaculo, Dusky-tailed Canastero, Striped Woodpecker, and White-throated Treerunner. This park has two sections a few kilometers from each other, and as we were still missing several targets, we decided to head over to the other side of the park.
We hiked up the main trail and had our first sighting of Moustached Turca and White-throated Tapaculo. These birds are very skulky so it can often be hard to actually get to see them. Clammering up the hillside paid off for us!
We grabbed lunch in Concon, a seaside town in the Valparaiso Provence of Chile, then visited a nearby wetland looking for Great Shrike-tyrant. We didn’t see our main target, but we did see a few other birds such as Red-fronted Coot, Spot-flanked Gallinule, Many-colored Rush-tyrant, and Yellow-shouldered Blackbird. After that we spent some time driving the rocky shoreline of coastal Chile looking for seabirds and Chilean Seaside Cinclodes, a robin-like bird that can only be found along rocky shorelines. We quickly found a pair of the Chilean Seaside Cinclodes and other new seabirds such as Red-legged Cormorant, Guanay Cormorant, Peruvian Booby, and the absolutely awesome looking Inca Tern.
Our last stop on the 19th was a small wetland near the coast. We stopped here because ebird sightings showed that a Stripe-backed Bittern (a mini heron) called this area home. We arrived at the location without high-hopes, as bitterns are notorious for being difficult to see. We planned to spend the last 90 minutes of daylight patiently waiting to catch a glimpse of this rare bird. Much to our surprise, and only 15 minutes after arriving, the Stripe-backed Bittern we were searching for emerged from the reeds and stalked fish along the shoreline! This along with a Black-headed Duck at the same location made for a great ending to our first day in Central Chile.
April 20. The next morning, we watched the sunrise from 9,000ft elevation at the Fallerones Ski Resort east of Santiago. We came to this area in hopes of finding some high-altitude species that call the rocky, treeless terrain home. We spent the morning hiking the rocky landscape (and breathing heavy from lack of oxygen) finding new birds such as Rufous-banded Miner, Cordilleran Canastero, Greater Yellow-finch, and the endemic Crag Chilia.
After descending back down to Santiago, we decided to spend the afternoon at another high-elevation spot south of the city called El Yeso. This location is one of the most popular sites for visiting birders as it is home to the enigmatic Diademed Sandpiper-plover. This particular bird is a unique shorebird that is restricted to high-altitude bogs. It is only reliably seen at a few sites throughout the South American Andes Mountains, mainly because finding access to high-altitude bogs can be very difficult. After driving 30km up a dirt road, which at times was a narrowly winding path cut into the cliff’s edge, we arrived at the top! It sure was beautiful!
As we were travelling up the mountain, I noticed that it was very bright and would often complain to Ross about how bright it was and how sad I was that my sunglasses had broken earlier in the trip. Ross thought I was crazy and said “It’s not bright! The sun has been behind clouds all day.” I looked in the mirror and noticed that my left pupil was completely dilated! No wonder I thought it was so bright! Without sunglasses I had to improvise in order to shield my left eye from the sun and still go for a walk around the high-elevation bog! I looked a lot like this:
But best of all, we got the bird we were looking for!
April 21 we spent the morning at Altos De Licray National Reserve once again looking for skulky, ground-dwelling specialists. We walked along the Aliwenmawida Trail which winded downward through a virgin moss-covered, Nothofagus forest. The trail was a clean, soft, path with spectacular old growth everywhere we looked. Several trees were sporting orb-shaped fungal formations making for an even more impressive atmosphere. Ross said that of all of the trails we’ve done in Chile, this one was his favorite! Along this trail we first spotted a Chucao Tapaculo standing on a log. Further along the trail we had great looks at a pair of Chestnut-throated Huet-huets, but not without a little bit of perseverance to finally get eyes on this elusive bird!
From here we headed to a nearby lake/river area home to numerous Burrowing Parakeets. It didn’t take us long to track down a flock of these Macaw-like birds as they loudly called while perched high in the trees along the steep cliffs of the river.
Having found all of our target birds for the day so quickly, we wondered what our next move should be. We decided that we would take a risk and attempt to see a small flock of Yellow-bridled Finch that had been reported on E-bird a week earlier. The only issue with this plan was that the spot was 150km in the wrong direction and we had very little information on the birds’ whereabouts. Sound familiar?! Nevertheless, we set out to find this proverbial ‘needle in the haystack.’ As we climbed in elevation, we once again found ourselves amongst the mountains with spectacular views of a large alpine lake but as we reached the end of the road, our conversation centered around how much of a waste of time this drive was going to be and how impossible it would be to find the bird. Right before our ‘turnaround point’ Ross spotted a small bird sitting on a nearby boulder. A quick look and it was confirmed to be a female Yellow-bridled Finch! We jumped out of the car to get a better look and soon found ourselves within a few feet of three finches including a rather dapper-looking male!
We spent some time photographing the finches and the breathtaking scenery before starting on the long, 10-hour drive to our next destination of Puerto Montt. As we drove through the night our plans changed about a dozen times before we finally decided that the best course of action was to take the short ferry ride to Chiloe Island and try to find all of our target birds there.
We arrived at the ferry terminal by mid-morning on April 22nd and immediately made our way to the upper deck for better views. During the short 30-minute ride across the channel we saw a few seabirds including Pink-footed Shearwater, Black-browed Albatross, Chilean Skua and the Chiloe Island subspecies of Flightless Steamer Duck.
After landing, we first set off to the Senda Darwin Biological Center in hopes that we could find our target of Black-throated Huet-huet. Unfortuately, we were unsuccessful with the huet-huet, but an extremely friendly Chucao Tapaculo that literally ran around at our feet was immediately a morning highlight! As we headed to the car, Ross heard a Magallenic Tapaculo calling from the nearby vegetation. A bit of playback encouraged the bird to jump into the open! Like his nearby friend, this bird too spent 10 minutes hopping from branch to branch right in front of us!
From here we were unsure what our next move should be. Eventually we decided to drive an hour and a half south to a forest road which we had read about in a trip report. We drove along the road stopping when we saw patches of Chusquea bamboo, the habitat preference of our target birds, all the while keeping an eye on the sky in hopes that a rare buteo may flyover. After a few stops we had successfully picked up Black-throated Huet-huet, Ochre-flanked Tapaculo, and Des Murs Wiretail. At our third stop, we couldn’t believe it when the very elusive Rufous-tailed Hawk flew by!
Having successfully found all of our main target birds on the very first day, we happily started to drive north to the town of Ancud. As we approached Ancud we started to notice that the line of cars at nearly every gas station on the island was beginning to increase. As we reached the town, we saw one gas station with at least 100 cars lined up waiting to get gas. We stopped in at a local restaurant to eat a late supper and it was at this time that we realized the reason behind the panic – a Volcano was erupting 188 km away from us! “Volcan Calbuco” as we saw on the news, hadn’t erupted in over 42 years and the nearby towns were being evacuated! Thankfully we were far enough away that we weren’t affected and we could eat lunch knowing we were safe.
The next morning we headed to the west coast of the island in search of our last target bird, Humbolt’s Penguin. We drove to a location where just off the coast there is a rookery of Magellanic and Humbolt’s Penguins. Being the non-breeding season, we were unsure if any penguins would be around but luckily a quick scan of the offshore islands showed three very snazzy Humbolt’s Penguins – our third penguin of the trip!
From here we headed back to the ferry port and back to the mainland to start our journey north. That afternoon we only had two target birds in mind, Slender-billed Parakeet and Chilean Tinamou. Although we had seen a few flocks of the Slender-billed Parakeets on Chiloe Island, Ross wanted to get better pictures and some audio recordings so we headed to some local farmlands where the parakeets flock in the wintertime. Eventually we came across a large noisy flock of over 300 Slender-billed Parakeets!
After spending some time with this Chilean endemic, we plugged a spot into the GPS to try for our last possible endemic, the Chilean Tinamou. This ground-dwelling grouse-like bird can be very difficult to see. We figured we would just have to ‘run in to one’ if we were ever going to see one. No more than 15 minutes after heading off to this new destination, Ross slammed on the breaks when a small brown clump on the side of the road caught his eye. A quick U-turn and we were face-to-face with a Chilean Tinamou! Although we had a good look, it quickly flushed into the nearby farm field never to be seen again. Who knew it was going to be so easy though?! We skipped going to our ‘GPS spot’ for the tinamou and started on our 6-hour drive to Concepcion, Chile, where we planned to search for Snowy-crowned Tern in the morning. On the way we had some great looks at the volcano which had caused havoc requiring nearby towns to be evacuated.
We spent the morning of April 23rd birding a river estuary. The area was full of thousands of water birds. Some highlights were American Oystercatcher, Black Skimmer, Coscoroba Swan, Black-necked Stilt, and Rufous-chested Dotterel. Among the hoard of birds, we were able to find our main target of Snowy-crowned Tern, as a group of 14 fed in the nearby waters. A pleasant surprise was also stumbling upon no less than 12 Hudsonian Godwits, a welcomed sight as the majority of these birds have already departed for their summer breeding grounds.
Ross and I spent all of this time essentially living out of our small rental car. After 8 days without a shower, we decided to splurge on a hostel in Santiago. After some much needed R&R we set off once again to the place where it all began La Campana National Park, to once again try to see the Rufous-legged Owls that eluded us on our two previous attempts. We got to the park realizing that Ross’s playback speaker had broken and all of the rest of our belongings were in our hostel. There would be no way we could see this owl without a little audio, and we had no tools to properly fix it so thankfully Ross macgyvered a solution using a plastic knife. Armed with a now-functional speaker we went back off into the woods and FINALLY caught sight of this large, but ever-so-tricky to see bird. Again our equipment failed us and the flash system didn’t work, but what’s important is that we finally saw it!
This segment of the trip ended on a good note and later tonight we catch a flight up to Arica in Northern Chile.
Hasta luego, for now!