Our last two days in this awesome country were a whirlwind. With how flights worked out, we only had 2 days in the northern region of Chile and unfortunately for us, it wasn’t even two FULL days. Needless to say, we were busy!
Everywhere we’ve gone on this trip we have had a ‘target birds’ list and northern Chile was no exception. Our northern Chile list of ‘important birds’ (or as Ross likes to say ‘birds that if we don’t see now we won’t be seeing’) list was 22 birds long. All of that essentially boils down to 22 birds to target in 2 days! At first we were nervous that we didn’t have enough time, but as it turns out, we had a very successful two days hitting all but 4 of our targets!
We arrived in Arica, picked up our rental car, and drove to the Chaca Valley, a green oasis in a seemingly endless desert. In fact, we visited several oasis-like valleys while in northern Chile and each time it was so neat to be driving in the desert and all of a sudden stumble upon trees and grass and all kinds of green growing around a small stream through the valley.
The morning started off slow, and everything that could go wrong, did. Ross’s camera came apart and his recording equipment broke.And two hours of birding the valley only produced a few Slender-billed Finches, and a pair of Burrowing Owls (not really the birds we were looking for.) We figured our main target, Tamarugo Conebill must have already departed for higher elevations for the winter so it was off to the little town of Codpa, which was situated 70km away and another 1500m higher in elevation. Upon arriving in the quaint town of Codpa, another oasis in the middle of the barren desert, we were finally able to find our main target in the form of a pair of Tamarugo Conebills. Other highlights in the valley included more Slender-billed Finches, White-crested Eleania, and Andean Swift.
It was now off to the Azapa Valley, located directly west of Arica. This valley is home to one of the rarest and most endangered hummingbirds in the world, the Chilean Woodstar. The hummingbird sanctuary of “Palacio de las picaflores” is located within the valley and is a known spot for the rare hummingbird. (Picaflor is the Chilean word for hummingbird, fun fact!) We arrived at the location and were greeted with dozens of hummingbirds, though all seemed to be Oasis Hummingbird and Peruvian Sheartail. We walked the trails throughout the small garden, and enjoyed seeing all of the hummers buzzing by, but we were unable to find our main target. After talking with the owner of the property, it became apparent that the woodstar was not around and that the Chaca Valley was our best opportunity to see it at this time of year. Before leaving, the owner showed us four hummingbird nests, including one that we were able to see two little chicks in!
For the late afternoon we once again returned to the Chaca Valley. With directions in hand we found the local school and then started to look for the Chilean Woodstar in the surrounding area. Eventually, we found an Oasis Hummingbird sitting on a wire and after getting out of the car to check the area, we had a single Chilean Woodstar fly by!
We then headed off to the town of Putre, located just outside of Lauca National Park at an elevation of 3700m (12,139ft)! Getting to Putre required driving up switchbacks side-by-side with big 18-wheelers travelling to and from Bolivia, as this windy dirt road is considered a major transport route. The dry gorge just north of the town is a birding hotspot and it is there that we planned to start the next morning.
We awoke at sunrise knowing that we’d have a very busy day. We had a long list of targets and only a single day to find them all. Within the first 30 minutes of our hike into the gorge, we found White-throated Earthcreeper, Plain-breasted Earthcreeper, Straight-billed Earthcreeper, White-winged Cinclodes and Dark-winged Canastero. Having found all of our main targets so quickly, we decided to continue hiking for a bit longer in search for Oranate Tinamou. We didn’t find the tinamou, so at 10:00am we headed off to the ever-scenic Lauca National Park two hours ahead of schedule.
Our first stop within the national park was Las Cuavas, a short trail which borders a bofadel bog. The area was loaded with birds and we saw numerous new species including Grey-breasted Seedsnipe, Cordilleran Canastero, Puna and White-fronted Ground-Tyrants, and White-throated Sierra-Finch. Along this trail we also bumped into several Viscachas, a species of chinchilla that is native to the Andes Mountains.
As we continued driving along Route 11 we made another stop to scan a large bofedal bog area that we noticed had some flamingos on it. Although three species of flamingo can be seen in the park, at this time of year only Chilean and possibly Andean can be expected to be seen. Therefore, we were elated when a scan of the bog produced over 20 Andean Flamingos, a handful of Chilean Flamingos, and a single Puna Flamingo mixed in!
From here we visited the south end of a large lake within the park where we saw several targets: Puna Rhea, Puna Plover, and Andean Negrito. It was early afternoon at this point and we had found most of our main targets! We were happy about that but there was still one bird eluding us, the Andean Stilt, a species of shorebird that Ross had missed previously on trips to South America and one he really wanted to see. (He’s really proud of his shorebird list so missing a shorebird is not an option! Without any more places to look for this bird, we started to head back towards Putre, but stopped to scan every piece of water we found. Luckily, near the flamingos we had earlier in the day, we found a flock of 10 Andean Avocet and Ross could go to bed knowing he’s now seen all but 5 of the shorebirds found in the New World.
That evening we once again hiked the dry gorge near Putre in hopes of Ornate Tinamou, but despite another dip, we were able to see an unexpected Tamarugo Conebill. We began our journey back to Arica and along way flushed a small group of Golden-spotted Ground-doves which we followed to their local water hole. The day was over and it had been a huge success! A section of Chile that most people spend 2-3 days birding, we had luckily been able to complete in just 1 day!
The next morning we had to be at the airport by 9:00am to catch our flight to Bolivia, but a quick stop at the mouth of the Lluta River near the airport added a few more new birds to our Chile list in the form of Band-tailed Gull, Little Blue Heron, White-cheeked Pintail, and an unexpected Grey-hooded Gull.
We headed off to the airport and our trip to Chile was officially over. Anyone looking to visit this country, it has our highest recommendations, we loved it!