Birding Argentina and Chile

IMG_1239We embarked on our trip to Argentina and Chile in late October 2014.  Most of our “tour” would be spent in central Chile, preceded by five days in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  This page focuses on the birding and natural history aspects of the trip.  There are also photos and a trip summary.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

After the long flight to Santiago, we continued on to Buenos Aires Despite a scheduled arrival in the early afternoon, we arrived instead that evening (long story). The tarmac was wet from recent storms; that would be a portent of things to come as there was more cold and rainy weather in store for us during our time in Argentina.

Birding Costanera Sur

For our first afternoon in Buenos Aires, we booked a half-day tour with local bird guide Marcelo Gavensky of Birding Buenos Aires. The weather was cool and sunny, so very inviting for our introduction to this area.  We took a taxi from our hotel Meliá Recoleta Plaza to the nearby wetland Costanera Sur (entry is free) sandwiched between the Rio de la Plata and downtown Buenos Aires.  For a metropolitan wetland, this reserve was impressive, hosting a large variety of local birds – some 260 species on the reserve checklist – including waterfowl, marsh birds, and birds of scrub and woodland in the margins of the lagoons.

Near the entrance, the canal hosted Coscoroba Swan, Yellow-billed and Silver Teal, Rosy-billed Pochard, Red-fronted Coot, and Guira Cuckoo.  Masked Yellowthroat and Wren-like Rushbird were heard, but eluded visual detection in the scrub by the lagoon, but Bran-colored Flycatcher, Hooded Siskin and Golden-billed Saltator were well seen.  Checkered and Green-barred Woodpecker were encountered along the trail as were Chalk-browed and White-banded Mockingbird.  A fly-by glance would be our only view of Chilean Flamingo.  Gray-hooded Gulls flew overhead.  Gray-necked Wood-Rail crossed the trail in front of us. With three species of Cowbird at the picnic area on the Rio de la Plata, we could compare Screaming, Shiny, and Bay-winged Cowbird. Picazuro Pigeon, Solitary Black Cacique and Variable Oriole were seen from the trail along the embankment as were Glittering-bellied Emerald and Gilded Hummingbird. Nanday and Monk Parakeet have become established in the reserve.

Meanwhile, near our hotel in the middle of Buenos Aires, Gray-breasted Martin could be seen from the room, while a local park nearby had Rufous Hornero, Great Kiskadee, Rufous-bellied Thrush, and Rufous-collared Sparrow.

The Day in Entre Rios

Despite it being spring verging on summer, our visit to Argentina was characterized by mostly cold and rainy conditions. Recent heavy rains had caused considerable flooding in some parts of Buenos Aires and vicinity. And so it would be on our full day tour to Entre Rios three hours north of Buenos Aires as we re-joined Marcelo. Although it was colder, windier, and rainier than we would have liked, we still observed a wide variety of birds in the partially inundated lowland setting characterized mainly by cattle ranches. The so-called “dry forest” Espino habitat was inundated and verdant green rather than dry, so the dirt roads on these ranches were slippery and muddy in places, but generally navigable with a normal passenger car. Waterfowl seen included White-faced and Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Ringed, Yellow-billed, Brazilian and Silver Teal.  Southern Screamer was well-represented and conspicuous in grassland with an occasional Long-winged Harrier flying low over fields.  A Roseate Spoonbill made an appearance.  Maguari Stork was common too.  A Savanna Hawk was well seen.  And Bare-faced Ibis and Southern Lapwings were abundant.

An arboreal Sharp-billed (Lesser) Canastero was inspecting branches of a small tree by the road.  Narrow-billed Woodcreeper turned up nearby.  Spinetails were well represented including Stripe-crowned, Yellow-chinned, Sooty-fronted and Chotoy Spinetails, not to mention Freckle-breasted Thornbird.  Flycatchers included Crowned-slaty and Vermilion Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, White Monjita, Southern Scrub-Flycatcher, SuiririFlycatcher and Sooty Tyrannulet.  Along the dirt road coming back out, we found several woodpecker species including Campo Flicker, Green-barred and White Woodpecker.

Among the highlights of marsh birds were the Giant Wood-Rail, the gaudy Spectacled Tyrant, Brown-and-yellow Marshbird, Yellow-winged and Chestnut-capped Blackbird, and Black-and-rufous Warbling-Finch.  Our hunt for Greater Rhea came up short, but we finished on a high note getting both Curve-billed Reedhaunter and Scarlet-headed Blackbird at our last stop at a marsh before crossing the bridges back over the Rio Paraná to return to Buenos Aires.

Central Chile

Our return flight to Santiago took us back over the Andes.  This time as the plane banked to the south to make its final approach, Cerro Aconcagua, the highest point in all of South America, came into view, an imposing pyramid towering above the crest of the Andes.  Upon our arrival in Santiago, we picked up a rental car, our transportation for the next week.

We had planned the chilean part of the trip using a 2011 trip report published on the Surfbirds website.  This marked the beginning of ten days of birding on our own.  Our plan was to make a loop from Santiago northwest to Viña del Mar on the coast via Olmué and La Campana National Park; then south and into the central valley to get to Altos del Lircay National Reserve.  On the way we would try to get to national reserves and make other stops just to see what we could see.  Some birds were common throughout including abundant White-crested Elaenia and southern House Wren in forests and edge, Chilean Mockingbird, Austral Thrush and Chimango Caracara in towns and cities, and Kelp Gull along the coast.  Rufous-tailed Plantcutter was a common garden bird – interesting to think of a cotinga as a yard bird!

The next morning, we headed northwest from Santiago, visiting Lampa Marsh enroute to Olmué situated just west of La Campana National Park.  Parking along the main road where it crosses the marsh was problematical.  We instead headed for another road that zig-zagged back to the marsh and provided safer parking.  Here the marsh habitat was limited, but nonetheless productive.  We had our first looks at Long-tailed Meadowlark, Chilean Swallow, White-tufted Grebe and Red-gartered Coot.  Chimango Caracara was downright common here, and as we would discover, most everywhere throughout the trip.  Several groups of Brown-hooded Gull followed the waterway up and down the marsh, while Yellow-winged Blackbirds criss-crossed the marsh.

Our drive from Lampa to Olmué took us through Espino habitat with acacias and mesquites dotting the hillsides.  Another Long-tailed Meadowlark caught our eye when we stopped at the roadside to follow a soaring Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle.

La Campana

In Olmué we stayed at the lovely Nativo Ecolodge, in a clean, new cabaña with kitchen facilities, which meant we shopped for groceries in the local “supermercado” in the town center.  At the lodge, we saw quite a few birds including more Long-tailed Meadowlarks, but also our first Rufous-tailed Plantcutters, both male and female, Common Diuca-Finch, and Chilean Pigeon, not to mention Picui Ground-Dove. Heading into town on foot, the local neighborhood produced a Giant Hummingbird, a bird we would also see in La Campana.

La Campana National Park is dominated by the Cerro La Campana mountain, a peak reached by Charles Darwin during a stop on his historic voyage on the Beagle in the 19th Century.  It is also home to one of the last remaining forests of Chilean Palm (Jubaea chilensis) at Sector Ocoa.  Olmué was situated west of the park near the entrance to Sector Granizo.  Here we would see White-throated Treerunner, Green-backed Firecrown, and Thorn-tailed Rayadito, and as we exited the park, Fire-eyed Diucón.

We decided instead of returning to Sector Granizo, we would take the roundabout route to the north entrance at Sector Ocoa and the palm forest.  We were rewarded with a perched Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle on the entrance road, Moustached Turca, Plain-mantled Tit-spinetail, Tufted Tit-tyrant, Striped Woodpecker, numerous Common Diuca-Finches, and a covey of… California Quail.

Ruta del Mar

Viña del Mar is a bustling, seaside resort city, and relatively busy, but driving north along the coast yielded the most fruitful birding, including great looks at boobies, terns, gulls, and penguins. (We wouldn’t stay in Viña del Mar next time, but rather up the coast at Reñaca beach. Nevertheless, the restaurants in Viña del Mar along Avenida San Martín were good; great seafood at Moros y Cristianos and El Rincón de Greda, but also some awesome burgers at A Mano.)

Since the weather in central Chile was a mirror image of southern California’s “June Gloom,” our instincts told us to visit the coast in the morning while the fog shrouded the surf and the overcast kept avid beach-goers away. We sought the Marine Institute as our first stop, but settled for a promising rocky outcrop – as it turned out, the Marine Institute was directly adjacent to it, but as a research institute, it did not appear to be open to the public.  At any rate, the rocky outcrop delivered our best views of Peruvian Booby, Inca Terns, Grey Gulls, Red-legged and Guanay Cormorant, not to mention magnificent Sea Lions. Nearby were several Blackish and American Oystercatchers, Ruddy Turnstones, and Surfbirds.  Off shore, distant tubenoses appeared to be shearwaters, probably Sooty, with one dark, long-winged tubenose suggesting an immature Southern Giant-Petrel.  Our inability to book a pelagic half-day or full-day tour during our trip meant that we missed a big opportunity for pelagic birds of the Humboldt Current.

We continued north through Concón across the two bridges spanning the Rio Aconcagua, noting a potential stop on our return trip back down the coast.  We saw Whimbrels in many places along immediate shore of the coast.  Our ultimate destination this day was Isla Cachagua, a small islet just offshore that is home to nesting penguins. This far north, the Humboldt Penguins outnumbered the few Magellanic Penguins.  The islet was close enough to shore that binocular views were good and the zoom on our camera sufficient for photographing the many penguins decently.  A few swam close to shore when people were absent at the overlook.   Here and there, a Blue-and-white Swallow or two could be found amongst the Chilean Swallows.  Peruvian Pelicans were common here and elsewhere on the coast.  While the islet had many Neotropic Cormorants, it was conspicuous for the absence of many other species including the other two cormorants noted at the rocky outcrop in Reñaca.

After an hour enjoying the penguins, we stopped at a beach-side café for a pisco sour and ceviche – the ceviche al pulpo was terrific!  The pisco sour was so strong, a cappaccino was needed as an antidote to restore mental faculties for the drive back.  A roadside stop at La Laguna as we started our return trip turned up White-backed Stilt and a sleeping Great Grebe accompanied by young. During a brief stop back at the crossing of the Rio Aconcagua, it became apparent that what appeared to be immature (Kelp?) gulls were actually basic-plumaged Franklin’s Gulls!  …by the hundreds!!  These were the gulls we found near the mouth of Laguna Verde southwest of Valparaíso the day prior.

From Valparaíso south to Maule

Driving south to Curicó – just touching the Casablanca Valley where we dropped in on the Casas del Bosque winery – got us into the central valley “big agriculture” area, where vineyards stretched to the horizon and we passed many big produce processing / distribution facilities. On the way, we stopped at Laguna El Peral.  Although it closed at 1 PM, a half hour prior to our arrival, we peeked through the fence to find Lake Duck, Yellow-billed Pintail, and Red Shoveler. Taking a short cut to avoid Santiago on our way back to La Ruta Cinco, we were rewarded with 8 kms of topes before reaching the Pan-American Highway!  The traffic on La Cinco was good with the only stops being the toll booths.  Although it seems unassuming from the highway, the Hotel Villa el Descanso in Curicó was quite nice and had an excellent restaurant with an extensive wine list of local wines.

Our main objective in Maule was Altos del Lircay National Reserve for a shot at specialties like Magellanic Woodpecker and Chesthut-throated Huet Huet (a large tapaculo).  The reserve is accessed by 9 miles of unpaved road in the precordillera east of Talca.  It took at least two hours to get there from Curicó.  With a late morning start, we didn’t arrive until close to noon.  As a result, we missed the specialties we had driven far south to see.  Not that seeing Plain-mantled Tit-spinetail, White-throated Treerunner, Fire-eyed Diucón, Striped Woodpecker, Green-backed Firecrown, and Thorn-tailed Rayadito (including one on a nest!) were not very enjoyable, but we had seen all of these birds closer to Santiago at La Campana.

There were rustic cabañas just below the reserve in the forest hamlet of Vilches Alto (e.g. Cabañas Vilches Alto).  We didn’t stay at any of them, but they would make an excellent venue to get an early morning start in the reserve!  We enjoyed baked empanadas for lunch up there at a cozy café while talking with a young hiker – endurance athlete actually – from Iquique in the north who spoke excellent english.  However, we suffered as he described a bird he’d seen higher up the trails than we had time to cover – a large, black bird with a red crest.  He’d seen the Magellanic Woodpecker!!

As we descended back to the main highway, we turned east instead of returning immediately to Talca and followed the highway past the long reservoir Laguna del Maule along a “U”-shaped glacial valley of austere Andean beauty. We were rewarded with numerous groups of Burrowing Parakeets flying along the highway where it cuts between the slopes of the precordillera and the reservoir.  The parakeets, each paired with its mate, seemed more like small macaws than parakeets.  The last group in the late afternoon flew directly overhead after we’d pulled to the shoulder of the highway – what a view!  Perhaps they were following a regular path back to their nightly roost.

Return to Santiago

We ended where we started, in Santiago, but switched hotels on the back end for a newer, more spacious room in the Las Condes district; nicer hotel, but a bit soulless, and discovered that the Barrio Lastárria near downtown was the center of the up-scale Santiago restaurant scene. (Easily accessed by the metro, although it was pretty jammed at “rush hour”.) Our next to last full day was spent on a full-day tour of the Casablanca Valley courtesy of Uncorked Wine Tours, visiting three wineries (Kingston Family Vineyards, Bodegas RE, and Quintay).

Up into the Andes at Farellones

The day we flew out – our flight was nearly at midnight – we spent day-tripping into the Andes east of Santiago, visiting Yerba Loca Nature Sanctuary, and higher still, the Farellones Ski Resort. Yerba Loca, situated between 4,000 and 5,000 feet elevation, featured bogs and montane scrub, while Farellones at over 8,000 feet featured barren, alpine habitat.  At Yerba Loca, we found several Chilean Flickers, a Bar-winged Cinclodes, Long-tailed Meadowlarks, and on the road in numerous Black-winged Ground-Doves – common anywhere over 3,000 feet in elevation.  A few birds got away without a definitive look including a possible Dark-bellied Cinclodes, a miner with a tail like Common, a canastero that looked more like Cordilleran than Dusky-tailed.

After Yerba Loca, we negotiated the remaining hairpin turns to ascend to Farellones Ski Resort.  The last sign I remember was # 39!   More amazing were the fit cyclists who had survived these same 39 hairpins on a bicycle.  If they started from the edge of Santiago at a little over 1,000 feet, they would have climbed roughly 7,000 feet!!  The ascent was punctuated with poppies – California Poppies, a bit out of place, but colorful nonetheless.

As we ate lunch at the pizzeria overlooking the Andes, we enjoyed the view as the barren slopes below us yielded birds hidden in plain sight. Numerous Greater Yellow-Finches and White-browed Ground-Tyrants moved deliberately across the ground.  A Grey-flanked Cinclodes turned up as well.  Along the main road at the resort, a couple Grey-hooded Sierra Finches posed in the sun.  The cliffs up the slope looked promising for Crag Chilia, but none turned up.  A walk up the road rewarded us with 10-12 Andean Condors circling directly overhead!  But the late afternoon would yield to evening soon, so we had to tear ourselves away from this mountain paradise to return to Santiago, turn in our car, and board our overnight flight home.  A Variable Hawk perched above one of the hairpin turns bid us goodbye.

In Retrospect

Things that didn’t work so well … some national/nature reserves, as it turns out, are difficult to find and access.  Bad roads, no signs … you have to really want to get there.  One promising looking lighthouse on the map – and there were even signs pointing towards it! – had about a 10-mile “road” leading to it, tortuously eroded, and when we got there after an hour THEN we find it is off limits and a naval installation.

The national parks and a few selected reserves (e.g. Altos de Lircay) were much better in terms of access, although their hours are limited (0900-1730) and can be frustrating to birders who might like to get out earlier. The paved roads / toll roads were quite good, but the Panamerican Highway (Ruta 5) had bus stops on the highway, and people running across the highway because the pedestrian overpasses weren’t convenient, which makes sense for them but is a bit disconcerting for the uninitiated. And last but not least – the older we get, the more we appreciate a well-planned tour! We did well on our own, but some days it was downright frustrating and exhausting.

-Robert and Liza Weissler

…cycling, birding, and more