Chile is an enchanting country with a unique long and narrow shape and a sea-to-sky topographic profile that gives it a great variety of climates and landscapes. From the deserts of the north, the vertiginous Andes and its glaciers to the east, the vast Pacific Ocean to the west, and the unforgiving Drake Passage and Antarctic to the south, Chile is isolated from the rest of South America. When it comes to bird species, Chile may not have the diversity of the neotropics to the north, but instead it offers endemism with an array of unusual birds. From large tapaculos to a backyard cotinga, Chile offers an offbeat birding experience. The highlights of this particular trip included a four albatross day at sea and a four tapaculo day in the Andes! Read more below or visit the photo galleries.
Based on our first trip to Chile over two years ago, we decided to engage a local guide this time to help us reach places we missed before. Rodrigo Reyes operates Birdwatching Chile tours and also organizes pelagic trips from Quintero to see the seabirds of the Humboldt Current offshore. Since we missed out on a pelagic trip on our first trip to Chile, we were very keen to schedule this trip to coincide with a scheduled pelagic voyage. And we were rewarded with a very successful morning at sea.
Some of the birds we were especially interested in seeing for the first time were the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, Grey-breasted Seedsnipe, two Enicognathus parakeet species, Huet-Huet (a Pteroptochos tapaculo), Crag Chilia, Des Murs‘s Wiretail, Patagonian Tyrant, and Austral Negrito. We would also enjoy encountering the White-throated Treerunner, Seaside Cinclodes, Thorn-tailed Rayadito, Fire-eyed Diucón, and the Rufous-tailed Plantcutter again – all species we saw two years prior.
Our itinerary was anchored by a bicycle tour of the Lakes and Volcanoes District of Chile. Two bird tours with Rodrigo Reyes bookended the cycling tour. The first of the two birding adventures focused on the Andes and Pacific Coast in the vicinity of metropolitan Santiago, while the second visited the Andes of the Los Lagos Region, the coast adjoining Reloncaví Sound, the Gulf of Ancud, and Chiloé Island.
Our first bird tour started from Santiago. We immediately took the Costanera Norte west to Valparaíso/Viña del Mar, the headed north along the coast to the marine institute on the shore at Reñaca. Here we had three cormorant species: the common Neotropic Cormorant, the Guanay Cormorant and the Red-legged Cormorant. They were joined on the small, white-washed islet by Peruvian Boobies and Peruvian Pelicans. There were also Humboldt Penguins and South American Sea Lions that hoisted themselves on the rocky outcrops. Nearby Inca Terns and Gray Gulls were loafing along with Ruddy Turnstones and Surfbirds. For an ID challenge, Chilean Seaside Cinclodes was joined by Dark-bellied Cinclodes browsing the rocky shoreline.
We headed north past Concón and across the bridge over the mouth of the Río Aconcagua to a small preserve. Here we saw huge flocks of Franklin’s Gulls and Black Skimmers. We heard, but did not see the Plumbeous Rail. An immature Austral Negrito was spied out on the sand of a side channel, while a Many-colored Rush-Tyrant popped into view in the marsh. A Cocoi Heron was nearby. Chilean Mockingbird and Rufous-tailed Plantcutter perched in a small tree. Both Chilean and Blue and White Swallows skimmed over the water.
North at the refinery in Ventanas near Quintero, numerous waterfowl occupied a freshwater lake. Chiloé Wigeon, Speckled Teal, Yellow-billed Pintail, Red Shoveler and Lake Duck were among species seen here. Further north at La Laguna – after negotiating a traffic jam from an accident on the highway – we observed coots at close range. Most were Red-gartered Coots, but a few White-winged Coots turned up. Great Grebe parents and young were here too. Throughout we were accompanied by Chimango Caracaras who seemed to take up the niche left by the absence of jays and ravens.
The next day we rose early to make our way to Quintero to embark on the pelagic trip. We were joined by a couple from Canada. With great anticipation, we boarded the vessel and headed out of the harbor. Soon we encountered numerous Franklin’s Gulls on the water. It is surprising how hard it is to find this species back home during migration. And to think it breeds only in the interior of western North America…. But here on its winter grounds, it is quite at home foraging out at sea!
Once the ship was several miles from shore, we started to pick up Sooty Shearwaters with the occasional Pink-footed Shearwater and Buller’s Shearwater. These are all shearwaters that we’ve seen off the coast of California. But the best would come soon. Northern Giant-Petrel made a pass in front of the bow. Then Salvin’s Albatross swept over the waves. A few Peruvian Diving-Petrels sat on the surface near the boat, while some Wilson’s Storm-Petrels skipped over the water. A couple Humboldt’s Penguins were seen swimming as we surged past, rising with the swells.
Once chum was flung into the sea, the feeding frenzy began in earnest. More albatrosses appeared. Some came to rest near the boat. In several photos, Northern Royal Albatross, Salvin’s Albatross, Buller’s Albatross and Black-browed Albatross all put in appearances in close proximity. White-chinned Petrels made for another ID challenge as they are dark like the Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters, but noticeably heftier. Separating these petrels from the Westland Petrel is harder still. A Juan Fernandez Petrel was seen briefly by some aboard, but not only was it distant, for us it was on the wrong side of the vessel. Four hours at sea seems longer when the wind pushes the swells, but the seabirds kept us occupied the majority of the time. Before we knew it, we were heading back to shore with a lot of great experiences with the birds of the Humboldt Current off Chile’s coast.
The afternoon was spent at wetlands of a private reserve/park north of Concón. Here notable birds included South American Snipe, Spot-flanked Gallinule, a flock of Austral Blackbirds, several Many-colored Rush-Tyrants dashing back and forth among the reeds, a shy Wren-like Rushbird, and Spectacled Tyrant. A brief glimpse of a Dusky Tapaculo was all we could manage despite hearing it in the nearby bushes.
Our third day would be dedicated to La Campana National Park. We headed for the northern entrance at Ocoa. Here Chilean Palm forest is one of the showpieces of the park. We heard many Moustached Turcas, but they kept out of sight. Likewise, White-throated Tapaculo was heard, but not seen. Tufted Tit-tyrant was more cooperative. The introduced California Quail were rather conspicuous throughout. Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetail was seen flitting amongst the trees. Thorn-tailed Rayadito also put in an appearance.
Unfortunately, our third day was cut short by a brief case of mal de estomago, so we passed on spending the afternoon at the Granizo and Cajon Grande entrances to the park near Olmué.
The fourth day, we left early from Viña del Mar, drove around the southern perimeter of Santiago, and headed up into the Andes toward an area known as the Cajon del Maipo. There we picked up Grey-flanked and Buff-winged Cinclodes. The Moustached Turca was more confiding up here and was seen many times. The first time was at a cliff face that gave us our first Crag Chilia. A wet meadow provided views of Greater Yellowfinch, Grey-hooded Sierra-Finch and our first White-browed Ground-Tyrant.
The road up to the El Yeso Reservoir, the water supply for Santiago, was paved nearly the entire way. This is a very recent improvement that makes reaching the higher elevations much faster and easier by car. Evidence for how recent was that the upper reaches of the paved road were still being striped. At the reservoir, another meadow with ponds yielded a pair of Crested Duck. A couple Andean Condors soared high above us. Higher up the valley around 2,000 meters elevation and beyond the reservoir, we found some more treasures: the well-hidden Diademed Sandpiper-Plover and Grey-breasted Seedsnipe in wet meadows and bogs. Our turnaround point within sight of the Argentine border added Creamy-rumped Miner and both Ochre-naped and Black-fronted Ground-Tyrant. We retraced our steps back down the vast Valle del Yeso to our lodge in San Jose de Maipo across the thundering Maipo River from the Cascada de las Animas Sanctuary. Just outside our room, El Quillay, an Austral Thrush was feeding a couple chicks in a tree.
The next day would wrap up part one of our birding tours. We returned up the valley, but crossed into the valley of El Volcan with the towering San José Volcano looming in the distance crowned with glaciers. At the town of Baños Morales adjoining the El Morado Natural Monument, we found a pair of Scale-throated Earthcreepers along with still more Moustached Turcas and a few Mourning Sierra-Finches, Rufous-banded Miners and White-browed Ground-Tyrants. Another Andean Condor soared above us. On the way back down the valley, we had a few roadside male Austral Negritos – very showy in bright sunlight. After lunch, we returned to our Santiago hotel Plaza El Bosque in Nuevo Las Condes, a business district, and thanked our driver Carlos. We would reunite with our guide Rodrigo in Puerto Montt a week and a half later.
We joined our friends Mark and Joanne Guralnick from Brooklyn to walk the center of Santiago, visit some museums and sample its cuisine in Bella Vista one evening, lunch at the Mercado Central another day, and dine in Lastarria at Bocanariz thereafter. Soon enough, it was time for us to board a LATAM flight to fly south to Temuco to join our cycling tour. With a window seat on the left, Robert had a stunning view of the Andes. That view also revealed fires whose smoke swept north over Santiago. These fires became a national emergency and resulted in closures of many of the parks and reserves we had just visited.
The bicycling tour gave us opportunities not only of the two-wheeled variety, but also some chances to see birds in the parks and preserves we visited, not to mention in the landscape we traversed by bicycle. The highlight was the Magellanic Woodpecker (two males and one female seen) during our free day at Corralco Resort in the Malalcahuello National Reserve east of Temuco. At the Antumalal Hotel in Pucón, a hotel designed by a young Frank Lloyd Wright, Black-faced Ibis were right outside our window for great photos. Meanwhile, our ride from Pucón to the border provided distant views of Flying Steamer Ducks on an Andean lake with the Lanín Volcano looming in the distance. At the Nawelpi Lodge in the Huilo Huilo Reserve, we were pleasantly surprised to see a Chucao Tapaculo briefly on the balcony just outside the dining room the first morning. Another Chucao popped onto the trail in front of us later that morning. Austral Parakeets bathed in an artificial waterfall at one of the nearby hotels, providing the first good views – they were seen and heard many times while riding the roads in the forested valleys of the Andes. The bicycle tour ended in Puerto Varas after a ride along Lago Llanquihue to the base of the Osorno Volcano. The following day our cycling guides dropped us at our hotel in Puerto Montt.
The next morning Rodrigo Reyes picked us up there for the next installment of our birding adventure. We continued south along the coast to Alerce Andino National Park. Our search for tapaculos began at the side of the road where Rodrigo heard Chucao Tapaculo, then Magellanic Tapaculo nearby. Shortly thereafter, he heard Ochre-flanked Tapaculo across the road. After a patient stakeout, we eventually saw part of this latter tapaculo. We would have to be satisfied with that brief glimpse. Once in the park itself, we walked the very productive El Canelo trail with rainforest understory including Chusquea bamboo. Our luck trying to view tapaculos would change as a Chucao Tapaculo came into view. With a branch, Rodrigo rustled the leaves to keep the Chucao interested – we had breathtaking views of this individual. At this same location, a Black-throated Huet-Huet came in to check us out. We also saw this large tapaculo well, even it stayed in shadow the entire time. Later, along the main trail to El Milenario, a thousand-year-old Alerce towering over us like a Giant Sequoia, we encountered another cooperative Chucao. This immature bird had no fear of us and walked virtually at our feet. Needless to say, we got many close photos of this individual, even a smartphone shot! Down the same trail a ways, we encountered our first Des Murs’s Wiretail. And on our return hike we came upon a Patagonian Tyrant.
On the drive back to Puerto Varas, we made a couple stops along the coast. The first yielded a flock of Slender-billed Parakeet in Eucalyptus. Our next stop provided our first look at the elegant Black-necked Swan including a cygnet. We also had our first looks at Imperial Cormorant on a white-washed islet offshore.
The next day we traveled east from Puerto Varas to Vicente Perez Rosales National Park at the foot of the Osorno Volcano. The target bird for the day was the rare Rufous-tailed Hawk. We spent considerable time at the scenic Saltos del Petrohue where the river cascades through a volcanic landscape. We inspected the cliffs for any sign of the bird. Eventually, a pair of distant hawks appeared on the horizon – that’s as close as they would get. However, we did see White-throated Hawk well during our vigil. And colorful Patagonian Sierra-Finches turned up at the visitor center several times.
Chiloé Island was our focus for the third day including the ferry crossing to Chacao. While we saw many Sooty Shearwaters and a few Pink-footed Shearwaters, we missed the target bird from the ferry: the recently described Pincoya Storm-Petrel of the Gulf of Ancud. We did see a distant Magellanic Diving-Petrel, but it was at some distance from the ferry, so only a brief glimpse. Once we arrived at Chacao, we found more Black-necked Swans, our first Hudsonian Godwits, close views of Flying Steamer Ducks on the shore, and Dark-bellied Cinclodes.
Our primary destination on the island was the Penguin Preserve at Puñíhuíl (most of the place names in this part of Chile were given by the Mapuche – and difficult to pronounce!). We boarded a small sightseeing vessel to travel close to the islets where the penguins nest. Most were Magellanic Penguins. We also saw both Flying and Flightless Steamer Ducks. The latter has tiny, ineffectual wings – useless for flight. Among the penguins, Kelp Goose could be seen, the dark females strikingly different from the white males. Also, a Rock Cormorant perched on a rock in the company of Neotropic, Red-legged and Imperial Cormorants. From a bluff, thousands of Sooty Shearwaters could be seen foraging over the water a short distance from shore. We heard Des Murs’s Wiretail and Chucao near the restaurant where we enjoyed lunch (Robert had the Chupe de Loco, a soup or stew featuring false abalone). But the birds remained in the shadows out of view here.
After leaving Puñíhuíl, we stopped at a few wetlands before embarking on the return trip with the ferry from Chacao. We worked to get distant views of Silvery Grebe among a wide variety of grebes and ducks. Further down the road, we encountered a flock of a couple thousand Hudsonian Godwits. At the last wetland, there were Black-necked Swans nearby and distant Coscoroba (all while swans). We saw the same shearwaters on the return ferry ride, but missed the Pincoya Storm-Petrel.
Our final day was spent back on the coast adjacent to the Carretera Austral. One of our target birds was the Magellanic Oystercatcher. Fortunately, we saw many oystercatchers on the drive out and could compare this particular species with the somewhat similar-looking American Oystercatcher virtually side by side. Thereafter we took a roundtrip with a ferry to try our luck with the storm-petrel again, but to no avail. The calm seas were not a favorable circumstance for finding pelagic birds this day. We did see more Imperial and Rock Cormorants, a few penguins and a fur seal from the ferry. Before returning to Puerto Varas, we enjoyed empanadas for lunch, including one with centolla (southern king crab) – delicious!
By the end of the trip, we had seen roughly 150 species with 50 life birds each. And along the way, we had many great experiences to share and savor.