Chile 2016 – Postscript

Mention Chile to any self-respecting birder and it will immediately conjure up images of that most wonderful and mythical species Diademed Sandpiper-Plover. Although relatively well distributed along the length of the Andes they are a ‘near threatened’ species, which lives and breeds in inaccessible Andean bogs above 6000ft – the wintering location of the southern breeding population is still an ornithological mystery. Although it is a ‘must see’ species for any visiting birder, our 2016 itinerary prevented us visiting the most well-known and accessible site at El Yeso ( still by no means ‘a walk in the park’ expedition, believe me!) so it was not a bird ‘on our radar’. However, on one of our visits to the altiplano, I saw a piece of habitat which looked potentially suitable for this species and we stopped to have a look. It wasn’t long before we’d seen a bird fly up from the bog and land, close by, on the rocky hillside. On obtaining reasonable views the identification was confirmed – Diademed Sandpiper Plover!! Although relatively confiding, this species is potentially vulnerable to disturbance – we left the site immediately and the location therefore will remain ‘undisclosed’.

The mythical, the sensational  – Diademed Sandpiper-Plover

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Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego – Chile 2016

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Darwin’s Rhea, one of the few birds which thrive on the Patagonian grasslands around the Magellan Straits

Having said our farewells to Joe & Gabi in Santiago, we caught the early flight down to Punta Arenas, picked up our hire car, and commenced the long journey through Patagonia steppe, following the shores of the Magellan Straits, to catch the ferry at Punta Delgado, bound for Tierra del Fuego. Twice before I’d been this close to reaching that ‘mythical isle’ but failed to make it both times. On the first occasion we ran out of time on a family holiday, having already visited the stunning national park of Torres del Paine – it’s easy to underestimate the travelling times and distances in this part of the world. On the second occasion, we were actually on the Argentine side – staying at Ushuaia, but on the day we were due to make the trip north, the mountain pass was blocked with snow – follow this link for the full story. This then was third time lucky!

Boat on the shores of the Magellan Straits, looking towards Tierra del Fuego (photo courtesy of Jane Williams)

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Not surprisingly, there are very few birds in the wind-swept featureless grassland of Patagonia, but what there is, is truly stunning. On the approach road to Pali-Aike, a small volcanic national park on the Argentine border, we found a handful of the regions specialities – including Black-throated Finch, Least Seedsnipe and Tawny-throated & Rufous-chested Dotterel. After a rather choppy crossing (we didn’t realise until sometime later that all the ferries to TdelF were cancelled shortly after ours, for 24 hours, due to bad weather conditions!) we made our way to Cerro Sombrero and our most expensive hotel of the trip – mostly a gas-workers dormitory with a few, slightly upgraded rooms for tourists. Still, pleasant and friendly enough, and in the right location for the following days excursion to find the King Penguin colony at Bahia Inutil. That evening was spent at the lovely Yendegaia House – where David Couve, our host, provided excellent birding information and advice, allowing us to track down the icon Magellanic Plover before nightfall. Our last day on Tierra del Fuego was spent on the long return drive back to the ferry and along the shores of the Magellan Straits to Punta Arenas, stopping at various locations on route. The following day we spent a couple of frustrating hours in the Magallanes Forest NP, near Punta Arenas, in a failed pursuit of Magellanic Woodpecker – oh well there is always another time, before flying back to Santiago in preparation for our return to the UK.

The vast, windswept, grasslands of Patagonia – home to very few birds! (photo courtesy of Neil Parker)

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But what birds there are, are pretty special – including this Black-throated Finch

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or these Least Seedsnipe – little bigger than a sparrow!

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There are two Dotterel of the region, this is Rufous-chested

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and this one is Tawny-throated – struggling to stay upright in the fierce Patagonian winds

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Tierra del Fuego – Spanish for ‘Land of Fire’, so named because of the many bonfires lit by the indigenous peoples and observed by the early European settlers, is an archipelago, covering 18,500 sq miles, at the southern tip of South America. It consists of the main island – Isla Grande, shared between Argentina and Chile, together with the many smaller islands, south of the Beagle Channel, reaching about 55 deg latitude. The earliest known human settlement on Tierra del Fuego dates to around 8,000 B.C.. Europeans first explored the islands during Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition of 1520. Settlement by those of European descent and the great displacement of the native populations did not begin until the second half of the 19th century, at the height of the Patagonian sheep farming boom and the local gold rush. Following contact with Europeans, the native Selk’nam or Ona and the Yaghan – a nomadic, canoe-dwelling people, populations were greatly reduced, through unequal conflict and persecution, by infectious diseases to which the indigenous people had no immunity, and by mass transfer to the Salesian mission of Dawson Island.

Yaghan people, 1883

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Julius Popper, during a manhunt of the Ona people. In the late 19th century estancieros and gold prospectors launched a campaign of extermination against the indigenous peoples popper_en_caceria

But, despite this despicable and tragic chapter in the history of global exploration, Tierra del Fuego remains a fascinating land, which still holds many avian treasures, including this beautiful and scarce Chocolate-vented Tyrant

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Black-faced Ibis

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and, Two-banded Plover

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One of our principal targets on TdelF was this species, King Penguin – seen at the only ‘mainland colony’ in South America. The population at Penguino Rey NP, has gradually increased over the past decade, is now approaching a hundred birds

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On our return journey around the Bahia Inutil, to Porvenir we encountered several Chilean Skua

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and these Southern Giant Petrel – identifiable by the greenish, not reddish, tips to their bills

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Having dropped off our bags at Yendegaia House and been given helpful directions by our host, we were off in pursuit of our next  target – this time the mythical Magellanic Plover, which has it’s main centre of population on Tierra del Fuego. It’s expertly camouflaged body being completely betrayed by its punk pink legs! Just a fantastic bird and the raison d’être for our visit

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The following day we retraced our steps back to Punta Arenas, collecting a few more species on the way. This was the range-restricted Short-billed Miner

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One of the most conspicuous species of the Patagonian grassland was Cinereous Harrier

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From the ferry we saw very little but I did manage to catch up with this group of Magellanic Penguin

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Our interest extended beyond birds of course, including this handsome and obliging Cupeo Fox

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and this charming and aptly named Big Hairy Armadillo

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Once back on the main land we added a few more wildfowl to the list, including the two species of Steamer Duck, the first is Flying

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and these are Flightless – the shape, structure and bill colour being the distinguishing features

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Two more geese were also notched up, including Kelp – only the males are white, females are black

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and the rarest of them all, Ruddy-headed Goose – last seen on the Falklands in 2012. Click this link to read about the increasingly dismal prospects for this, now globally threatened, species

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That pretty much brings the final leg of our Chile 2016 adventure to a close. Some great birding in a fabulous country. This is not a destination for ‘big listers’ but what there is here is a diversity of scenery and habitats which it would be hard to beat anywhere else in the world. Friendly and helpful people, good infrastructure and a place where you can find your own stuff – and push the boundaries of existing knowledge. I can’t wait to return…

 

 

 

 

Pacific Pelagic, Chile 2016

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Northern Royal Albatross – the star bird of the pelagic

We were fortunate that, when we were putting our draft itinerary together, it coincided with one of the scheduled pelagic boat trips out of Quintero, organised by Rodrigo Reyes of Birdwatching Chile. We’d been on one previously during our 2012 world tour and we were keen to repeat the experience. However, on the day, which was moderately calm and foggy, the birding was good, but not quite to the standard of a few years ago. We did however see three species of albatross, two large petrels, two shearwaters, a Giant Petrel, a diving petrel, Wilson’s Petrel, Peruvian Pelican and Booby, Magellanic Penguin, Chilean Skua, Inca and South American Tern and a few other ‘bits and bobs’!

Jane and Neil prior to departure, both with with a slight anxious smile!

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There were plenty of both Peruvian Gannet and Peruvian Booby, just off-shore

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and various Cormorant species – this one is Guanay

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Further out there was a steady passage of Peruvian Diving Petrel, but they never came close to the boat

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Once we got to the shelf and started chumming the more oceanic species began to arrive. This is White-chinned Petrel

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A brief appearance from a Northern Giant Petrel, separated from it’s southern counter-part by the reddish, rather than greenish tip to it’s bill, was a welcome visitor

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We’d already seen Salvin’s and Black-browed Albatross on the way out to the shelf

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But the arrival of a Northern Royal Albatross was ‘icing on the cake’! Seen here with her Salvin’s ‘wing man’ 

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Last bird species of interest, Pink-footed Shearwater – a Chilean breeding endemic

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These South American Sea Lion looked comfortable on our return through the harbour. This was after we’d been boarded by Chilean Customs officials!

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Andes to the Pacific – Chile 2016

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The iconic Andean Condor, the largest flying bird in the world, by combined measurement of weight and wingspan. We saw ten together around El Colorado

Having arrived back in Santiago from our Atacama experience, we spent the next six days exploring the central belt, from the Andes to the Pacific ocean. This region is rich in bird-life and home to many of Chile’s endemics. The first couple of nights were spent in one of Refugios Rukara Rayen’s comfortable cabanas at Olmue, on the doorstep of the national park of La Campana. Unfortunately, close proximity didn’t translate into admittance, at least on our first attempt, due to a public workers strike. This frustrating set-back forced us to go exploring and led to the discovery of the excellent Embalse Llilliu, where we came across plenty of interesting stuff. The following day we did manage a crafty squiz around the park, courtesy of the kind ranger who had promised us the day before that the park would be ‘open tomorrow’. We only had time to reach the ‘band-stand’ and back but it was long enough to nail our principle target, White-throated Tapaculo. The rest of that day was spent birding the coast, from Algarrabo to the mouth of the mighty Maipo river. A night in a rather average cabana in the hills above San Antonio, was followed by a visit to the excellent private nature reserve of Tricao, before heading north to Quintero and the quaint cabanas at Rocas del Pirata, with breath-taking views out over the Pacific. A day birding the sites north of Quintero, including the infamous Sulphurico Acido plant laguna – a few kilometres north of the town, La Laguna estuary and Penguin Rock at Cachagua, was an excellent warm-up for the much anticipated pelagic out of Quintero, the following morning. In the event, not quite as good as last time, but an outstanding birding experience nonetheless, with three species of albatross, two large petrels, Northern Giant petrel, plenty of close Wilson’s petrel, Magellanic Penguin, a couple of shearwater species and a plentiful supporting cast to keep us amused. Our final morning in the central region was again spent in the Andes above Santiago, revisiting the ski resort of Farallones and the Valle Nervado, before a leisurely farewell family BBQ at Las Condes.

Black-winged Ground-Dove, the ‘default’ dove sp. of the Andes

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Grey-headed Sierra Finch, regular on the scrubby slopes of the lower Andes 

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Another common bird of the Andean slopes, White-browed Ground-Tyrant

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Not so common or easy to catch up with, the imposing Magellanic Horned Owl

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Forced, by the closure of La Campana NP through strike action, to look elsewhere, the reservoir above Llilliu produced some excellent alternative birding

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From the common but stunning Chiloe Wigeon

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to the rather understated Pied-billed Grebe

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and this Red-gartered Coot, the common coot species of Central and Southern regions

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The prize for our persistence at La Campana was White-throated Tapaculo, a Chilean endemic and a Chile ‘tick’ for me 

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Other birds in the park included Dark-bellied Cinclodes, the commonest of the family in Central and Southern regions

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and Chilean Mockingbird, another Chilean endemic

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There are several excellent wetlands and river estuaries in the Central belt – good for ducks, coot and waders. Here is Neil on the swing-bridge at the Tricao private nature reserve (photo courtesy of Jane Williams)

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This handsome pair of Cinnamon Teal were also at Tricao

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Collared Plover, an uncommon river island breeder. These were at La Laguna

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and White-backed Stilt, at Lago Peñuelas NP

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There were some superb birds along the coast, between Algarrobo and the Maipo delta – this is Snowy Plover

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and the Americas version of Little Egret – Snowy Egret, with Brown-headed Gull and American Oystercatcher in the background

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Hudsonian Whimbrel – common on the coast in Chile. Previously seen in Cornwall this autumn! Follow this link for details 

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A nice group of Surf Bird, which winter along the coast of South America but breed in the Alaskan tundra

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Black Skimmer and Franklin’s Gull, on the estuary at Concon

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A lovely larid – Grey Gull

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Blackish Oystercatcher

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To conclude this section, another Chilean endemic – this is Seaside Cinclodes

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My next ‘Chile 2016’ blog will feature some of the birds seen on the pelagic out of Quintero.

 

 

Atacama and Altiplano – Chile 2016

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The road to San Pedro, Atacama desert (photo courtesy of Jane Williams)

On previous visits we’ve been as far north in Chile as Arica, close to the border with Peru, but missed out the Atacama desert, which lies between the Andes and the Pacific coast, two and half hour flying time north of Santiago. The Atacama, which totals nearly 50,000 sq. miles, is the driest (non-polar) desert on earth and and is home to some of Chile’s most interesting fauna and flora.

Neil, Jane and Joe in the oasis town of San Pedro

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We flew to Calama before collecting our hire car and driving a further hundred kilometres east, to our comfortable cabana in the oasis town of San Pedro. The following day we crossed the vast salt flats of the Salar de Atacama to Laguna Chaxa, in search of Puna or James’ Flamingo, an understandably rare and globally threatened species. First discovered in 1886, but not recorded again until 1956, it has only a transient foot-hold in Chile. It had been an ambition of mine, ever since Joe moved to Chile, to see this amazing bird, which survives in such an apparently hostile environment, on the ‘roof of the world’. After considerable searching through the mixed flock of Andean and Chilean Flamingo, we finally located two individuals – an adult and immature. Other species of interest at the laguna included Puna Plover and Andean Avocet.

The vast salt-flats of Salar de Atacama (photo courtesy of Jane Williams)

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A group of Andean Flamingo

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Our target species, Puna or James’ Flamingo, the smallest of the three flamingo species found in Chile – recognisable by it’s pink, rather than yellow, legs and black ‘behind’

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Other birds of interest at Laguna Chaxa included Andean Avocet and Puna Plover

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We had a few incidents with our hire cars on this trip, the first was when we became bogged down in sand, on our way between the salt-flats and our next destination, Laguna’s Miscanti and Meniques. Whilst Joe went in search of help, to a village 10k down the road, a kind local towed us out with his jeep – but not before this minibus, which had stopped to help, also got stuck!

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Our target at the two laguna was Horned Coot, a near-threatened species in Chile, with a population of less than 600, all found above 3000m. We didn’t need to work hard for this bird, however, as there were several pairs on their rock cone nest structures, close to the shoreline. They are weird looking things though!

Horned Coot – completing the set of three Altiplano Coot species – the others being Giant (not seen on this trip) and Andean

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Our first day in this extraordinary landscape concluded with an exploration of several rock gullies and rough cultivation on the edge of various altiplano villages, the best being Socaire. Here we added a number of Sierra-Finch, Siskin, Earthcreepers and Tyrants but most surprising of all was the discovery of several pairs of Mountain Parakeet – which looked completely out of place in this rather bleak and un-vegetated environment.

The pale, northern form, of Scale-throated Earthcreeper

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The diminutive and very endearing Mountain Parakeet – a Chile ‘tick’ for me

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Day two was spent on a long exploratory drive up Route 27, as far as the Argentine border. This route takes you past several interesting saline lagoons, high up into the altiplano, at well over 4000m. There was always something of interest along the route including Burrowing Owl, two species of Seedsnipe, waders, ducks, coot and flamingos. On our return to San Pedro we went to the Tamarugo woods around Tombillo, in search of Conebill, but found rather more than we expected – see previous blog for the full story of the discovery of Chile’s second only documented Veery! On our final day in the Atacama, we visited the historic sttlement of San Francisco de Chiu Chiu, where we added a handful of additional species.

Volcan Licancabur, 5916m, – marks the border with Bolivia (photo courtesy of Jane Williams)

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Burrowing Owl, enjoying the warmth of the morning sun, after a night at -5 deg.

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With it’s cryptic plumage, the rather grouse-like, Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe

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One of my favourite Tyrants – this one is Ochre-naped. Last seen at Ushuaia airport, on our world tour

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Another Seedsnipe, this one is Grey-breasted

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The range-restricted White-winged Cinclodes

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Final species for this section, one of the most rare and stunning of the altiplano Sierra-Finch – this one is Red-backed

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The historic church at San Francisco de Chiu Chiu

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Next stop is the Central belt, from the High Andes to the Pacific coast.

 

 

 

Chile 2016, Introduction & Check-list

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The ubiquitos Rufous-collared Sparrow, this one is of the wide-spread southern race – australis 

We’ve just returned home from an eighteen day trip to see our son and daughter-in-law in Santiago, Chile and bird three specific areas of that beautiful country, the Atacama desert and nearby altiplano, the Central region from the Andes to the coast and Tierra del Fuego, in the far south. There’ll be separate blogs, covering each of these areas, coming soon. We were accompanied, on this occasion, by Neil, my oldest friend and compatriot birder – this was his first experience of South America. We flew with Iberia and stayed at a variety of places from budget hostels and cabanas to swanky hotels. Various car rentals were courtesy of Econorent, Hertz and Avis. Apart from the pelagic out of Quintero, the trip was entirely self-guided. We found just over two hundred species and I added 31 new birds to my Chile list – not too shabby an outcome! For an annotated check-list, covering all the species, follow this link.

Details of our itinerary were as follows:

28th October  – departed Heathrow for Santiago, via Madrid – Iberia airlines

29th October – arrived in Santiago, established ‘base camp’ in Las Condes and birded around the ski resorts of Farellones and El Colorado in the afternoon.

30th October – am, another abortive attempt to find any wetlands at Lampa, near Santiago airport, before flying north to Calama and driving to San Pedro – staying at the perfectly adequate Casa Ancestral cabanas

1st November – Early morning visit to Laguna Chaxa for flamingos and later driving to the lagunas of  Miscanti and Meniques, at a height of over 4,000m. Birding the village and adjacent gullies of Socaire on our return descent

2nd November – followed Route 27 to Jama, on the Argentine border, looking for altiplano specialities, passing Tara, Pujsa and Aguas Calientes saline lagoons on the way. Evening birding around the tamarugo woods at Tombillo

3rd November – Visited the historic settlement of Chui Chui am, before our return flight to Santiago. Drove to Olmue for a couple of nights in the Refugios Rukararayen cabanas

4th November – due to public workers strike, an abortive attempt to visit La Campana NP. Visited Embalse Llilliu am and the hills around Olmue in the afternoon, as an alternative.

5th November – Successful but brief visit to La Campana am, followed by a drive to the coast, birding from Algarrabo to the Maipo delta, via El Peral (which was also closed due to the strike!)

6th November – visited the excellent private wildlife reserve of Tricao, south of Santo Domingo before following the coast north to Quintero and Renaca. Overnight at the picturescue cabanas at Pirates Rock.

7th November – a day visiting various birding sites north of Quintero, including the infamous Sulphurico Acido plant, La Laguna estuary and Penguin Rock at Cachagua

8th November –  excellent morning pelagic, out of Quintero, organised by Rodrigo Reyes of Birdwatching Chile, followed by local birding

9th November – drove to Santiago and a return visit to the ski resort of Farallones and Valle Nervado

10th November – early morning flight to Punta Arenas, followed by the long drive to Cerro Sombreo, Tierra del Fuego, via the ferry at Punta Delgado, and including the approach track to Pali-Aike

11th November – drove to Penguino Rey NP, on the Bahia Inutil, for King Penguin, returning to Porvenir. Visit to Laguna Verde and Lago Serrano, late afternoon for Magellanic Plover. Stayed at the excellent Yendegaia House – where David Couve, our host, provided excellent birding information and advice

12th November – returned to Punta Arenas birding the area south of the city, pm

13th November – morning visit to Magallanes NP prior to return flight to Santiago

14th November – flight home to London via Madrid

First blog, covering the Atacama desert and altiplano, will follow shortly!

Veery Victorious

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Veery – Tombillo, Chile – only the second ever record.

We’re over in Chile visiting our son Joseph and his wife Gabi, who live in Santiago. On this occasion we are joined by Neil, my oldest friend and fellow birder, giving him his first taste of South America and showing him some of the avian delights of this beautiful country.

We’ve just returned from a few days in the Atacama desert, realising a long-held ambition of mine, to see all three flamingo species – Chilean, Andean and James’s, on the salts flat of San Pedro. But our greatest birding surprise came a couple of evening ago when we were in the woods around Tombillo, looking for Tamarugo Conebill. Whilst searching for our target we’d heard an occasional chucking noise – almost amphibian-like, from the bushes but failed to locate it’s source. We were just on the way back to the car, having successfully seen a couple of Conebills, when a brown and buff bird, with a cocked tail, appeared on the ground 50m in front of us. It had all the appearance of a catharus – North American thrush species! The bird obligingly kept a short distance away from us, flying to the ground from various low perches until we’d seen enough of it’s features and obtained records shots to confirm identification – which we were able to do, on return to our accommodation. We reported the sighting via Avis Chile.

We’ve just received the news that this is only the second ever documented sighting of Veery in Chile – the first record being detailed in Alvaro Jaramillo’s Birds of Chile. We assume that this is an autumn ‘overshoot’ – Veery winter as far south as Brazil, and is therefore likely to remain in the area for sometime.

Location map of Veery

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