Atacama and Altiplano – Chile 2016


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


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)


A group of Andean Flamingo


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’


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



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!


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


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


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


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)


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


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


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


Another Seedsnipe, this one is Grey-breasted


The range-restricted White-winged Cinclodes


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


The historic church at San Francisco de Chiu Chiu


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




This entry was posted in Birding.

One comment on “Atacama and Altiplano – Chile 2016

  1. Martin Coates says:

    OMG so going there, hopefully December 2018 – l like to plan ahead! James’s flamingo on my wish list for ages. Hope Jo’s guiding rates are reasonable. Might book a 4×4 though..


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