The middle of winter is not an ideal time to bird central Chile due to low altitude snow in the Andes and rain along the coast. Also some of the most sought after species are absent from their summer haunts at this time (e.g. Diademed Sandpiper-Plover). Nevertheless, we spent a worthwhile 12 days birding this region on our way back to Australia from Ecuador and saw most of our target species. There seem to be very few trip reports for Chile at this time of year hence this one!
As well as Wheatley’s ‘Where to Watch Birds in South America’ we relied for forward planning and help during the trip on quite a number of trip reports including: Svend Linderstrom (2004); Mark Finn (2009); Steve Bird (2008); Saul Cowen (2001); and Mike Nelson (2007); The article “Capital Birding – Santiago de Chile” by Fabrice Scmitt in Neotropical Birding Volume 6 was also very helpful.
For identification we used primarily the latest edition of Jaramillo et al. “Birds of Chile”. We also had various tapes of all the species we were looking for. For navigation we used the ‘Nelles’ map of Chile which was adequate for the main roads, but less so for remoter areas.
We flew into Santiago, Chile from Guayaquil, Ecuador, arriving at 0530 hrs. We had pre-booked a car from Avis which we collected at the airport, although had to wait until they opened at 0700 hrs. An ordinary car was adequate for all the places we visited except where the snow was too thick! In the narrative we have named the hotels and graded them, based on our experience and biases, as poor, adequate, good, very good or excellent. Prices were relatively expensive compared to most other countries in South America and ranged from. US$60 – 150 usually with a VAT exemption for foreigners and almost always included breakfast. Prior to the trip we did not pre-book any hotels, but downloaded a lot of information about hotels from various internet sites, including site maps and phone numbers – this proved very useful because there are not many hotels outside the larger towns. People everywhere were helpful and pleasant and Tessa’s fluency in Spanish was a definite asset in all aspects of the trip. Reserve and National Park entrance fees are usually charged per person, but are relatively low.
15 June 2010 Santiago Airport to Olmué
Clear of airport by about 0830 – after two right turns out of airport we were on route 68 (tollway) towards Valparaiso. Our first stop was at Reserva Nacional Lagoa Peñuelas where we arrived as the gate opened at 0900 hrs. Here we quickly saw five of our target species: Austral Thrush, Fire-eyed Diucon, Chiloe Wigeon, Green-backed Firecrown and Black-chinned Siskin. The lagoon water levels were low with few water birds, but on the grasslands around the lagoon there were large flocks of Dark-faced Ground Tyrants, Common Diuca Finches, and Grassland Yellow Finches, with a few Bar-winged Cinclodes.
Continuing on our way, we drove through Vina del Mar and along the coast road stopping at the car park just south of the Oceanic Hotel. Looking onto the rocks below the esplanade, we easily found Chilean Seaside Cinclodes, two were obliging enough to fly up and perch on the esplanade railings! There was a little confusion regarding the identification of some of the cinclodes on the rocks until we realised that the smaller ones were another of our target species, Grey-flanked Cinclodes, some of which apparently come down to the seashore during winter. At Concon we turned inland on route 60 and found our way to Olmué, which we planned to use as a base for Parque Nacional La Campana. After a little searching, most hotels being closed for the winter, using a map previously downloaded from the internet, we found the Hosteria El Copihue (Excellent).
16 June 2010 Parque Nacional La Campana
After an easy 10 minute drive from Olmué to Granizo and following the signs for the National Park we arrived at the car park at opening time (0900). We spent most of the day exploring the park, returning to the hotel in the mid afternoon. The main track up the hill was fairly quiet at first, but there was more activity along the first main right fork that runs into xerophytic vegetation and ends at a mine tunnel. In this area we soon found Moustached Turca, Crag Chilia, Rufous-tailed Plantcutter and lots of Chilean Mockingbirds. From the vantage point at the end of the track we had excellent views of Chilean Pigeons. Further up the main track we located a noisy flock of Thorn-tailed Rayaditos – a call we came to know well on the trip. After some difficulty and with the aid of the tape we had good views of Dusky-tailed Canasteros in the thorny scrub a bit higher up. Other notable species were several Andean Condors soaring along the ridge lines, a couple of Variable Hawks, and lots of Tufted Tit-Tyrants and Green-backed Firecrowns. In the trees back at the picnic site we found a Patagonian Tyrant, but despite much searching could not find or hear any sign of White-throated Tapaculo – perhaps absent from here during winter?
17 June 2010 Olmué to Isla Negra
Leaving after breakfast we drove across country from Limache back to the tollway (68) via the hill route through La Retuca. Some good habitat through here, but rain made birding difficult. Left route 68 at Casablanca and headed for the coast through large areas of eucalypt plantations – very lifeless from a birding perspective! Tessa was keen to visit Pablo Neruda’s house (& museum) at Isla Negra so we stayed the night here at the Hosteria La Candela (good). From here in the mid afternoon we drove the short distance south to the Laguna El Peral reserve. Had difficulty finding the entrance as the road was being dug up on the normal route in and it needed some persistence to find a way in! A pleasant place with boardwalks and hides overlooking a lagoon. Rafts of ducks (Chiloe wigeon, Cinnamon Teal, Red Shoveller), White-tufted and Great Grebes, Black-necked Swans, the usual coots and lots of Kelp and Brown-hooded Gulls. Chilean Swallow over reed beds which harboured more Many-coloured Rush Tyrants than we have seen anywhere!
A late afternoon seawatch from the Casa Neruda restaurant in Isla Negra – grey and stormy seas – produced Red-legged and Guanay Cormorants, Peruvian Booby, Peruvian Pelican and Grey and Kelp Gulls together with large numbers of Neotropic Cormorants. Shearwaters far out could not be identified.
18 June 2010 Isla Negra to Talca via San Antonio
Left Isla Negra early, stopping again at Laguna El Peral for an hour or so. Here with the aid of a tape we had excellent views of Dusky Tapaculo in the thick bushes along the path that follows the edge of the lagoon and reed beds. After stopping at a supermarket in San Antonio for supplies we headed inland from San Antonio on route 66 – heavily agricultural and few birds other than American Kestrels and White-tailed Kites. Rain most of the time. Joined route 5 (Pan-American – tollway) and headed south for Talca. Stopped for the night at Hotelera Lircay in Talca (Excellent and good value). Noticeable amount of earthquake damage in Talca. Our target for the next few days was the Reserva Nacional Altos de Lircay and we phoned ahead to book the Hosteria Vilches in Alto Vilches. This hotel was more or less closed for winter, but they were happy to accommodate us for a couple of nights.
19 June 2010 Talca to Alto Vilches
Uneventful drive to the Hosteria Vilches, although the road gets a bit rough past Vilches. After checking into the Hosteria we drove up to the entrance to R.N. Altos de Lircay where we encountered our first snow on the road. We took the right fork to the Environment Centre where the snow was only about 10 cm deep. From the Environment Centre there is a walk going down between private holiday houses and then into Nothofagus forest and on to a stream and small waterfall. The deciduous forest and Nothofagus were full of flocks of White-throated Treerunners and Thorn-tailed Rayaditos accompanied by several Striped Woodpeckers. We found both the former two species to be exceptionally common in this area. Down by the stream crossing, a pair of Magellanic Woodpeckers were feeding in a large Nothofagus providing us with excellent views. Also present were Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetail and Tufted Tit-Tyrant. We caught glimpses of probable Austral Parakeets flying over, but insufficient views to identify conclusively.
20 June 2010 All day at R.N. Altos de Lircay
The entrance to the park is about 2 km from the main gate. The track was closed to vehicles, perhaps due to snow, and we walked up the snow-covered hill road (up to 10 inches of snow) reaching the gate at about 9 am where we paid the entrance fee and got advice on the trails. We took the first trail to the left after the administration building. The snow was thick in places and it was very quiet. No birds until we got to the area around the scenic lookout, where we got a response to the tape and a beautiful Chucao Tapaculo displayed within metres of us – its colours made even brighter by the contrast with the snow on the ground. No sign of any Chestnut-throated Huet-Huet though. Flocks of White-throated Treerunners and Thorn-tailed Rayaditos were an almost constant feature. Back around the administration buildings we found our first Chilean Flickers. After returning down the hill we went back to the Environment Centre and walked the stream trail again. Almost unbelievably, we came across a Magellanic Tapaculo foraging in the open at the stream crossing among the stones at the water’s edge – affording really close views. Overnight Hosteria Vilches (very good).
21 June 2010 R.N. Altos de Lircay to Curico
Returned to the entrance area of R.N. Altos de Lircay and walked up about 500m hoping to hear parakeets. Quickly located a pair of Austral Parakeets calling and feeding in tall forest, affording good views. For the remainder of the day we headed north on side roads towards P.N. Radal Siete Tazos. No new birds seen towards the park and returned to Curico for the night. Hotel Turismo (good).
22 June 2010 Curico to Rancagua via R.N. Rio Los Cipreses
Headed north on the Pan-American, turning off just before Rancagua to follow the road on the south side of the Rio Cachapoa. After about 15 km we stopped to bird a well-vegetated hillside on the south side of the road. This was a good area and we had our first Austral Pygmy Owl perched atop a cactus. Two Black-chested Buzzard Eagles patrolled the hill slopes and the bushes were full of Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetails, Tufted Tit-Tyrants and Rufous-tailed Plantcutters. On upwards to the R.N. Rio Los Cipreses where after paying the entrance fee and getting a map we headed up the relatively rough track into the stony hills. Moustached Turcas were quite common as were flocks of Grey-hooded Sierra Finches, but little else of note. Overnight at Mar Andino Hotel, Rancagua (very good).
23 June 2010 Rancagua to Cajon del Maipo
Left the Pan-American at about Graneros and cut across to the road heading north and roughly parallel to the tollway. This road becomes gravel where it crosses Chada Hills – some interesting habitat where we found our first Great Shrike Thrushes – a pair on the bushes along the road. We followed this road north and then east along the south side of the Rio Maipo until we reached San Alfonso. Here we checked into the Cascadas de los Animas (very good) which was more or less empty, but the restaurant was open! In the late afternoon we drove up the road to locate the El Yeso turnoff for the following day – passing a police check-point where they warned us that our vehicle (Hyundai Getz) might be unsuitable for the road!
24 June 2010 El Yeso road and El Volcan area
There was heavy snow overnight and the El Yeso road had about six inches of snow and a lot of rock falls – we were able to get to about 3.5 km before the snow became impassable for our car. The snow covered hillside was however, full of birds: Crag Chilia, Moustached Turca, Rufous-banded Miner, Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetail, Chilean Mockingbird, California Quail, Austral Thrush, Common Diuca Finch, Tufted Tit-Tyrant, Fire-eyed Diucon and Patagonian Tyrant. There were flocks of Grey Sierra Finches and a few Mourning Sierra Finches while Andean Condors, Mountain Caracaras and Black-chested Buzzard Eagles hunted the slopes. Following a late breakfast we returned to the main road and continued up towards El Volcan until the snow became impassable. No new birds, but close views of a flock of seven Andean Condors was impressive. Overnight Cascadas de los Animas.
25 June 2010 Santiago area
Hoping for White-throated Tapaculo we headed for Mahuida Park in Santiago as recommended in Neotropical Birding. Thanks to good luck more than anything else, plus asking directions when nearby, we found our way there. Santiago is notable for a lack of road signs and directions once in the city and we did not have a street map for the greater Santiago area. It was very muddy along the main uphill trail in Mahuida, and we could not find any tapaculos, although there were plenty of the common species. Next we drove up towards Farellones. An extensive section of hairpin bends and concerns about being snowed in for the weekend so close to our departure date were a concern. The fact that road becomes one way at weekends – up in the morning, down in the afternoon also did not suit and we retreated down into heavy afternoon traffic in Santiago, everyone heading somewhere to watch the world cup football match between Chile and Spain.We returned to the Maipo valley and overnighted at the El Tucan Hotel (poor).
26 June 2010 P.N. Rio Clarillo
Woken early by the calls of a Magellanic Horned Owl, we found two perched on top of the trees close to our hotel. After breakfast we drove south across the river through Pirque and El Principal to the Rio Clarillo National Park. This is an excellent park with nice trails and a very impressive arboretum. The weather was clear, but very cold and there were few birds and no White-throated Tapaculos. Notable numbers of Chilean Pigeon.
From here we returned to Santiago and the Airport Hotel – marking the end of a memorable trip that produced a good 27 lifers.
Although weather conditions were sometimes difficult, and it would be slightly more productive to visit in summer, Chile proved an easy and safe place to visit. The few species we missed in Chile we will hopefully find on our next stop-over, which will need to be in summer and also incorporate a visit further south.