We visited the far northern corner of Chile for 10 days on our way back to Australia from Colombia and Ecuador. This corner of Chile harbours a number of species that are hard to see elsewhere. We saw 17 new species here, most of our target species, and only missed out on a few, notably Chilean Woodstar and Diademed Sandpiper-Plover. The scenery was no less impressive than the birds – some of the most magnificent we have seen anywhere in the world. From the driest desert in the world to the altiplano and high Andes.
As well as Wheatley’s ‘Where to Watch Birds in South America’ we relied for forward planning and help during the trip on a few very useful trip reports including:
Ian Merrill (2011) – the most detailed and up to date; Barry Walker (2007); Carlos Pedros-Alio (2000); Ignaas Robbe (1997-2000); and John van der Woude (2000). 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 Quito Ecuador, arriving at 1730 hrs, connecting with a domestic flight to Iquique and arriving in Iquique at 2240. We had pre-booked a car from Hertz which we collected at the airport without any problems. They had upgraded the vehicle to a double cab 4x4 which was fortuitous given the road conditions in some areas. 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$50 – 120 - usually with a VAT exemption for foreigners - and almost always included breakfast. Prior to the trip we did not pre-book any hotels except for the first night at the Radisson in Iquique, 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 very helpful and pleasant and Tessa’s fluency in Spanish was a definite asset in all aspects of the trip.
15 July 2012 Iquique Airport to Iquique
Clear of airport by about 2330 – drove the 40 km to the southern outskirts of Iquique where we easily located the Radisson Hotel (excellent).
16 July 2012 Iquique to Arica via Chaca Valley
Straightforward drive to Arica on the Pan-American highway. We stopped for a couple of hours in the Chaca Valley and searched for the Chilean Woodstar site in Chaca village mentioned in Ian Merrill’s trip report. The old lady, dogs and remainder of the family were located together with the relevant flowering bushes and trees. The entrance is not easy to find but is by some large eucalyptus trees - good to park under! and two stone gateposts. As it was by this time the middle of the day and bird life was minimal we arranged to return in about a week’s time. Drove on to Arica and booked into the Hotel del Sol (good) which is located on the roundabout at the beginning of the junction to the Azapa Valley. Spent the afternoon searching along this road for Chilean Woodstar and Peruvian Sheartail to no avail. Almost all the native vegetation has now been replaced by intensive agriculture. Finally stopped at the Museo San Miguel de Azapa where the gardens seemed promising. Quite a number of Oasis Hummingbirds, but none of the others. We did however locate our first new bird of the trip here – the Slender-billed Finch. This species proved to be quite numerous in most lowland sites.
17 July 2012 Arica to Putre
Leaving early we first headed north towards the Peruvian border and then took the right turn to Putre, up the Lluta Valley. This finger of green in a very arid landscape consists almost entirely of intensive agriculture. Once the road begins to climb all vestiges of vegetation disappear until a height of about 2500 m where the Candelabra Cacti begin and bird life reappears. In this zone before Putre we located two of our target species: Canyon Canastero and Streaked Tit-Spinetail. Other species seen were Greyish Miner (at 90 km marker), Plumbeous Sierra Finch, Black-winged Ground Dove, Croaking Ground Dove and large flocks of Greenish Yellow Finch. Arriving in Putre (altitude 3500 m) at about 1 pm we drove around looking for accommodation - the main hotel (Hotel Vicuna)on the outskirts was closed for renovation. We chose the Terrace Lodge (very good) on the outskirts of the town. After checking in they directed us to the Canta Verdi restaurant for a late lunch. The afternoon was spent on the old road signposted to Laguna Chungara. This is a left turn on the tar road just outside Putre. This goes up a very bird-rich quebrada and we added four more new species to our list: Plain-breasted Earthcreeper, White-throated Earthcreeper, Dark-winged Canastero and Andean Hillstar. Other notable species in this quebrada were: Ash-breasted Sierra Finch, Canyon Canastero, Cordilleran Canastero, Yellow-billed Tit-Tyrant, Bare-faced Ground Dove, Puna Hawk, Spot-billed Ground Tyrant and Black-hooded Sierra Finch.
18 July 2012 Lauca National Park
The long stretches of large-scale roadworks from Putre to the Bolivian border mentioned in Ian Merrill’s trip report is still continuing and is likely to cause delays. We left Putre early to avoid delays at least on the way up. We decided not to stop much until Lake Chungara because of the one-way delays so arrived there in good time. The scenery on the way up and on the altiplano was breathtaking with the snow-capped peaks of the Pomerape and Parinocota volcanoes, and the Andes stretching to the horizon. At Lake Chungara (4500 m) our main target species, the Giant Coots, were where they are supposed to be – nesting in a belt about 30 m from the shore and provided excellent views, including many chicks. Other species around and on the lake were Andean Coot, Speckled Teal, Andean Teal, Ruddy Duck, Silvery Grebe, Andean Geese, White-winged Cinclodes and Plumbeous Sierra Finch. After stopping for an hour or so, chatting to the stall owner at the Park HQ and drinking his chachcoma tea in an effort to help with our increasing altitude sickness, and getting directions, we set off back down the road looking for Parinocota Village. This was located easily and the first stop was at the pools just before the village. Here the species were similar to that on L. Chungara except that the Giant Coot were much closer. Our only new species at this site was White-fronted (Giant) Ground Tyrant, which was common on the bofedales. Driving towards the village we stopped at the bofedales site often quoted for Diademed Sandpiper Plover – but nothing doing! Continuing through the village and out the other side we stopped at several streams and bofedales sites. That nearest to the village yielded another target species: Grey-breasted Seedsnipe – a flock of about 10 – surprisingly cryptic at first. No luck searching for Puna Rhea. Returning to the main road, the trip back down was slowed by the roadworks delays, but by mid-afternoon we reached the Las Cuevas Lauca National Park site. Here there is a path that begins on the opposite side of the road and goes up over the hill and down to a stream and bofedales site. Time was spent in the bofedales here and new species included White-winged Diuca Finch and Ochre-naped Ground Tyrant – but no sandpiper plovers! Other notables here were Puna Snipe, Andean Geese, Andean Flicker, Grey-breasted Seedsnipe and white-winged Cinclodes. Just down the road after leaving Las Cuevas, but driving slowly and checking the streamsides and bofedales, we were lucky enough to find a group of seven Puna Tinamou foraging close to the road. Returned to the Terrace Lodge in Putre by late afternoon. We had intended to return to Lauca NP for a second day but because of our increasing altitude sickness and because we had seen most of the target species, decided it would be better to return to lower altitudes.
19 July 2012 Putre to Arica
On the way out of Putre, before reaching the main road we located a flock of Yellow-rumped Siskin - another of our targets. Otherwise an uneventful trip back to Arica. Took the coastal road into Arica and birded the swamps and beaches of the Lluta estuary and added Peruvian Pelican, Puna Ibis, Cinnamon Teal, Greater Yellowlegs, Kelp Gull, Band-tailed Gull, Grey Gull, Andean Gull, Black Skimmer, Neotropic Cormorant, Common Moorhen to the list. Booked in at the Hotel de Valle at the beginning of the Azapa Valley Road (excellent) – a better hotel than the last one in Arica, and nice gardens – lots of Oasis Hummingbirds but not the other species!
20 July Chaca Valley all day
Returned to the Chaca Valley, south on the Pan-American – 43.5 km from the Arica roundabout to the turn-off. Spent several hours in the gardens and orchards of the family we met on the 16th July, but only Oasis Hummingbirds. No sign of the Woodstar. We did however see Peruvian White-crested Elaenia in the trees of the settlement. The family were familiar with the Woodstar and said it was more common in summer. It seems that UNORCH (Union de Ornitóligos de Chile) has promoted community awareness about the Woodstar and we came across an information poster in the nearby café on the highway. Later in the morning we searched the remnant natural vegetation at the south end of the valley for Tamarugo Conebill, to no avail, although lots of Cinereous Conebills. This habitat will soon be gone as clearing for irrigated agriculture is advancing up the valley(olives and increasingly, tomatoes). After lunch more time at the settlement and then a quick visit to the remnant vegetation near the bridge at the north end of the village. Luck at last! A small flock of Tamarugo Conebills responded to playback and gave excellent views. Next a Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant – another of our target species. Other notables in the valley were Hooded Siskin, Plain-backed Tit-Spinetail, Slender-billed Finch and Dark-faced Ground Tyrant. Saying goodbye to the family who had been extremely friendly and helpful throughout we returned to Arica.
21 July 2012 Vitor Valley and Azapa Valley
Having failed to locate Chilean Woodstar in the Chaca Valley we decided to try the Vitor Valley, which is a continuation of the Chaca Valley towards the sea. The turn-off is on the right just before the first bridge outside the Chaca Valley coming from Arica. Like the Azapa and Chaca valleys the Vitor has been largely denuded of natural vegetation in favour of irrigated agriculture. A desolate drive to the sea, only notable species were Rufous-naped Ground Tyrant and Cinereous Conebill.
Returning to Arica we again birded the Lluta estuary and swamps adding Semi-palmated Plover, Whimbrel, Willet, White-cheeked Pintail, Little Blue Heron, American Oystercatcher, Peruvian Booby and B.C. Night heron to the list. In the late afternoon a final trip up the Azapa Valley. On the way back, waiting in a traffic jam opposite the Rinconada de Azapa Restaurant, first one and then a second Peruvian Sheartail were spotted! Pulling off we were treated to excellent views of these two competing males perching on the electricity wires and feeding on the flowering lantana and hibiscus flowing over the high wall of a garden.
22 July 2012 Arica to Pisagua
Set off after breakfast south along the Pan-American. Couldn’t resist another stop at the Chilean Woodstar site in the Chaca Valley, but no luck. After nearly two hours driving through the driest place on Earth, turned off for Pisagua on the coast, where according to the internet there is accommodation. Very scenic drive to this historically significant fishing village. In 1990 a communal grave was discovered of 19 people executed during the Pinochet era. Found accommodation at the hostel run by author and historian Catarine Saldaña Suárez. Plenty of the usual seabirds, including Guanay and Red-legged Cormorants, and Chilean Seaside Cinclodes on the rocks. The sea food at Monica’s restaurant was the best we have had in South America! The battered fish, cerviche and empanadas were all delicious!
23 July 2012 Pisagua to Iquique
Left after breakfast for the drive to Iquique arriving around lunch time at the Radisson.
24 July 2012 Iquique A non-birding day in Iquique
25 July 2012 Iquique to Santiago domestic flight with connection to Australia.