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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Chile: Tierra del Fuego to the Atacama Desert

2023 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Chile is a spectacular country with amazing habitat diversity…as you might expect from a place that’s over 2,500 miles long! Great birds, beautiful scenery, and delicious food top the bill on this tour, and we were lucky to have such an easygoing, friendly group to spend two-and-a-half weeks with. With highlights ranging from King Penguin, White-bridled Finch, and Magellanic Plover in the south, to Rufous-legged Owl, Magellanic Woodpecker, and Chucao Tapaculo in the Lake District, to Black Rail, Stripe-backed Bittern, and Many-colored Rush-tyrant in Central Chile, to a finale of Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, Aplomado Falcon, and Chilean Woodstar in the north…phew! The list is endless, and we didn’t even mention the pelagic trip! What an awesome trip to this exciting destination.



After some introductory birding near the Santiago airport, our tour really started in earnest with a flight to the far south of Chile. We explored the Patagonian steppe around Punta Arenas and on Tierra del Fuego itself, finding an awesome number of special birds. Upon landing and loading the bus, we decided to head straight to Laguna Los Palos to look for the highly-desired Magellanic Plover…a monotypic family and a stunning one to boot! The wind was howling, as usual, but a walk along the lakeshore eventually produced an adult plover…and, we soon discovered, a tiny chick! We quickly backed off and the adult immediately returned to the “nest”, so we headed back to the bus relieved and savoring such a special experience. Back to the hotel for check-in and lunch, followed by more birding on the coast south of town. Highlights included many stunning Ashy-headed Geese, a few Ruddy-headed Geese, a ridiculous Black-chested Buzzard-eagle feeding on roadkill just feet from our bus, and a surprise family of Spectacled Ducks!

We continued birding the Patagonian steppe the following morning, where the highlights came fast and furious: plenty of awkwardly beautiful Darwin’s (Lesser) Rheas, lots of Tawny-throated Dotterels dotted around (even singing and displaying overhead!), much-appreciated Least Seedsnipe, stunning White-bridled Finch, striking Chocolate-vented Tyrant, and family groups of Rufous-chested Dotterels…phew. Even mammals were in good supply, with tons of Guanaco, a few Gray Fox, and even Patagonian Skunk!

In the afternoon we crossed to Tierra del Fuego, with drive-by Patagonian Tinamou on the way, eventually reaching our base for the night in Cerro Sombrero. The next morning, some easy birding near our hotel was quite productive, with especially stunning Long-tailed Meadowlark singing just a few meters away and eventually a pair of confiding Cinnamon-vented Ground-Tyrant. But we had a special appointment to make, and a long drive through the hills and over the steppe brought us to Bahía Inutil and its famous colony of King Penguins! Although regulations have gotten more strict here over the years, we were still allowed ample time to appreciate these magnificent creatures. The subtle combination of black, blue-gray, and sunset-orange is one of my favorite color combinations in nature.

The fun wasn’t over, though, as we drove back to Porvenir…suddenly the bus screeched to a halt, Quillén jumped out, and promptly grabbed a Big Hairy Armadillo (no, really, that’s the name!) from the roadside! What an awesome opportunity to study the animal up close…even though we did have to clean the floor of the bus afterwards. We made it to the ferry on time and enjoyed a smooth crossing with attendant Southern Giant-Petrels and a couple Chilean Skuas to round out our time in southern Chile.


We then flew north to Puerto Montt, for a few days in the humid temperate rainforests and surrounding coastline. Upon arrival we enjoyed a delicious local dish, the Curanto, which is a big mix of seafood, sausage, pork, chicken, and potatoes. By this point we were almost too full to move, but we managed to make it to Lahuen Ñadi National Monument for some afternoon birding. This was an excellent taste of birding in the beautiful moss-laden, bamboo-choked forest. Chucao Tapaculo showed extremely well, scuttling beneath the boardwalk just a few feet away; Patagonian Tyrant came right in; we even eked out a pair of unusually showy Des Muir’s Wiretail. Try as we might, Magellanic Woodpecker did not appear, but we did have prolonged scope views of an Austral Pygmy-Owl and assorted mobsters (including Thorn-tailed Rayadito).

Our next day was mostly spent on Chiloe Island, which was very enjoyable despite the questionable weather. Rain and wind is typical in this part of the world, and we managed a great day between showers. Starting with Slender-billed Parakeets at the ferry landing, continuing to Ochre-flanked Tapaculo showing reasonably well in a random roadside patch of bamboo, then sorting through throngs of waterbirds (so many Black-necked Swans! And wintering flocks of Hudsonian Godwits!)…but perhaps the highlight was a short boat trip out to some small islets with breeding Humboldt and Magellanic Penguins side-by-side, plus Red-legged Cormorants, Kelp Geese, and lots of Flightless (Chiloe) Steamer-Ducks!

As if that weren’t enough, we tested fate and opted for some evening owling back on the mainland. I love owls but I am always apprehensive about the act of owling itself…a good sleep spoiled, some might say. I needn’t have worried, however…dusk was calm and beautiful, Magellanic Snipe displayed overhead, and it took not five minutes before a cracking Rufous-legged Owl flew in!! Wow! A truly amazing view, and we were back at the hotel before 10:00!

A final morning of birding was spent near Lahuen Ñadi, where the rain didn’t bode well…but we had an intrepid group and we traipsed around in the drizzle anyway. It’s a good thing persistence tends to pay off, as a male Magellanic Woodpecker came rocketing in and landed in a tree right above our heads. Whoa! And then we called in a Black-throated Huet-huet for multiple excellent views. That was easy! A great way to finish our birding in the Lake District.


From Puerto Montt we continued north to the Santiago area, where many Chilean endemics can be found. Our first day on the coast started off with a bang…can you say Black Rail?! We were shocked to watch a couple birds scuttling along branches and flying over a small channel, and even walking down an open path towards us! This nearly mythical bird is so difficult to see, and this was a remarkable show. It was hard to upstage the rail, but the rest of the morning wasn’t too shabby either. We explored various nooks and crannies along the coast, with birds like Dusky Tapaculo and Striped Woodpecker seen well in the shrubbery, enormous flocks of Sanderling on the beach, and Snowy-crowned Tern roosting among the throngs of South American Terns and Black Skimmers. We had a wonderful lunch in Las Cruces, with Seaside Cinclodes keeping us company, and continued our luck in the afternoon with spectacular views of Many-colored Rush-Tyrant and yet another crazy show from a normally secretive bird, this time Stripe-backed Bittern at Algarrobo.

The apex of any tour to Chile might have to be a pelagic trip from Valparaiso. This tour was no different…the Humboldt Current is simply pelagic heaven, with birds from all over the world taking advantage of its rich waters. We started in masses of Sooty Shearwaters and Inca Terns near shore, plus abnormally high numbers of Peruvian Diving-Petrels seen very well in the calm conditions. As we got offshore, we started encountering our first albatrosses, with four species (Black-browed, Buller’s, Salvin’s, and Northern Royal) providing constant entertainment. It’s truly incredible to watch these birds in their element, soaring effortlessly in the wind. Also notable were high numbers of Masatierra Petrels, including some very close passes to the boat. What a great day!

Our final day on the coast saw us heading north from Viña del Mar, first cleaning up Spot-flanked Gallinule at a small wetland plus Giant Hummingbirds and Dusky-tailed Canastero in the nearby scrub. We made a stop at Cachagua where there is a colony of Humboldt Penguins; the penguins were great, of course, but perhaps even better was the Marine Otter! Further north, Zapallar provided some excellent scenery and botany, plus nice views of Fire-eyed Diucon and delicious empanadas for lunch. We finished with amazing views of White-throated Tapaculo despite the howling wind, and headed back to Santiago for some much-deserved rest.

The last two days in Central Chile were spent up in the Andes, where we continued our streak of high-quality sightings of amazing birds…all with simply stunning scenery as a backdrop. First we worked up through the ski resorts of Farellones and Valle Nevado, with Moustached Turca and Black-winged Ground-Dove kicking things off, a crazy fast Chilean Tinamou flying down the slopes, impressive Lesser Horned Owl roosting in plain view, and then on to entertaining Rufous-banded Miners, Gray-flanked and Buff-winged Cinclodes, White-browed Ground-Tyrants, Greater Yellow-finches, and sneaky Sharp-billed Canastero. Perhaps best of all was a very friendly pair of Creamy-rumped Miners that hopped around at our feet! We finished the day at the higher elevations near Valle Nevado, where White-sided Hillstar was simply unbeatable.

Our final day in Central Chile was spent above Santiago in the vicinity of El Yeso. Unfortunately, due to the unusually late spring with lots of snow, we encountered horrible road conditions and couldn’t even make it past the reservoir! And, it was raining…quite heavily. Well, happiness is plan B, right? Switching gears, we decided to spend our time birding the roadside lower down, which turned out brilliantly. An impromptu stop at a random “restaurant” for hot chocolates and bathrooms resulted in some of the most unexpectedly fun birding of the entire tour. It started with a Great Shrike-Tyrant perched on a telephone pole (and then on the roof of the restaurant)…a nice cleanup after we missed it on the coast! As the rain abated, a short walk behind the buildings turned into a longer walk as we realized there was something of a fallout of ground-tyrants happening, maybe being pushed downslope due to the rain? We saw no fewer than five species of ground-tyrants: Spot-billed, Cinereous, Ochre-naped, White-browed, and Black-fronted…multiples of each, close and photogenic. Wow! And then a flock of Yellow-rumped Siskins landed on the rocks in front of us, soon to be upstaged by a single Thick-billed Siskin that came in too! And then Quillén found a Gray-breasted Seedsnipe out in the fields…and then the clouds parted just enough for Andean Condors to start soaring in front of the beautiful snow-covered mountains. Absolute magic!


The final leg of the tour saw us in the far north of the country, flying into the city of Arica and exploring the High Andes and Atacama Desert. A super early departure wasn’t too fun, but it did put us in Arica with a nice full day to get up to Putre. Our first surprise was a stranded Markham’s Storm-Petrel at airport, followed by amazing views of Peruvian Thick-knees in some nearby fields. We could have spent all day looking at the spectacle of birds at the Lluta estuary, with thousands of Elegant Terns and Gray Gulls, a few gorgeous Peruvian Meadowlarks and Slender-billed Finches, and even a few Parasitic Jaegers chasing terns offshore. Before too long, we continued to long drive up to Putre, stopping a few times along the way to help acclimate to the high elevation (over 11,000 feet!). We arrived with time to do some easy birding around this charming village, enjoying excellent views of Bare-faced Ground-Dove, Andean Hillstar, Streaked Tit-Spinetail, Creamy-breasted and Canyon Canasteros, Yellow-billed Tit-Tyrant, White-browed Chat-Tyrant, Black-throated Flowerpiercer, and the ubiquitous Mourning Sierra-Finch. Particularly memorable was the pair of Aplomado Falcons that put on quite a show just outside our hotel!

Given the complete lack of accessible Diademed Sandpiper-Plovers in Central Chile this year, we were heavily focused on finding this special bird at Lauca National Park in the north. So the next day we went for a spectacular morning walk (very slow at this extreme elevation!) into one of the bogs, and struck gold with multiple adult and juvenile “DSPs”! Mission accomplished! One of the most sought-after birds in Chile, if not the whole of South America…and we had a great experience, watching them at our leisure for almost an hour. A supporting cast of Rufous-bellied and Gray-breasted Seedsnipe, Andean Goose, White-winged Cinclodes, Puna Ground-Tyrant, and Glacier Finch wasn’t bad either. We took it easy in the afternoon, going for a long drive that eventually paid off with Lesser (Puna) Rhea, a few cute Puna Miners, and many strange Mountain Viscacha.

The next morning was dedicated to the amazing Lauca National Park. The weather was perfect and we had great views of the stunning Parinacota and Sajama Volcanos behind the huge Chungara Lake. The birding was excellent, with three species of flamingo (Chilean, Andean, and James’s), lots of ducks (Crested and Andean Ducks, Puna and Yellow-billed Teal, Yellow-billed and even one White-cheeked Pintail!), tons of Silvery Grebes, Giant Coots, Andean Avocets, Puna Ibis…it was a spectacular waterbird show. But it wasn’t just waterbirds…the small flock of Black Siskins was much appreciated, as was the comical Andean Flicker and the d’Orbigny’s Chat-Tyrant that Quillén found in the Polylepis trees. After lunch back in Putre, we drove all the way down to Arica again, with another quick stop at the Lluta estuary. It felt good to be back in the oxygen-rich lowlands!

One last day of birding saw us heading south from Arica to the Chaca valley, where we had a very special bird on our minds. The critically endangered Chilean Woodstar is the rarest bird of the entire tour, unfortunately very threatened by agricultural development in the river valleys of northern Chile. Thankfully, patience was rewarded, and we eventually had stunning views of a male woodstar perched on his favorite snag, allowing us to soak in long scope views. Awesome! The rest of the day was great, too, with Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant, Andean Swift, Peruvian White-crested Elaenia, and delicious empanadas for lunch. For one last finale, we stopped at some hummingbird feeders on the way back to Arica, and were shocked by how good the show was…probably dozens of Oasis Hummingbirds and Peruvian Sheartails! It was hard to pull away. What a great way to wrap up the tour!

Just like that, we were on our way back to Santiago, with one final wine-and-lunch followed by flights home. What a wonderful and whirlwind two-and-a-half weeks of exploring Chile top-to-bottom. Thank you all for a great trip, and especially for your flexible and easygoing attitudes. Until next time!

                                                                                                                                                                               -        Luke Seitz

Created: 06 May 2024