Chile - November 2006

Published by Julian Hughes (julian.hughes AT ntlworld.com)

Participants: Julian and Sandra Hughes

Comments

Having not visited South America, Chile seemed a good place to start, especially as it is the only jump-off point for the Falkland Islands, where we wanted to visit some friends and do some more birding. We spent two weeks in Chile in late November 2006, followed by a week in the Falklands in early December, the subject of a separate trip report. Having researched sites visited by other birders, we realised that in just two weeks it was impractical to visit sites north and south of Santiago, so we visited three areas: Santiago, the Lake District and Chiloe (from Puerto Montt), and Torres del Paine and Tierra del Fuego (from Punta Arenas). Even this involved a fair amount of travelling, and I would recommend not trying to rush a visit this country; we can always go back to the north.

1. Getting there and getting around

Travel


We booked our flights to, from and within Chile through International Tours and Travel (http://www.falklandstravel.com/) in the Falkland Islands (necessary because, strangely, flights between Punta Arenas and the Falklands cannot be booked on the LAN website). These cost us around £900 each, though prices vary according to currency values.

We flew to Madrid with Iberia, then overnight to Santiago with LAN-Chile. All the remaining flights – Puerto Montt, Punta Arenas, Mount Pleasant and the return - were with LAN-Express. The service was excellent and all planes ran pretty much to time.

In Chile, we had pre-booked hire cars through Alamo (using http://www.cartrawler.com to find the best value, though it still wasn’t cheap). We had paid a deposit, but the balance was in US dollars, which worked to our advantage when the dollar weakened dramatically during our stay. A four-wheel drive Suzuki Grand Vitara cost £120 for three days, while a Nissan Sentra saloon cost £165 for four days around Puerto Montt and £230 for six days in Patagonia (note that Alamo does have a pick-up point at Punta Arenas airport, but this is not mentioned on the website).

The roads around Santiago and Puerto Montt are all good quality and driving is easy; you will need to budget for tolls on the main routes out of Santiago and north of Puerto Montt, though in total these were less than £30, a bargain compared to the M6 at Birmingham!

The road from Punta Arenas north to Puerto Natales is paved and has little traffic; elsewhere in Patagonia, the roads are gravel, although work to pave the road from Puerto Natales to Cerro Castillo is underway and may well be complete by winter 2007. On the route that we took in Tierra del Fuego, only the 40 km from Puerto Espora to Cerro Sombrero is paved. The gravel roads are fine to drive without a 4WD when the weather is dry, but I would be more cautious when it’s wet (which it wasn’t during our trip). The dust, however, goes everywhere, and valeting businesses must make a mint from cleaning hire cars!

Two road tips: (i) although there are no speed cameras, the Carabineros make good use of hand-held speed traps, usually by standing in the middle of an empty carriageway; (ii) signposting for anything other than the main routes from the Santiago ringroad is dreadful – we were lost within half an hour of leaving the airport and, in an effort to get onto the correct road, mistakenly turned left on a no-left turn and were quickly pulled over by the police. Note that the right of way on some junctions varies according to the time of day and day of week!

Accommodation and food

We pre-booked hotels in advance only for the first two nights, in the Maipo Valley to be close to El Yeso, and our last night in Santiago, where the return flight from the Falklands did not land until 11.30 pm. We had relatively little problem finding accommodation, except in Puerto Montt and in Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego. Where we stayed and the prices are listed in the relevant sections.

It was great to go somewhere that we didn’t have to think very hard about food and water. A mix of supermarket shopping, cafes and restaurants provided all we needed for a reasonable price (an evening meal with a bottle of wine ranged from £8 to £15 per head). There was plenty of beef, lamb and seafood (in some restaurants there was little other than fish and seafood), but Chile doesn’t cater well for vegetarians - and LAN-Express doesn’t appear to cater for them at all! Since it was not peak holiday season (that starts at Christmas), many restaurants had a limited menu, with many items not available.

Books and maps

To get around, we used the Nelles 1:2,500,000 map of Chile (http://www.Nelles-Verlag.de), which was sufficient for most of our travelling. We supplemented this with a Patagonia Sur 1:1,500,000 map published by World’s End and bought for £3.50 in Punta Arenas, which provided greater detail for the third leg of our trip. However, there was a serious mistake on this map: the town of Punta Delgada was marked about 15 km south of its real position (where Villa Bernardo O Higgins is marked), leading to us getting lost and confused. In Torres del Paine National Park, the leaflet provided at the entrance cabin includes a map of the Park that will be sufficient for birders (but probably not for anyone planning a long hike).

We used the Bradt guide as a general travel guide, since at the time we were planning our trip it was more up to date than the equivalent Rough Guide or Lonely Planet, but both the latter now have more recent editions. The Bradt Guide is good on history and natural history, but not always so useful on vital practical information, such as hotels.

Most of the information for birding sites came from trip reports published on the web, supplemented by Mark Pearman’s The Essential Guide to Birding in Chile (http://www.nhbs.com), though this is now more than ten years old and does not include any sites in Patagonia. We used the excellent Helm Field Guide to the Birds of Chile by Jaramillo et al., which we found to be accurate and easy to use, with much better illustrations than the Collins Illustrated Checklist to Southern South America and Antarctica, and it had the benefit of including birds in the Falkland Islands.

Climate and health

Daytime temperatures ranged from 32 Centigrade (Santiago) to 4 Centigrade (Torres del Paine) in late November, although the strong wind in El Yeso and Patagonia made it feel colder. Hats and gloves were necessary, although only on a few days. The weather in the Lake District and Chiloe was mild (12-14 Centigrade), though could be wet.

Ultraviolet radiation is a real issue, even though the hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic is slowly repairing itself. The towns in Patagonia have UV forecasts (either on a scale of 1-10 or Very High to Low) posted by the road or outside the town hall, but assume that it will be high throughout the austral spring and summer, even when there is complete cloud cover. Factor 30 sunblock was, on some days, insufficient, and even with a hat in El Yeso I was burned by the sun bouncing off the pale rocks. Decent sunglasses that reflect UV are also recommended.

Communications

Quadband mobile phones work in Chile, but check with your service provider’s website before you leave. There was good network coverage around Santiago and Punta Arenas, but it was sporadic in the Lake District and Chiloe, and non-existent across much of Patagonia.

Most Chileans do not speak English, so a knowledge of Spanish is required to get by. Even so, some words are different to European Spanish, and the local accent doesn’t always aid communication. In the Lake District and Patagonia, some Chileans speak German and, around Punta Arenas, you can use your Serbo-Croat!

2. Sites

Around Santiago - November 19th: Santiago to Cajon del Maipo


After a 13 hour flight from Madrid and more than an hour lost on the southern outskirts of Santiago, we eventually found our way to Cascadas de las Animas (http://www.cascada.net), which we had pre-booked for two nights on the web (£75 for a self-catering cabin for two nights and an evening meal in the restaurant). From the car, we saw several chimango and southern caracaras, variable hawk and a black-chested buzzard eagle and around the wooded cabanas were white-crested elaenia, Chilean swallows and tufted tit-tyrant.

20th: Embalse El Yeso

This was the one day of the whole trip for which we had arranged a guide, since there were some key species in El Yeso that we did not want to miss, most significantly diademed sandpiper-plover (DSP). Juan Pablo Gabella (http://www.faunachile.cl) met us at 8 am and offered to drive our 4WD for the day, which meant I could spend time watching birds rather than dodging rocks. Juan Pablo was an excellent guide, speaks good English and knows not just the birds of the Santiago area but also the issues affecting their conservation. He was a great introduction to the birds of Chile.

It was easy to find the left turn off the main road at Romeral, which is now posted with a modern green sign. The track is gravel, but in good condition as far as the dam, and we saw little traffic once we were past the quarry at about Km 2.

First stop was the canyon at Km 4 (Pearman, p.18), where we had fantastic views of four moustached turcas (and several more from the car farther up the road), as well as several plain-mantled tit-spinetails. At Km 6, where a piped stream runs across the road on a sharp left bend, half a dozen grey-flanked cinclodes were drinking and we scrambled up the steep rocks in search of crag chilia. Note that this is not an easy climb, requiring good footwear and balance! Although not lucky during this morning visit, we tried again in the late afternoon and had superb views of two, possibly three, chilias as well as spot-billed ground-tyrant (which looks like a spotted flycatcher when perched in bushes), Andean condor and introduced California quails.

After crossing a long, open valley where southern lapwing chicks fed in the meadows, we climbed up a series of hairpins and stopped at Km 15.3 and saw mourning, band-tailed and plumbeous sierra-finch and fire-eyed diucon. Walking out across the rocky ground, a dozen black-winged ground-doves scattered ahead of us, and a mixed flock of more sierra-finches and some smart yellow-rumped siskins perched on the low plants. Juan Pablo heard mountain parakeets calling, and we counted 10 shooting across the valley and in among the boulders, an excellent find as they are very localised and mobile.

Between Km 17 and 18, we stopped repeatedly to watch rufous-banded miner and white-browed ground-tyrant, and stopped in the last kilometre before the dam to scan the slope successfully for both male and female white-sided hillstar. On the return journey we also had great views of mountain caracara among the abandoned buildings to the east of the road below the dam. North of the dam, the driving became more difficult, having to weave around fallen boulders along the south shore of the lake, though we saw cordilleran and sharp-billed canastero, greater yellow-finch and Andean gull at the roadside, the latter similar in plumage but much larger than brown-hooded gull that we had seen at lower altitude.

At Km 10 from the dam (the marker posts start at zero again at the south end of the reservoir), we took a track to the left immediately after the wooden bridge. Following the left fork we saw grey-breasted seedsnipe and two scale-throated earthcreepers on the undulating rocky riverbed, but not the DSP that had been seen there recently. We retraced our steps and tried the right fork for DSP, but did find bar-winged cinclodes.

In the delta where the river runs into the reservoir, we found several Baird’s sandpipers, south american snipe, correndera pipit and crested duck. We continued up the main gravel road, which would be impassable beyond Km 12 without a four-wheel drive as the road surface was poor and there were two small rivers to cross (though the amount of water will depend on the state of meltwater). Patches of snow became larger, and scenery more stunning. We saw ochre-naped ground-tyrant at Km 15.5 and at the end of the road, where we also saw creamy-rumped miner, more Andean condors (both in the foot of the valley and high against the snowy peaks that form the Argentine border) and speckled teal.

It was on a boggy area in this final section of road that we found the bird that really made this day special. Not just one diademed sandpiper-plover, but a pair with a 10-day old chick at a site where Juan Pablo had seen them two or three years previously (a few weeks later JPG visited the site again and the chick had fledged). We sat at the edge of the bog and watched this family busy feeding, able to take decent photos with a 400 mm lens (http://www.wallcreeper.co.uk/bigtrip/ChileFalklands/diademedsandpiperplover6.html).

21st: the Pacific coast, Leyda to Algarrobo

We left the Cajon del Maipo early in order to get around Santiago and out to some of the wetland sites along the coast. We took the toll Ruta 78 to Leyda, with white-tailed kite, black vulture and cattle egret from the car. From the motorway junction, we followed the main road west towards Tejas Verdes stopping at a lake on the left-hand side of the road, where we saw a wide range of freshwater birds, including white-backed stilt, great grebe, lake duck and Andean ruddy duck, spot-flanked gallinule, cinnamon teal, and white-winged and red-gartered coot.

From here, we drove to the coast at San Antonio, then north through Cartagena to Laguna El Peral (Pearman, p.21). Unfortunately, the reserve was closed on weekdays at this time of year, so we were not able to access the walkways and viewpoints. Nevertheless, looking through the fence from the southwest corner, we were able to get good views of many-coloured rush-tyrant, wren-like rushbird, red-fronted coot, stripe-backed bittern, yellow-winged blackbird, white-tufted grebe, black-crowned night-heron, Chilean pigeon and Franklin’s gull, as well as many of the birds seen earlier at Leyda.

Along the coast we saw many Peruvian pelicans, Neotropic cormorants and Peruvian boobies, particularly on the headland and island off Algarrobo where all three species breed with Humboldt penguins. Access here was difficult, with no parking near the marina and no-one to ask at the gate for permission to enter, so we ignored the no-parking signs and climbed the footpath behind the marina and viewed with a ‘scope. Hudsonian whimbrels, American oystercatchers and kelp gulls were foraging among the beach pools, and we saw our only Picui ground-dove of the trip in a garden.

Our final stop was Punta Tralco, a low headland signposted off the coast road a few kilometres north of Laguna El Peral, our last chance for the endemic Chilean seaside cinclodes. They were renovating the road and pavement, so we had to park outside the village and walk much farther than expected, and it was only after we had circumnavigated almost the entire headland that we found two cinclodes on rocks amid the crashing waves in the bay on the east side of the headland.

With daylight fading, we headed inland to find a hotel so that we wouldn’t be too far from Santiago airport where we needed to be at 8.30 am the following day. There were dozens of hotels in the seaside resorts, but we couldn’t find any in the industrial towns of Melipilla or El Monte, nor in the Santiago suburb of Maipu. Now after 9 pm, we finally settled on the only airport hotel, the 4-star Hotel Diego de Almagro, near the ringroad where a double room, dinner and breakfast was £80.

Lake District and Chiloe - 22nd: Puyehue National Park

From Puerto Montt, we drove north on the Ruta 5 toll road to Osorno, then east on the 215 (the petrol station at Entre Lagos is the last on this route) to the National Park. The road is paved as far as the park entrance at Aguas Calientes, where we booked two nights in a well-provisioned Cabana (£65 each for two nights bed, breakfast and evening meal).

The three-hour drive takes you through a diverse range of habitats – it’s like landing in Speyside (peatlands with birch scrub), driving through Cheshire (intensively managed dairy herds), then Switzerland (lakes and mountain villas with a strong German presence), and finally Northeast India (well, I haven’t been anywhere in Europe with bamboo forest). We saw little of note on the journey from Puerto Montt, though black-faced ibis were frequent.

From the cabanas, we crossed the bridge into the park and took a late afternoon walk on the short El Recodo trail along the river (Pearman, p.44, does not show this trail, but the entrance is a hundred metres before the longer El Pionero trail to the Mirador).

A ringed kingfisher flew high across the car park (it proved to be the only one of the trip) and a dark-bellied cinclodes foraged among rocks in the river. White-crowned elaenias and thorn-tailed rayaditos were common in riverside bushes and we located a nest of the latter high in a tree trunk. We jammed into a rufous-tailed hawk that flew into the canopy and perched above us for 10 minutes, and we eventually found the source of a firecrest-like call: a green-backed firecrown buzzing back and forth from a bare branch. Small groups of Austral parakeets regularly flashed across the treetops calling, though it was difficult to get anything other than brief views. As dusk fell, we walked down the main track back to the cabanas where chucao tapaculos called from the forest and I got a brief view of a black-throated huet-huet perched on a low branch emitting descending hoots.

23rd: Puyehue National Park

We walked the longer El Pionero trail at dawn, getting soaked on the only day of rain we had during the whole trip. After the trail crosses the main track to Antillanca, it climbs steeply and can be quite slippery. We had good views of Des Mur’s wiretail and saw two chucao tapaculos on the path, though they were very wary. We heard several more as well as black-throated huet-huet, and thought we heard Magellanic woodpecker. We didn’t have time to get to the Mirador before breakfast, so headed back down the slope once we hit the low cloud, seeing white-throated treerunner and several green-backed firecrowns as we walked back to the cabanas. As the habitat opened out in the valley, several Chilean pigeons flew over, and Patagonian sierra-finches were common around the accommodation.

After a lazy mid-morning breakfast, with chucao tapaculos calling from around the natural amphitheatre of Aguas Calientes, we took the road to Antillanca, the ski resort on the tree line some 18 km above the reserve entrance. The first 8 km of the gravel track is in reasonably good condition, but the second half comprises large boulders, gulleys and occasional rockfalls, and was tough going in a two-wheel drive saloon car.

We stopped at various points along this road, getting further views of all the species seen on the El Pionero trail, including a pair of chucao tapaculos gathering nest material immediately after the first 90 degree left bend. From the lake at Km 5, we followed a narrow trail for about a kilometre up the slope on the opposite side of the road; we saw a fantastic array of ferns, mosses and other plants, but little in the way of birds (though we did finally twig that the wigeon-like whistle belonged to the white-crested elaenia). The resort at Antillanca, including the coffee shop, was closed, the weather at the snowline was cold and windy and the area was fairly birdless.

24th: Puyehue National Park and northwest Chiloe

We made a final pre-breakfast walk along the first kilometre of the track to Antillanca in an effort for Sandra to see black-throated huet-huet and us both to see Magellanic tapaculo that had so far eluded us. We had great views of a huet-huet foraging in damp ground 50 metres above the higher entrance to the El Recodo trail, though its ability to disappear into the undergrowth at will was impressive! We again saw most of the species seen on the previous two days, plus plain-mantled tit-spinetail.

After breakfast, we drove back towards Osorno, stopping at the slender-billed parakeet site 12 km east of Entre Lagos mentioned in several trip reports. We could hear parakeets, but they were drowned out by an incessant roadside brushcutter, so gave up after half an hour. However, driving west, we chanced across two in a tree on the north side of the road 4 kilometres east of the crossroads at Quema del Vuy. We also had regular views of chimango and southern caracaras, black vulture and white-tailed kite from the motorway south of Osorno.

The Ruta 5 south of Puerto Montt is single-carriageway and toll-free, and was busy with traffic to the ferry at Pargua. The ferries are regular, travelling when full (we had only to wait around 10 minutes) and the fee - about £8.50 each way for a car and two passengers – is paid on board. Some of the ferries have a raised viewing area, from which we saw large numbers of Peruvian pelicans, red-legged, neotropic and imperial cormorants, and a few Magellanic penguins, as well as a sea lion sp.

We drove to Ancud, from where we continued south on Ruta 5 to a right turn to Chepu precisely 9 km from the Shell petrol station on the outskirts of town. We followed the gravel track for 3 km to Pte Puchilcan, a narrow wooden bridge that is the only place where the road runs close to the Chiloe National Park. We had great views of slender-billed parakeet, misto finch, Chilean flicker, American kestrel, fire-eyed diucon and eared dove, but despite the suitable-looking habitat we couldn’t hear or see a Magellanic woodpecker, for which this is supposedly a regular site. We tried again for a few hours the following morning, and saw rufous-tailed plantcutter, dark-bellied cinclodes and Austral pygmy-owl, but not the woodpecker.

We spent the night in Ancud at the Hostal Madryn, close to the harbour (£15 for a double room and breakfast), where we watched (Hudsonian) whimbrels, dark-bellied cinclodes and black-crowned night-heron on the beach.

25th: Punihuil

From Ancud we drove west on the paved road along the south shore of the bay, then forked left onto a gravel track for around 20 km to the west coast, signposted to the penguin colony at Punihuil. In the bay immediately north of the penguin colony we saw kelp goose, American oystercatcher, flightless steamer-duck and yet more slender-billed parakeets. We scoped the sea, as blue whales have been seen in the bay in January, but we saw no cetaceans.

On the beach, we stopped at the Otway Foundation to take a boat around the penguin colonies (there are ‘unofficial’ boat trips from other boatmen along the beach, but we didn’t begrudge spending £4 each to go out with a Foundation volunteer who knew a great deal about the local marine life). These islets are the only place that Humboldt and Magellanic penguins nest in the same colony. We also had good views of red-legged and rock cormorants, blackish oystercatcher and a sea otter feeding in the surf. We stopped at Lago Quillo on the way back to Ancud, where a rising tide had pushed greater and lesser yellowlegs onto a mudbank.

The return ferry journey was better than the southbound ferry the previous day, with hundreds - perhaps thousands - of South American terns in the channel, small numbers of sooty and pink-footed shearwaters, Franklin’s gull, Humboldt penguin and a couple of Magellanic diving-petrels as we approached the north shore.

We arrived on the outskirts of Puerto Montt as the sun sank below the horizon. Knowing there were no hotels on the road to the airport, we drove into town but couldn’t find any of the accommodation we sought that was listed in the Bradt guide. The town centre has been modernised and pedestrianised, with all the parking in a vast car park underneath the promenade from which shops and hotels can be accessed. In the end, unable to find anywhere else, we ended up in the Holiday Inn Express at the west end of the seafront (£55 for a double room, breakfast and evening meal). With hindsight, we would probably have found cheaper and more rural accommodation towards Puerto Varas around 20 km to the north

Patagonia - 26th: Punta Arenas

We flew from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, taking a taxi (fixed price of £8) into the city. We found a hotel (Hostal Jose Menendez, £32 for a double room and breakfast) and spent the afternoon wandering round town and relaxing. Unable to get our hire car until the following day (the office is not open Sunday), we birdwatched along the shores of the Magellan Straits, adding dolphin gull to our list and getting great photos of Imperial cormorants on the piers. We had an excellent meal – probably the best of the trip - at Brocolino on Avenida O’ Higgins, two blocks east of the main square.

27th: Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine

Unable to get our hire car before the 9 am ferry departed, we reversed our itinerary, first heading north to Torres del Paine National Park. We stopped regularly on the long drive north, making it a 10-hour drive to the hotel. From the road, we saw good numbers of upland geese and Darwin’s rhea and smaller numbers of Chilean flamingos (24 on a pool 92 km north of PA) and Coscoroba swans (a pair with chicks on a lake 131 km north of PA). In fields to the north of the settlement at Morro Chico we saw a large flock of ashy-headed geese and on the outskirts of Puerto Natales, flying steamerduck, great grebe and the first of many dark-faced ground-tyrants.

After a stop at the supermarket and petrol station in Puerto Natales (look out for the discreetly-signed one-way system in the town), we continued north, following the east shore of the fjord, where the scenery became more interesting and the first of several Andean condors soared over the road. Just before the end of the current paved road, we took a diversion of 20 kilometres to visit the Milodon cave, where there is an informative Visitors’ Centre and where we had great views of black-chested buzzard-eagle as well as thorn-tailed rayadito and grey-hooded sierra finch.

The park ranger here confirmed that the ‘new’ shorter western route to Torres del Paine (which several trip reports mention was due to open early in 2006) is still not complete – the improvements to the eastern road via Cerro Castillo suggest that it’s opening is not imminent. We entered the Park via the Sarmiento Gate, paying £15 entrance fee for two of us, and picking up a map. It was cold and wet, so we didn’t linger as we drove south through the park, though we saw plenty of guanacos, several cinereous harriers, and a silvery grebe on one of the many roadside pools. We stayed at the Possado Serrano, one of the cheaper hotels in the park (£104 for a twin room including breakfast and evening meal).

28th: Torres del Paine National Park

It was bright and dry, but the westerly wind was strong and freezing, making it difficult to stand up. We drove up to Lago Grey, getting great views of cinereous harrier and Austral parakeets en route (the narrow wooden bridge across the river was being replaced by a new concrete structure).

We stopped at the end of the road and took the trail to the south end of the lake. From the suspension bridge over the Rio Pingo, we spotted a male torrent duck feeding up river. Approaching slowly along the rocky shore we were rewarded with great views of a male feeding in the fast-flowing icy water, oblivious to the sideways sleet. From the viewpoint overlooking the ice floes (the cloud was still too low to properly see the glacier), a dark-bellied cinclodes foraged around our feet. As we walked back to the car, a pair of torrent ducks gave us stunning views by the bridge.

Driving back south, we explored the wide expanse of open habitat south of the new bridge, where we saw a couple of least seedsnipe and many Baird’s sandpipers. After a brief stop at the Visitors’ Centre, we took the road north along the Rio Paine, seeing a pair of flying steamerducks and, on a small pool 8.5 km north of the Visitors’ Centre, a pair of spectacled ducks. After lots of time watching Andean condors and black-chested buzzard-eagles playing on the wind, we headed back, finding another two spectacled ducks and a pair of white-tufted grebes on a pool in front of the Hotel Possado Serrano around which there is a wooden boardwalk.

29th: Torres del Paine National Park to Puerto Delgado

We started early, driving slowly back towards the Sarmiento Gate, stopping frequently to watch rufous-tailed plantcutter, a group of 8 silvery grebes, Chilean flamingos (among a large group of wildfowl that included several crested ducks in a shallow lagoon 26 km north of the hotel), lake duck and blue-and-white swallow. The large, reedy pool just below the entrance gate was a particularly worthwhile stop, with yellow-winged blackbird, sedge wren, Chilean pigeon, scale-throated earthcreeper and a Patagonian fox stalking the ducks. Just outside the gate we had the last of the guanacos, another cinereous harrier and our best views of Darwin’s rheas.

We made good time back to Puerto Natales to refuel for the journey back across the Plains of Diana and, some 10 km south of Morro Chico, turned left onto the gravel track that runs parallel to the Argentine border. It took about six hours to drive to Punta Delgada, including frequent stops at almost every waterbody. Among many birds that we’d already seen, the pools contained Wilson’s phalarope, Baird’s and least seedsnipe, two-banded plover and, a particular favourite, rufous-chested dotterel. Passerines included common and short-billed miner, several chocolate-vented tyrant and good numbers of black-throated finches. Amid dozens of miles of gently rolling landscape, the first 50 km of this road was one of my favourite parts of Chile. It just oozed birds and lacked people. We didn’t see a house for hours, and only a single vehicle on the rough, gravel road. If we’d got the car stuck or broken down, it could have been a long wait for help. Indeed, had it been wet, I’d have been wary of taking this road without a four-wheel drive.

At the end of this long drive, accommodation is scarce. We rolled up to the Hotel Tehuelches to find a coach party filling the place, a second hotel marked on the map did not exist and the Bradt guide indicated no other habitation. We drove some 30 km west along the Ruta 255 and found an isolated Hospedaje where we got dinner, bed and breakfast for £10.50 a head (there is, had we known it, a Hosteria El Faro next to the ferry slipway at First Narrows).

30th: Punta Delgada and Tierra del Fuego

We drove some 20 km north of Punta Delgada to see if we could find more of yesterday’s magic (we had driven quickly through this area the previous night), but although we saw cinereous harrier, rufous-breasted dotterel, Darwin’s rhea, more black-throated finches and short-billed miners, there were fewer pools than we had hoped and no new birds. Cutting our losses, we headed for the ferry (£12 for the car and two passengers), seeing Chilean skuas and magellanic diving-petrels in the Straits and great views of at least three Commerson’s dolphins riding the bow wave during the 20-minute crossing.

On Tierra del Fuego, we took the paved road to refuel at Cerro Sombrero, then drove southwest on gravel roads towards Porvenir. The habitat was much drier than on the mainland, with fewer pools near the road and thus fewer birds. We did, however, have good views of least seedsnipe and chocolate-vented ground-tyrant as well as plenty more wildfowl and a few Patagonian foxes. Patagonian finch, Hudsonian godwit and silver teal were all new for the list, and several black-winged ground-doves were our first in Patagonia.

It was early evening before we got to the salt lakes north of Porvenir. We scanned several from the road, but the wind was gusting and the shorelines distant – indeed, some of these lakes are huge. At the Laguna de los Cisnes, we decided to give it one shot before dusk, walking down to the shore, parking at the Km 18 sign. Unsure how far we might have to walk, we were elated when the second and third birds we saw on the water’s edge were Magellanic plovers. Although they were a little wary, by sitting on the salty crust, our patience was rewarded with good views of them running around us.

Porvenir’s hotels seemed to be all closed or full, but we eventually found a room at the Hostal Kawi (£17 for a double room and breakfast).

December 1st: Tierra del Fuego and Magellan Straits

From Porvenir, we took the road south and east along the shores of the Bahia Inutil, searching for a road over the hills that was marked on the map but not on the ground. We saw both flying and flightless steamerduck and our first Southern giant petrel, plus more dolphin gulls, black-necked swans, American kestrel and 17 Chilean flamingos, plus a herd of guanacos.

We caught the ferry from Bahia Chilota, 5 km north of Porvenir (£31 and be ready to reverse your car onto the ferry as it’s not roll-on roll-off). Standing on the stern for the 2.5-hour crossing, we had great views of dozens of southern giant petrels and black-browed albatrosses, plus a pink-footed shearwater, six Magellanic diving-petrels and small numbers of terns that were presumably South American. The only down side was losing the rubber eyecup from my bins which rolled over the side of the ferry.

Hitting Punta Arenas at 5 pm wasn’t ideal and, unable to find room at several of the main hotels, we found ourselves back at the Hostal Jose Menendez (£19 for a double room and breakfast, with no en-suite bathroom).

From Punta Arenas, we flew to the Falkland Islands the following day (see separate report), and a week later back to Santiago via PA and Puerto Montt.

1. Getting there and getting around Nelles-Verlag Car Trawler International Tours and Travel

2. Sites Cascadas de las Animas Fauna Chile DSP photo

Species Lists

Darwin's Rhea – 120 over three days in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego
Humboldt Penguin – 6 at Algarrobo marina (Santiago coast), 2+ at Punihuil (Chiloe)
Magellanic Penguin – 10 from ferry to Chiloe, 120 at Punihuil (Chiloe)
Pied-billed Grebe – 3 at Laguna El Peral (Santiago coast)
White-tufted Grebe – 12 at Laguna El Peral (Santiago), 8 over 3 days in Torres del Paine
Great Grebe - 12 at Laguna El Peral (Santiago), 10 over 3 days in Torres del Paine, 1 near Porvenir
Silvery Grebe – 12 over 3 days in Torres del Paine
Black-browed Albatross – 70 from ferry between Tierra del Fuego and Punta Arenas
Southern Giant Petrel – 20 from ferry between Tierra del Fuego and Punta Arenas
Pink-footed Shearwater – 10 from ferry from Chiloe, 1 from ferry between Tierra del Fuego and Punta Arenas
Sooty Shearwater – 30 from ferry from Chiloe
Magellanic Diving-Petrel – 1 from ferry from Chiloe, 1 from First Narrows ferry, 6 from ferry between Tierra del Fuego and Punta Arenas
Peruvian Pelican – 1000 along coast west of Santiago, 240 from ferry to/from Chiloe
Peruvian Booby – 2000 along coast west of Santiago, most at Algarrobo colony
Neotropic Cormorant – 200 along coast west of Santiago, small numbers around Chiloe
Rock Shag – small numbers around Chiloe and Tierra del Fuego
Imperial Shag – large numbers around Chiloe and Tierra del Fuego
Red-legged Cormorant – 4 from ferry to Chiloe, colony of 20+ at Punihuil
Great Egret – 1 at Leyda wetlands
Snowy Egret – 3 from motorway west of Santiago
Cattle Egret – 30 from motorway west of Santiago
Black-crowned Night-Heron – 1 at Laguna El Peral (Santiago coast), 1 on beach at Ancud (Chiloe)
Stripe-backed Bittern – 2+ at Laguna El Peral (Santiago coast)
Black-faced Ibis – dozens every day in Lake District and Patagonia
Chilean Flamingo – 35 in Torres del Paine, 100+ in Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego
Black-necked Swan – 3 Laguna El Peral (Santiago coast), 25 Chiloe, 70+ over 6 days in Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego
Coscoroba Swan – 18 over 6 days in Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego
Upland Goose – 400 over 6 days in Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego
Kelp Goose – 4 at Punihuil (Chiloe)
Ashy-headed Goose – 70 over 3 days in Torres del Paine/Patagonia
Flightless Steamerduck – 2 at Punihuil (Chiloe), 1 east of Porvenir (Tierra del Fuego)
Flying Steamerduck – 8 over 6 days in Torres del Paine/Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego
Torrent Duck – at least a pair in Rio Pingo, Torres del Paine
Chiloe Wigeon – 200 in Santiago coastal wetlands, 6 Chiloe, many in Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego
Speckled Teal – 3 El Yeso, 40 Leyda wetland
Spectacled Duck – 4 Torres del Paine
Crested Duck – 1 El Yeso, dozens in Torres del Paine/Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego
Yellow-billed Pintail – 50 in Santiago coastal wetlands, 60 Chiloe, common in Torres del Paine/Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego
Silver Teal – 1 between First Narrows and Porvenir (Tierra del Fuego)
Cinnamon Teal – 10 Leyda wetlands (Santiago coast)
Red Shoveler – 20 Leyda wetlands (Santiago coast), common in Torres del Paine/Patagonia
Andean Ruddy Duck – 2 Leyda wetland (Santiago coast)
Lake Duck – 20 Leyda wetland/Laguna El Peral (Santiago coast), 5 Torres del Paine
Black Vulture – 1 Leyda wetland (Santiago coast), 2 Lake District, 30 Chiloe
Turkey Vulture – small numbers around Santiago, common on Chiloe
Andean Condor – 3 El Yeso, small numbers daily in Torres del Paine
White-tailed Kite – 1 from motorway west of Santiago, 1 near Osorno (Lake District)
Cinereous Harrier – 1 Chiloe, small numbers in Torres del Paine/Patagonia
Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle – 1 Cajon del Maipo, 2 Torres del Paine
Variable Hawk – 1 Cajon del Maipo, 1 El Yeso
Rufous-tailed hawk – 1 Puyehue (Lake District)
Mountain Caracara – 1 El Yeso
Southern Caracara – daily in Lake District, Chiloe, Torres del Paine and Patagonia
Chimango Caracara – common around Santiago, Lake District lowlands and Chiloe
American Kestrel – small numbers in all areas visited
California Quail – 3 El Yeso
Spot-flanked Gallinule – 2 Leyda wetland (Santiago coast)
White-winged Coot – 20 Leyda wetland (Santiago coast)
Red-gartered Coot – common in Santiago coastal wetlands and Torres del Paine/Patagonia
Red-fronted Coot – 12 Laguna El Peral (Santiago coast)
Magellanic Oystercatcher – common in Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego
Blackish Oystercatcher – 1 Punihuil
American Oystercatcher – small numbers Santiago coast and Chiloe coast
White-backed Stilt – 16 Leyda wetland (Santiago coast)
Southern Lapwing – small numbers in all areas visited
Two-banded Plover – small numbers Torres del Paine/Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego
Rufous-chested Dotterel – small numbers in Patagonia
Diademed Sandpiper-Plover – 3 El Yeso
Magellanic Plover – 2 Tierra del Fuego
South American Snipe – 1 El Yeso, 2 Tierra del Fuego
Hudsonian Godwit – 3 Tierra del Fuego
Whimbrel – 2 Santiago coast, small numbers Chiloe
Greater Yellowlegs – small numbers Chiloe, Torres del Paine and Tierra del Fuego
Lesser Yellowlegs – small numbers Santiago coastal wetlands, Chiloe and Tierra del Fuego
Baird's Sandpiper – 4 El Yeso, abundant in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego
Wilson's Phalarope – localised in Patagonia
Gray-breasted Seedsnipe – 4 El Yeso
Least Seedsnipe – common but localised in Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego
Chilean Skua – common but localised in Tierra del Fuego
Dolphin Gull – common in Punta Arenas, smaller numbers Tierra del Fuego
Kelp Gull – common around all coasts
Brown-hooded Gull – common in all lowland areas
Andean Gull – 1 El Yeso
Franklin's Gull – small numbers Santiago wetlands and Chiloe
South American Tern – common Chiloe, small numbers Santiago coast and Tierra del Fuego
Rock Pigeon – small numbers in urban areas
Chilean Pigeon – common Chiloe, smaller numbers Laguna El Penal, Puyehue and Torres del Paine
Eared Dove – small numbers in all lowland areas
Picui Ground-Dove – 2 El Tabo (Santiago coast)
Black-winged Ground-Dove – 20 El Yeso, 2 Tierra del Fuego
Austral Parakeet – daily Puyehue, Chiloe and Torres del Paine
Slender-billed Parakeet – 2 Lake District, 15 Chiloe
Mountain Parakeet – 10 El Yeso
Austral Pygmy-Owl – 1 Chiloe
White-sided Hillstar – 2 El Yeso
Green-backed Firecrown – common Puyehue and Chiloe
Ringed Kingfisher – 1 Puyehue
Chilean Flicker – 1 Chiloe, 1 Torres del Paine
Common Miner – common but localised Patagonia
Short-billed Miner - common but localised Patagonia
Rufous-banded Miner – 6 El Yeso
Creamy-rumped Miner – 2 El Yeso
Scale-throated Earthcreeper – 4 El Yeso, 1+ Torres del Paine
Crag Chilia – 3 El Yeso
Chilean Seaside Cinclodes – 2 Punta Tralco (Santiago coast)
Dark-bellied Cinclodes – small numbers Puyehue, Chiloe and Torres del Paine
Gray-flanked Cinclodes – 5 El Yeso
Bar-winged Cinclodes – 3 El Yeso
Des Murs's Wiretail – 2 Puyehue
Thorn-tailed Rayadito – common Puyehue, localised Torres del Paine
Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetail – 2 El Yeso, 1 Chiloe
Wren-like Rushbird – 2 Laguna El Peral (Santiago coast)
Lesser Canastero – 3 El Yeso
Cordilleran Canastero – 2 El Yeso
White-throated Treerunner – common Puyehue
Black-throated Huet-huet – 2 Puyehue
Moustached Turca – 7 El Yeso
Chucao Tapaculo – common Puyehue
Rufous-tailed Plantcutter – localised Chiloe and Torres del Paine
White-crested Elaenia – 2 Caijon del Maipo, common Lake District, Chiloe and Torres del Paine
Tufted Tit-Tyrant – common Caijon del Maipo and El Yeso
Many-colored Rush-Tyrant – 2 Laguna El Peral (Santiago coast)
Fire-eyed Diucon – 2 El Yeso, 4 Chiloe
Chocolate-vented Tyrant – localised Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego
Spot-billed Ground-Tyrant – 1 El Yeso
Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant – localised Torres del Paine
White-browed Ground-Tyrant – 20 El Yeso
Ochre-naped Ground-Tyrant – 6 El Yeso
Austral Negrito – 2 Santiago coast, common Lake District, Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego
Chilean Swallow – common in all areas visited except El Yeso
Blue-and-white Swallow – 20 El Yeso, 3 Torres del Paine
Barn Swallow – 1 Patagonia
Correndera Pipit – 1 El Yeso, small numbers Torres del Paine/Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego
House Wren – small numbers in all areas visited
Sedge Wren – 1 Chiloe, 6 Torres del Paine
Chilean Mockingbird – small numbers around Santiago, Lake District and Chiloe
Austral Thrush – common in all areas visited
Gray-hooded Sierra-Finch – 20 El Yeso, small numbers Torres del Paine/Tierra del Fuego
Patagonian Sierra-Finch – small numbers Puyehue, Chiloe and Torres del Paine
Mourning Sierra-Finch – 5 El Yeso
Plumbeous Sierra-Finch – 5 El Yeso
Band-tailed Sierra-Finch – 1 El Yeso
Canary-winged Finch – 11 Patagonia
Common Diuca-Finch – common El Yeso/Santiago coast, 2 Chiloe
Grassland Yellow-Finch – small numbers in Santiago area and Chiloe
Greater Yellow-Finch – 50 El Yeso
Patagonian Yellow-Finch – 1 Tierra del Fuego
Rufous-collared Sparrow – common in all areas visited
Yellow-winged Blackbird – 6 Laguna El Peral (Santiago coast), 1 Torres del Paine
Long-tailed Meadowlark – common in all lowland areas visited
Austral Blackbird – small numbers in Santiago area and Chiloe, commoner in Puyehue
Black-chinned Siskin – 2 Caijon del Maipo, small numbers Torres del Paine
Yellow-rumped Siskin – 100s El Yeso
House Sparrow – small numbers in all urban areas

Mammals

Brown hare – 1 Lake District
Patagonian hare – 1 Torres del Paine
Sea lion sp. – 1 ferry to Chiloe
Commerson’s dolphin – 3 ferry to Tierra del Fuego
Sea otter – 1 Punihuil
Guanaco – many Torres del Paine, smaller numbers around Porvenir
Patagonian fox – several Torres del Paine/Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego
Large rodent sp. – 1 Laguna El Peral, several (with large grass mound homes) Tierra del Fuego – may be two different species