Thursday 27 April 2017

Chile part four - Torres del Paine and the Pampa Larga

Our final day in Patagonia. Far too short. But one of the places that Karen really wanted to visit while we were down here was the famous Torres del Paine National Park. Being about four hours from Punta Arenas, it was going to be a long day and a flying visit. But worth it - spectacular scenery, glaciers and hopefully a bit of birdlife thrown in too. So long as the gloomy conditions cheered up!

First stop was Laguna los Palos, a pretty desolate lagoon about 45 minutes north of Punta Arenas. It was stacked with a couple of hundred Red Shovelers and Silver Teals, along with large numbers of Yellow-billed Teal; the odd burst of colour was provided by a small group of Chilean Flamingos and a flock of Patagonian Yellow-finches in the grassland. However, in the rather dismal conditions, a quick look for Magellanic Plovers was fruitless and so we moved on north where the first of these boys - Darwin's Rhea - were by the roadside...

Heading off the main road an hour or so short of Puerto Natales, we headed east along a gravel track towards Punta Delgada which traversed steppe habitat (pampalarga) which was home to two pretty decent species - Tawny-throated Dotterel and White-bellied Seedsnipe. I'd seen the dotterel in Argentina back in 2003, but the views of a flock of 27 birds here were much better: -

While it took a bit of time and scanning, a group of three White-bellied Seedsnipe were eventually found. These high altitude breeders were probably recently in on their wintering ground here: -
And so with a couple of skunk sightings and endless Guanacos, as well as a load of Black-chested Buzzard Eagles, the other quality species I located here were a couple of Yellow Bridled Finch which were slightly reticent to come close...

After that, it was time to keep Karen happy and spend the afternoon in Torres del Paine. But that was after a quick stop in the picturesque Puerto Natales where Grey-flanked (photo below) and Dark-bellied Cinclodes showed on the seashore along with Black-necked and Coscoroba Swans.
A single Great Grebe and several Red-gartered Coots showed at range on a lake, while Andean Condors soared. In Torres del Paine itself, a pair of Spectacled Teal on a braided river channel were quality but a bit distant for photos, while an Aplomado Falcon zipped past. Infinite Guanacos (photo below) and Darwin's Rheas were an everlasting memory set to the backdrop of high peaks and glaciers... all rounded off in the evening by perhaps the best steak I've ever had (or at least the best steak I've had since Argentina!).
So that was that. A quick whistle stop tour of southernmost Chile, heading north and wanting more. The fresh air, spectacular landscapes (especially if you're a geographer like me!) and real quality birds genuinely make this one of the best and nicest places I have been fortunate to visit. Off to sweat it up north in Arica next with some different larids...

Sunday 23 April 2017

Chile part three - Tierra del Fuego

With just a two hour ferry ride separating Punta Arenas and Tierra del Fuego, it seemed an obvious option to visit this mystical, barren land while I was in southern Chile. There was one major reason why I wanted to head over the Magellan Straits and it was strangely very dudey. I'd only ever seen a couple of species of penguin - Little Blue in Australia back in 2003 and Galapagos Penguin a couple of years back. Both pretty small, and being honest, relatively unimpressive. So with the prospect of a visit to a King Penguin colony, that in itself made the trip worthwhile.
Arriving at the ferry terminal in Punta Arenas on a crisp blue morning, the sea was like a millpond. Lovely for sailing, but past experience of pelagics told me it wouldn't be great for birds. But so far away from home, and with little experience in the southern oceans, there would surely be a few bits and bobs. And that there was in the two hour trip - the highlights were a single Magellanic Diving Petrel, half a dozen Southern Giant Petrels, a single Black-browed Albatross, five Wilson's Storm-petrels, good numbers of South American Terns and a few hundred Southern Fulmars complete with their whacky looking inner primary flash. There were also a couple of bits of big blubber spouting out water, which I thought were Fin Whales: -

Arriving on Tierra del Fuego, we scooted round the bay to Porvenir where a couple of White-tufted Grebes and Kelp Geese, along with several Flying Steamer Ducks, greeted us.
And then as we arrived on the outskirts of Porvenir, in lovely light, there was a really confiding flock of Dolphin Gulls. Really close views so smashed a few hundred photos before heading on out of town...

Rufous-chested Dotterels were, like the previous day, nice and inquisitive on the foreshore as were the local Chimango Caracaras: -

Brown-headed Gulls also showed really well on the foreshore in Porvenir: -
Just outside of Porvenir, as we descended into the wilds, a couple of Fire-eyed Diucons were by the roadside. Nice birds.

Stopping off at Laguna Santa Maria, all the birds present were a reminder that I was a long way from home - Black-necked and Coscoroba Swans, large flocks of Silvery Grebes (but without the hoped for Hooded), Chiloe Wigeons, Yellow-billed Teal, Red-gartered Coot and a Chilean Skua patrolled the skies. But the commonest bird on Tierra del Fuego - present along the roadside in good numbers - was the best for me. For some reason Upland Geese were really charismatic and very different from the grey geese I'm use to seeing: -
Anyway, by mid afternoon it was time for the main event and on arrival at Bahia Inutil, there was a colony of King Penguins that provided some really good value. There were about 130 birds in all, and though the colony was nice to see, the real highlight was seeing small groups walking in typical style back along the beach from their feeding forays: -

So after that experience, it was time to drive across more Upland Goose covered landscape to the ferry terminal at Bahia Azul and head back off Tierra del Fuego to the mainland at Punta Delgada. It was a thoroughly enjoyable day, and the only regret being it was just that - more time in this special place was needed...

Sunday 16 April 2017

Chile part two - Punta Arenas and the extreme south

Very difficult to be asked 'where is the favourite place you have ever been to?' However, as soon as I stepped off the plane in the extreme south of Chile at Punta Arenas I kind of knew it'd be right up there. Crisp, fresh air and clear blue skies with a landscape very Shetland/Hebridean-esque. Just with a load of different birds...

First stop was a wetland area to the north of the town where a couple of screens looked over a frozen scrape. It didn't matter as the geese didn't care - Patagonia's not a place for grey geese, and like something out of childhood visits to the WWT, it was a multitude of goose colours with Upland Geese the commonest, several Ashy-headed Geese and four much rare Ruddy-headed Geese (all ringed locally): -
Ruddy-headed Goose Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017
It was hard to stay here long as I had the burning desire to find the local larids. As perhaps the main reason for coming all this way south was to see a species I'd been craving for ages - Dolphin Gull. No sooner had we hit the coast, seen some gulls and hurled a couple of cookies out then they appeared. This was the precursor to a few days with this species under ridiculously good light and super close views. Though nowhere near as common as Kelp Gulls, the Dophin Gulls were relatively regular along the coast and weren't shy either - always being the most inquisitive of the southern South American gulls. I won't bore you now with all the shots, but here are a couple for tasters: -

Dolphin Gulls Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017
Along with a load of Kelp Gulls, easily the commonest gull here in Punta Arenas, there was a neat flock of Brown-hooded Gulls at a nice river outflow by the beach. A new gull for me anyway, so time to soak in a few of them: -

Brown-hooded Gulls Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017
Before scanning through them and having one of those moments where you question your mind and what you're seeing. Given that Punta Arenas and Patagonia are essentially one of the last bits of land before you hit Antarctica, I was more than surprised to stumble upon what must be one of the most lost birds I've seen, a first-winter Sabine's Gull, which will have been bred last summer in the Arctic 10,000 miles away: -

1st-winter Sabine's Gull Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017
There was also a single Franklin's Gull in the flock, which was nice to see too. After having a nice dudey lunch out our hotel, we headed off to the south on the road to Fuerte Bulnes, where the coastal scenery was cracking and the air here even fresher than in Punta Arenas. There was a lot of birdlife along the coast here, with loads of Imperial Shags, Crested Ducks, Chimango Caracaras and Kelp Gulls along with a couple of really smart looking Kelp Geese (sexual dimorphism at its best!), several Rufous-chested Dotterels, Southern Caracaras and Magellanic Oystercatchers: -
Kelp Gull Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017
Crested Duck Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017 
Kelp Goose (male left, female right) Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017
Southern Caracara Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017
Magellanic Oystercatcher Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017
Rufous-chested Dotterel Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017
Passerine wise, it was slim pickings but Austral Blackbirds, Long-tailed Meadowlarks and Thorn-tailed Rayaditos were present.
Austral Blackbird Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017
And then back in town these guys showed up just as the sun was setting: -
Dusky Dolphins Punta Arenas, Chile April 2017
A really great, memorable day that was rounded off by some high quality Patagonian lamb and a good night's sleep. All in preparation for the next day...

Friday 14 April 2017

Chile part one - El Yeso, Santiago

I'm kind of burdened with the number of superlatives that could be used for my trip to Chile as I sit here in Santiago on my final morning. We've spent just 10 days travelling around this wonderful place - from the far south (Punta Arenas and Tierra del Fuego) to the extreme north (Arica) with 6 hours of internal flights in between. Plus a couple of days in and around Santiago (when we landed and then when we left). Full of birds (gulls in particular obviously) but as it was a bit of a Karen holiday too, some nice restaurants, lovely accommodation and culture too.

I'll start with a summary of just the first day here around Santiago - in fact a trip up to El Yeso to see a few Andean species straight from the airport. Given that it was April (so autumn), it was going to be a bit a bit hit and miss whether Chile's most iconic bird - Diademed Sandpiper-Plover - was still on its breeding grounds (its wintering area isn't that well known). As it was, most had indeed cleared out, but there was a showy juvenile that performed rather nicely which put to rest the desire to see this species, ever since I thumbed through the old Helm Shorebirds guide as a young kid. Pretty exquisite looking thing...
Diademed Sandpiper-Plover El Yeso, Chile April 2017
High up in the Andes, there were also some nice endemics (or near-endemics to) with Crag Chilia, Moustached Turca and Chilean Mockingbird easily seen.
Crag Chilia El Yeso, Chile April 2017
Chilean Mockingbird El Yeso, Chile April 2017
On the alpine-like meadows Buff-winged Cinclodes, Rufous-banded Miners and Grey-hooded Sierra Finches were common while by the reservoir itself three Mountain Caracaras were a nice change from the abundant Chimango Caracaras. While the mother of raptors, the Andean Conder, cruised over the peaks above: -
Andean Condor El Yeso, Chile April 2017
The glacial streams provided nice views of Grey-flanked Cinclodes, Grey-breasted Seedsnipe and a couple of Baird's Sandpipers that looked like they should probably be heading north.
Grey-breasted Seedsnipe El Yeso, Chile April 2017
Baird's Sandpiper El Yeso, Chile April 2017
Grey-flanked Cinclodes El Yeso, Chile April 2017
Rufous-crowned Sparrows of the pale crowned race were cheekily scrubbing about too.
Rufous-crowned Sparrow El Yeso, Chile April 2017
Other birds noted included a Magellanic Tapaculo scrotting around on one of the infinite rocky hillsides, a brief Plumbeous Sierra-Finch, both White-browed and Dark-faced Ground-tyrants, four Crested Ducks and a few Southern Lapwings. And all this with a backdrop of high peaked Andean mountains and remnant glaciers.