Monday, 30 January 2017

Journey to the Southern Cone: Part 3 (pelagic boat trip off Quintero, PN La Campana)

January 9, 2016

In the pre-dawn darkness we made our way along empty streets towards the town of Quintero where we were scheduled to be on a morning pelagic boat trip. Dawn broke as we drove past coastal scrub, dotted with fields and farms as well occasional houses. Not far to our west, the bright blue Pacific disappeared below steep cliffs.

We rolled into Quintero and made our way over to the designated part of the harbour where we quickly found our boat. It was on schedule, in no small part because of the gorgeous calm weather that was forecast. While the lack of wind would make things easier on our stomachs, it would also mean that fewer birds were likely to be seen. Shearwaters, petrels and albatrosses love a good windy day for flying around and foraging.

Quintero pelagic, Chile

After meeting the captain and some of the other birders on the trip, including a fellow named Gustav who was visiting his girlfriend here in Chile, we set off and slowly puttered through the harbour. Neotropic Cormorants and Kelp Gulls perched on buoys and docks within the harbour area, while a pair of Blackish Oystercatchers stood like sentries on boulders at the entrance to the harbour. We also spotted this South American Sea Lion, enjoyed the warm morning sun.

South American Sea Lion - off the Quintero coast, Chile

South American Sea Lion - Quintero pelagic, Chile

Peruvian Pelicans and Peruvian Boobies were frequently seen as we exited the harbour and sporadically throughout the rest of the morning.

Peruvian Pelican - Quintero pelagic, Chile

Peruvian Booby - Quintero pelagic, Chile

Peruvian Pelican - Quintero pelagic, Chile

One of our main target birds for this trip was conquered quickly. A small, black and white seabird flying past the boat revealed its identity as a Peruvian Diving-Petrel. Like the booby, pelican, Humboldt Penguin and a few other seabirds, the Peruvian Diving-Petrel is a species associated with the Humboldt Current, a cold upwelling that is considered one of the most productive marine systems in the world. An extraordinary amount of fish and other marine life flourish in the current, and as a result, copious numbers of seabirds make use of this plentiful food source. Diving-petrels are a southern hemisphere species that, although closely related to petrels, shearwaters and other "tubenoses", they appear very similar to northern hemisphere alcids, such as puffins, dovekies and murres. They likely fill a similar ecological niche as their northern counterparts, despite not being closely related to them.

Peruvian Diving-Petrel - Quintero pelagic, Chile

During the austral spring and summer, the Humboldt Current drifts closer to the Chilean coast, so it is relatively easy to take a short boat trip to access the productive waters. Only an hour or so after leaving the coast we were visited by our first albatross of the trip - a Salvin's. It was a sight I will never forget, watching the distant seabird as it drifted closer, its massive wings effortlessly slicing through the air as it dwarfed the nearby Kelp Gulls. We were pretty excited!

Salvin's Albatross - Quintero pelagic, Chile

Salvin's Albatross ended up being one of the most common seabirds we observed, and our final tally was 21 individuals. Some of them were interested in the swarm of gulls that had congregated due to the regular "chumming" of fish parts overboard, approaching quite close and often landing in the water next to the boat. It was incredible...

Salvin's Albatross - Quintero pelagic, Chile

Salvin's Albatross - Quintero pelagic, Chile

The winds picked up ever so slightly but they were never anything more than just a light breeze. However we kept chumming and scanning the horizon continuously and slowly but surely new species were observed. Westland Petrel and White-chinned Petrel are similar looking Procellaria petrels that both frequent the waters of the Humboldt current at this time of year. White-chinned is a more common species that we would have more chances at further south, while Westland is a rarer species that breeds on South Island, New Zealand. Less than 20,000 Westland Petrels remain in the world, while White-chinned number about 1.2 million. Both species are on the decline like many other petrels. One way to tell these two species apart is by the coloration of the top portion of the bill - it is dark in Westland Petrel, and white in White-chinned. The two species also appear a little different when they fly due to differences in proportions and flight style.

Westland Petrel - Quintero pelagic, Chile

Westland Petrel - Quintero pelagic, Chile

Westland Petrel - Quintero pelagic, Chile

White-chinned Petrel - Quintero pelagic, Chile

White-chinned Petrel - Quintero pelagic, Chile

Occasional Chilean Skuas were seen, often at a distance as they cruised past our boat.

Chilean Skua - Quintero pelagic, Chile

Wilson's Storm-Petrel is ubiquitous throughout many of the world's oceans. Prior to this trip this was the only storm-petrel I had ever seen. A few individuals were observed throughout the trip, skimming over the water's surface while stopping to hover and patter their feet on the water's surface.

Wilson's Storm-Petrel - Quintero pelagic, Chile

Salvin's were not the only albatrosses of the day - we were also treated to two Black-browed Albatrosses with one of them hanging around the boat for a few minutes.

Black-browed Albatross - Quintero pelagic, Chile

The poor flying conditions didn't help our cause, but we managed to find a handful of shearwaters eventually.  Throughout the course of the trip we tallied 17 Pink-footed and 3 Sooty. I was particularly happy to study the Pink-footed Shearwaters up close, as it was a new species for me.

Pink-footed Shearwater - Quintero pelagic, Chile

Pink-footed Shearwater - Quintero pelagic, Chile

Eventually we had to turn around and make the short trip back to the harbour in Quintero, as it was getting on in the morning. It had been a relatively slow day out on the water by typical standards, but it was hard to be disappointed with laying our eyes on our first Humboldt specialties as well as diving-petrels, shearwaters, petrels and two species of albatrosses. As a final bonus on the day, we spotted a few distant Inca Terns flying past before we entered the harbour. This distinctive species can not be fully appreciated with the views afforded by these fly-bys, but it was better than nothing!

Shortly after noon we were back on dry land and on our way back into the hills, our destination being La Campana National Park. The park protects a large area of dry scrub and matorral and is home to one of the last forests of Chilean Wine Palm. We were here for the birds, such as Giant Hummingbird, the world's largest hummingbird, and a few endemics including White-throated Tapaculo and Moustached Turca.

Parque Nacional La Campana, Chile

While stopping along the entrance road in the hot mid-afternoon sun we located our first Giant Hummingbird. It really was an impressive bird, in flight almost looking like a martin due to its large size. While in this area we found our first Chilean Pigeons and Striped Woodpeckers, localized species but common in appropriate habitat throughout this part of Chile.

Giant Hummingbird - Parque Nacional La Campana, Chile

Lizards were a common sight here as well, including these, which are the local flavor of Liolaemus.

Liolaemus species - Parque Nacional La Campana, Chile

We hiked up from the parking lot to spend the evening searching the matorral for the avian gems hidden within. Moustached Turcas were soon heard and we were treated with great views of this Chilean endemic around the bend of the trail. Moustached Turca is one of the more distinctive members of the tapaculo family, a group of birds that are mostly small, dark balls of fluff with short, cocked tails that are far more frequently heard than seen, as they skulk about in the shadows of the understorey. In Chile there are eight species of tapaculos, possibly nine if Magellanic Tapaculo gets split. Several of these are quite distinctive in their own right, such as Chucao Tapaculo, Moustached Turca, and two species of Huet-Huets. Another endemic is the White-throated Tapaculo which also can be found at La Campana. While we heard many White-throated throughout the evening, only Adam managed a brief look at one.

Moustached Turca - Parque Nacional La Campana, Chile

At one point I noticed several Thorn-tailed Rayaditos making a racket down the hillside and after a few seconds realized why they were agitated - there was an Austral Pygmy-Owl sitting quietly in the branches!

Austral Pygmy-Owl - Parque Nacional La Campana, Chile

We enjoyed a few more of the birds found in the matorral, including Tufted Tit-Tyrants (a great name), Fire-eyed Duicons (also a great name), and Dusky-tailed Canasteros.

Dusky-tailed Canastero - Parque Nacional La Campana, Chile

Tufted Tit-Tyrant - Parque Nacional La Campana, Chile

As the sun crept towards the horizon we made our way over to a nearby creek, hoping to hear a Rufous-banded Owl which is sometimes seen or heard in the area. The heat of the day had dissipated and it was actually relatively cool as we waited for nightfall. A Dusky Tapaculo played hide and seek with us along the creek before we devoted our efforts to the owl. We almost gave up on finding the owl, when finally we heard one calling in the distance. A great finish to an excellent day.

We returned to the hotel that we had found earlier in the afternoon for a well-deserved rest. Our plan for the following day was to return to La Campana for a few more hours, followed by a drive towards Santiago and into the Andes. Our plan was to explore the Farellones, where Andean Condors soared, ground-tyrants flitted and viscachas roamed.

January 10, 2016

We returned to La Campana before dawn to try to find the few remaining target birds we had left to see here, as well as to hopefully obtain better views of White-throated Tapaculo.

The dawn chorus was a little stronger than the occasional vocalizations we had heard the previous evening, and soon most of our target species were accounted for. It was a relief when we finally locked eyes on a White-throated Tapaculo, and I even managed a poor "record" photo.

White-throated Tapaculo - Parque Nacional La Campana

It was getting on close to 9:00 AM and we had some ground to cover if we wanted to visit all of our proposed stops for the day, so we quickly made it back down to the entrance where our car was parked.

We had a three hour drive to get to Farellones, a ski resort town high in the Andes above Santiago that just so happens to be a great birding location during the summer. We stopped several times during the drive, including once to observe and photograph a Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, a uniquely shaped raptor that I had wanted to see for some time.

Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle - near Tiltil, Chile

We wasted some time trying to find an access spot for Laguna Betuca, a relatively large lake that can be very productive for waterbirds. Eventually we made our way to the shores of the lake where the water level was very low, concentrating the birds.

Dave and Adam at Laguna Batuco, Chile

As it was early afternoon, very few birds were vocalizing making it difficult to pick out new species. We did add a handful of new birds however, including Cinereous Harrier, Lake Duck, Black-headed Duck and a lost-looking Andean Goose. Black-necked Stilts were abundant, and Red-gartered was the local coot flavour here.

Black-necked Stilt - Laguna Batuco, Chile
skipper sp. - Laguna Batuco, Chile
Our next stop, supposedly a good location to find Black Rail, also had reduced water levels. We walked around in the dry reeds for a few minutes but eventually decided to cut our losses and head for the mountains.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Journey to the Southern Cone: Part 2 (Santiago area)

January 8, 2016

My overnight flight from Toronto to Santiago was relatively uneventful, and I even managed a few hours of sleep. I was feeling a little bleary-eyed as I touched down in Chile, but the rush of excitement over what the next few weeks had in store was like a shot of caffeine. I quickly made it through customs without any issues and since I was only taking a single carry-on bag (my backpack) I was able to skirt around the baggage terminal. Two familiar faces were waiting in the terminal to great me - it was good to meet up again with Dave and Adam and start this adventure!

We were planning on covering a lot of ground on this trip - from Santiago south to Patagonia, and then northeast along the Atlantic coast of Argentina to Buenos Aires. We had planned to cover the long distances mostly with overnight buses, but we had a single internal flight planned; from Puerto Montt in central Chile to Punta Arenas in the south. Our itinerary allowed four days in the vicinity of Santiago at the start of the trip. To cut down on travel time as well as provide us with the opportunity to visit a number of key locations, we had pre-booked a rental car for this four-day period.

Picking up the rental car at the airport went relatively smoothly and before long we were on our way, cruising west through the foothills and towards the coast, and our destination of Rio Maipo.

The Rio Maipo river-mouth is an easily accessible location for birders, located on the coast near the town of San Antonio, due west of Santiago, the capital. The expansive Scirpus reedbeds at the river-mouth provide habitat for a wide variety of interesting waterbirds and marsh birds characteristic of cenral Chile.

We parked our car in a quiet area and walked towards the marshes along a dirt roadway. New birds came quickly as we trained our eyes and ears on the surrounding landscape - Spectacled Tyrants, Rufous-tailed Plantcutters, Black-chinned Siskins, the endemic Chilean Mockingbird, and many more. Picui Ground-Dove is the local ground-dove in this part of central America, and dozens flushed as we approached along the dirt road.

Picui Ground-Dove - Rio Maipo, Chile

The birding was pretty exciting and any remnant cobwebs from the long red-eye flight were quickly shaken as we adjusted to this new landscape. We slowly meandered along some footpaths towards the river,, flanked by extensive reedbeds. It was here that several species can be found, some which are highly localized. Our attention was soon drawn to some movement in the reeds, and while it took a few moments for the bird to show, the distinctive yellow, red, black and blue coloration of the small bird was immediately recognizable as the plumage of a Many-colored Rush-Tyrant. While widespread in south-central South America, this is a highly sought after species for visiting birders, due to its somewhat secretive nature and exquisite coloration. Eventually we were treated to much improved looks, and we even managed some photos. A great start to the trip!

Many-coloured Rush-Tyrant - Rio Maipo, Chile

Wherever Many-colored Rush-Tyrants are found is a safe bet that Wren-like Rushbirds are also nearby. This is another species that is directly associated with Scirpus reedbeds.

Wren-like Rushbird - Rio Maipo, Chile

With a bit of playback we were treated to good views of a Ticking Doradito some time later. Once considered a subspecies of the more widespread Warbling Doradito, the birds in central Chile and western Argentina were recently afforded species status, and are now known as Ticking Doradito. While appearing nearly identical in appearance to Warbling Doradito, Ticking Doradito is known for having a distinctive song. We were treated to some vocalizations from these birds, and watched an adult feed a newly fledged individual deep in the reeds.

Ticking Doradito - Rio Maipo, Chile

We thoroughly enjoyed our time exploring the reedbeds, slowly making our way towards the coast where thousands of gulls and skimmers could be seen roosting on the beach. Along the way, we continued adding new birds such as Plumbeous Rail, Yellow-winged Blackbird, Tufted Tit-Tyrant and Sedge Wren. For now, the Sedge Wrens in South America are considered the same species as the ones we get breeding in Ontario.

Gulls and shorebirds are a favorite of mine so I was eager to check out the big flocks roosting along the beach. Black Skimmer, Franklin's Gull and American Oystercatcher were some of the more common species while Kelp Gull was the default "large gull" of the area.

American Oystercatchers and Black Skimmers - Rio Maipo, Chile

Franklin's Gull - Rio Maipo, Chile

The thousands of Franklin's Gulls provided excellent looks, but I was more interested in the small groups of Gray Gulls. This species is, in my opinion, one of the most attractive gull species, and one that I had anticipated seeing for some time.

Gray Gull - Rio Maipo, Chile

Gray Gulls, Elegant Terns and Franklin's Gulls - Rio Maipo, Chile

Gray Gull - Rio Maipo, Chile

Gray Gull - Rio Maipo, Chile

Gray Gulls - Rio Maipo, Chile

We enjoyed views of our first Great Grebes as scattered individuals peppered the horizon. Flocks of Peruvian Pelicans and occasional Peruvian Boobies cruised by, along with our first Neotropic Cormorants of the trip.

Retracing our steps along the river back towards where we had parked, we noticed several lizards in the scrubby areas. Impossible to get too close to, but good enough for "record photos". I still need to work out the ID on them.

We departed the Rio Maipo area after a very successful two and a half hours. It was now almost 6 PM and we had one more location on our agenda. After stopping briefly to scan a distant wetland for ducks and coots, we grabbed some roadside empanadas and drove over to Punta de Tralca, a scenic beach popular with locals.

Punta de Tralca, Chile

Punta de Tralca, Chile

Our interest wasn't in merely enjoying a beautiful Friday evening along the idyllic coast; we had a particular target bird species we hoped to encounter here. The Seaside Cinclodes is one of the more widespread endemic birds to Chile, though it is very limited in its habitat preference; the rocky Pacific coast of Chile. In the right habitat however this species can be relatively common, and Punta de Tralca had some recent ebird reports.

After clamboring over some rocks and enjoying the view over the Pacific Ocean, we got down to work and began scouring the coastline for our target bird. It took a little bit of searching but we heard several and eventually spotted a few of them.

Seaside Cinclodes - Punta de Tralca, Chile

Seaside Cinclodes - Punta de Tralca, Chile

It was now past 8:00 PM, but due to our latitude and the time of year, sunset was not for almost two more hours. We spent some time just enjoying the view and scanning out over the ocean, occasionally spotting flocks of Peruvian Boobies with some Red-legged and Guanay Cormorants mixed in. We also located our first giant-petrel, though unfortunately it was too distant to identify to species. 

Peruvian Boobies and Guanay Cormorants - Punta de Tralca, Chile

It was tough leaving such a beautiful location, but we had a little bit of ground to cover to make it north up the coast to Quintero, where we had a pelagic scheduled in the morning. The drive was relatively uneventful and it took us a bit longer than we would have liked to find a place to stay, but by 11:30 PM we were dreaming of diving-petrels, albatrosses and shearwaters. It had been a very successful first day in Chile.