Wild Patagonia & Central Chile Nov 03—17, 2016

Posted by Andrew Whittaker


Andrew Whittaker

Andrew Whittaker, a senior member of the VENT staff, has led VENT tours since 1993 throughout Brazil, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Panama, Europe,...

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Our 2016 Wild Patagonia & Central Chile tour was sensational! We were blown away by world-class scenery, Pumas galore, a wonderful King Penguin colony, a profusion of colorful and confiding tapaculos, killer views of the astounding Magellanic Woodpecker, immense Andean Condors, and much more. 

It’s well worth visiting this almost European country just to experience the incomparable scenery at either the 8th Wonder of the World or the famous Torres del Paine National Park, or to cross the famous Straits of Magellan to bird “The Land of Fire.” Chile simply rocks (in more ways than one). And let’s not forget the superlative Chilean wines!

Our new action-packed tour surpassed my greatest expectations! Beginning on a high note, at our first stop we nailed the amazingly colorful and poorly-known South American Painted Snipe, and after that it just continued to get better and better.  Traveling south on modern freeways, we passed through the rich central valley, a famous wine producing area, with stunning snow-capped peaks to our left forming the backbone of this lovely country. At the next stop we were enjoying flocks of exotic Burrowing Parrots displaying their glorious colors as they commuted back and forth to nesting burrows in the river bank. Scope views made us all drool over the vibrant colors of Chiloe Wigeon before a pair of cool-looking and extremely localized Spectacled Ducks became the center of our attention.

King Penguin colony

King Penguin colony— Photo: Andrew Whittaker


Spectacular Andean peaks loomed in the distance as we climbed through the scenic forested slopes of Southern Beech to arrive at our comfortable forested lodge on the edge of the magnificent Altos de Lircay National Park. Here we enjoyed the late evening in the lovely gardens with White-throated Treerunner, Fire-eyed Diucon, Thorn-tailed Rayadito, and Patagonian Sierra-Finch before being treated like kings at a great family prepared banquet.

It was nonstop action the next day in these stunning old growth Nothofagus forests, home to one of the world’s classiest woodpeckers, the Magellanic (we managed breathtaking views). The forest floors were home to delicate white orchids as the wondrous songs of the highly sought after Chestnut-throated Huet-huet echoed through the valleys. It came so close, but sadly was only glimpsed. However, inviting well-kept forest trails rewarded us with Striped Woodpecker, Green-backed Firecrown, and Chilean Pigeon. After our scrumptious picnic we were greeted by a confiding Cuelpo Fox and exorbitantly colored Green-tailed Tree Iguanas, as we marveled over the backdrop of the magnificent cordillera of San Clemente and its towering snow-capped peaks. Rufous-legged Owl avoided being seen on our after dinner search, but managed to wake up some of us in the early hours of the morning as it sang from the lodge garden.

South American (Magellanic) Snipe

South American (Magellanic) Snipe— Photo: Andrew Whittaker


Migrating south, we flew next to the lovely coastal city of Porto Montt, founded in 1853 during German colonization. Picture-perfect snow-capped volcanoes greeted our arrival, and after a short drive we were birding Lahuen Nadi National Park. Exploring this splendid coastal Valdivian forest along a new wooden boardwalk was delightful. An extremely confiding Magellanic Tapaculo came to meet us after playback, clambering within feet of us, giving incredible views and capturing our hearts. We also enjoyed good looks at the odd Des Murs’s Wiretail with its long hair-like tail, and it took some work before we got looks at a lovely Austral Pygmy-Owl while the vibrant forest’s botany enchanted all.

The next day we visited another of Chile’s fine national parks, and it will be long remembered as the day of the Tapaculos! First the enchanting, large Black-throated Huet-huet blasted out its fabulous song and then, with help from a bluetooth speaker, a fine pair paraded right in front of us, strutting across the road in a grand finale!

Black-throated Huet-huet

Black-throated Huet-huet— Photo: Andrew Whittaker


Next up was a delightful Chucao Tapaculo behaving more like a European Robin as it hopped within feet of us with its tail cocked, showing off its magnificent colors and finer barred details while singing its heart out, and oh, what a fine song! Quickly following in suit, we had slam dunk studies of the often very hard to see bamboo-loving Ochre-flanked Tapaculo. The grand finale was, amazingly, another well-behaved Magellanic Tapaculo, this time showing off its white crown found on this subspecies. The crystal-clear stream flowing through this unique Alcerce Larch ’’Valdivian’’ forest with its fine trails was a joy to explore, with other highlights including the rare Chilean Hawk, Tufted Tit-Tyrant, and several odd-looking Patagonian Tyrants displaying from the cypress tree crowns. Again, our picnic lunch produced a wonderful spread of mouthwatering goodies, as well as yet another fox, this time a very tame Patagonian Gray Fox.

In the afternoon we skirted the delightful coastal road, birding our way back to the hotel and enjoying many shorebirds including our first Magellanic Oystercatcher, Black-faced Ibis, Imperial Cormorant, Peruvian Pelican, Chimango Caracara, Southern Lapwing, and even a macabre Southern Giant-Petrel over the beach!

Southern Lapwing

Southern Lapwing— Photo: Andrew Whittaker


Early the next day, after a great breakfast, found us embarking on the first ever Pincoya Storm-Petrel expedition. This tiny endemic storm-petrel was described new to science just 3 years ago (2013) and is known only from sheltered fjords around Chiloe Island. Population, breeding grounds, and voice are all unknown; it’s still a true enigma. However, our excellent boat crew, with the help of chum, did us proud, and soon we were the first group to see this bird well as they danced over the water!

On our short ferry crossing to the picturesque Island of Chiloe, we enjoyed our first studies of the odd form (possibly a new species) of Flightless Steamer-Duck, and Peale’s Dolphin too.

On arrival we drove through the rolling vibrant countryside onto the secluded Punihuil Bay, its rich turquoise sea and white sandy beach offering a wonderful setting. After observing our first pairs of lovely Kelp Geese and smart Red-legged Cormorants on nesting cliffs, we enjoyed a wonderful seafood meal. Boarding our private boat, we set off to the nearby islands, home to endearing Humboldt and Magellanic penguins, while Blackish Oystercatchers looked on from the rich, kelp-covered rocks. Armed with chum, we had a bonus of some hungry Black-browed Albatross, as well as Pink-footed Shearwaters landing to feed within meters of the boat, with a constant following flock of hungry Kelp Gulls.

Red-legged Cormorant on nest

Red-legged Cormorant on nest— Photo: Andrew Whittaker


After an action-packed day, the bay right in front of our comfortable family-run Caulin Lodge was brimming full with thousands of shorebirds, flocks of ducks and, of course, many stately Black-necked Swans, several with extremely cute cygnets, all in superb evening light. For dinner they prepared a local delicacy of fresh clams as starters, followed by superb fresh fish and wine.

The following morning, exploring nearby forest rewarded us with stellar views of endemic Slender-billed Parakeet, the unusual Rufous-tailed Plantcutter, Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetail, Austral Blackbirds, and a superb responsive pair of Magellanic Woodpeckers. Returning to the lodge bay, we had a “bambi” moment, with a cute brood of chestnut-headed 2–3 day-old Chiloe Wigeon ducklings following proud parents. Scopes trained, we sifted through and enjoyed thousands of wonderful Hudsonian Godwits, Red Knots, Whimbrels, Baird’s Sandpipers, gulls, and terns before heading off to the airport. Destination: Punta Arenas, “The Land of Fire”! 

Soon we were descending over the blue white-capped waters of the famous Straits of Magellan to embark on our exciting Patagonian adventure. The outskirts of town at the Tres Pontes Wetland Reserve were brimming with new birds such as our first Upland Geese and tiny, smart Austral Negritos on the grassy areas, while White-tufted Grebes graced the lakes along with Crested Duck, Red Shoveler, Yellow-billed Pintail and more. For dinner, at one of the best restaurants in town we enjoyed a scrumptious lamb barbecue meal washed down by great wine before a well-earned rest.

White-tufted Grebe pair

White-tufted Grebe pair— Photo: Andrew Whittaker


After a great Chilean breakfast, we loaded our comfortable bus and boarded the huge ferry to cross the famous Straits of Magellan, our destination, “The Land of Fire,‘’ Tierra del Fuego. This two-hour crossing was a rewarding pelagic with Magellanic Diving-Petrel, Fuegan (Wilson’s) Storm-Petrel, countless Black-browed Albatross, and many sinister Southern Giant-Petrels. To our great surprise, mid-way across was a migrating female Cinereous Harrier! Land bound, on the bleak Patagonian steppes we quickly homed in on one of our main targets, the rare, bizarre pink-legged Magellanic Plover. A very cool bird, so odd it’s the sole member of its family, Pluvianellidae. Thanks to Fernando’s intimate knowledge of this mega bird (he banded the first ever and is active in its study) we quickly enjoyed crippling scope studies of 3 fine birds. Other highlights included smart Two-banded Plovers, tiny Least Seedsnipe, Buff-winged Cinclodes, wonderful Cinnamon-bellied Ground-Tyrant, and Patagonian Yellow-Finch. 

Continuing south, the stark Patagonian landscapes rewarded us with our first herds of Guanacos, while the pink hues of Chilean Flamingoes graced remote brackish pools. Our next goal: all spellbound with huge smiles lighting up our faces, we took in surely one of the most handsome and dignified birds on our planet, the King Penguin. Standing 3-feet tall and averaging 35 Ibs, this fairly new mainland colony had over 110 glistening adults and 11 brown butter-ball young for us to enjoy!

Andean lowlands of central Chile

Andean lowlands of central Chile— Photo: Andrew Whittaker


The following travel day was dedicated to exploring some very remote pristine Patagonian Steppes. We left the island after a short ferry crossing which produced Rock Cormorant and some really cool looks at the startling black-and-white Commerson’s Dolphin. Back on the mainland, a remote wetlands served us well with Coscoroba Swans, very smart Ashy-headed Goose, breeding Silvery Grebe, Silver Teal and more. Next up were stellar views of a pair of the endangered Ruddy-headed Goose, followed closely by two magnificent shorebirds: Rufous-chested and Tawny-throated dotterels. Two low density beauties followed: the enigmatic long-winged Chocolate-vented Tyrant and then the stunning White-bridled ‘’Canary-winged’’ Finch. Stunning evening light greeted us at Torres del Paine National Park (the icing on the cake on this fabulous tour) after a long day, with all enjoying an unbelievable panoramic view of our classy island lodge (our comfy home for 3 nights) on the stunning turquoise Pehoe Lake. The dominating scenic backdrop was honestly to die for, with the towering bleak Paine Massif and its tremendous 2,000 m, 6,500 ft snow-capped spires and wondrous glaciers.

We saw Pumas galore over the next two days, with an incredible seven different individuals observed! We first marveled over scope views of a female with a large cub, followed while observing our first Andean Condors. In the afternoon, following an upward hike, we enjoyed really close encounters with a scared male dozing unperturbed by us, as he looked up to see us every so often, even yawning! The trip highlight, however, was following an impressive hunting female for several incredible minutes; thankfully, she was more interested in the abundant herds of Guanaco and introduced Hares than us! The following afternoon from our bus, yet another larger male was seen hunting, as well as a different female near a fresh Guanaco kill.

Puma, female, hunting

Puma, female, hunting— Photo: Andrew Whittaker


The birding in this wonderful park was exceptional. We enjoyed magical looks at a very responsive pair of the recently rediscovered Austral Rail, strutting flocks of smart Darwin’s Rheas (even a male with a bunch of cute striped youngsters), several graceful Cinereous Harriers, a very confiding Austral Pygmy-Owl, Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, Band-tailed Earthcreeper, Rufous-banded Miner, Austral Canastero, Ashy-headed Goose, Andean Ruddy Duck, Chilean Flicker, Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant, Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant, Gray-hooded Sierra-Finch, ’’Austral’’ Sedge Wren, and a splash of vibrant color from Long-tailed Meadowlarks. At almost every bend in the road in this paradise there was a scenic photo opportunity waiting, especially with the amazing show of flowering clumps of Guanaco plants looking like they were on fire with a vibrant mix of oranges and reds. 

Our secluded island held Flying Steamer-Ducks, families of Upland Geese, and even Rufous-tailed Plantcutters! Sadly, we had to leave and made our way back to Punto Arenas where we observed Coscoroba Swans and the lovely Dolphin Gull before visiting a spectacular Condor cliff on a private ranch. A fleet of jeeps took us up to the top of the cliffs where a stunning panoramic view of the Straits of Magellan awaited. Despite the inclement weather (adverse for these soaring monsters) we still managed to observe some magnificent Andean Condors drifting close by!

Guanaco plants, Torres del Paine National Park

Guanaco plants, Torres del Paine National Park— Photo: Andrew Whittaker


Our last morning at Punto Arenas (another sunny one) allowed for spectacular close studies of a migrant South American “‘Magellanic”’ Snipe that had certainly never seen humans before. White-tufted Grebe and Red Shoveler gleamed in the morning sun before, all too soon, we had to fly north back to Santiago to finish up this most enjoyable trip. 

You were a truly wonderful group, and it was our pleasure to be able to share so many special moments with you all in this beautiful country of Chile. I do hope we were able to pass on some of our immense passion, enthusiasm, and understanding of this truly magical region and its fine wildlife. I do hope to see all of you again on another exciting VENT adventure. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy reading this report and that it brings back some fantastic memories. Very happy birding to you all!