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Central Chile - Mountains and Sea (1 Viewer)

Peter C.

...just zis guy, you know?
"I would not have made this so long except that I do not have the
leisure to make it shorter."
-Blaise Pascal
This past Christmas, I was fortunate enough to have a few ‘free’ days off, which I could cobble together a whole week (yes, seven whole days, whoo-hoo!) for a vacation. The Significant Other and I decided we’d do another one of our ‘quick get-aways’, this time to central Chile. Why [I hear some people cry] go there, a good 10¾-hour flight away? Especially given that there are so many perfectly-good tropical birding destinations to be visited, at only about half the distance? Well, several independent factors coalesced to motivate this choice of destination, but the main ones were these:
#1 – New country, ergo, new everything (pretty nearly). Neither of us had ever seen Chile before. We had done a couple of previous trips to South America, but these had barely taken us beyond about one degree south latitude. So, there was a whole bio-region there – the south temperate – which was terra incognita for us. As south American countries go, Chile has a very limited overall checklist, but virtually all of these would be lifers.
#2 – We would be hitting the ground in Chile just a few days after the Summer solstice; this meant the sun would rise before 0700, and not set until after 2100. The long daylight hours were a big draw, not just because there’d be more time for bird-watching, but also because they would make life easier for traveling – more time to get from place to place, in an unfamiliar country.
#3 - As always, for us, convenience plays a large part in our choice of destination, especially for trips of such short duration. We chose Chile partly on the strength of the fact that we could reach Santiago via a direct, non-stop flight from Toronto Pearson (which is less than an hour’s drive from our house); we wouldn’t have to go through security several times, worry about transferring luggage, and, most importantly, would have to waste any of our precious 168 available hours sitting around, waiting for a connection.
With only a week, and non-infinite funds, we couldn't afford to be very ambitious in our itinerary. The blue rectangle in the attached outline map shows, very roughly, the area we visited on this trip.


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Peter C.

...just zis guy, you know?
Practical miscellanea

(Warning! Travel advice in this post – nothing about birds! Anybody just interested in hearing about birds, you want to skip ahead to my next post….)

The flight:
Air Canada direct Toronto to Santiago. This is not a particularly inexpensive flight (C$1660 pp double) but has, as I mentioned, the advantage of being direct. Another plus about this flight is that it is an overnight flight, both ways – outbound, it leaves at 2355, and arrives 1215 (Chilean summer time); the return departs 2145 from Santiago and gets us back home 0610 the next day. This had huge practical advantages, especially as we had a very tight schedule; the early-afternoon arrival meant that we could get some of the way towards our destination on that first day, and the evening departure meant that we would have enough time on our final day to do something worthwhile, rather than just rushing back to Santiago to make our flight.

Reciprocity fees:
If you are unlucky enough to be a citizen of Canada, Australia, the United States, Mexico, or Albania (huh?), you will have to pay for the privilege of just entering Chile. This is thanks to hare-brained actions of your respective governments, which have imposed steep fees upon Chilean citizens wanting to get a visa to enter your country. In response, the Chilean government has taken the equally hare-brained step of imposing retaliatory fees on all citizens of these countries who visit Chile. (At the Santiago Airport, at least – I hear that it does not apply if you are entering via land crossings, for example.) What a brilliant way to stifle tourism …. (“A plague o’ both your houses! I am sped!”)
And the wronged Chileans, they who are being so brazenly ripped off by the governments of Canada, Australia, et al? When may they expect to see some of these funds, being collected on their behalf? About the same time Sarah Palin sells her rifles and joins PETA, I expect. (“Your houses!”)
The fee is payable at a special booth just inside the terminal (do NOT try to go through immigration first) and the amount varies, depending on citizenship; currently, Canadians have to pay $132 U.S. each – which is about the same in $Can., at the moment.

The car rental:
Whether to get oneself about in a rented vehicle, or to try to make other arrangements, is always a contentious issue on these trips. It is never easy to strike a balance between the high costs of renting a car, on one hand, and the potential loss of freedom and flexibility inherent in relying on other means of transport (whether that be cheap public buses or expensive hired drivers). I have had a – let us say “checkered” – history when it comes to hiring cars in Central and South America. Sometimes, the car – and in one memorable case, the company – has simply evaporated somewhere between my booking and our arrival. So, I always think long and hard about alternatives before renting.
For a short trip like this, to a large country like Chile, I decided that the cost and anxiety involved were justified; there was simply no way we could have seen what we wanted to see, in the brief time available, without having our own vehicle. Local buses did go to most of the places we ended up going, but making the connection would have cost us a great deal of time. As it turned out, the “gamble” paid off well, because the company we went with (Econorent, right in the airport) gave excellent service. They had the car type we wanted, at the rate we expected (on the high side, but all 4-wheel drive cars in Chile are expensive, it seems), and the check-in and return were both quick and hassle-free.

Dramatis personae, a.k.a., "The Team":
  • Me, myself, your humble scribbler.
  • A young lady I’ll only refer to a DMM; my longtime travel companion, confidante, and a bird-finder extraordinaire. We’ve been birding together since … we’ve been birding.
  • Also joining us for this round, a grey 2009 Suzuki Gran Vitara. This small 2-door 4X4 used to be called the “Sidekick” over here. I think the new name is more than a little absurd, given that it barely could hold us and our baggage; Suzuki “Pequeño Vitara”, would be more like it. Still, it worked fine for us, and despite the 1.6 L engine, was surprisingly good on hills.
Some useful items that we took- Optics:
  • As well as our usual binoculars, we also took my ancient, well-worn scope and tripod (looks like something recovered from the deck of HMS Hood). On other trips, I have found that this combination to prove to be just so much dead weight; on this trip, however, it proved to be very useful indeed – we found ourselves at a few good waterfowl spots in Chile.
  • A Sony α DSLR with two lenses: a 28-70 f4, and a 70-300 mm f4.5-5.6. I found this “long” lens to be really not long enough, this time around. But… I’d rather have another trip than a new big lens.
- Books:
  • Birds of Chile, by Alvaro Jaramillo (Princeton Field Guides series 2005). The essential bird book for Chile, compact and well illustrated. A wonderful reference.
  • A Wildlife Guide to Chile, by Sharon Chester (Princeton U.P., 2008). This generalist field guide includes birds too, but for our purposes, was the “guide for everything else”. Includes sections on habitat types, flowering plants, mammals, reptiles, etc.
Something not-so-useful that we took:

The iPod touch. I loaded a few of bird songs onto the Touch from Xeno-canto; however, in the rush leading up to our departure, I did not time to do so in an exhaustive fashion. So, as luck would have it, the ones I had downloaded were not the ones I really needed! On the plus side, it certainly doesn’t threaten to put my baggage over the weight limit.

[The actual trip report will commence once I get some photos organized....]

Peter C.

...just zis guy, you know?
Day 1: Dec. 26 Toronto-Sanitiago-Machalí

Arrived in Santiago at about 1245 local time, about half-an-hour late due to headwinds.
As ever, when we arrive at a brand-new destination, DMM and I play the “what will be the first bird?” game. She was betting on Barn Swallow – statistically, one of the safer bets one could make, given that species’ ubiquity (and predilection for airport buildings); I however, was thinking some Killdeer-like beast, given that almost every airport I’ve ever been to, from Cairns to Costa Rica, has some sort of plover (or plover equivalent) on the infield.

In the end, we were both entirely wrong; not a single swallow, of any description - nor any kind of plover – was in sight. Instead, our first bird, seen foraging on a very dry patch of grass just outside the deplaning ramp, was some sort of thrush. It was American Robin-sized, but entirely different in plumage – a sort of warm ochre-brown on the breast, with a darker back. Not wanting to delay too much (we hadn’t even reached immigration yet) we just took some notes and moved along, figuring to look it up later. (Bird #2, incidentally, was seen right along side it – House Sparrow. No shortage of those here. Must be the absence of Sparrowhawks in this country.)

After paying our extortionary “welcome to Chile” fee (see above), picked up our bags and our car, (thankfully without incident) and headed down south on the “Ruta cinco”. What a feeling - a new country, binoculars, and the open road stretching out ahead … !

(Oh – I do apologise, but, even though we’re only two birds in, I’m afraid it’s already time for one of these…)
[Aside] Chilean roads. Another factor in our choice of destination was Chile’s reputation – and this was largely bourne out by experience – for having very well-maintained highways. I can’t personally speak for the roads in more remote parts of the country, but right around Santiago, there is an excellent system of big, fast, multi-lane highways. These are very attractive to us time-pressed foreigners who mostly want a way to get the heck out of Santiago as quickly as possible!

The downside, such as it is, is that all this tarmac needs to be paid for, so there are tolls everywhere (some cash, but mostly electronic toll roads, or ETRs). I don’t mind at all paying these kinds of fees – but the problem is, that if you rent a car in Santiago, you end up paying a flat daily fee for the transponder that the rental companies must provide, in order for you to be able to use these roads at all (it seems that they all do this – recording your actual usuage, and passing that on to you, seems to be too complicated). For those of us who only use these roads twice – on the way to and back from the hinterland – this seems like a terrible rip. However, aside from renting your car in a different city, I could find no way around this…
Outside of the metropolitan area, you will also find tolls on the major, limited-access roads – but these are cash only (so be sure to have some small denominations handy), and very reasonable – I think they ranged from 1500-1900 pesos (about $3 - $4). And even the secondary roads in the regions we visited were in pretty good shape, almost everywhere we went – including some of the ones going way up into the Andes (see, especially, the road up the Rio Maule, which I’ll get to (eventually) on day 4)

The short of it is, we found driving in Central Chile to be a breeze – a lot like home, except with fewer cars! A regular, compact car would have been fine, for most of the roads we used. It was only in the most rural of places that we found ourselves really needing the better traction and higher ground clearance that “El Pequeño” afforded us.

We now return you today’s trip report, already in progress. [/aside]
Since I knew we’d be rather bushed after the overnight flight, I had taken pains to ensure we’d not have to do anything really stressful on our first day. I had, therefore, reserved our first night’s accomodation at a place relatively close to Santiago – a small hotel called Il Giardiano, just outside Rancagua, about 1 ½ hours’ drive south of the airport.

At first, there wasn’t much to see on the way, except the occasional feral Pigeon. At one point, however, DMM was startled by the sight of something very much like a nighthawk! At least, it looked a lot like a nighthawk – a large, long-winged brown bird, with a short neck, and big white crescents in the wings. I knew there was one such species in Chile – but thought it very unlikely that we’d be seeing it in mid-afternoon! Surely not – but what else could it be? Even the flight pattern looked right; long, deep beats, with the wing held slightly crooked at the wrist.

Then we saw another … and another. Hmm. Although I didn’t get very good looks at any of these individuals (I thought it best not to spend too much time craning my neck to look at birds, whilst doing 120 km/hr on an unfamiliar freeway – at home maybe, but not here), I was sure they were all the same species – and therefore it couldn’t be anything really out of the ordinary, such as a day-flying caprimulgid. Well, when all else fails, check the book … so DMM dug Sr. Jaramillo out of the pocket of my bag in the back seat … and inquired of him, what does Chile offer, that is large, long-winged, brownish, and fairly common? Let’s see … there’s the Chimango Caracara, which (he explained), is “abundant, the ecological counterpart of … crows” Oh, and look – extensive white patches at the bases of the primaries – that certainly seems to be our boy. (Well, du-uh.)

After a small detour into Rancagua (none of the exits seemed to go east, which we needed to do) we arrived at our hotel mid-afternoon. I had chosen the location very carefully – as I mentioned before, I wanted something that was an easy drive from Santiago, but with at least a bit of vegetation around it, so there would at least be some chance that there would be birds there. Il Giardiano met all of these conditions; it had a some good trees, and a fairly pleasant “short-grass-habitat” (a.k.a. lawn). The area was a bit more developed than I had hoped, but it was “country club” sort of development, so not very dense – in fact, the property across the street was a polo club.

While hauling bags in from the car, I saw our thrush sp. (from back at the airport) again. A hotel employee noticed my binoculars, and helpfully provided me with the name – he called it a Zorzal. This, it seems, is a generic name for “thrush” in Chile, because I noticed in the field guide that there are a couple of different “zorzals” , as well as a few “zorzalitos”. This one, not surprisingly, was the common, widespread species, the Austral Thrush (you might call it the “default” zorzal.) Also seen on the hotel grounds were some of the more common “suburban” birds of the area – Eared Dove, Chliean Swallow, and (Southern) House Wren.

As there wasn’t much else to see at out hotel at that moment (it was, after all, mid-afternoon), we decided it would be an excellent time to get a non-birding errand out of the way; since we had booked into self-catering cabins for our subsequent six nights, we needed to do some shopping. So, after dumping the luggage, we hopped into the car again, and headed back down the road towards town – and immediately ran into a whole pile of birds! It just happened that the polo club was watering one of their lawns at the time, which was attracting crowds of them. Mostly it was more Chimango Caracaras (which really do hang out in great mobs (murders?) like crows), but there were also a fair number of Southern Lapwing (a strikingly large plover), and Shiny Cowbirds.

Once our shopping in Rancagua was out of the way, we returned to Il Giardiano. Too worn out by all the day’s travel to contemplate anything really ambitious, we contented ourselves with a walk on some of the local roads and laneways. DMM wanted especially to find some good vantage points to photograph the nearby Andean foothills (there are always wires, everywhere….) Certainly, this area was not much for birding – the amount of traffic around, for one thing, was much greater than expected – but nonetheless, we got a few new lifers before the sun went down: Picui Ground-dove, Grassland Yellow-finch, and, best of all, Long-tailed Meadowlark. This latter bird, to a North American at least, looks a little surreal; very much like one of our familiar meadowlark species – but dipped in bright red dye!

December 26 bird list:
1. Austral Thrush
2. House Sparrow
3. Chimango Caracara
4. Rock Pigeon
5. Eared Dove
6. (Southern) House Wren
7. Chilean Swallow
8. Southern Lapwing
9. Shiny Cowbird
10. Picui Ground-dove
11. Yellow-winged Blackbird
12. Grassland Yellow-finch
13. White-tailed Kite
14. Long-tailed Meadowlark
(Birds in bold are the lifers.)

Photos: First day’s route, from the international airport to Il Giardiano; the hotel (our room was behind the three trees left of centre – good view!); an Austral Thrush; some Andean Foothills; a Southern Lapwing.


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Well-known member
Alright, Peter, you've got my attention! I like reading the background stuff and the location pictures. Well done so far. Now, let's hear about Chile birding!



Well-known member
No problem with the background stuff here Peter. My son spent the last 6 months in that area as an exchange student at the Catholic University of Valparaiso. The pictures look like the ones he sent home. He is back at Pitt now. I'm sending him a link to this thread to look over. Too bad he isn't a Birder.


Peter C.

...just zis guy, you know?
December 27 Day 2 (Part 1) Machalí – Rio de la Cipreses – Machalí

We had two goals for today: 1) Visit the nearby National Reserve at Rio de los Cipreses, reputed to be a reliable spot for the "rare and endangered" Burrowing Parrot (Mr. Jaramillo's words, not mine), and 2) Afterwards, to move on to Vilches Alto, a somewhat off-the-beaten path town, a few hours south of Rancagua in the Andean foothills, where I had reserve a cabin for two nights.

Before leaving for los Cipreses, however, we felt obliged to hang about the hotel for breakfast - we had already paid for it, after all! This was a bit of a sacrifice, since breakfast could not be had before 0730 (a real birder would have gone hungry, I'm sure...) Anyway, we made the most of the pre-breakfast daylight hours be seeing what we could find in and around the hotel grounds. DMM made the first find of the day, calling me over to look at "something moving under the bushes." The 'something' turned out to be one - then two - then three pudgy, terrestrial birds with blobby plumes sticking out of their foreheads - California Quails! Not exactly what I would have expected in such a suburban environment. Then there were was that rarest of beasts, a distinctly-plumaged tyrant flycatcher, the White-crested Elaenia (unlike most tyrranids I've seen, with this bird, you actually get to see the central crown stripe).

While stalking the elaenia through the garden, trying to get a better angle on it, we turned up another delightful new bird - that being a Plain-mantled Tit-spinetail, foraging in a rose bush. Being one of the "ovenbird" fraternity, it has a plumage that tends towards various shades of brown, with streaks here and there; but ignoring the cryptic plumage, I thought it was very much like a chickadee, at least in shape and behaviour (well, a chickadee with a big spiny tail tacked on to its butt, that is!). A flock of Black-chinned Siskins rounded out the garden bird haul for the morning.

After filling up on a good Chilean breakfast, we high-tailed it up into the foothills towards "Los Cipreses". Unfortunately, our road map was a bit vague as to the location; we could see that it was somewhere up the Río Cachapoal past the town of Coya, but not exactly how to proceed from Coya to the reserve. As a result, we ended up wandering around the town for a while, looking for the right road - eventually, I overrode my adherence to the "guy code of conduct", and asked the gatekeeper at the local power station for directions. He was most helpful - although my Spanish is still very sketchy, I knew enough to gather that what we needed to do was "cross overt that bridge there, and turn left.e over to the far side. Our time in Coya was not entirely a loss, however, because it was there that we sighted our first country endemic, the Chilean Mockingbird. (After a while, naturally, we started running into them all over the place...)

As we continued up the (remarkably wide) Río Cachapoal valley, the habitat started to change - farms became fewer, their place being taken by a combination of dry bush and tall cacti (almost like the Organ-pipe). As well, we began to see numerous small birds flushing up from in front of us as we drove along. These, once we managed to find one perched, we identified as a little grey and white sparrow-like creature called the Common Duica-finch. (Although quite different in colour and pattern, ecologically they seemed to me to be remarkably similar to the Lark Sparrow of western Canada and the U.S.). VERY common, as it turned out, but I never tired of seeing them - nice song, too.

When we (at last) arrived at the reserve gate, it was getting close to 11 o'clock, so we knew we wouldn't be able to stay long. Nevertheless, we'd gone to all the trouble to get here, so ... we paid our entrada (4 000 pesos pp, and you'd better have exact change, boyo!), and drove in. The road, which had been nicely sealed for the last few km leading up to the reserve, very quickly degraded once it got past the visitor's centre there, becoming a mess of unsorted rocks and gravel that climbed quite steeply. After a few minutes of this, we decided to stop and have a look around. Not because the road was so bad - nothing el pequeño couldn't handle - by just because our time was so limited, and there was no particular reason to believe that the birdlife a few km further along would be better than what we would see right where we were. (And with all the noise the gravel made, we certainly weren't going to find anything while driving!)

It turned out that we had, quite by accident, picked a very good place (and time) to stop - because within a minute or two, we heard a distinctly parrot-ish screeching coming from overhead. Looking up, we saw a whole formation (well, 5-6 anyway) of Burrowing Parrots go cruising by! "Well," I thought, "that was easy, we must have done something right" (for which the birding deities were now rewarding us). I had barely had time to form this thought when, screech, screech, another nine birds followed, and then three more, and finally a straggling pair. This has to be the most numerous "rare and endangered" bird species I'd ever seen! A great sight though, not exactly brilliant in plumage (being largely olive and yellow birds), but the size of a small macaw.

The Burrowing Parrot was not the only good thing at this stop, though - a wild sort of laughing call coming from trees on a slope above us proved to belong to another lifer, a Chilean Flicker. Up beyond that, DMM spotted a couple of buteo-like hawks just visible at the top of a ridge - handily, I had set up the scope to look at the flicker - which turned out to be Harris's Hawk. Sadly though, we had pretty much used up all the time we could allow for Rio de los Cipreses, so we had to make tracks very soon afterwards. Got one more species on the way out, though, a pair of Austral Blackbirds bathing in a creek. (Also got a killer look at another Long-tailed Meadowlark just outside the reserve - see photo).
[aside] Here I was given a strong indication - certainly not the only time on this trip - that I had been very unrealistic in my expectations regarding how much we could do in a given day. I think the problem was that my sense of scale was "set" wrongly; I was thinking Costa Rica-sized, when I should have been thinking Canada-sized! It seemed a real crime to leave Rio de la Cipreses so quickly - in hindsight, I would not have tried to put this visit on the same day as the drive to Vilches Alto. Of course, if I hadn't, that would have meant that something else would have had to give ... as is always the way.[/aside]
We returned to Il Giardiano to gather up baggage and check-out, then made a beeline for the Ruta 5, turning south towards Talca.

15. California Quail
16. White-crested Elaenia
17. Plain-mantled Tit-spinetail
18. Black-chinned Siskin
19. Chilean Mockingbird
20. Common Duica-finch
21. Burrowing Parrot
22. Chilean Flicker
23. Harris's Hawk
24. Austral Blackbird

Photos: Typical habitat in R.N. Rio de los Cipreses; a flowering Quisco cactus; a very co-operative Long-tailed Meadowlark.


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Peter C.

...just zis guy, you know?
Here is a link to the older Vitara:----------- Believe me, it is smaller and narrower than the Grand Vitara of recent years ;) Though ours is the longer bodied 5 door type.


That car ... would've been a real challenge for us! We don't exactly pack light....

Peter C.

...just zis guy, you know?
December 27: Day 2 (part 2) - Rancagua - Talca - Vilches Alto

Talca is a small city in the Maule region, about 250 km south of Santiago. Our plan was to go straight down there on the nice, fast toll road, then turn east again, towards Vilches Alto. Unfortunately, when we got there (a couple of hours later), the normally trusty Chilean road signs failed us completely - we got off at Talca, all right, but could not, even after much searching, find any major road going the direction we needed to go! It got so frustrating that we eventually gave up entirely, got back on the Ruta 5, and retraced our route north a few km., to a place where I had seen a clearly marked eastbound exit. This led us on a very scenic (i.e. time-consuming) drive across a whole network of country roads (which seemed to take hours), before we were finally able to get onto the correct road to Vilches.

However, "it's an ill wind" etc.; - all this time spent wandering around was not entirely without profit. One of the many wrong turnings we took that afternoon ended up as a narrow farm track that skirted an overflowing creek; much to our surprise, a long-beaked Plumbeous Rail wandered out onto the track in front of us as we crawled along! (No doubt the feeling was mutual - he probably doesn't see people along that road very often, either).

The area around Vilches Alto, when we did eventually get there, was certainly worth the drive. Here, you are getting up into mid-elevations, and cultivated land has given way to entirely to forest. Some of this is a second growth of exotic species, eucalypts and pines mostly, by there are also good stands of the Nothofagus species (Roble and Huilo) - the area around Altos de Lircay is where this type of native forest approaches its northernmost extent. This was very interesting to us from a birdwatching perspective, since trees like this are the place to see some of southern South America's most characteristic birds, including the Magellanic Woodpecker (I don't usually target birds on trips, but this one ... well, I really wanted to see this one.)

Our choice of accommodations for the next couple of nights was the Hosteria de Vilches, an assortment of cabañas of various sizes, located in the middle of the "town" of Vilches Alto (not that you'd notice it, with all the trees everywhere). This place came highly recommended, and I can certainly vouch for that - the location was good, the cabins were comfortable, and the owners, went to all kinds of trouble to help us out. For instance, when we found that the cabaña we'd originally asked for had no cooking facilities, we asked if we could possibly upgrade to one of the ones that did - and they cheerfully prepped another cottage, shifted some reservations around, and gave us a three-bedroom place with a kitchen. Not only that, but they still charged us the same rate as for the small one!

The real "draw" of the area was the National Reserve at Altos de Lircay, just a few minutes' drive up the road - but, given the lateness of the hour, it was far too late for that (the reserve would be closing soon, in any case.) So, instead, we just went for a hike along the "main street" of Vilches Alto. There were a few clearings along the road (most notably, the football pitch), where we saw both Blue-and-white and Chilean Swallows, and more Duica-finches, but for the most part, the road went through secondary forest. Soon we heard some parrots calling, up the road a few hundred metres; following these calls to a stand of conifers, we very soon found that they were coming from a small flock of foraging Austral Parakeets. Unusually, for a parrot, they were dead easy to see (in the New World, at least, I normally find that parrots, no matter how loud and rambunctious they are, have an uncanny ability to "melt away" into the foliage of whatever tree they land in.) Of course, the fact that they're about 14" long, and have big rusty-red tails, probably helped.

Also in the area, saw a couple of small, very active birds high up in the same trees. They had long, deeply forked tails, distinctly-striped heads and bounced around like kinglets. These stumped us for quite a while; in their head plumage (but in nothing else) they strongly reminded me of a familiar North American bird, the Worm-eating Warbler; but nothing in the field guide exactly matched that head pattern. In the end, we decided they must be Thorn-tailed Rayaditos, a common-enough furnariid in the area (and this was supported by the fact that we saw many of these, at much closer range, over the next couple of days). I must have just imagined the "three-striped" head pattern (the warbler has a distinct central crown stripe; the rayadito's cap is solid brown.)

25. Great Egret
26. Plumbeous Rail
27. Blue-and-white Swallow
28. Austral Parakeet
29. Thorn-tailed Rayadito

Photos: Route from Machalí to Vilches Alto; a couple of scenic views of the reserve; a terrestrial bromeliad known as a Chagual - these plants have very weird, "artificial flower"-looking foliage.


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Gallery Moderator
Opus Editor
Peter, you got some nice habitat shots there! I am sure Opus can find a home for one or two of them ...



Guillermo Cartagena

Peter, I've really enjoyed your report so far.

As a Chilean, I can not only be ashamed for those despotic airport fees we charge our visitors, but can furthermore give you profuse thanks for the evident consideration of putting the most awkward passages in such a polite way, that they seem to be even funny. But, at the same time, you have put enough care on your description, that I'm sure they'll be a very helpful guide for other birders planning to visit us.


Peter C.

...just zis guy, you know?
Peter, you got some nice habitat shots there! I am sure Opus can find a home for one or two of them ...

Thanks Niels, for the vote of confidence (no doubt it will turn out to be DMM who took the ones you refer to, whichever they are ;)).

Oh, you don't know how many location photos/birding locations/TripAdvisor reports that I have queued up in my mind, waiting for me to have time to organize them. And friends & family members are still waiting for me to send them a portfolio of photos from this trip. (As you may have gathered, I am a bit obsessive about organizing these things.) But I spend all my working days at a computer, so I hate having to drag myself in front of one at night again .... [*cue violins*]

This past week it was a positive relief to put it all aside, yet again, to get outside and clear snow from the driveway (real winter is here - kind of late!)
Peter, I've really enjoyed your report so far.

As a Chilean, I can not only be ashamed for those despotic airport fees we charge our visitors, but can furthermore give you profuse thanks for the evident consideration of putting the most awkward passages in such a polite way, that they seem to be even funny. But, at the same time, you have put enough care on your description, that I'm sure they'll be a very helpful guide for other birders planning to visit us.


Muchas gracias. ¡Me alegro mucho, que mi relato le gusta!

You might as well know that, I originally wrote a much longer and more sarcastic rant on the Reciprocity fee, but toned it down and shortened it (I was aware that my report was plenty long enough, as it was!) for the purposes of BirdForum. Just call me "Mr. Diplomacy" (jeje).


Peter C.

...just zis guy, you know?
Tuesday, December 28: Day 3 - Vilches Alto–R.N. Altos de Lircay.

Finally, a day with no net travel at all! We could actually spend the day doing easy, fun things (like hiking up mountains) rather than difficult, tedious things (like reading road maps). I had a plan, made well in advance, for the Reserva Nacional Altos de Lircay: to get there as early as possible, and climb as high as possible, in order to try for the high-altitude stuff - birds that lived exclusively above treeline. I knew, from previous research, that there was a well-established hiking trail (the "Enladrillo"), which would take us there. I knew that we'd never be able to complete the whole thing, certainly not at "birdwatching pace" - but I was hoping that we'd at least be able to poke our heads out of the forest canopy far enough to find a Ground-tyrant or something ('something', in this case = El Cóndor, [all fingers crossed]).

You may have heard it said that "The best laid plans of mice and men/Go oft astray" (note to Caledonians and others of a poetic bent - I know Burns didn't write it that way ... but it is often quoted that way). This may well be - but this does not stop really half-baked plans from going completely astray too, and more often still.

Things actually started going wrong yesterday evening; somehow, while out on our walk, I accidentally pulled out the bezel on my watch. I noticed this upon return to the Hosteria, but somehow or another, I managed to reset it to a time that had only the slimmest relationship to reality. The upshot was that, we were very late getting away in the morning, and by the time we got breakfast and headed up the road, it was already about 40 minutes after we'd planned to start the Enladrillo hike! So, I think you will be able to appreciate the intense frustration I felt when, upon reaching the gate into the reserve, we found it padlocked!

Arrrgh - I couldn't understand it - there was a sign right there on the gatepost, giving the opening hour as 0830. Nowhere was there any further information - such as an indication of why the road in happened to be closed at this particular moment. Fortunately, there was a CONAF office on a little side road about 100m back; so there might be somebody to ask, at least.
[aside] CONAF = Corporación Nacional Forestal, the Chilean government body that both manages the forestry and runs National Parks and Reserve. Hmm, maybe some conflict of interest, there? Kind of like our own Ministry of the Environment, which manages (supposedly) wild places like Algonquin Provincial park - but also leases timber concessions in that very same park. Hmmm. [/aside]
Outside this office, we found a group of men conversing - the youngest of them wore a CONAF uniform. Okay, this is promising, I thought. So, I asked him (as best that I could), Can we get into the reserve? And he replied (as far as I could tell) Why yes, of course you can! I then tried to get across that, well, it's all very easy for you to say, but actually - no, we cannot. (The Spanish for "locked" was not a word I could conjure up, at the moment). He then said something that I could not follow at all, but I somehow took the meaning to be "Well, of course, but I'll come over and unlock the gate for you - that's obvious!" Then we all had a good laugh, and DMM and I drove back over to the gate, just hoping I had got it right - and a couple of minutes later, one of his amigos walked over and let us in.

So - a long story, but the point is, sometimes things don't work here the way we foreigners might be accustomed to - the way they would, for example, in a National Park back home. Here, we found, they don't spell everything out for visitors; you have to do a bit of asking around, in order to get what you want. And, in defence of CONAF and the ranger we met, I suspect that part of the problem was simply that they're a bit short-staffed.

While I was not overly thrilled with the organization of this reserve, I had certainly no complaint about the place itself - the habitat was fantastic, and the scenery absolutely beautiful! Great tall trees rose on either side of the track, and, except for the birds, it was very quiet - for the first hour or so, it seemed like we had the whole place to ourselves. Well, the two of us and the ranger, who raced past us on a motorbike as we drove in - he had to get up to the park office ahead of us, so he could collect the entrance fee!

After reaching the parking lot and paying (an absolute bargain at about $6.00/per vehicle), we were at last able to start the day's birding. Our friend the ranger (who had noticed our binoculars), asked if we were interested in birds, and what we most wanted to see. I told him that we liked them all, but a Huet-huet (which is a big tapaculo) would be nice. So, he gave us a topo map of the park, and told us which trail was most likely to have them. Acting on this advice, we took a small side trail, called the "Aliwenmawida", rather than starting up towards the Enladrillo trail right away. My original plan was becoming more and more tattered by the minute...

As it turned out, we didn't see a lot of birds along this trail - heard quite a few, but mostly just saw lizards. Things did improve, though, when we reached the return point of the trail, a mirador looking out over the deep valley of the Rio Lircay. It was a brilliant blue-sky early summer day; we had a fantastic view of the forest below, and an impressively sheer cliff across the way. The view was soon made even better by a Patagonian Sierra-finch, which popped up, flew in the crown of a nearby tree (thanks to the slope, this was at eye level), and began to sing at us vigorously. (I don't think these birds see people very often - showed basically no fear at all.) Also seen from the look-out: our first hummingbird of the trip, a Green-backed Firecrown; and a tiny lizard that actually stayed still long enough to have its photo taken (Thin Tree-lizard? Painted Tree-lizard?).

Photos: View across the valley from the mirador; burls on trees were covered with a strange fungus, called "Darwin's Bread"; flowers of a parasitic plant; a couple of images of the lizard at the mirador, possibly Liolaemus pictus ?


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Peter C.

...just zis guy, you know?
Day 3: R.N. Altos de Lircay, continued

The "Aliwenmawida" trail looped back up to the main park road. We proceeded on a bit further up along this road to reach the start of the "Endladrillo" trail.

In the first part of this climb, we found birds to be much more numerous - or, perhaps, just more visible - than on the trail we'd just come from. This may have just been a function of the fact that it took us into drier, more open forest. White-crested Elaenias were everywhere - we really had to learn that song/call quickly, to avoid having to look up every 30 seconds just to see the same bloody thing again. We also saw a couple of pairs of Rayaditos here, and got much better views than yesterday - it was actually possible to make out the elaborately "thorny" tails. The first new find along here was the White-throated Treerunner, a small, arboreal furnariid with a creamy-white throat and reddish tail; shaped very much like our familiar nuthatches from home, but climbing upwards, like a woodcreeper.

It was worthwhile to pay close attention to those treerunners, as we discovered. At one point, we could hear one, high up in a tree, making some very agitated calls. As we craned our necks to try to see what the fuss was about, a raptor - our first (and, it transpired, only) Chilean Hawk of the trip - glided into view and perched above our heads; the treerunner became even more displeased. The hawk crashed around in the foliage for a while, presumably trying to catch something; but the little passerine kept up a steady stream of invective, and the hawk eventually departed, empty-footed.

Continuing along, I was disappointed to find that the path stayed rather flat - going gradually up the Valle de Lircay - rather than climbing up out of it, as expected. It wasn't until we had done about 2 km of this (rather boring) walking that the trail took a sharp right turn, and started going straight up the side of the mountain we'd been skirting. Then, boy-o, did it ever climb! We must have gained about 700 m. overall; unfortunately, the trees stayed resolutely with us, even as we could see them, through the occasional gap, thinning out on the adjacent slopes.

Birds along here continued to be mostly of the 'elaenia' variety, with occasional call or song from something hidden and unfindable from time to time. Small brown lizards were constantly dashing out from underfoot, I never seen a place with so many. The only 'different' bird we found on this whole climb was the Grey-hooded Sierra-finch - a female. This was a rather interesting sighting - I didn't expect to find this species here, based on the range map in Jaramillo. However, the very distinct white eyebrow and dark moustacials left no doubt in our minds. I know that some of the population is migratory - breeding all the way down in Tierra del Fuego. Could this be a straggler from that population? (Awfully late in the season, though.)

By this time, it was getting on to about 2 o'clock. Our progress was slow, due to the considerable grade; I didn't really have a very good idea how long it might take us to get back to the car; and the treeline didn't seem to be getting any closer. So, regretfully, we decided that it was time to turn back.

On the way down, we stopped to take some scenic photos of the valley - there were a few places where the gaps in the trees were wide enough to allow for a good view. While I took some pictures, DMM scanned the opposite ridge (which, I'd estimate was about 2-3 km away). After only a few seconds, she called out "hawk". I switched over to the binoculars - took me a few moments, but then I found it too, when it helpfully soared above the horizon. It was still well up the valley at first, just a black speck, but was working its way towards us. As far as we could tell, it was not flapping at all, just using the updraft along the ridge for lift, as it rocked slightly on upturned wings.

Soon, despite the fact that it was still a couple of thousand metres distant, we could make out a bit of its plumage, or at least the pattern thereof. It had an black body, and wings also, except for a large white patch along the trailing edge of the upper side, "inboard" of the primaries. So, although it flew a bit like one, I could be sure, at least, that it wasn't a Turkey Vulture. Tried to think of any large bird (Mountain Caracara, Buzzard-eagle, even Variable Hawk) in the area - even went so far as to actually consult the book! - that might have this pattern, but eventually had to eliminate them all; only one possible conclusion, I told DMM - we've finally found it, the !vory-bi!!ed Woodpecker! (But what's it doing in South America? Hiding, I suppose...)

[No, I did not say really say that!!!]

Alas, it was just an Andean Condor - but nevertheless, a moment to break out the champagne, if I were the champagne-swilling type, which I'm not. In reality, it was one of those vaguely unsatisfying sightings - where you see something well enough to know what it is, that it cannot be anything else, but don't really get the feeling of really having seen it. Still, it did make us feel we'd been rewarded for all that climbing.

The hike down, and back to the parking area where we'd left El pequeño, took a lot less time than I was afraid it might - under two hours. Nothing of interest to see, birdwise, along the way; which probably had a great deal to do with the fact that, this time, we were sharing the trail with hordes of Chilean teenagers, returning down the mountain from a camping trip. (Actually, probably only about a dozen or so, but they sure seemed like a horde). By this time, it was late afternoon. The weather had turned a bit hot and stuffy, so all we really wanted was a rest, and something cold to drink. I had noticed some small roadside food stands on the way up to the reserve that morning - one of them was called "El Rayadito", so naturally, we had to check it out.

Unfortunately, it was closed when we got there - but while we were standing in front of it, I heard a deep "thock-thock" sound coming from the woodlot around back. This sounded very much like the tapping of woodpecker of some sort; more specifically, of a LARGE sort. We went around to one side of the shuttered building, so as to see into the trees better; sure enough there was a tapping again, followed shortly by the swoop, swoop, swoop annnnnd perch of a huge black woodpecker - a female Magellanic! She was soon followed by her red-headed mate; but he was just so much icing, I was a very happy man already. (Personally, of the two, I preferred the female, with her crazy-long black crest of head plumes, and the neat row of white pearls on her shoulder, contrasting so vividly with the black wings and body.)

What a great way to cap off the day!

December 28 birds:

30. Tufted Tit-tyrant
31. Green-backed Firecrown
32. Patagonian Sierra-finch
33. White-throated Treerunner
34. Chilean Hawk
35. Grey-hooded Sierra-finch
36. Andean Condor
37. Magellanic Woodpecker

Photos: "Maraposita" or "Poor man's orchid" flower; treeless mountain slopes on the "Enladrillo" trail(so close, and yet so far....); a view across the valley of the Rio Lircay (can you spot the Condor? |:S|).


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Well-known member
Is the Condor the small raptor like glitch in the clouds in the upper left corner of the picture a bit to the right of the leaves on the tree? Or is that a small opening in the clouds?
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Peter C.

...just zis guy, you know?
Is the Condor the small raptor like glitch in the clouds in the upper left corner of the picture a bit to the right of the leaves on the tree? Or is that a small opening in the clouds?

I was being facetious ... no, it's not really in there. Well, it may be, but if it is, it would probably be about 2×2 pixels at this scale....

Peter C.

...just zis guy, you know?
Day 3 - Epilogue: Hosteria de Vilches

One more word, if I may, about Hosteria de Vilches: Having so little time in Vilches Alto at all, we spent very little of it at the Hosteria - which was really too bad, as we didn’t get much opportunity to take advantage of facilities there.

For example, trivial though it may sound, what I really regretted not getting more use of was the little patio beside of our cabin. There is not much to it, really - it was just a small paved area with some chairs, a rickety plastic table, and a barbeque. But it was a quiet, semi-private space, which looked out into the neighbouring second-growth forest; and when one is really tired out (for example, after having spent the whole day hiking up a mountain) it was an excellent place to just sit, do some journal writing, and wait for birds to come by. If you’re lucky, you might see something like this:

37. Fire-eyed Diucon


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James Lowther

Well-known member
hi Peter,
enjoying your report, the people at the hosteria are lovely aren't they!
one little school master's point re: spelling
it's diuca-finch and diucon
duica-finch and duicon!!

Peter C.

...just zis guy, you know?
December 29: Day 4 (part1) - Vilches Alto-Colbún-Rio Maule

Now, I hate to complain (actually, I love to complain – but know that no-one really likes to listen), but I sure do loathe having to try to squeeze a trip like this into a single week! (I know, poor me). After just one day at Altos de Lircay, it was already time to head for pastures new. We were off to a property called “Hacienda Laguna Torca”, where I had rented a cottage for a the next four nights (the hacienda was right beside a very birdy wetland, and only a few km. from the Pacific – so I figured, lots to do there).

However, Laguna Torca being (at a rough guess), only 3 hours’ drive to the north-west, and having put aside the whole day to undertake the journey, we thought that we could afford to take a bit of a side-trip on the way there. And, having missed out on the Andean specialties we had been hoping for on our hike yesterday, we decided to take another shot at them (so to speak) today.

Just south of Vilches Alto, there was a secondary hightway which wound eastwards up the Rió Maule valley, right up into the Andes, and into Argentina. (If any of you are actually going, you’ll want to look for this road – it’s K-115). Just before it reached the frontier, there was a big alpine lake that I really wanted to see - called, appropriately enough, Laguna del Maule. I knew, from the field guide, that there were several species of waterfowl that were restricted (in summer, at least) to high altitudes; with any luck, we’d find one or two up there. Of course, because this lake was east, and the cottage we were heading for was practically on the Pacific coast, we’d be driving about 110 km in entirely the wrong direction – but what the heck…

Happily, there were other good things to look at along the way up the Maule. Our route first took us past the big reservoir at Colbún – in fact, the highway stayed very close to the whole of the reservoir’s north shore, allowing for multiple viewing opportunities. At the western (downstream) end, the birding was not so good – no sign of waterbirds at all. We did, however, get our first Chilean Pigeons here, feeding quite openly in trees alongside the road. Things improved considerably at the eastern end, where there were some shallows and sandbars; this habitat was very popular with a number of species of duck and grebe. In very short order, we picked out Great Grebe, White-tufted Grebe, Yellow-billed Pintail, Chiloe Wigeon, and Neotropic Cormorant. (Bravo, Mr. Scope!)

Up to the top end of L. Colbún, and a little beyond, the Valle del Maule, is decidedly “glacial” in profile – broad, U-shaped, and largely flat along the bottom. A few km. on, however, the character of the valley changes markedly, becoming a deep ravine; the highway winding along the bottom, boulder-choked river on one side, steep scree slopes on the other.
[aside] Given the challenges inherent in building a road through this kind of country, my hat is off to the Chilean Dept. of Public Works (or whatever it is called); we were positively amazed at how good this road was! Not only did it have an perfectly paved surface for almost the entire length (there was one short rough section, where some repair work was underway), but it was also a very safe road; there were plenty of guardrails, and they had also put up a large number of elaborate fences to reduce the danger of falling rocks. Looked like a bunch of “infrastructure” money had been thrown around up here, everything seemed very new. Whatever the reason for the spending, it was great news for us tourists! [/aside]
Once the road entered this section of the valley, it began to climb, slowly but steadily. Within a few tens of kilometres, we had risen above the 2100 m. contour, and we found ourselves (at last!) driving through a treeless landscape of stunted bushes and tundra-like herbs. We stopped briefly on the way, to look at a flock of Yellow-rumped Siskins darting across the road (there’s a good highland bird!); this lead to the discovery of a small, pudgy sort of bird, just standing by itself on a boulder – this turned out to be a Black-winged Ground-dove, another one that I'd been really hoping to see. (I think this is a very unfortunate name for this bird, whose most distinctive feature is a golden crescent on the side of its face. Especially as there are several other ground-doves with black wings…).

The views from up here were, to thoroughly beat the cliché into the ground, breath-taking; even without the birds, it was worth the trip for this alone. I will not try to describe any of it, just hope the attached photos will give you some sort of idea of what it was like…

Unfortunately, as the morning wore on, and Laguna del Maule consistantly failed to appear around the next bend, the curse of poorly-laid plans struck again – El Pequeño was running out of gas! Our highway map (which I had carefully consulted, before setting out this morning) showed several small towns along our route, and I had hoped to find a station in one of these – but no such luck. (The “towns” were, for the most part, just clusters of a few buildings.) So, with nothing ahead but Argentina, and not knowing how far back down the valley we’d have to go before finding any fuel, we very reluctantly decided we had to turn back.

Before doing so, we made one more stop for birds; there was a nice, wide pull-off at a mirador, which overlooked a narrow cleft through which the Maule flowed. At the moment (it being high summer) water levels were quite low, so it didn’t look like much; but in spring, I imagine that the torrent through here would be quite spectacularly violent. There happened to be a crew of orange-clad highway workers nearby, and one of them came by to talk to me for a bit – it took me a while, but I eventually figured out that he was trying to give me the name of the feature we were looking at … “the devil’s…” something: Gape? maw? mouth? Something like that, in any case. I thought, just maybe, that the name may have been suggested by the strange rock formations visible across the way, which were vaguely horn-shaped; for me, they recalled a Picasso painting of a bull’s head, rendered into 3-D.

Anyway, spectacular as the view of “Devil’s-body-part” was, we were here to look for birds, and did find one new species - the White-browed Ground-tyrant (another truly Andean species). Besides that, it was pretty desolate, birdwise; we had another Grey-hooded Sierra-finch, very friendly (practically hopping around at our feet - do people come up here and feed these things?!?), some roving Barn Swallows, and an American Kestrel surveying the scene from atop a house-sized boulder – but that was all.

We returned towards the central valley along the ‘good’ road all the way to Talca (no trouble finding our way going this direction!) And yes, we did find a source of gasolina along the way, with an eighth of a tank to spare, no less! (Obviously, we did, or I wouldn’t be home writing this – I’d still be wandering around the Andes somewhere). Only one bird-related incident along this stretch – DMM spotted a Black-faced Ibis flying along the river, pacing us, and fortunately got me onto it before it dipped back out of sight.

38. Turkey Vulture
39. Cattle Egret
40. Chilean Pigeon
41. Yellow-billed Pintail
42. Chiloe Wigeon
43. White-tufted Grebe

44. Neotropic Cormorant
45. Great Grebe
46. Yellow-rumped Siskin
47. Black-winged Ground-dove

48. Barn Swallow
49. White-browed Ground-tyrant
50. American Kestrel
51. Black-faced Ibis

Images: The route du jour (A= Vilches Alto, B = approximate turn-around point on the Maule trip, C = Laguna Torca); elaborate falling rock catchers along the highway; a view down the valley (the dark rock on the left was the Kestrel perch); looking across "La cosa del Diablo" at a formidable basaltic dike; Picasso-esque rock formations.


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