Southern Chile Birding Circuit: Seven Days among Penguins, Waterfowl and Wild Landscapes

Part Trip Report, Part Site Guide by Stephan Lorenz

The harsh wind whipped across the open country, carving small whitecaps on the blue water of aptly named Laguna Azul. The surrounding landscape was defined by emptiness. Salt encrusted and hardened mudflats fringed a shallow lagoon, and beyond, undulating grassland cropped by thousands of sheep stretched to all horizons. The sky was clear, but the air cold. A special bird brought me to this harsh and seemingly barren environment and after pulling my jacket a bit tighter, I walked along the shore for another attempt. A handful of Baird’s sandpipers, visitors from the northern hemisphere, scattered. Steadying binoculars, I scanned the edge of the water and spotted a small bird that had a different shape, short legged, almost dumpy. Within minutes a tame Magellanic plover methodically foraged just a few feet away, pecking at rocks and spinning in rapid circles much like phalaropes. In the past, the species had been classified among the plovers, Charadriidae, but is now placed in its own family, Pluvianellidae, due to several unusual features, including the production of crop milk. This unique shorebird relative is found only in southern Chile and Argentina during the breeding season, where shorelines of Monumento Natural Laguna de los Cisnes harbor the best chances to spot this rarity.

Magellanic Plover Tierra del Fuego Photo Stephan Lorenz

Magellanic Plover Tierra del Fuego Photo Stephan Lorenz

Punta Arenas Area

Amazingly, the wilds of Tierra del Fuego lie just three hours to the south of Punta Arenas, the largest city and capital of southern Chile. Punta Arenas, with many daily flight connections between Santiago, Chile’s capital, a wide variety of accommodations and restaurants, and extensive stores to stock up on gear, serves as an ideal base to start any exploration of Chile’s southern Patagonian wilderness. While many roads here are gravel, the driving and directions are straightforward, allowing independent travel via rental car. At a comfortable pace the major birding spots can be covered in six or seven days, allowing for a worthwhile addition to any trip visiting Punta Arenas for a cruise for example.

Coastline Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Coastline Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Arriving in the late afternoon after an uneventful flight from Puerto Montt I completed the first obligatory birding stop. El Humedal Tres Puentes is a small protected wetland near the city center along the highway to the airport. It is a great place to spend an hour or two and gain familiarity with the common waterfowl species of southern Chile. Crested ducks dabbled in small groups near the shore and yellow-billed pintails graced the middle of the lake. Among the numerous upland geese, hid a few smaller, neatly marked ashy-headed geese, and a pair of heavy flying steamer-ducks rested on the grass. Before long it was time to head south and get my first taste of the birds and landscapes bordering the famous Strait of Magellan.

Flightless Steamer-Duck Patagonia Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Flightless Steamer-Duck Patagonia Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Routa 9, heading south from Punta Arenas towards historic Fuerte Bulnes, offers everything a perfect birding road should, light traffic, diverse habitats, and unique birds around every turn. Before leaving town, it is worth to pause along the waterfront where dolphin gulls, grey plumage accentuated by a bright coral bill, loafed among hordes of kelp gulls. Chilean skuas kept the gulls busy and I watched the acrobatic chases and aerial battles above the gray waters of the strait for several minutes. The landscape turns rural beyond the city and any location is worth a stop to scan the ocean or grassy pastures. The open fields and small wetlands held hundreds of upland geese and it pays to take a prolonged look as the rare and threatened ruddy-headed goose occurs here. Superficially similar to females of the more common species, ruddy-headed geese can be picked out by their smaller size, different head profile, and redder legs. I was fortunate to find three of these small sheldgeese close to the road. Continuing southwest, it is crucial to keep an eye on the rocky beach as the road follows close to the shore, which will likely result in a sighting or two of the massive flightless steamer-ducks. What these birds lack in wings, seems to be compensated by their feet, the bright orange palmations are truly massive. This species often occurs in pairs, resting on rocks close to the water, their tiny wings and large bills obvious. Both male and females have orange bills, unlike their closely related flying cousins.

Ruddy-headed Goose along Routa 9 Patagonia Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Ruddy-headed Goose along Routa 9 Patagonia Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Past Fuerte Bulnes, a historical site preserving a replica of a fort dating to 1843, the road turns to gravel, but remains navigable in a passenger car. In addition to the dramatic surroundings, several wetlands near the coast here hold another uncommon bird, the spectacled duck. Seeing a pair or family group of these waterfowl will pose no identification challenge, with the crisp white face crescent and white wrapping around the neck, but it is worth spending some time studying the bronze colored speculum for which it used to be named.

Spectacled Ducks near Fuerte Bulnes Patagonia Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Spectacled Ducks near Fuerte Bulnes Patagonia Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Tierra del Fuego

The following morning more flocks of waterfowl and other promising looking spots invited me to linger, but I had to keep to the schedule and take the ferry from Punta Arenas on the mainland to Porvenir on Tierra del Fuego. The ferry has only one departure a day and it is wise to make reservations ahead of time. When I arrived the car was promptly parked and I made my way to the second level where an open area provided three hundred and sixty degree views and plenty of chilling air to keep alert. The crossing was smooth with only gentle swells rolling through the straight from the west. Seabirds were mainly sitting on the water during these mild conditions, but the occasional black-browed albatross sailed past and white-chinned petrels cut across the water in rapid flight. Keeping a close eye on the water just in front of the bow, I could pick out tiny Magellanic diving-petrels taking flight on whirring wings, shooting out of sight, whereas Wilson’s storm-petrels elegantly patterned the surface with their feet before disappearing in graceful zigzags. The crossing was all too short and after two hours I was back on solid ground.

Correndera Pipit Tierra del Fuego Photo Stephan Lorenz

Correndera Pipit Tierra del Fuego Photo Stephan Lorenz

In the small coastal town of Porvenir, the Croatian influence of early settlers could still be felt. The food at a local restaurant was solid and heavy, the decoration in the large dining room antique and European. It was tempting to linger in the relative warmth of the place as the Patagonian winds rattled the window panes. I overcame the urge relatively easily with many new birds waiting nearby. Tierra del Fuego is famous for vast empty wilderness, endless sheep ranches, and rugged isolated coasts. After my success at Reserva Nacional Lagunas los Cisnes I followed gravel roads south, winding past wetlands, grassy plains, and the dark waters of Bahia Inutil. Occasional stops would reveal short-billed miners methodically foraging in barren patches. Gaudy long-tailed meadowlarks, their blood-colored breasts shining in the dun grass, called. As a bonus I stopped in promising looking habitat, a sizeable area of scrub vegetation reaching hip height, and within minutes put binoculars on a vocal austral canastero.

Austral Canastero Tierra del Fuego Photo Stephan Lorenz

Austral Canastero Tierra del Fuego Photo Stephan Lorenz

My aim was to reach the king penguin colony on the southern reaches of the bay before sunset.  Within the past decade a colony of these large penguins has become reestablished and between fifty and a hundred individuals can be present depending on time of year. The owners of the property have established a viewing site that is clearly signed along the road to Cameron, in addition it is possible to spot the birds walking along the beach. While many operators offer tours to the colony, it is easy and straightforward to arrive independently. During a brief evening visit I closely watched nine penguins preen and huddle on the beach, while nearly forty stood in the grassy main area of the colony. Usually birders have to visit far-flung Falklands, subantarctic islands, or Antarctica to see the second largest species of its family.

King Penguins Tierra del Fuego Photo Stephan Lorenz

King Penguins Tierra del Fuego Photo Stephan Lorenz

Parque Nacional Pali Aike

The ferry from Bahia Azul back to the mainland at the Punta Delgado landing is a quick twenty minute trip and leaves roughly every thirty minutes. While there is not much time for seabirds, keep an eye out for Commerson’s dolphins. I happened to look in the right spot at the right moment and saw two jump out of the water. For logistics, keep in mind that the best location to refuel is Cerro Sombero south of the ferry departure point. Back on solid ground lightly traveled asphalt roads cut through barren steppe of brown grass. Good signage leads to the tiny town of Punta Delgado, which serves mainly as landmark for the sharp left turn north onto a long straight gravel road that leads to Parque Nacional Pali Aike. The open plains are home to guanacos, wild relatives of the llama, and several groups grazed along the road, jumping the sheep fences effortlessly, as I drove by. Among these large mammals lesser rheas wandered, including some with chicks. As I approached the young would scatter and the adult would run in zigzags with wings flared. The views were vast, miles in all directions below a big sky, the country beautifully deserted. During two days of traveling the nearly 100 mile road between Punta Delgado and Routa 9 to the west I encountered only one other car, a police patrol.

Lesser Rhea and chicks Patagonia Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Lesser Rhea and chicks Patagonia Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Parque Nacional Pali Aike near the Argentinian border protects a rugged swath of steppe, volcanic craters, and ancient lava flows. It also provides easy access to the habitats and birds of the region. On arrival, I found the park ranger a bit surprised, but very helpful and I started my exploration in the picnic area that doubles as the campground. Hordes of cinnamon-bellied ground-tyrants foraged along the broken cliff of a lava flow that fringed the area. Upon closer inspection, I discovered cordilleran canasteros climbing among the rocks and the widespread austral thrushes and grey-hooded sierra-finches were ever present. Along the hiking trails that lead to the various craters, caves, and lava flows, least seedsnipes flushed from short grass. These are odd birds that superficially resemble small ptarmigan, but are related to shorebirds. While short-billed miner was the species of choice on Tierra del Fuego the majority here were the streaky-breasted common miner.

Common Miner Pali Aike National Park Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Common Miner Pali Aike National Park Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

The birding gets even better beyond the park boundaries to the north and west. The solid gravel road leads north and then turns west roughly paralleling the frontier with Argentina. Several key species with small ranges in Chile inhabit this area. In shrubby habitats it is possible to see band-tailed earthcreeper, a former endemic of Argentina until it was discovered in a limited area in Chile. Given the habitat description of the species, I was stunned to come across a single bird in short grass bordering a small wetland. The bird took shelter in a dirt tunnel before flying off towards a shallow ditch. Without any cover it allowed me to approach within a few feet and I wonder whether the bird was dispersing or on territory.

Band-tailed Earthcreeper near Pali Aike Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Band-tailed Earthcreeper near Pali Aike Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Flat terrain, with limited grass and higher proportions of bare ground and low cushion plants are likely to support tawny-throated dotterels and I came across three groups of these stunning shorebirds, not to be outdone, a single roufous-chested dotterel competed for my attention. Many miles along the dusty road I finally chanced upon one of the most distinct birds of the region, the uncommon white-bridled finch. The old name, canary-winged finch, may be better suited to describe this flashy species. A sharp black throat outlined by a distinct white face pattern, while back, belly and wings are tinged in golden yellow. Fortunately I saw a dozen of these birds along the road verges. After more wetlands and lagoon, always worth checking for water birds and drinking finches, it came almost as a shock when the road dead ended at an intersection with Routa 9 and other traffic.

White-bridled Finch Pali Aike road Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

White-bridled Finch Pali Aike road Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Parque Nacional Torres del Paine

Turning north, I joined the stream of hikers, trekkers, and tourists heading towards world famous Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. Among birdwatchers this spectacular slice of the planet has gained notoriety for holding one of only a handful of known populations of austral rail. This species was not seen for several decades until surveys rediscovered it in Argentina and subsequently in Chile. With the granite towers reaching skyward above glaciers, surrounded by enormous blue lakes, it is difficult to keep an eye on anything feathered. A network of roads accesses the southern portion of the park, providing picture stops around every bend. Longer multiday treks lead nearer and around the massif, but great birding is found along the roads and shorter trails.

Torres del Paine Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Torres del Paine Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

I stuck to the obligatory stops and arrived at the Sarmiento Entrance as quickly as possible. Here the reed filled Laguna los Juncos protects an apparently healthy population of austral rails and I was patient and fortunate enough to see a pair of these elusive birds emerge from the thick reeds. The birds are extremely secretive and often wander below matts of dense vegetation. At first I managed to see only a shadow scurry past, but eventually saw a confiding pair. Above Andean condors soared, searching for carrion in the sprawling foothills.

Austral Rail Torres del Paine Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Austral Rail Torres del Paine Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

The road west provides a spectacular transect of the park, from drier grasslands to dense woodlands. Unfortunately, a huge fire in early 2012 destroyed much of the forest throughout the park, but good patches remain around the campgrounds and old growth persists around Lago Gey and beyond. In the woodland patches widespread and common species like rufous-tailed plantcutter, Patagonian sierra-finches, and black-chinned siskins were regularly observed. A short trail leads through forest of ancient trees at glacier fed Lago Grey and this area supports one of the largest woodland birds, the Magellanic woodpecker. Signs of the birds in the form a large holes, wood chippings, and recent foraging were evident everywhere. Literally every trunk revealed obvious marks left by these immense woodpeckers, but finding the birds proved difficult. An early morning foray is probably better, before other visitors arrive. As a consolation though, a pair of torrent ducks with a chick rested on rocks near the swing bridge across the Rio Pingo.

Torrent Duck Torres del Paine Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Torrent Duck Torres del Paine Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Sierra Baguales

The mountains of the remote Sierra Baguales invite for longer exploration, but during a shorter itinerary, one day should suffice to see all the key species in this part of Chile. Access to birding sites is straightforward, but it is important to carry enough fuel and supplies. In addition, land along the road is private, so it is advisable to seek permission from landowners if venturing off the track. The road, Routa 9, winds past Parque Nacional Torres del Paine leading north into these ancient mountains. There are no towns, just scattered sheep ranches connected by gravel roads. I followed signs towards Estancia las Cumbres for nearly forty kilometers until the road ended at the locked gate of the ranch. The road only carries on for another kilometer or two before terminating, beyond wait uninhabited mountains, ice fields, and eventually Argentina. Fortunately one does not have to venture far from the road to see the special birds the area has to offer. For visitors with more time and anybody that wants to savor the solitude and vistas, it is possible to stay at Cerro Guido or at Estancia Tres RRR another twenty kilometers further down the road.

Southern Caracara Sierra Baguales Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Southern Caracara Sierra Baguales Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

After a successful afternoon of birding I accepted the invitation and stayed at the farthest estancia, Tres RRR, sleeping in the rustic main house, where I listened to local lore and discussed birds until late into the night. The day had commenced auspiciously after leaving Torres del Paine. I had barely pointed the car towards the remote mountains when I spotted some commotion in a distant field. Upon closer inspection it turned out to be nearly forty Andean condors feeding on at least three sheep carcasses. The giant birds were surrounded by as many southern caracaras, a few squabbling chimango caracaras, and a single black-chested buzzard-eagle tried to snatch bits and pieces. In awe I watched condor after condor taking slowly to the air until two dozen circled close overhead, the sound of wind rushing through their flight feathers clearly audible. After the last condor had soared out of sight was I finally able to pull myself away and continue the journey.

Andean Condor Sierra Baguales Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Andean Condor Sierra Baguales Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Birds were relatively scarce until I passed the large estancia of Cerro Guide. I stopped to explore an extensive area of scrub, hoping to find a Patagonian mockingbird, a rarity in Chile. To my utter surprise the second band-tailed earthcreeper of the trip appeared, this time in proper habitat, yet considering that the species was not even known from Chile until 1988, it may have undergone a recent range extension. Large numbers of cinnamon-bellied ground-tyrants and occasional least seedsnipes and greater yellow-finches kept me company, as I carefully maneuvered the vehicle through the winding and steeper sections.

Least Seedsnipe Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Least Seedsnipe Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

The dark, almost black walls of the mountains pressed closer. The valley narrowed and freezing streams poured from ravines cut into the jagged hills. Far below the pace of the river quickened with many sections of whitewater. I passed three gates, which I closed behind me, but spotted no livestock, except a few feral horses. Nearly forty kilometers into the mountains the road ended at the locked gate of the Estancia las Cumbres and I did not seek permission to go further, but wandering along the road here I came across one of the beautiful birds of this barren landscape, the yellow-bridled finch. Closely related to the white-bridled finch I observed in the lower eastern Patagonian steppe, this species has a neat yellow trim around the face and a black throat stands out from slate gray plumage. A pair of these uncommon birds fed close to the track, carefully picking seeds from short grass stalks.

Yellow-bridled Finch Sierra Baguales Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Yellow-bridled Finch Sierra Baguales Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

By early evening I made camp at Estancia Tres RRR and enjoyed the unhindered views across the valley onto the snow covered peaks from the porch. Leaving the utter stillness and cold outside I and other guests gathered around the fireplace and made plans for the next morning. The Sierra Baguales supports a low density population of white-throated caracara and during the second day of my visit I aimed to find this species. Following some advice I returned to the end of the road and started hiking up the large hill away from the river. A straight fence line kept me on track and I worked my way towards the edge of a cliff. A bird seen briefly in light looked promising and before long I spotted an adult white-throated caracara perched on an exposed rock along the rock wall, once the bird took off, I discovered two juveniles on a promontory nearby.

White-throated Caracara Sierra Baguales Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

White-throated Caracara Sierra Baguales Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

A bit tired and cold, but satisfied, I begun the long trip back towards Puerto Natales and eventually Punta Arenas, about four hours of steady driving. Before leaving the mountains, I made one last stop near the turn for the Estancia los Leones and in one last effort finally found a Patagonian mockingbird, a small species with a relatively short tail. A single individual emerged from the dense scrub, showing well, completing the key bird species of the area.

end of the road Sierra Baguales Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

end of the road Sierra Baguales Chile Photo Stephan Lorenz

Practical Considerations:

I spent a total of eight nights in the area, including five camping and three in hostels. Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres del Paine, have a wide variety of hostels and hotels. I stocked up on food, water, and fuel in Punta Arenas and it is possible to refuel in Cerro Manatiales, Tierra del Fuego, and Puerto Natalas. The distances can be great, especially along the Pali Aike Road and in Torres del Paine National Park, so plan accordingly. It was possible to camp in a spot along the waterfront along Routa 9 about an hour out of Punta Arenas, there were many local unofficial camping spots with fire rings. In Tierra del Fuego, camping was possible along the road leading to the penguin colony, where planted trees gave shelter along a roadside stop. Interestingly a bicyclist also set up here the same night. The area is so deserted camping is possible almost anywhere. One night, I camped in Pali Aike National Park, for free if I remember right. There is a picnic area with decent wind shelters right among the lava flows and full of birds. Torres del Paine National Park has many reasonably priced and well organized camping spots and some stores to resupply on basics. In the Sierra Baguales, private ranch land limits camping to Estancia Tres RRR, where a tent can be pitched or a basic room rented for the night, very cheap. The owner was very nice and helpful. Thus camping is by far the best option to access prime birding spots. I recommend renting directly though a car company in Punta Arenas, to ensure the availability of a car. All were gone when I arrived, but they managed to find a dirty Toyota truck, which I gladly accepted at the same price as the two door sedan. The area can get busy with tourists so plan ahead, but once you leave the main tourist route you won’t see anybody. Good luck and enjoy the birds!

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