Photo Safari: Birds and Wildlife of Northern Chilefrom
Northern Chile is home to an impressive diversity of birds and wildlife. Although you may expect deserts to be bare, the lush valleys, high altitude grasslands and abundant Humboldt Current are teeming with life. This photography tour will focus on giving you the best opportunities to capture the most charismatic species of these fascinating environments.
The tour starts in the coastal city of Arica, just south go the border with Peru. Here the Humboldt current, one of the most important and productive cold water currents in the world, courses its way northward. The upwelling of the current carries nutrients from the seabed that feed the plankton on which many species of fish depend. This translates into a great abundance of coastal and pelagic seabirds. We’ll venture out into this current on an exciting pelagic trip to photograph Albatrosses, Petrels, Gulls and the stunning Inca Tern.
On the coast, at the mouth of the Lluta River, large groups of shorebirds congregate on their migration from the northern hemisphere, along the Pacific coast. A crucial stopover site for many long distance migrants, often producing many rarities.
In the interior of the arid Atacama desert, dozens of kilometers inland, we will visit one of the newly discovered nesting sites of the Markham’s Storm Petrel; one of the largest known colonies for the species. A fascinating and unexpected discovery in the midst of the world’s driest desert.
Making our way further inland, and in what seems like absolute desert as far as the eyes can see, fertile valleys cut through the monotony and serve as oases for birds and wildlife. Many species of birds are restricted to just a few valleys in the far north of the country. Among the specialties of this arid semi-tropical zone we’ll search for the funny-looking Peruvian Thick-knee, the elegant Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant, and the critically endangered endemic Chilean Woodstar, among many others.
Climbing our way up the valleys we will reach the rich Pre-Puna slopes of the Andes. This high elevation scrubby habitat is great for species like White-browed Chat-Tyrant, Canyon and Creamy-breasted Canasteros, Black-throated Flowerpiercer, and the beautiful Andean Hillstar.
Finally, reaching the high plateaus at an altitude of more than 4,000 meters, is the mythical Altiplano. Here we will find some of the most wonderful scenery in the country, the Andean lakes and snow-capped volcanoes at the Lauca National Park and the flamingo-dotted salt pans at Surire. On the shores of Lake Chungará there is bustling activity of waterbirds and colorful specialist species from the high Andes. Together with the Surire salt pans, these are excellent locations for photographing the three species of Flamingos, Lesser Rhea, Puna Plover, Andean Avocet, Giant and Andean Coot, and with some luck, the scarce Puna tinamou.
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Vacation Style Holiday Type
Activity Level Wildlife Photography
Day 1: Arrival in Santiago
Day 2: Pelagic trip and climb to Putre
Day 3: Lauca National Park
Day 4: Salar de Surire
Day 5: Putre and return to Arica
Day 6: Camarones Valley and Lluta River mouth
Day 7: Azapa Valley
- The minute and critically endangered Chilean Woodstar
- Breathtaking high-altitude landscapes and high-altitude specialists
- A tour solely focused on providing the best opportunities of capturing photos of the specialty species of Northern Chile.
- Relaxed to moderate pace. Days at higher elevation can be a bit more tiring, but good hydration and early nights will help everyone feel fit.
Ease of Birding
- Most species are easy to see. Aquatic species are quite reliable; birding in the desert and altiplano is also quite reliable, although possibility of windy condition may decrease activity. Tinamous and Seedsnipes are low density, so more effort is sometimes required to see them.
- 6 nights of accommodation
- Internal flights Santiago – Arica – Santiago
- Transport: SUV for 1-3 people, minivan for 4-6 people
- English speaking guide with birding equipment (camera, binoculars and spotting scope)
- Snacks (fruit, nuts, cereal bars, water)
- All meals
- Park entrance fees
- eBird checklists for all stops
- Travel insurance
- Tips for the guide
- Any items not mentioned above
DAY 1 - ARRIVAL IN SANTIAGO
Most international flights to Santiago are overnight. As they arrive in the early morning, participants will be able to spend a relaxing first day at a hotel close to the airport. During the afternoon their guide will meet them at the hotel in order to explain, discuss and answer last questions regarding the itinerary or any necessary detail before beginning the trip.
DAY 2 - BIRDING THE VALLEYS AROUND ARICA
This day’s schedule starts with an enjoyable 6-hour pelagic trip. Sailing into the Humboldt Current will allow visitors to spot many sub-Antarctic species of seabirds and warm water Petrels.
During our navigation it is possible to see Salvin’s, Buller’s and Black-Browed Albatross, Northern Giant-Petrel, White-Chinned and Westland Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, Elliott´s Storm-Petrel, Markham’s Storm-Petrel, Peruvian Diving Petrel, Humboldt Penguin, Chilean Skua and Swallow-tailed Gull. More coastal species may include Red-Legged and Guanay Cormorants, the splendid Inca Tern, Peruvian Boobies and Peruvian Pelican.
A tasty lunch at a restaurant on the beach will be waiting for the group after the pelagic trip. Later, with birding stops along the way, the plan considers heading to the farmland areas outside Arica and then to the town of Putre. On route we will be searching for some specialties like the Peruvian Thick-knee, West Peruvian Dove, Croaking Ground-Dove, Groove-billed Ani, Burrowing Owl, Andean Swift, Peruvian Elaenia (the northern form of White-crested Elaenia), Vermilion Flycatcher, the local race of Bran-Coloured Flycatcher (a strong candidate for a future split), Cinereous Conebill, Chestnut-throated Seedeater, Blue-Black Grassquit, Slender-billed Finch and Peruvian Meadowlark and much more.
During the afternoon, after an intensive birding day, we will arrive in the beautiful town of Putre, 3.500 m.a.s.l. (11.483 ft). Putre will be the gateway for next day’s adventures in higher elevation Andean ecosystems.
DAY 3: LAUCA NATIONAL PARK
In the heart of the Altiplano of the ‘Big North’ and about 50 kilometers away from Putre we’ll reach the Lauca National Park, a place of outstanding natural beauty. It was declared part of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves (WNBR) in 1981. The massive snow-capped volcanoes, Pomerape and Parinacota, soar to over 6.300 m a.s.l. (11.811 ft) and are a perfect backdrop reflecting in the deep blue water of Chungara and Cotacotani Lakes, both, important attractions of the park. The highlight of this excursion is the dazzling Chungara Lake, the highest altitude lake in the world.
Some of the high altitude specialist birds present in this habitat are: Andean Grebe (the local form of Silvery Grebe), Puna Teal, Giant Coot, Andean Gulls, along with many more broadly distributed species of ducks. While driving up to the lakes we will search in the high altitude bogs for the stunning and difficult-to-find Diademed Sandpiper-Plover. Other target birds for this area are: Puna Rhea, Andean Flicker, White-winged Cinclodes, Black Siskin, Puna Tinamou, Puna Ibis, Andean Goose, Mountain Caracara, Andean Lapwing, Puna Plover, Andean Avocet, Puna Miner, Puna and White-fronted Ground-Tyrants, Andean Negrito, White-winged Diuca-Finch and White-throated Sierra-Finch.
After a day of soaking in the wide-open vistas and fascinating high-altitude birds we’ll return our lodge in Putre.
DAY 4 - SALAR DE SURIRE
South of the Lauca National Park we will reach the Salar de Surire, these salt pans are home to large concentrations of Flamingos and other aquatic birds. Here we will be able to find the three species found in Chile, Chilean Flamenco, Andean Flamingo and the scarce James’s Flamingo. During the day we will look for some of the highland specialists, like the Lesser Rhea and Puna Tinamou. We will also make some stops to look for the little known Puna Snipe and Puna Yellow-finch. Also in this area it is possible to observe large groups of wild Vicuñas and domesticated Llama and Alpaca, with their colorful tassels.
DAY 5 - PUTRE AND RETURN TO ARICA
We’ll spend the morning around the small Andean village looking for Bare-faced Ground-Dove, White-throated Earthcreeper, Yellow-billed Tit Tyrant, Canyon and Dark-winged Canastero, Blue-and-Yellow Tanager, Cream-winged and White-winged Cinclodes, Streaked Tit-Spinetail, D’Orbigny’s and White-Browed Chat-Tyrants, Chiguanco Thrush, Black-throated Flowerpiercer, Golden-billed Saltator, Black-hooded and Ash-breasted Sierra-Finches, Greenish Yellow-Finch, Band-tailed Seedeater, and Spot-winged Pigeon. Along the alfalfa field on the outskirts of the village we’ll also look for the secretive, but vocal, Ornate Tinamou. Around midday we’ll drive slowly down the windy mountain road back to Arica looking for any birds we may have missed on the way up to Putre. Night in Arica.
DAY 6: CAMARONES VALLEY AND LLUTA RIVER MOUTH
Our most important target species will be the hummingbirds: Oasis Hummingbird, Peruvian Sheartail and the endemic Chilean Woodstar. This last one, the smallest bird in Chile and one of its most threatened species (world population estimated at 350 individuals); mainly due to the loss, degradation and fragmentation of its habitat in the desert valleys. Thankfully there are still some areas with adequate habitat, where you can see males lekking.
During the afternoon we will go to the heart of the desert to see a colony of Markham’s Storm Petrel. Like all seabirds, this species lives mainly offshore, however, it breeds quite far inland. They breed in cavities within salt deposits in the Atacama Desert. The main threats to this species are the bright lights of cities, roads and industries, which attract and disorient them at night, as well as the development of energy and mining projects, and military exercises over their colonies.
Returning to Arica we will stop at the delta of one of the most important rivers in the region, the Lluta River. This wetland is a valuable ecosystem where different types of habitats are integrated: sandy beach, lagoons, reeds and scrubland. In addition, it is one of the premier stopover sites in Chile during migration, and famous for producing many rare species.
The main group of interest here will be shorebirds, among them Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Semipalmated and Collared Plovers, Killdeer, and possibly some other goodies moving through. The beaches have large flocks of the elegant Gray Gull, Belcher’s Gull and terns. In the scrub along the wetland we can also find the radiant Peruvian Meadowlark and the cute Slender-billed Finch.
DAY 7 - AZAPA VALLEY
During the morning we will make our way into the Azapa Valley to a local hummingbird sanctuary. This small plot of land is owned by a family that has spent decades filling their gardens with flowering plants to create a haven for hummingbirds in this valley. There are two species of hummingbirds that frequent the gardens that are special to these desert valleys, and that offer very good photo opportunities, the Peruvian Sheartail and the Oasis Hummingbird.
After we have had our fill of hummingbird photography we will head over to the Lluta Valley for a lovely lunch. We will have some time after lunch to target any species we might have missed previously or that we would simply like some more time to take some good photos of before our flight back to Santiago in the afternoon.