Birding across South America

On August 28th 2015 Paula and I returned to South America from the UK.  The Andean Wildlife Project resumes and our objective from now on will be more ornithological and in particular to understand why there are so many bird species on this incredible continent.


Where best to start this quest than to head for one of the most avian rich countries in the world, Peru.  To get there we needed to drive right across Argentina, traverse the Andes mountains and then up through the Atacama desert  in Chile and finally to cross the border of Peru at Arica. Birding across South America.

We left Buenos Aires and headed north following the flat marshlands of the Parana river.  This massive series of wetlands is now much reduced, replaced instead by cattle ranching country.  Nevertheless a variety of Egrets, Ibis, Wood Rails and Snail Kites abounded.

Moving east we entered the Chaco ecoregion.  We found that much of the land was degraded and much used as cattle pasture.  Eventually we found a series of sand tracks that penetrated the almost impenetrable thorny scrub, interspersed with candelabra cacti and small low growing acacia type trees. In this area we found Black-crested Finch, Golden-billed Saltators , Duica Finches and Monk Parakeets.


Paula at Chaco campsite




Golden-billed Saltator


The journey northwards from Cordoba to Tucuman took us into an altogether richer agricultural area, where great machines were harvesting the sugar cane.  Picui ground doves swarmed over the plantations and Guira Cuckoos, usually in small groups, were common.  To our west we saw tantalising glimpses of the Andean foothills and longed to reach those verdant valleys where we had spent so many happy hours earlier in the year.  The nearer we got to Tucuman so the Lemon groves increased, trucks piled high with the fruit vied with the even larger trucks carrying sugar cane.

We spent a day with our good friends in Tucuman and also had some necessary minor repairs done to the vehicle, putting new rivets in the steps, which had vibrated out on the poor roads.

Still further north of Salta, passing alongside the transitional forests on the foothills, White-tailed  and Roadside hawks were regularly perched on the larger trees and high above circled Turkey Vultures and the occasional Aguila mora. We passed the turnoff to El Rey National Park; a place we had not visited and wanted to in the future, but our destination in deepest, darkest Peru remained a long way off, we needed to press on.

On Tuesday September 1st we started our climb into the high Andes, into the beautiful  Puna ecoregion where stipa grasses dominated and the few small wetlands held resident Crested Ducks.


Puna with Stipa grasses


Crested Ducks

 We reached the Jama Pass in the late afternoon only to find the border closed.  We spent a fitful night’s sleep in the freezing cold and at an uncomfortable altitude of 4500m.

Crossing the border the next day we climbed even higher onto the Chilean altiplano, an arrestingly stark and barren environment.


Chilean altiplano


We dropped down the western slope of the Andes into San Pedro de Atacama and continued onwards across the Atacama desert and eventually to the Chilean coast at Paposo.  We had visited this area eight months prior and were interested to find if the heavy rains that had occurred after we left had led to a rare flowering of the coastal desert.  There were many small shrubs that were in flower and certainly everything was  much greener, but the spectacular flowering of the bulbous plants had not yet started.


Coastal desert at Poposo

We camped on the shore and were surprised by the number of Snowy Plovers and Seaside Cinclodes.


Snowy Plover


Seaside Cinclodes


Spending more time on the beautiful Chilean coast would have to wait for another time, we had to move on .


Paula driving the Atacama

It took two more days driving north through the endless Atacama desert to reach Arica in the very far north of Chile, the gateway to Peru and the goal of this journey, the famed lush sub-tropical forests of the eastern slope of the Andes.

Wildlife in the Atacama

Paula and I have just spent several weeks in the Atacama desert searching for wildlife.  It’s the driest place on earth  but there are areas where nature provides enough moisture for a wide variety of life to survive.

The Atacama is a huge area  and we found that two factors were key as to where animals and plants thrived, firstly the proximity to the coast and secondly the altitude.

In the west the Atacama starts right on the Pacific seashore, extending across a narrow coastal plain and then up and over a narrow range of mountains about 50 miles wide.  This is the coastal desert and stretches about 600 miles from north to south.


El Camanchaca del desierto de la costa

El Camanchaca del desierto de la costa


The prevailing wind blowing from the ocean moves clouds of fog over the coastal plain and then up and over the mountains, enveloping the plants in moisture. This bountiful fog is locally called the ‘Camanchaca‘.


D W 14

Cacti are the predominant family of plants that have adapted to this.


Un niebla-prado lleno de cactus

Un niebla-prado lleno de cactus



There are a few special areas in this Coastal Desert where cacti thrive exceptionally well , such places are called ‘fog meadows’ and we found such an area near  the Llanos de Challe National Park,  where there were hillsides covered in cacti particularly of the Copiapoa family.


Paula and I spent some glorious days in these ‘fog meadows’ photographing these amazing plants but always being very carful when we bent down !


Paula filmando en los niebla-prados.

Paula filmando en los niebla-prados.


A common reptile of the ‘fog meadows’ was the Lava lizard.



Corredor de Atacama

Corredor de Atacama


To the east of the coastal range of mountains the temperatures soar.  This part of  the Atacama is called the ‘absolute desert’, probably because there is absolutely nothing there and not surprisingly our search for wildlife was almost fruitless.



Pudimos encontrar solamente rocas y piedras en el desierto absolute.

Pudimos encontrar solamente rocas y piedras en el desierto absoluto.



Several hours in the relentless heat was enough for us.  We could find no living things at all, except in the hazy sky  above, where a Mountain Caracara flew.

 The plains of the absolute desert range between 3,500 ft – 6, 500ft  but across these plains there run deep gorges called Quebradas.  Through these gorges team the sporadic floods that tear down from the high Andes in the summer.




Una Quebrada

We tried in vain to access some of these precarious gorges, native Algarrobo trees often found a niche at the foot of the cliffs in which to grow and small groups of Grey-headed Sierra Finches were usually present.




Cometocino de Gay o Comesebo Andino.

Cometocino de Gay o Comesebo Andino.


Continuing in an easterly direction towards the Andes the altitude increases and so does the wildlife.  One special habitat in the Atacama are the saline lakes, salars. These are fed with underground water from the Andean snowfields.  These saline lakes are a magnet for waterbirds such as Andean Avocets and Flamingos.



Caiti o Avoceta Andina

Caiti o Avoceta Andina

When the altitude reached between  6,000ft – 11,000 ft  we encountered an area of the Atacama  known locally as the ‘andean desert’.

Parts of this area are extremely arid but luckily receive run-off from the high volcanic peaks and cacti predominate, particularly tall stately Cardons.







It was in the Andean desert that  we found the greatest  biodiversity.

The most obvious animals were lizards, sunning themselves on rocks or scuttling across the stony ground away from our tramping feet.



Lioaemus andinus

Lioaemus andinus


 It’s quite easy to catch a lizard, one just has to be very patient, careful, slow to start with and very quick at the finish!

Once you have caught your lizard it’s possible to admire its beauty in detail, taking care not to hold it by its tail or it will shed and you will be left holding a wriggling bit of discarded flesh.



He cogido una lagartija

He cogido una lagartija




Often in the chase the lizard will try to escape,  they will hide in a spiky bush, under a rock or disappear down a hole.

Finding them in these situations can be interesting and rewarding, if not scary, for in such places we found scorpions, spiders and numerous beetles.











D W 5


Some of these animals are not everyone’s favourite but we like them!  In the driest place in the world it was fascinating for us to discover at last so many animals.


As a complete contrast to these small creatures the next blog will concentrate on one of the largest, most beautiful and graceful birds of the desert; the Flamingo.

Out of this world in the Atacama

The Atacama  desert stretches for 600 miles from the north Chilean coast into southern Peru and eastwards from the Pacific up into the Andes mountains.


El desierto de Atacama

El desierto de Atacama


This is where Paula and I have recently been travelling in search of wildlife, though it’s hard to find!

A few main roads cross the desert as mining is a major industry in the region.



Una carretera por el desierto

Una carretera por el desierto


When we left the main roads we were stunned by the emptiness and the vast, parched, barren landscapes.


Absolute desert

The Atacama desert is the driest place on earth. Most parts of the desert only receive between 1 and 3 mm of rain a year and scientists have concluded that some areas have experienced extreme aridity for 3 million years with some river beds being dry for 120,000 years !


Un paisaje de arena y piedres

Un paisaje de arena y rocas


For a landscape photographer, being in the Atacama is like a visit to a modern art gallery.


Colours are bold and saturated, lines are clear, everything looks clean, nothing is cluttered and yet unnatural in a peculiar way.


The senses are not bombarded by noise, the silence accentuating the sharpness and intensity of the desert and this is what makes the Atacama so beautiful and other worldly.




Desert  3


This is not only a land of stone, rock, sand, salt lakes and lava.  It is an explosive and  turbulent land as the underlying volcanic activity sends steaming water to the surface, bubbling through boiling mud.

Primitive bacterial organisms have been found in these cauldrons of steam and slime.


Los geiseres en El Tatio

Los geiseres en El Tatio

It is not surprising that NASA scientists  use this desert as a testing ground for their explorations on Mars.  Nowhere on earth looks more like Mars than the Atacama, nowhere on earth is there less life than in parts of the Atacama.



Unos lugares se parecen al planeta Marte

Unos lugares se parecen al planeta Marte


It might seem crazy that we would visit such a desolate and unforgiving environment in search of wildlife.  But, as always, nature finds ways to overcome the seemingly impossible and has conquered even this hostile place.


Such were the  secrets we uncovered and the animals we found that the next two blogs will be devoted to the extraordinary wildlife of the Atacama;  the driest place on earth !


The birds of an unknown desert

Paula scans for birds in the northern Monte desert of Salta Province, Argentina, one of the wonderful south American eco-regions and only found in Argentina.


Mont landscape Los Cardones

 60% of Argentina is classified as ‘arid’ and these arid lands are considered to be the Puna, a cold steppe desert at a high altitude in the Andean mountains, Patagonia which is a cold steppe of low altitude and the Monte which is  a warm shrub desert. As these arid lands are sandwiched between the hot steamy Neotropics  and the Antarctic,  they are very important for bird distribution and endemism in South America.


Laguna Del Diamente camp

This is one of our camps near to Lake Diamante in Mendoza Province, at a height of 2300m it represents the limit between the Monte and Puna eco-regions, at such a height it is sometimes referred to as the pre-puna.


Monte - Grey headed Sierra Finch

Grey-headed Sierra-finch




Blach-hooded Sierra finch


Black-hooded Sierra Finch


Mourning Sierra Finch

Mourning Sierra-finch.  The Sierra-finches are a genus of Andean seed-eating birds closely related to the North American Tanagers. They forage on the ground and these tree species are widely distributed across the length of the Monte.


Monte - Straight-billed Earthcreeper

The Straight-billed Earthcreeper is a widely distributed but little known, it is rather secretive, scuttling around rocky crevices in search of insects.



Monte - A Giant Hummingbird

One of the great birding highlights of the Monte is the possibility of locating the biggest hummingbird in South America, the Giant Hummingbird.

We have travelled  well over one thousand kilometres through the Monte and only found one area, in Salta Province, where they were to be seen. On this occasion though we observed courting pairs and witnessed ‘aerial duels’ between several males.  These duels were ignited when one male  strayed into the territory of another.  The defending male would circle the other male and both would rise upwards into the heavens, each facing each other and using their long bill in a manner that resembled sword-fighting.


Monte -Elegant crested Tinamou




Monte -Elegant crested Tinamou 2

Tinamous are only found in South America and belong to one of the most ancient of bird families the Ratites, whose giant relatives ranged over this land  during the Miocene  period, when the earth was much warmer and arid lands were advancing over forested landscapes..  This is the Elegant-crested Tinamou and is typical of the family with cryptic camouflaged plumage.


Monte -Red-shouldered Hawk


 The Red-shouldered Hawk is one of the top predators of the Monte.





 We will be spending more time in the Monte over the next few months, there are so many hidden valleys and mountain ranges to try to visit.