1 Jan 2019

13 Mar 18 - Chile: Off To See Some Diamond Geysers

My trip to Chile had got off to a good start with seeing the Horned Coots & a couple of bonus Ticks on the first afternoon to the South East of San Pedro de Atacama. The other key site I wanted to visit were the touristy geysers at El Tatio at around 4300 metres. I wasn't worried about the need to acclimatise slowly to altitude, having spent over three weeks in Colombia visiting many High Andes sites. However, this is something other Birders following this route might need to be more careful about. One of the tips we were given in Colombia, was to drink at least a pint of water before ascending high & to keep drinking at regular intervals. Getting the fluids in before you ascend can help. However, not drinking enough or not drinking until after you have ascended, will not easy any problems with altitude.
A local church
The vast majority of the Altiplano is dry & arid
Anyway, back to El Tatio. This is a good site for Red-backed Sierra-finch which was another species with a limited range in Chile & which we didn't see in Argentina in 1998. As with the Horned Coots, I believe it is possible to see them in Bolivia, if or when I ever get the chance to get there. The geysers are shown on google maps as being about an hour & a half drive North of San Pedro de Atacama. The reality is it took me about three hours to get there. If I had taken a tourist bus, I would have been there in half my time & soon after dawn. But driving myself took much longer as there were so many great spots to stop en route. It was over two hours for the return journey. Initially, the road heads across relatively similar Altiplano habitat to what I had been driving through on the previous day & with little obvious birdlife. But after climbing onto the higher Altiplano, it followed a winding water course with occasional small Altiplano lakes & areas of bogs. All these areas were rich with Birds & I stopped on many occasions. I didn't see any bonus Ticks on the way there, but did better on the way back.
Chilean Flamingo: Adult. These are the easiest of the three Chilean species to identify. The pink of the wings covers or nearly covers the black in the wings. The bill is pale pink with a black terminal half. They have pale eyes, grey legs & pink knees
Chilean Flamingo: Adult
Andean Flamingos & Puna Flamingo (facing left): Adults. The extensive black in the wings indicates these are either adult Andean Flamingos or Puna Flamingos. They both have black eyes & yellow-based bills with red on the top of the upper mandible. The majority of the bill is black in Andean Flamingo, but the black is restricted to the terminal third of the bill in Puna Flamingo. The individual facing left has a much smaller black terminal marking on the bill & is the Puna Flamingo
Andean Flamingos & Puna Flamingo (facing left): Adults. The extent of the black on the bills of these three individuals is obvious
Andean Flamingo & Puna Flamingo (facing left): A close crop of the last photo to show the differences in bill markings. Note, near adult Puna Flamingos do not show red on the top of the bill, so perhaps this one is not fully adult
Andean Flamingo & Puna Flamingo (facing left): Adults. Andean Flamingos have yellow legs, whereas Puna Flamingos have pink legs. The books say Andean Flamingos is the largest of the three species, but has noticeably shorter legs. Personally, while I can see the Andean Flamingo is a little bit bulkier & shorter legged, I think the bare part colouration is more useful in identifying them (especially in water)
Andean Flamingos & Puna Flamingo (facing left): Adults. This photo was taken first compared to the photos above, but I like it as it shows the size with the open wings. It is just possible to see the Puna Flamingo has a more compact body compared to the left-hand Andean Flamingo
Andean Flamingo: Adult. Leg colouration doesn't help when they wade in wader this deep & it's even worse when they stick their heads underwater. This is clearly an Andean Flamingo despite facing left
Andean Flamingo: Adult. However, identification is easy when they behave like this
Soon after getting onto the higher Altiplano, there are some roadside salt lakes which are about 100 metres from the road. I pulled over to look at the lake from the car. Frustratingly, within a few minutes another car pulled over at the next pull in & the occupants jumped straight out & started walking towards the lakes. I decided I might as well walk over to the lake as well. I got closer, but not too close to disturb everything there & started getting some photos. At this point, one of the tourist buses appeared & told us to go back to the road. This was probably a good thing, as while I stopped at a safe distance, the other people would have continued until they disturbed everything & my Spanish wasn't good enough to ask them to stop. After another few minutes of driving, I discovered there were some more salt lakes which were right next to the road which were also worth a stop.
Andean Avocet: They occur from Southern Peru to Northern Chile & Northern Argentina
There were a couple of Andean Avocets feeding in the salt lakes: Note, the impact of the wind on its feathers
Puna Plover: Immature. The dull breast band & pectoral patches to the sides of the breast indicates this is an immature. This is another species that occurs in the high Altiplano from Southern Peru to Northern Chile & Northern Argentina
I still had a fair drive to El Tatio so reluctantly I decided I needed to get back in the car. After another few miles of driving I came to the first of two good areas on boggy marshes next to the road. Both areas were well worth the time to stop & scan. Further on there was another larger marshy area, which was visible from a higher viewpoint.
Andean Goose
Andean Goose
Crested Duck: This is the alticola subspecies which occurs in the Andes of Peru, Bolivia, Northern Argentina & Chile
Puna Teal: With a nice habitat background. The drier background shows how narrow this habitat is
Puna Teal: As the name suggests this is an Altiplano species. The blue bill & slightly larger size separates it from Silver Teal which has a wider & more lowland range in South America
Speckled Teal: This is the oxyptera subspecies which occurs in Altiplano in Southern Peru, Argentina & Chile, as well as, the Falkland Islands & South Georgia. The flavirostris subspecies occurs at lower elevations within the same range
Giant Coot: They are the largest Coot in the world & have these two distinctive bumps on their head
Giant Coot: They are my favourite Coot species
Giant Coot: The bumps are clearly visible from behind
Giant Coot: They occur in the Andes of Southern Peru, Northern Chile & NW Argentina
Giant Coot: The nest is a mass of piled up vegetation like many Coot & Moorhen species
Giant Coot: Feeding the next generation
Grey-breasted Seedsnipe: Male: They occur in the Andes of Southern Peru as far South as Tierra del Fuego
Grey-breasted Seedsnipe: Female
Lesser Yellowlegs & Puna Teal
Lesser Yellowlegs: The bill is a uniform dark colouration, straight & a similar length to the head. Greater Yellowlegs have a longer, slightly upturned bill with a paler base to the bill. In the field, identification is more obvious as Lesser Yellowlegs are the size of Redshanks, whereas Greater Yellowlegs are the size of Greenshanks
There were at least twenty five Vicunas along the route.
Vicuna: They are the smallest of the Vicuna & Guanaco group (including their domestic counterparts of Alpaca & Llama). The whitish tufts at the base of the breast help to separate them from the larger, longer-legged Guanaco
Vicuna
Vicuna
Finally, I left the salt lakes & bogs behind & continued at a faster speed to El Tatio.
Eventually the road became a gravel track
Looks like this is still active given the smoke
A closer view

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