14 Mar 2018

14 Mar 18 - Chile: Desert Geoglyphs & Tamarugo Conebills

When I was planning the Chile trip, one of my main targets was Horned Coot which meant visiting San Pedro de Atacama. This was 450 miles from Arica, which is the main hub for Northern Chile Birding. There was little of interest in between these two areas as it was mainly the Atacama Desert. But there was one near endemic, Tamarugo Conebill, along this route. This occurs in areas of Tamarugo trees in the Northern half of the route. Therefore, it made sense to try finding somewhere to break the journey and then travel the Northern half in the daytime. A quick look at the map suggested the town of Pica might be the best option to break the journey. It was twenty five miles off the Pan American Highway & near the Pampa del Tamarugal National Reserve, which is an area where new plantations of Tamarugo trees were being planted in the Atacama. Normally, planning trees in a desert would sound like a recipe for failure, but Tamarugo trees are are well-suited to the harsh, dry conditions. They are also the preferred habitat for Tamarugo Conebills. Pica was looking like the perfect place to spent the night, especially as it had a few touristy sites nearby. Looking further there was also a site with many geoglyphs next to the turn off from the Pan American Highway. Geoglyphs are markings on the ground or in this case, on the hillside. These geoglyphs date back to the first inhabitants of the region & they are thought to be around 1500 years old. They are similar to the Nazca lines in Peru. My hotel, the Hotel Rucaru, turned out as a clean & convenient B&B for the night, with a nearby cafe for food on the previous evening. Soon after first light I was leaving the hotel, but I hadn't got out of town before I had to stop at one of the local parks. There was no entrance charge, although I thought I would help one of the local booths & buy an ice cream. This celebrates one of the other things that makes Pica a tourist destination: dinosaurs have been found at several local sites.
Tyrannosaurus Rex
Tyrannosaurus Rex
Croaking Ground-dove: There were a couple skulking around the Dinosaur Park
Just before the main road, there was a large plantation of Tamarugo trees. There was a rough track across the bare desert & it looked drivable: fortunately, it was as I would have struggled had the car got stuck. The trees looked mature, but the big question was where the Tamarugo Conebills had found this plantation. After an extensive search, the answer seemed to be no & the plantation had very few avian residents. With two hundred miles before I reached Arica, there should be more opportunities before the end of my journey. The next stop was the geoglyphs. When I reached the Pan American Highway, I carried straight across onto a dirt road for a mile or two. The geoglyphs, called the Geoglifos de Pintados, were clearly marked out along a four km length of the dry sandy hillsides. There was a small visitor centre there, but unfortunately, it was closed. The dirt road runs alongside the base of the hills & provides a good viewpoint of the geoglyphs. But there is nothing to stop me looking around. It was well worth a look.
Geoglyphs: The hillsides are covered in the carvings
Geoglyph: Some designs were fairly obvious like this Llama or Vicuna design. They have been made by exposing the pale sandy hillside by moving all the covering rocks. So a similar principle to the many chalk hill carvings in the UK like the Fovant badges
Geoglyph: This hillside was a mass of mainly abstract geoglyphs
Geoglyph: More abstract geoglyphs
Geoglyph: A few more recognisable geoglyphs
Geoglyph: This looks like a Fish, Cetacean or Seal with a big mouth
Geoglyph: An early self-portrait?
Geoglyph: The earliest known 'Where's Wally'
Geoglyph: Wally with poncho & Mrs Wally to his left
After an hour, it was time to move on. I still had a couple of hundred miles to Arica.
The Atacama Desert at its most tedious: There were many miles that looked like this
I didn't know how many stands of Tamarugo trees I would be checking. Every now & then, I did see Tamarugo trees. I stopped at two or three areas where I could get the car off the road. But I had no success. But I did see this cracking Red-backed Hawk along one side track.
Red-backed Hawk: Taxonomically, for many years this widespread South American species was split from the High Andes Puna Hawk, but now they are more regarded as a single species & Clements doesn't even recognise Puna Hawk as a subspecies. After being lumped, the species was renamed as Variable Hawk, but I've stuck to the name I initially learnt
Finally, another roadside stop on the Pan American Highway worked out & I saw a couple of Tamarugo Conebills. Despite the Tamarugo trees being fairly open, they were remarkable good at getting branches in the way.
Tamarugo Conebill
Tamarugo trees
Tamarugo trees: The spines are worth avoiding
I could now press on at a faster pace towards Arica, without having to stop at other stands of Tamarugo trees. There were more geoglyphs on the hillsides, albeit there weren't as impressive as the ones near Pica.
Geoglyph: This roadside geoglyph seems to show a Bird of Prey sitting in the sun
A final geoglyph
About 75 miles I started to descend into the Camarones Valley. This descent took several miles before I finally reached the valley bottom & the checkpoint between the Tarapaca and Arica y Parinacota states. Just after the checkpoint was a rough track up the valley.
The start of the decent into the Camerones Valley: It would be hard to miss given it was several miles to the bottom
When I was planning the trip, I found the Camarones Valley was a site for Tamarugo Conebill. More interesting, there were a lot of very recent sightings over the previous year or two of Raimondi's Yellow-finch. This had only been confirmed as a new arrival to Chile from Southern Peru. One sighting I came across had a flock of 75. This was clearly worth a break from driving.
Camarones Valley: I drove through this farmland field for a couple of miles, but no sign of any Raimondi Yellow-finches. However, previous reports suggested I needed to go several miles further along the track
Camarones Valley: Well my hire car wasn't going to get through this. Guess I will have to hope to see a Raimondi Yellow-finch on a future Peru trip. I did see a couple more Tamarugo Conebills before I had to abandon the search
Looking down on the Camerones Valley from the Arica side
There was this interesting sculpture about fifteen miles South of Arica. Apparently, it recognises the first occupants in the Atacama Desert.
The Origin of Life sculptures near Arica
It was time to carry onto Arica.
Arica is only 20 km from the Peruvian border
I finally arrived at Arica with a couple of hours of light left. It took half an hour to figure my way across town & to find the Isla Alacran. This is a peninsula sticking out at the Southern end of the town to a rocky island. I had hoped to be able to drive out to the end, but found the road was blocked off after a hundred metres. However, it was a convenient place to scan one of the harbours. The main fishing port harbour is further North & I wasn't aware I could have taken the car in there & looked at that harbour. That would have been a better place to spent the rest of the late afternoon. But I did get to check it out later in my trip. There were large numbers of Grey Gulls & Franklin's Gulls, as well as, a few Neotropic Cormorants & Peruvian Pelicans. Close to dusk, I headed off to find my B&B for the night.
Isla Alacran: This was mentioned as worth a look in Pearman's old site guide to the Birds of Chile. It should be better if you can get out to the far end of the peninsula, but I didn't try to see if that was possible to do on foot. I had a pelagic booked for 17 Mar & therefore hoped to see the local Seabirds on that. However, I was looking for roosting Cormorants as I still needed Red-legged Cormorant & Pelagic Cormorant at this point in the trip. I wasn't aware that I would stand a better chance looking for them from the fishing harbour, where the pelagic started (see the pelagic post)
South American White-winged Dove: Clements now calls this West Peruvian Dove, after a split a few years ago from the White-winged Dove that occurs in the Southern states of the US as far South as Panama, as well as, the Caribbean. As it occurs from Southern Ecuador to Northern Chile, then West Peruvian Dove isn't a particularly good name in my opinion. This is a fairly common species in the Arica area, but a good-looking Dove