El Yeso Valley, Chile

08 January 2018 – Birding El Yeso Valley
[Región Metropolitana de Santiago]

The long-tailed mockingbird flew
dressed like scissors:
perched on a thread, it listened to
the telegraph’s deep voice,
the wire’s blue pulse,
heard words, kisses, numbers,
fleet petals from the soul,
then launched its trill,
released a transparent stream,
and scattered its delirium to the winds.
Chilean Mockingbird (Mimus thenca)
The Art of Birds (1962-65) – Pablo Neruda

Chilean Mockingbird – ©2018 Heather V. Baskey

We arranged to bird El Yeso Valley, Chile with Albatross Birding prior to our airline transfer later that evening (via De Blasis B&B, who kindly stored our luggage for the day).  Our lead guide, Fernando M. Martinez and his Assistant Guide, Nelson Contardo picked us up before dawn for a full day of birding.

 We are very thankful that Nelson tracked all of our observations quite accurately via eBird Mobile (live tracking!) and then shared all the lists with us.  A great help to reflect our observations throughout the day, without having to frantically jot down all the different species *and* their locations on a piece of paper!
thank you Nelson! xo!

Localidad desconocida –  Región Metropolitana de Santiago, CL
Mon Jan 08, 2018 7:30 AM – Tunel tinoco
Species observed:  Torrent Duck (
Merganetta armata)Dark-bellied Cinclodes (Cinclodes patagonicus), Austral Thrush (Turdus falcklandii)
Our first stop was along the roadside of the Rio Maipo Valley to observe species of the incredible rushing waters of the River.  It is absolutely incredible that birds have adapted to living in this harsh environment.
The photo below shows a Dark-bellied Cinclodes (top left corner on top of rock) beside the torrent waters of the water.  Bottom right corner is a memorial for someone who perished in these waters.  The river gives and the river takes – life!

Rio Maipo Memorial with Dark-bellied Cinclodes (top left corner)

One of the specialty species we stopped to observe within the rushing waters of the Rio Maipo was the Torrent Duck.  The Torrent Duck (Merganetta armata) is an Andean endemic and a specialist of cold fast-flowing mountain streams, to which only three other species of duck in the world have been able to adapt (source link: Neotropical Birds Online).  Video below was digiscoped by Anthony.

El Ingenio, Región Metropolitana de Santiago, CL
Mon Jan 08, 2018 7:55 AM – Ingenio
We continued to bird the Rio Maipo and stopped at a bridge, where we had a great observation of the Giant Hummingbird!  The Giant Hummingbird is the largest hummingbird, weighing 18-20 g (6/10 – 7/10 of an ounce); and averaging 21.5 cm (8½ in) in length.  It is a high altitude species, found between 2,000 and 4,300 meters (6,500-14,100 feet) above sea level in the Andes of South America.  Although we had an excellent showing of this magnificent specialty, it was very difficult to photograph!

At this location, we also had a fantastic showing of the Tufted Tit-Tyrant.   This member of the flycatcher family is found in western South America; from southern Colombia south along the Andes mountains, to Tierra del Fuego.

Tufted Tit-Tyrant (Anairetes parulus)
Another view of the Tufted Tit-Tyrant – © 2018 Heather V. Baskey

Species Observed:  Eared Dove (Zenaida auriculata), Giant Hummingbird (Patagona gigas)Dark-bellied Cinclodes (Cinclodes patagonicus), Tufted Tit-Tyrant (Anairetes parulus)White-crested Elaenia (Elaenia albiceps), Austral Thrush (Turdus falcklandii), Common Diuca-Finch (Diuca diuca), Black-chinned Siskin (Spinus barbatus)

Signs throughout the Rio Maipo valley reminded us that we were in an active volcano range:

Camino Al Volcán, San José de Maipo, Región Metropolitana, CL
Mon Jan 08, 2018 8:34 AM – El Romeral
From the river bridge, we then observed grassland species within the Valley of San Jose de Maipo.

One of the highlights of the grasslands was the charming Black-chinned Siskins that fluttered through the grasses as they fed on the dangling seeds.  The Black-chinned siskin is the most southerly-distributed of all the siskins. It is common in edge habitats, scrub, and towns in central and southern Chile, and can also be found in southern Argentina, and on the Falkland Islands.

Black-chinned Siskin (male) – © 2018 Heather V. Baskey

An interesting universal behaviour of cowbirds was observed when we spotted a Common Diuca-Finch feeding a Shiny Cowbird chick. Cowbirds are notorious for laying their eggs in others species’ nests to be raised by other birds.  The photo below shows the Finch feeding a baby cowbird chick.  A trivial note – the name for the Common Diuca-Finch in Spanish is Diuca Común and the name diuca comes from the Mapuche name for the bird.

Common Diuca-Finch feeding a Shiny Cowbird chick – © 2018 Heather V. Baskey

Species Observed:  Southern Lapwing (Vanellus chilensis), Chimango Caracara (Milvago chimango), Rock Pigeon [Columba livia (Feral Pigeon)], White-crested Elaenia (Elaenia albiceps), Chilean Swallow (Tachycineta leucopyga), House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), Austral Thrush (Turdus falcklandii), Chilean Mockingbird (Mimus thenca)Common Diuca-Finch (Diuca diuca), Long-tailed Meadowlark (Sturnella loyca), Shiny Cowbird (Molothrus bonariensis), Black-chinned Siskin (Spinus barbatus)House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

After the grasslands, we started our big adventure to El Yeso Valley within the Andes, searching for high altitude specialties.

Camino Embalse El Yeso–Los Nogales, Región Metropolitana de Santiago, CL
Mon Jan 08, 2018 8:57 AM – Camino al yeso

A surprising sight was the California Quail (Callipepla californica)within the area.  Apparently, this species was introduced into Chile in the year 1864 and favoured the country so much so, its population not only thrived, but grew in great numbers.

California Quail (introduced species) – thriving in the high altitude Andes of Chile

Intrigued by the success of this introduced species, I dug a bit more and found this newspaper clipping from 1927 (almost 100 years ago) from “The Gridley Herald”, a California-based paper.   The newspaper quotes the letter that was addressed to Dr. H.S. Swarth and Dr. H.C. Bryant from E.F. Greenwood.quail2quailThe letter from E.F. Greenwood and the success of the California Quail within Chile was also reported in the American Ornithological Society’s publication, “The Condor” – Vol. 29, No. 3 (May-Jun, 1927) on page 164 in the “Field and Study” article, noted as “Valley Quail Imported from Chile” – H.S. Swarth, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, Berkeley, California, February 9, 1927.  Dr. Swarth suggests that no other American game bird has been so successfully acclimatized in other countries as the California Valley Quail and mentions the expatriate regions of British Columbia (Canada), Chile, and New Zealand.  He shares the contents of the same letter as The Gridley Herald (above) and also excerpts from a second letter, from Mr. Henry J. Besant that recants his visit to Chile and specifically the residence of Mr. C.J. Lambert of Coquimbo.  The letter mentions the release of quail onto the property and due to “the climate and other conditions evidently being favorable, they (the quail) increased in numbers rapidly and spread out over the country“.  Dr. Swarth further mentions that it is indeed probable that these were not the only importations of quail into Chile, but the two letters serve as “definite information as to the exact subspecies first introduced there, information to be taken into account in any study of the characters now exhibited by Chilean Valley Quail“.
Although Anthony & I have observed the American Kestrel on several occasions in several different countries, we never tire of this spectacular bird.  It was a true pleasure to have the opportunity to photograph a lovely specimen perched upon a wire in Chile.  Furthermore, I discovered that famed Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda wrote about this small raptor – an excerpt from his poem, is below.

American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) – © 2018 Heather V. Baskey

American Kestrel 
from The Art of Birds (1962-65) – Pablo Neruda
“High noon opened up:
the sun in the center, crowned.
The earth awaited indecisively
some movement in the sky
and everyone remained
indecipherably still.
At that slender second
the hawk hammered its flight,
cut loose from the firmament,
and swooped like a sudden shiver.”

Species Observed:  California Quail (Callipepla californica)Striped Woodpecker (Veniliornis lignarius), American Kestrel (Falco sparverius), Blue-and-white Swallow (Pygochelidon cyanoleuca), Chilean Mockingbird (Mimus thenca), Gray-hooded Sierra-Finch (Phrygilus gayi), Common Diuca-Finch (Diuca diuca), Austral Blackbird (Curaeus curaeus)

Camino Embalse El Yeso, Región Metropolitana de Santiago, CL
Mon Jan 08, 2018 9:16 AM – Camino al yeso – 3,000 metres elevation

The road to …
El Yeso Reservoir

The rugged, yet beautiful, picturesque drive – became interesting at times!

TurcaStempIn the vicinity of the El Yeso Reservoir, we observed more great birds along the roadside.   A highlight was another member of the of the Rhinocryptidae family, the Moustached Turca (Pteroptochos megapodius).  Our first encounter with this unique family of birds was in Puerto Montt, Chile – where we observed the Chucao Tapaculo.  The Moustached Turca is endemic to Chile and is an inhabitant of arid slopes with rocks and shrubbery from sea-level to high in the foothills of the Andes.

Moustached Turca (Pteroptochos megapodius) – © 2018 Heather V. Baskey

A short video of this chilean endemic can be viewed below:

Within the same area, we were treated to the appearance of another Chilean endemic, the Crag Chilia. 

Crag Chilia – © 2018 Heather V. Baskey

This delightful bird with its dark rufous back and extensive white throat was amazing to observe, as it has a very restrictive range – approximately 1500 – 2200 m elevation within Central Chile (see range map, below).
Another amazing highlight was a distant viewing of the magnificent Andean Condor.  There were adults flying 3,000 feet above our heads (and we were already at ~ 9,000 feet).  I took photos of the little specks in the sky, ever hopeful, and of course – ever disappointed at the little black specks in the view finder of the DSLR.  However!  as we were eating lunch, a shadow came over us, blocking the sun’s rays.  We looked up and a juvenile Condor made a brief appearance.  Still quite high in altitude, but I somehow managed to snag a brief moment in time of the largest flying bird in the world (combined measurement of weight and wingspan).

Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus) – juvenile

Species Observed:  Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus)Variable Hawk (Geranoaetus polyosoma), Moustached Turca (Pteroptochos megapodius)Crag Chilia (Ochetorhynchus melanurus)Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetail (Leptasthenura aegithaloides), House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), Austral Thrush (Turdus falcklandii), Chilean Mockingbird (Mimus thenca), Gray-hooded Sierra-Finch (Phrygilus gayi), Common Diuca-Finch (Diuca diuca), Long-tailed Meadowlark (Sturnella loyca)

Camino Embalse El Yeso–Vega al costado del camino, Región Metropolitana de Santiago, CL
Mon Jan 08, 2018 10:18 AM – Vegas al costado del camino
On the side of the El Yeso reservoir road, we saw many high-altitude dwelling birds.
I have always had a soft spot for doves and the beautiful Black-winged Ground-Dove was a pleasure to observe.

Black-winged Ground-dove – © 2018 Heather V. Baskey

We also observed non-bird animals as well!  This is a zoomed in view of goats within the valley.  Their rock-climbing skill and balancing acts are second to none!

Herds of high-climbing goats were observed throughout the El Yeso Valley

We had a great showing from the white-browed ground-tyrant, named aptly for its definitive white supercilium.  This enchanting bird breeds in the Andes between 1,500 and 4,000 m above sea-level and is found in rocky to boggy alpine zones. 

White-browed Ground-Tyrant – © 2018 Heather V. Baskey

Species Observed:  Black-winged Ground-Dove (Metriopelia melanoptera)Rufous-banded Miner (Geositta rufipennis), Scale-throated Earthcreeper (Upucerthia dumetaria), Sharp-billed Canastero (Asthenes pyrrholeuca), White-browed Ground-Tyrant (Muscisaxicola albilora)Blue-and-white Swallow (Pygochelidon cyanoleuca), House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), Gray-hooded Sierra-Finch (Phrygilus gayi), Mourning Sierra-Finch (Phrygilus fruticeti), Plumbeous Sierra-Finch (Geospizopsis unicolor), Greater Yellow-Finch (Sicalis auriventris), Rufous-collared Sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis), Yellow-rumped Siskin (Spinus uropygialis)

Camino Embalse El Yeso–Cascada al costado del camino, Región Metropolitana de Santiago, CL
Mon Jan 08, 2018 11:18 AM – Cascada

tapaculoOne of the highlights of the day was observing another member of the Rhinocryptidae family, the Magellanic Tapaculo.   This would be the third species from this unique family of birds, all of which that we observed in Chile (as noted earlier, the Chucao Tapaculo was observed in Puerto Montt).  

The Magellanic Tapaculo (Scytalopus magellanicus) is known for inhabiting the temperate rainforests of Chile and Argentina, however – there is a highland population found above 2000m elevation in the central Andes of Chile and Argentina; and the bird we observed at a waterfall along the side of the road, was from this high altitude population.  The highland population are larger birds and lack white crowns (source link), but apparently have the same or similar songs as their bamboo thickets-favouring population.

Magellanic Tapaculo – © 2018 Heather V. Baskey

Another delightful species found was the Grey-hooded Sierra-Finch.  Although maybe not as “exotic” as the Tapaculos, I fell in love with this pretty species and it was a joy to photograph, whether it was whistling on a fence post, or resting on an alpine shrubbery branch.
The “Sierra-Finches” belong to the species-rich genera, Phrygilus – that are predominately Andean passerines.  These finch-like, seed-eating Tanagers (from the Family Thraupidae)  span a wide range of elevations.

Also observed from the Phrygilus genera was the stocky, large-bodied Mourning Sierra-Finch. The male dressed in black (hence the name, “mourning”), with his bright-coloured bill, is distinctly different than the brown female – yet both show strong wing-bars.

Mourning Sierra-Finch – © 2018 Heather V. Baskey

Species Observed:  Magellanic Tapaculo (Scytalopus magellanicus)Rufous-banded Miner (Geositta rufipennis), Gray-flanked Cinclodes (Cinclodes oustaleti), White-browed Ground-Tyrant (Muscisaxicola albilora), Blue-and-white Swallow (Pygochelidon cyanoleuca), Austral Thrush (Turdus falcklandii), Gray-hooded Sierra-Finch (Phrygilus gayi), Mourning Sierra-Finch (Phrygilus fruticeti), Plumbeous Sierra-Finch (Geospizopsis unicolor), Rufous-collared Sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis) 

Embalse El Yeso–Vegas superiores, Región Metropolitana de Santiago, CL
Mon Jan 08, 2018 12:10 PM – Vega al costado del camino

from IUCN Red List

One of the main reasons we chose this particular tour from Albatross-Birding was to observe the near-threatened, Diademed Sandpiper-Plover.  There are estimated to be as few as 2,000 Diademed Sandpiper-Plovers in the world. The species is endemic and dependent upon high elevation Andean wetlands from southern Bolivia and Peru into central Argentina and Chile and is near-threatened as a result of small population size, suspected declines, and restricted range [source link].
The Plover is the only species in its genus (Phegornis) and following a 2010 study, it has been suggested it could be related to the Australian Dotterell.   

We arrived at one of the destinations known to be home to the enigmatic Diademed Sandpiper-Plover.  Our guides scanned the boggy grasses intently in search of this little bird amongst a vast landscape.  
Then!  there was a wave, a point to a direction, and we were all so quiet and stealth-like as we slowly made our way to a small embankment amongst the boggy grass.  Lo & behold, a juvenile had been found.
Target of the day, achieved!

Heather, with Guides Fernando & Nelson

In addition to birds and rock-climbing goats, small herds of domesticated horses were seen throughout El Yeso Valley.  There were no signs of their owners, but seeing their well-groomed coats and clipped manes, someone was taking care of them.

When searching for the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, remains of past residents were also discovered.

Other bird species were also noted in the area, including the ever-present Rufous-collared Sparrow – who in its varying form (sub species) followed us from the beginning of our journey in Buenos Aires, Argentina to Puerto Madryn and Ushuaia, Argentina; to Punta Arenas, Puerto Montt, and eventually, the Andes, within Chile.

Rufous-collared Sparrow – © 2018 Heather V. Baskey

Rufous-collared Sparrow
from The Art of Birds (1962-65) – Pablo Neruda
“You awakened me yesterday, friend,
and I went out to meet you:
the universe smelled of clover,
of a star opened in the dew:
who are you, and why were you singing
so intimately sonorous,
so uselessly precise?
why did the fountain flow
with your trill’s precision,
a drop of water’s clock
your fragment little violin
questioning the plums,
the indifferent headspring,
the color of lizards,
asking pure questions
that no one can answer?”

Amongst the high altitude scrubland, we were treated by the appearance of Yellow-rumped Siskins.  I was able to catch one in flight, but sadly – no clear photos of them perched quietly, or still while singing.  Another pretty South American Siskin, another lifer for us!

Yellow-rumped Siskin (Spinus uropygialis)

Another road side stop yielded a pair of Grey-breasted Seedsnipes (Thinocorus orbignyianus).  This high altitude specialist (ranging between 3000 and 4700m) has a wide distribution along the west coast of South America.  It was named after the French Naturalist, Alcides Dessalines d’Orgbigny who was the founder of the science of micropaleontology.  d’Orgbigny spent eight years traveling in South America and his travels were documented in “Voyage dans l’Amérique méridionale,10 vol., (1834–47; “Journey into South America”)” – [source link]. 

Grey-breasted Seedsnipe – © 2018 Heather V. Baskey
Crested Ducks – © 2018 Heather V. Baskey

Species Observed:  Crested Duck (Lophonetta specularioides)Diademed Sandpiper-Plover (Phegornis mitchellii)Gray-breasted Seedsnipe (Thinocorus orbignyianus), Rufous-banded Miner (Geositta rufipennis), Buff-winged Cinclodes (Cinclodes fuscus), Gray-flanked Cinclodes (Cinclodes oustaleti), Gray-hooded Sierra-Finch (Phrygilus gayi), Plumbeous Sierra-Finch (Geospizopsis unicolor), Greater Yellow-Finch (Sicalis auriventris), Rufous-collared Sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis), Yellow-rumped Siskin (Spinus uropygialis)

Embalse El Yeso, Región Metropolitana de Santiago, CL
Mon Jan 08, 2018 2:18 PM – Embalse

Our final stop of the day was at the reservoir when our guide Nelson spotted a small group of Coots on the water.   As we were observing the coots, other species (previously seen earlier in the day) were noted.   I couldn’t resist to take one more photo of one of my favourite birds of the day, the Grey-hooded Sierra-Finch.

Species Observed:  Red-gartered Coot (Fulica armillata), Rufous-banded Miner (Geositta rufipennis), Gray-hooded Sierra-Finch (Phrygilus gayi), Plumbeous Sierra-Finch (Geospizopsis unicolor), Greater Yellow-Finch (Sicalis auriventris), Rufous-collared Sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis)