written by Alvaro Jaramillo of Alvaro’s Adventures.
Naturalists describe some wild places as legendary: the Serengeti, Antarctica, and Alaska, for example. For the seabirder, “legendary” is reserved for places where cold, nutrient-rich waters well up to the surface, catching the sunlight to stimulate plankton abundance. These turbulent upwellings are teeming with life and unmatched in biological productivity.
The Humboldt Current is such a place. It is a vast region of unimaginable biomass, thriving productivity, and where birds are so thick that their excrement can be mined. This cold, low-salinity ocean current flows north along the west coast of South America from the central Chile to northern Peru – encompassing the guano islands of Peru, and the Galapagos.
The Humboldt Current profits several areas along Chile’s coastline with world-class seabirding experiences. The most popular spot is at or near the port of Valparaiso in central Chile, though a few northern ports are also gaining prominence. At one time, Valparaiso was the largest Pacific port in the Americas. Ships carrying the hopeful to California’s Gold Rush used to stop here to replenish supplies, swap crew, and make repairs. While the port is now eclipsed by other mega ports in the area, the quality of its birding still remains.
Most trips head out of Valparaiso, though a sizeable number also leave from a bit farther north at the port of Quintero. Both of these ports offer awesome seabirding, a short distance from port, and boats that can take birders out there. Slightly further south is the port of San Antonio. This spot is unique in all of South America in that a huge submarine canyon edges extremely close to shore rivaling the underwater canyon in Monterey, California in its underwater topography. While San Antonio has not yet become popular with birders, I suspect this may be an emerging hotspot. Albatross are the stars of the show here; it is not unusual to see five species on a trip. Two are common, Salvin’s and Black-browed; two uncommon, the Buller’s and Northern Royal; and then there are the wildcards, Chatham or maybe Wandering.
Extreme rarities include Gray-headed, White-capped and Waved albatross, vagrants that come from all points in the southern hemisphere! But the seabird abundance is made up of scores of Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters, thousands of Franklin’s Gulls at the right time of year, Peruvian Pelican, Peruvian Booby, as well as White-chinned and the more uncommon Westland petrels. It is expected that you will find Peruvian Diving-Petrel on the way out, and perhaps both Humboldt and Magellanic penguin, although the latter is more of a winter visitor.
For those wishing for a Gadfly Petrel, the spring (October – November) is best for the Masatierra Petrel, while the late summer (Feb-March) is best for the Juan Fernandez. Small numbers of “Fuegian” Wilson’s Petrels are found here year round, some suggest this may be a different species from the Antarctic breeding Wilson’s. Migration periods can experience flocks of Red Phalarope, sometimes Arctic Tern, Sabine’s Gull and jaegers as well as a never ending stream of Sooty Shearwaters. The burly Chilean Skua can show up at any time, and often does.
The northern ports in Chile (Arica, Antofagasta and Iquique) are known for their calmer and warmer waters as well as an abundance of guano species (Guanay Cormorant, Peruvian Pelican, Peruvian Booby). There can be plenty of the gorgeous Inca Terns, sometimes hundreds right in port, and the more subdued Gray Gulls. Albatrosses are much less common in the northern ports, but here storm-petrels are king. The standard stormie is Elliot’s Storm-Petrel, with a sprinkling of Wilson’s at times. The two species that most hope for are the Markham’s and the Hornby’s (Ringed) storm-petrels. Markham’s is more common in the far north, Arica and Iquique, while Hornby’s is more common off Antofagasta. Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel also occurs here, but in very small numbers.
The breeding areas of local storm-petrels are just being discovered. A Chilean team recently found inland colonies of Markham’s, as well as scattering of Elliot’s while the nesting grounds of the Hornby’s are still unknown. In late summer and fall, Buller’s Shearwater can be common and throughout the year Humboldt Penguin and Peruvian Diving-Petrels are found. Warm water years may bring in Blue-footed Boobies (a rarity), and Swallow-tailed Gulls are more common during these times. One benefit of birding in the north is that you stand a better chance of seeing whales or other cetaceans, the distribution and abundance of which is still be being determined. Watch for Fin and Sei whales.
The island of Chiloe in the south holds great promise and may well be the undiscovered gem of Chilean seabirding. This is a huge island, with interior fjords and sounds as well as offshore open ocean. The recently described Pincoya Storm-Petrel was discovered in the sounds between northern Chiloe and the city of Puerto Montt. This species can be common at times, yet at other times, nonexistent; suffice to say we have a lot to learn about this newest of the world’s seabirds. A great diversity of albatrosses can be found here, and chances for the two “Great” albatrosses, the Wandering and Royal are higher here in the south. Another fun mystery is that in Chiloe a Little Shearwater occurs every so often, at first it was thought to be only in the non-breeding season, but now it seems that it may be here throughout. Is it breeding here? If so, which form of Little Shearwater is it?
If this is not enough to tempt you, Chiloe is where Chile’s blue whales come to feed in summer before retreating to the Galapagos Islands in the winter. It’s only a matter of time before we will have plenty of boats and tourists coming down here to enjoy the whales, Kelp Geese, Flightless Steamerducks, great seafood and the mysteries of Chiloe’s seabirds.
Many birding frontiers have yet to be crossed along Chile’s long coastline – there is still so much to understand about bird distribution and abundance and surely once we understand it, it will change again. Only more trips, more photos, and more information will sort this out. Pelagic birding could look much different ten years from now than it does today. This is where the mystery and excitement is: every boat trip has the potential and to gather relative population data for resident species and to observe and record a new species. Every keen tour participant has the potential to connect the dots in this vast sea of birding opportunity. I highly recommend you take a pelagic birding tour off Chile and become part of this excitement.
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