Sunday, October 2, 2016

Chile 2016

Tui and I decided to take a trip to Chile. It seemed like a great place to travel because it had some new owls (two or three depending on taxonomy), but not so many that I could not be a good husband and participate with Tui. Dad had kindly agreed to come watch the boys while we were away. My target owls were:
Rufous legged owl and Austral pygmy-owl, both lifers. A possible split is field owl, which is the Southern South American race/species of short-eared owl. I was also interested to see barn owls, as this species has been heavily split. I also wanted to get a better a look at Magellanic owl. This is a bird I had seen in silhouette at a stake out near Lima. However I had not seen the bird in color, nor had I heard it sing. Finally the last target was burrowing owl, a bird I had seen many times, but none-the-less a great little owl.

Sep 16th. Dad drives us to PDX. After we had check in Tui drops her purse with $500 cash and her credit card. After a tense twenty minutes it shows up at Lost and Found. We fly to Houston, then onward for a red-eye to Santiago. It is a good flight and I am able to sleep.

Sep 17th. I wake at first light as we fly over Northern Chile. Our final decent into Santiago is through thick cloud, with water streaking over the windows. It takes ages to get through immigration. At the far side of customs we meet our guide: Esteban Martinez ( es.martinezf@gmail.com ). Esteban is a non professional guide (his main gig is environmental consultanting). He proves to be a hard working and conscientious guide, who ensures we both have a great trip.
We pick up a flashy silver Peugeot rental. In no time we hit the road and drive by wind-blow trash and creek-side shanty communities under a blanket of cold gray skies. An hour later we reach Batuco-a wetland surround by cactus clad hills and farms. The sun has burnt off the clouds, it is warm, and to the East the Andes rise high above. We spend a couple of hours working the tall pasture trying to flush a field owl, but all we find are a family of three burrowing owls. It is a great place for birds, and the field were full of lapwings, Andean geese and other birds. Tui flushes a nesting teal and startles herself. I am a little worried about field owl-from ebird I know it is the hardest owl to find in central Chile.
After exhausting the best looking grassland we head out to Olmue, our destination for the next five nights. We stop along the way for mote (a peach and corn drink) and some amazing olives in Til-til. We arrive in Olmue, (a market town and gateway to Parc Nacional Campana) and find our cabin-a pretty cool place in a lemon orchard. Esteban and I visit the park entrance to ask permission to enter the park after hours. Marko the boss, gives us the OK. The three of us go out and eat regular Chilean food, which is hearty and delicious.
It's late, 11pm, by the time we drop Tui back off at the cabin. I am itching to get out into the field and look for rufous legged owl. We head out to El Granizo, which is a secondary entrance to the park. (It's the night before independence day, and the rangers warned us the campground at El Canon Grande, the main entrance, is noisy and full of people). Despite the late hour we are met by a friendly ranger, who talks at great length about the owls. I can barley suppress my impatience to get out into the forest. Eventually the talkative ranger wishes us good luck and we are released. We head up a rough jeep road under a bright moon. A few minutes later and we hear the rufous legged owl sing. (It's known locally as concon, which as an approximation of it's song). It's by far my most wanted owl in Chile. Esteban imitates its song, and soon we have three owls above us. I get brief views of two in flight, but before we can spotlight them they move off. Esteban calls out to them, and we soon track them down to the creek-side forest. Its thick dry stuff, and impossible to walk through quietly. After ten minutes of calling to the owls they fall silent. We wait for a while, contemplating what to do next. My eyes skyward, I see a curious owl fly in to a dead snag next to us. We get beautiful view of it in the torchlight. Lovely! It's tawny-owl sized with dark eyes. Its upper parts is a warm-brown, heavily barred white. The underparts are light buffy, heavily barred a mid-brown. The thighs and facial disk are both rufous.
We hike a little more, mostly because the owl was so easy it seems wrong to just go back to bed. Far above us a distant Magellanic horned owl sings from the rocky hills. He is too far to track down. We also hear a second group of concons singing but don't chase them. It's about 1am when we return to the cabin. I set my alarm for 5am, when we agree to return to the park look for Austral Pygmy owl.

Sep 18th. With my watch buried below layers of heavy blankets I sleep through my alarm. I wake at 730am to the sound of lapwings. I knock on Esteban's door, and soon we were drive up to Canon Grande. (Esteban had kindly scoped out the park a month ago a reported that he heard 5-10 singing Austral pygmy owls before dawn). We hike through the campground into some patchy forest. Nothing is calling so Esteban imitated a pygmy owl. Compared to other pygmy owls, Australs have a very hurried and high pitched song. Moments later from high on the hill side one responds! It is an extremely steep scramble through some thickety patches of forest before I finally catch up with a singing owl bombarded by an angry hummingbird. I had not expected much because Mikkola's "Owls of the world" shows some photos of uninspiring gray-phase birds. However this is a beautiful brown-phase bird, with rich colors. Its quite a large pygmy owl, with typical yellow eyes and an occipital face. Its tail is barred with about 10 buffy bars. Brilliant-what a great start to the trip. We return to the cabin and sleep until late morning. When I finally get up, Tui has made a delicious breakfast out of last night's left overs.
We decide to head to Valparaiso for some non-birding time. Valparaiso is a wonderful city. It's a sort of antipodean San Francisco, but with less yuppies.  We check out the hills, ride a funicular, eat ceviche and check out some really great counter-culture murals.

By late afternoon, we are back on an owling agenda. We visit a small private reserve about 6 km north of Con Con, a coastal town north of Valparaiso. The owner explains they have barn owl nesting in a palm, in their yard. We are shown the tree, but the bird is well hidden. They also report Magellanic owl roosting in some pines on the dunes, and field owl hunting on the saltmarshes. All this is very exciting-my three remaining targets all occur in this idyllic coastal reserve.  We walk out to a railroad track that overlooks the saltmarshes and watch the sun set over the Pacific. It's a gorgeous evening. Alas the field owl fails to show. (It has not been reported for a few months, so it's by no means a sure thing). After dark we go to the pines and tape for the Magellanic. We get no response at all. A little deflated we walk by to the headquarters and flush a barn owl from a fence. Minutes later we get brilliant views of a delicate, pale male perched on the side of a palm. We talk with the owner of the reserve for a while, drinking hot tea by a small bonfire.
Its getting late, so we grab a half dozen empanadas in Con Con and feast on them while steaming up the windows of the Peugeot. Back at the cabin Esteban and I agree to return to the reserve to try again for the field and Magellanic owls.

Sep 19th. With difficulty I rouse myself at 5am, wake Esteban and drive back down to the coast. We parked at the reserve headquarters, catching a barn owl in the headlamps. It is completely dark when we arrive so we check out the pines in the dunes for Magellanic owl. Despite taping and lots of careful listening we heard nothing. I suspect perhaps the big owl is someplace else. We hear an Austral Pygmy owl. We try for a minute to find it, but the pine it's in was absolutely covered in pygmy-owl sized cones, and in the gloaming we could not make it out.
As the skies lighten we make our way to the grasslands in search of the field owl. It was just a lovely cold dawn. The sky was perfect, and the we smell the ocean and hear the Dominican gulls squabble. Despite our vigilance from the top of a tall dune we can't find the field owl. I'm starting to worry about this one. There are few reports in the area on ebird. Recently there have been reports from Concepcion, but its a long (8 hour drive) and I doubt Tui would be thrilled to visit Chile's gritty city.
We spend the rest of the day with Tui, checking out Quintero-a small seaside town just up the coast. We eat our fill of fish from the ocean, while watching giant petrels and skuas. It is about six by the time we catch our bearings and realize that we better set off for Las Palmas de Ocoa on the north side of Parc Nacional La Campana. (The rangers at the park had explained to Esteban that this was a good site for Magellanic owl). It is a slow drive through small towns. Then the car runs low on gas, every few minutes the alarm chimes a warning. Tui isn't too impressed with my choice to press on, but the sun had set and I was eager to reprise this morning's performance with a good owl sighting.
The rangers are super helpful, directing us to a specific grove of palms. I drive up the bumpy dirt track as a fast as our low slung Peugeot allows, then sprint through the twilight down a short nature trail. At the end of the trail the two big owls sing their Chilean name "Tucuquere". Beautiful birds, singing from their palms surrounded by high rocky hills. I pursue the nearest bird up a rocky hillside. It's a thick mess of thorns and lose rocks. At the top, just 25' away, the big owl sings softly in silhouette from a small thorn tree. Back in the palms, Tui, Esteban and I spotlight it's mate as it flies over.
Tui and I are really struck by the place, it was so beautiful and perfect.

Back at the entrance we are given a half price deal on admission thanks to our short visit. It's a tense drive to the nearest gas station. We make it back to the cabin late.

Sep 20th We wake at a civilized hour and pack. Tui had booked a different cabin in town for our last two nights at Olmue. We drop off our gear at the new cabin, then drive Esteban back to Santiago. On the way into town we stop at Puente Negro, a site near Batuco, where field owl has occurred many times, (but no recent reports on ebird). It was noon, so we don't stop and look for the owl. I make plans to return at dawn.
We say goodbye to Esteban in a parking structure down town. He is a great guide, and we both really enjoyed his company. Tui and I then head for a fish market where we find ceviche and pisco sours. That afternoon we visit the Museo Chileo de Art Precolmbino. Tui really appreciates the cafe's offerings:

It's amazing to think of all the millions of people who have lived on this continent for thousands of years and all how their beliefs and are mostly forgotten. We also walk Cerro Santa Lucia for great views of Santiago. We easily make our way out of Santiago. I was hoping for roadside views of owls as we drove home, but we see nothing. Our new cabin was nothing special-most fixtures are broken (like the toilet, some of the power, the hot water) and the bedding is damp. Still we are tired and I sleep soundly.

Sep 21st. I wake at 530am and scramble into the Peugeot. The drive to Puente Negro involves a big pass between Olmue and Til-til. The Peugeot is brilliant-it was clad with huge tires set on stiff springs. I drive it through the hairpin bends as fast as I dare and the car grips tenacious like a cat. I reach Puente Negro in good time. It's situated on a straightway on a well used road that crosses some wet pastures. I have to park a half kilometer from the best area and walk back along the busy road, pressing myself against the crash barriers as the rush hour commuters speed by in the darkness. I make it to the viewing area just in time to see the field owl flyover the road. In the first light of dawn I see it's clearly a field owl, with a streaked (not barred chest), and relatively long thin wings and a buoyant flight-unlike a Magellanic owl. The owl flies to the north, gaining height, and finally disappearing. I wait until the sun rises, but don't see another. Wow, what a great find!

I find a classic rock station on the car's radio and listen triumphantly to Soundgarden and Nirvana on the drive back to Olmue.
Tui is pretty happy about my find. Having seen all the owls we are now free to do non-owling things for the rest of the trip. Despite having paid for another night, we ditch the damp cabin. We drive up to La Serena that day, We get to walk the center of town that evening and enjoy a rooftop beer from our hotel.

Sep 22nd. We drive up to La Vicuna, a beautiful little mountain town.

There we visit the museum of Gabriela Mistral, That afternoon we visit Pisco Aba, a piscura were we get to see how pisco is made, and drink a little too. From there we pick up a young hitchhiker, Martin, and drive further into the mountains, stopping at Pisco Elqui, an even cuter mountain town. There we eat great Chilean food while watching the sun set on the snow covered peaks high above.


Sep 23rd. I get up at 5am and drive up the valley in search of owls. The area I explore isn't that great-there are a lot of cars on the road, and noise from the river does not help. I do hear a singing Austral Pygmy owl. It's near a farm, and though I get close I never see it, feeling inhibited to trespass through the farm yard.

Tui and I drive up to Cochiguaz, where we walk along a mountain stream.

Later we visit Guayacan Brewery, where I get to drink unbelievably good beer while listening to Bob Dylan.

That evening we take an astronomy tour, under an enormous southern night sky. This really is an amazing place.

Sep 24th. I awaken a little sad, knowing this is our last day in Chile. We make our way back south, stopping for lunch at Termas de Socos, a small hot springs resort set in an oasis. It's grounds are beautiful and full of birds. We soak in a tub, but it's nothing to special-sort of like taking a bath in an 1920s bathroom. The food is pretty amazing though. The rest of our journey to Santiago and flight home all go just fine.

Sep 25th. We meet my dad and our boys at the MAX station by our home. The boys are well, and Dad did a great job caring for them.