Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia is a rugged landscape of rocky mountains, open grasslands and forests crisscrossed by fjords and rivers. As a result, the region benefits from a huge variety of birdlife, including 118 separate species. Many people choose to enjoy birdwatching as a sideline to the W Trek or Paine Circuit, or on increasingly popular wildlife safaris, and with a few extra details even those with no previous bird knowledge can get more out of their Patagonia experience. This beginners guide to ten of the most exciting birds explains what you can expect to see, when and where you can see it and how to recognise it when you do.
Darwin’s Rhea (Rhea pennata)
Let’s start with with an easy one! Of all the birdlife in Torres del Paine National Park, Darwin’s Rhea is probably the easiest to identify. After all, how many birds stand at a metre tall and look like a feathery egg on legs. Also known as the lesser rhea, the bird was recognised as a new species by Charles Darwin, whilst he was in the middle of eating one! Since even a novice bird watcher won’t need any help identifying this one, it’s probably more useful to know where you’ll need to look if you want to catch sight of these speedy birds. Being flightless, it makes sense that Darwin’s Rhea is more often seen in open grasslands and scrub, so get yourself out into the Patagonian steppe for your best chance of a sighting. The good news is that they tend to live in groups of five to thirty individuals, so if you see one, you’ll probably see a whole bunch. Another great tip for finding and identifying birds is to listen out for them, and although Darwin's Rhea tend to be fairly quiet, if you can learn to recognise their call it will give you another tool to use out in the field.
Chilean Flicker (Colaptes pitius)
The Chilean Flicker is actually a kind of woodpecker, the most common in the whole of Chile in fact, so you should have a good chance of spotting one. You’ll know you’re looking at a Chilean Flicker by its striking plumage, which is made up of wavy bars of dark brown and yellow on its back, whilst its chest is barred with dark brown and white. Check for a tawny head with whitish cheeks and bright yellow eyes, along with a thin, pointed beak. To maximise your chances of seeing this bird, head for the trees but look down rather than up. Unlike most woodpeckers, the Chilean Flicker likes to forage for insects and larvae in soil and shrubs, so they’re frequently observed on the ground. This bird is known as a pitio in Spanish, in imitation of its distinctive call.
Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus)
One of Chile’s iconic birds, the most noticeable feature of the Andean Condor is its size, which earns it the impressive title of the longest wingspan of any land bird anywhere. This should help you recognise it as it soars on thermal air currents, hardly ever flapping, with the flight feathers at the tips of its wings spread wide like a fan. The Andean Condor is black for the most part with a white ruff around the neck, but it may also have large white patches on the wings. The head and neck are mostly featherless and males have a large comb and wattle which isn’t present in females. You’re most likely to see an Andean Condor high up in the Andes, at altitudes over 4,500 metres, since it prefers to take off from a height and rely on air currents to get around. Rocky areas are especially good as it makes it easier for the birds to spot carrion from the air, but since they are considered an endangered species, you’ll also need a little luck on your side. You're unlikely to hear an Andean Condor, as they lack the ability to make typical bird calls, but if you were lucky enough to catch one performing a courtship display you might hear it hissing or clucking.
Common Diuca Finch (Diuca diuca)
As its name suggests, the Common Diuca Finch is a frequent sighting throughout the whole of Chile at any time of year. Keep your eyes open and you’re almost guaranteed a sighting of this plump and pretty finch, whether you’re in a park in Santiago, making your way up a mountain in the Andes or exploring the scrubland of Chilean Patagonia. The bird is mostly pale grey with slate grey edges to the wing feathers, a white throat and a white underbelly with cinnamon overtones. Like most finches, it has a fairly short fat beak and a musical song.
Magellanic Woodpecker (Campephilus magellanicus)
Here we have another woodpecker, but those who are new to bird watching shouldn’t worry about confusing this bird with the Chilean Flicker as they’re very easy to distinguish. Aside from being substantially larger, the Magellanic Woodpecker has different colouring, with a mainly solid black body and small white patches on the wings. Both males and females have a quirky crest at the back of the head, but whereas the female’s head is black, you can recognise a male from his bright crimson head. If you’re listening out for birds, both males and females have a whole range of entertaining calls and distinctive double knock. You’re not likely to confuse anything else with this striking bird, but you’ll have more chance of seeing one when it’s out feeding amongst the tree trunks, and even more so during spring when they move lower down the trunks once the snow on the ground has melted.
Lesser Horned Owl (Bubo magellanicus)
One of the best things about bird watching in Torres del Paine National Park is that it’s a round-the-clock activity, with new birds emerging as soon as the daytime birds have settled down to roost for the night. One such nightbird is the Lesser Horned Owl, also known as the Magellanic Horned Owl, which is known for its two tufts of head feathers resembling ears. It’s well worth staying up late or rising early to see if you can catch a glimpse of its robust body, round head and large yellow eyes. If you’ve got a little bit of light, you can distinguish this owl by its brown feathers, which are striped across the chest with lighter brown blotches. However, given that you’ll probably be trying to identify this bird in the dark (as if it weren’t difficult enough in broad daylight!) knowing how to recognise the Lesser Horned Owl’s call can be a real help. The bird's local name tucúquere (pronounced tukukeray) is taken from the sound of this call.
Patagonian Sierra Finch (Phrygilus patagonicus)
Small but beautiful, this attention-grabbing little finch is only found in central and southern Chile and Argentina. It is characterised by a blue-grey head, wings and tail feathers, whilst the male’s back and underparts are a bright tawny colour and the female’s back and underparts are olive green. The finch has a grey, cone-shaped beak with which it produces its warbling song. The Patagonian Sierra Finch spends its summer nesting in Tierra del Fuego, before migrating north in the winter to central Chile and Argentina via Torres Del Paine National Park. This means that your best opportunity to see one is during autumn, when you’ll want to seek out forests and the grasslands of the Patagonian steppe to maximise your chances.
Chilean Blue Eagle (Geranoaetus melanoleucus)
To see a Chilean Blue Eagle wheeling around the peaks in search of prey is an experience that will take your breath away. It is also known as a Black-Chested Buzzard-Eagle and is actually dark grey with a blueish tinge, although you’re more likely to see the white underparts with thin black stripes. The bird has a powerful, stocky body with a very short, wedge-shaped tail that makes for easy recognition whilst it’s in flight. You’re more likely to see the Chilean Blue Eagle during mid-morning or in the afternoon on mountainous slopes and ridges above 4,500 metres, which offer the strongest air currents for the bird to soar on. It is not a particularly vocal bird but it does have a range of calls, some of which have been said to resemble a human laugh.
Rufous-Collared Sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis)
These small birds deserve a mention, if only because you’ll see them absolutely everywhere in Chile from San Pedro de Atacama in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the far south. Although common, the Rufous-Collared Sparrow is far from boring. It takes its name from the rufous - or red brown - coloured collar around its neck, which adds a splash of colour to whichever garden, park or grassland it happens to be in. The sparrow can also be recognised by its black and grey striped head, brown back, white neck and off-white underparts. They are enthusiastic singers, with some individuals singing for up to half an hour at a time. Scientists have even identified different regional dialects within Rufous-Collared Sparrow song, so the warbling you hear in central Santiago won't be exactly the same as the singing of the sparrows in Torres del Paine National Park!
Chilean Swallow (Tachycineta meyeni)
The showstopping Chilean Swallow is one of the most southerly swallows on the continent, breeding only in southern Chile and Argentina. The wings and tail of the bird are black with a green sheen and the underbelly is white, but as it ducks and weaves in an aerial display you should also be able to see the metallic blue back that make this swallow so memorable. Fortunately, this bird usually comes together in flocks, so you won't be in any doubt once you’ve found it and if you can catch one sitting still you might get to listen to it's warbling call. The best place for spotting the Chilean Swallow is on open grassland, especially near water, so make for one of the many glacial lakes in Torres del Paine.
If you enjoyed this feature, why not read our guide to the Waterbirds and Waders of Torres del Paine, and stay posted for upcoming features on the Animal Tracker's Guide to Trekking in Patagonia and our Guide to Patagonian Fish and Sealife.