In search of otters and hummingbirds around Arica (Chile)

In October 2019 I started my second South American experience from the northern Chile. Arica is a small town not far from the border with Peru that combines the charm of two incredibly different and apparently unlivable habitats: the cold waters of the Pacific ocean with the torrid desert of Atacama.

My experience will show how both share instead interesting examples of flora and fauna, going from the Marine Otters (Lontra felina), here called chungungos, to the tiny hummingbirds of the oasis and to the unsuspected flowers of the driest desert in World.

During just an intense day, I tried to visit as much I could, before take the Carretera Internacional CH11 to the Andes and to Bolivia.

Unfortunately I hadn’t the time to go to the mouth of the river Lluta, north of Arica, that should be another very good birding area.

I will describe one by one the sites, naming the best wildlife species I managed to observe.

Map of the visited sites (in yellow) around Arica (in red) not far from the border (in purple) with Peru

ARICA

The most interesting monument of the town is the rather small Catedral de San Marcos, designed by Gustave Eiffel, the same architect of the much more famous tower in Paris. For the rest I didn’t find the urban tissue particularly attractive, seeming pretty much an anonymous border settlement.

Nothing particularly interesting about birds as well, if excluding many Belcher’s Gulls having a bath in a pool in Vicuña Mackenna square and some West Peruvian Doves.

Belcher’s Gull or Band-tailed Gull (Larus belcheri), immature
Catedral de San Marcos
West Peruvian Dove or Pacific Dove (Zenaida meloda)
Rufous-collared Sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis)

ISLA DE ALACRAN

This island, now connected to the mainland, hosts the ruins of a fort and offers good view points for the sea-watching.

I visited the peninsula early in the morning and I found a very hazy climate, with deeply clouded sky and high grade of humidity: it wasn’t the last time I found this conditions that should be rather usual along the coasts touched by the Humboldt cold stream.

Above the waves Peruvian Boobies, Peruvian Pelicans, Red-legged and Neotropic Cormorants transited in large numbers, while on the coastal black rocks I noticed waders like Blackish Oystercatcher, Spotted Sandpiper, Hudsonian Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstone and Surfbird.

The early morning haze
Blackish Oystercatcher (Haematopus ater)
Peruvian Booby (Sula variegata)
Sally Lightfoot Crabs (Grapsus grapsus)
Hudsonian Whimbrel (Numenius hudsonicus)

CUEVAS DE ANZOTA

Following south the Pacific coast, I reached this interesting site where high cliffs, eroded by the waves that formed small caves and hollows, hosted large colonies of seabirds.

At the entrance the rangers gave me an helmet to be protected from the rubble that the birds can throw down from their nests.

Cuevas de Anzota
Peruvian Pelicans (Pelecanus thagus)
Seaside Cinclodes (Cinclodes nigrofumosus)

A trail leaded first through a couple of caves, surmounted by colonies of Peruvian Boobies, then to a peninsula with jagged shores and a small island that hold a colony of South American Sea Lions (Otaria byronia).

Colony of Peruvian Boobies (Sula variegata)
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
Peruvian Boobies (Sula variegata) on their nests
Kelp Gull (Larus dominicanus)
Peruvian Boobies (Sula variegata)
The island of the South American Sea Lions (Otaria byronia)

The main reason I visited this area was that the very good web-site www.mammalwatching.com had named it as a very good place where try to look of the rare Marine Otters.

Scanning by the binoculars, I had the luck to find at least a pair of individuals on the dark rocks by the sea.

Marine Otter (Lontra felina) eating a crab under the interested eyes of a Belcher’s Gull
(Larus belcheri)
Marine Otter (Lontra felina) scratching its back on a rock
South American Sea Lion (Otaria byronia)
Peruvian Boobies (Sula variegata)
Marine Otter (Lontra felina) with an almost blond dry coat
Marine Otter (Lontra felina) ready to dive looking for food
American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus)

Among the birds I had, tens of Turkey Vultures, Belcher’s, Kelp and a single Grey Gull (Leucophaeus modestus), Peruvian Pelican, Red-legged Cormorant and the endemic Seaside Cinclodes (Cinclodes nigrofumosus).

Other examples of wildlife were the abundant Four-banded Pacific Iguanas (Microlophus quadrivittatus), endemic of the Arica and Tacna (Peru) areas, South American Multiradiate Sun Star (Heliaster helianthus), the actinia Phymanthea pluvia and the red Sally Lightfoot Crabs (Grapsus grapsus).

Four-banded Pacific Iguanas (Microlophus quadrivittatus), females
South American Multiradiate Sun Star (Heliaster helianthus)
Heliaster helianthus
Four-banded Pacific Iguana (Microlophus quadrivittatus), male

SAN MIGUEL DE AZAPA

This village lied in the valley of the rio San José, called the Azapa valley: despite the rainfall index near to the zero, the presence of the river makes the area green and rich in cultures and greenhouses.

Azapa valley

The fertility of the terrain made the survival of the original oasis habitats hard, so some sensible people decided to re-create a patch of native vegetation around a funny garden that was called Jardin de Picaflor. One of the aims of the project was in fact to give an help to the threatened populations of three species of desert hummingbirds.

But the builder of the garden were at least eccentric, because they filled the paths with sofas, carpets, collections of old televisions or other gadgets.

One of the “collections” in the garden

The place represent a lovely oasis of peace, flowers and shade where to observe the bird activity. Among the species I had there: Croaking Ground Dove (Columbina cruziana), Oasis Hummingbird (Rhodopis vesper), Peruvian Sheartail (Thaumastura cora), Vermilion Flycatcher, House Wren and Cinereous Conebill (Conirostrum cinereum).

Oasis Hummingbird (Rhodopis vesper), endemic of Peru and Chile
Croaking Ground Dove (Columbina cruziana)
Cinereous Conebill (Conirostrum cinereum)
Peruvian Sheartail (Thaumastura cora)
Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus)
Oasis Hummingbird (Rhodopis vesper)

San Miguel de Azapa is more widely known because of its history: the Azapa valley hosted a number of pre-colombian cultures, including the Chinchorros that developed a peculiar technic of mummification that started even before the Ancient Egypt one.

The Archaeological Museum of the village offered an interesting excursus among this far past, showing a lot of material, including the mummies, in a modern and attractive way.

Chinchorro burial
Mummified head

QUEBRADA DE CARDONES

Climbing the slopes of the Azapa valley and taking the road A-19, I went through the “absolute desert”, where nothing can grow because you are too far from the humidity of the Pacific ocean, too far from any river and with no rainfalls for decades.

A-19 road
The absolute desert

Above the 1,800 m of altitude, some scattered herbs became to appear in the dry beds of wadis and, with this limited vegetation, I had the first birds, few Grayish Miners (Geositta maritima).

Grayish Miners (Geositta maritima)

Reaching the Lluta valley, where I met the Carretera Internacional CH11 to Bolivia, I was surprised in finding some plants in bloom: most likely a thunderstorm had occurred recently, allowing the miracle!

Cistanthe cfr. celosioides
Yanez’s Lava Lizard (Microlophus yanezi)
Nolana rhombifolia
Solanum chilense

Further east, the road left the Lluta valley starting to climb the Quebrada de Cardones, characterized by the presence of the wonderful cactus Browningia candelaris, that gave the name to the valley.

Quebrada de Cardones
Browningia candelaris

At the end of the valley, I found the ancient pukara of Copaquilla, a pre-hispanic village settled on a panoramic hill. Apparently should be possible to spot Condors there, but I had only dozens of Greenish Yellow-Finches (Sicalis olivascens).

Pukara of Copaquilla
Greenish Yellow-Finches (Sicalis olivascens)
Greenish Yellow-Finch (Sicalis olivascens), female
View from the pukara of Copaquilla
Variable Hawk (Geranoaetus polyosoma)

Keeping going at higher altitudes, the vegetation improved with other species of cactus and few more birds: at the 3,500 m of altitude of Putre, I reached the most humid level before the Andean puna, with even some scrubs and little trees, but this chapter will be treated later.

Oreocereus leucotrichus

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