Birding from the Yellow Van II: A more detailed record for the keen

There are so many places to see birds in South America, covering a wide variety of habitats and ecosystems. In the second part of our blog about our experiences of birding in South America, I will talk a bit about some of the places we visited. To make it a bit more cohesive, I have roughly grouped them into seven themes, each with its own accompanying gallery of some of our favourite photos.

Bruce here again…

A Slate-coloured Hawk peeks over the foliage

The thing about taking photographs of birds is that it is very difficult! Becca spent a lot of time trying to take photos with her non-specialist equipment, chosen to be practical and versatile for long-term travel rather than for wildlife photography (for the most part she used a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200, without a large zoom lens that professionals use). This meant that a lot of the photos she took were really only useful as an aide-memoire because the digital zoom is only so good (some of these grainy shots we’ve included here anyway, as a record). There were also lots of photos of a branch with no bird on as it took off just as she pressed the shutter. Adding to the difficulties is the unwritten rule of nature that whenever Becca gets her camera out, animals turn their backs and present arse!

This Andean Pygmy Owl could see us clearly

Circumstances are not always perfect either – sometimes we were bobbing in a boat trying to hold a camera with fully extended zoom lens steady, and often the light was poor, in the trees or at dusk. Birds also have a tendency to hide in the foliage and, by definition, when when they are above you the only angle for a shot may not be the most flattering!

Where we went

Penguins, Patagonia and beyond

A pair of King Penguins

Something that Patagonia is not short of is penguins. The two most common are Magellanic in Argentina and Humboldt in Chile, a couple of species that are quite similar and like to nest under bushes in the desert heat. It is best to go in the breeding season to see them in large numbers (by the tens of thousands in Punta Tombo, Argentina) and the contrast of them with Lesser Rheas and Guanacos (wild Llamas) was striking. We nearly missed out going to Puerto Deseado, where we took a boat trip out to an island to see Rockhoppers, whilst just south of Porvenir in Chile there is a small colony of King Penguins on the mainland. The gallery has pictures of all seven species that we saw, including off the coast of Peru and the Galapagos.

The Atlantic coast and Antarctica

This small gallery starts with some birds from the Atlantic coast of Patagonia and then works around the coast south to Tierra del Fuego, from where we took a boat down to Antarctica. Many of the pictures from both the coast and Antarctica are of penguins and so are in the previous gallery!

The Pacific coast from Chile to Ecuador

Where desert meets sea

There is only really one word for this region – seabirds! The Humboldt Current is a body of cold water that that flows from the southern tip of Chile to northern Peru and is incredibly rich in nutrients. The current can support a huge quantity of krill and fish, which in turn support large numbers of seabirds. As well as the beautiful Inca Tern, seeing large flocks of Brown Pelicans and hundreds of Frigatebirds circling are sights that have to be seen to be believed. I have never seen so many cormorants and gannets as on a speedboat trip around Las Islas Ballestas, from Paracas in Peru.

Guanay Cormorants lined up on an island

This gallery works around the coast south to north on the western side of the continent, starting with a side trip to Robinson Crusoe Island.

The Andes

Chilean Flamingos dancing, which is how they display during the breeding season. The lake here is at about 4,600m altitude and freezes overnight, freezing the flamingos in place

The Andes span from Tierra Fuego in the south, where they are barely 1,000m tall, to Colombia in the north, via the Altiplano in Boliva at 4,000m. This is where you go to see the Andean Condor and after our first distant sightings in the far south, it was only really when we were buzzed by one whilst climbing in Frey, Argentina, and watching five adults and four juveniles feeding on a carcass behind us in the Colca Canyon, Peru that we truly appreciated the size of these birds. Of course, the salt pans of the Altiplano are great places to see three of the four species of flamingo that can be found in South America.

Cloud Forests

There are few environments that can beat cloud (or fog) forests for the sheer biodiversity of birds. They are found at altitudes around 500m – 3,000m in the Andes, generally in a tight band dependent on the local environmental conditions. The only problem is that they are also good places to find mosquitoes and black flies, whilst the foliage provides perfect camouflage for the birds. In fact the first place we went in northern Argentina (Parque Nacional Calilegua) was where we discovered the those downsides.

A Cock-of-the-rock at a lek, Mindo, Ecuador

We visited a couple of places (Mindo, Ecuador and Minca, Colombia) where we hired excellent local guides to help us. Mindo also has a plethora of hummingbird feeders and a couple of known Cock-of-the-rock leks (where lots of males get together and compete for females). The noise of these leks is something to experience. I have also included a few birds from non-cloud forests in the following gallery.

Pantanal vs The Amazon

The distinctly odd looking Spoonbill, in the Pantanal

There is a saying that if you want to see jungle, go to the Amazon; if you want to see animals, go to the Pantanal. Most people know about the Amazon but fewer know of the vast wetlands in Brazil/Bolivia that is known as the Pantanal. What these two area have in common is that they flood for half the year, whilst the Pantanal dries up for the other six months.

A Capped Heron fishing in the Pantanal

The Pantanal is perfect for seeing wildlife because there is much less vegetation and when it is dry, the animals crowd round the available water sources (perfect for seeing Jaguars), whilst when it is wet, many animals are confined to the islands. We had a fantastic time driving in and out the Pantanal across many bridges (128 in 130km in the northern Pantanal). It is possible to see lots of wildlife from each one so you need to take your time driving around here! Lots of storks, herons and raptors to be seen, along with the beautiful Hyacinth Macaw and the Blue-and-yellow Macaw. We did manage to see birds in the Amazon, whilst on a great conservation cruise in the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve, Peru, but it was much more difficult to spot them and they were even harder to photograph. This is the largest of the galleries!


A Flightless Cormorant, found only in the west of the Galapagos

Finally, if you have the money (or have put it aside because you cannot really miss them out after training as a biologist), it is well worth visiting the Galapagos Islands. Galapagos is a special experiences and the only way to see endemic species such as the Flightless Cormorant.

Playa Larga, Cuba

The national bird of Cuba – a Cuban Trogon

Our final birding session was on a trip to Cuba  where we hired the local guide in Playa Larga at the top of the Bay of Pigs. He took us into the surrounding woods and pointed out many of the endemic birds, including the Cuban Pygmy Owl, the Cuban Tody and the national bird, the Cuban Trogon. At the end we asked him about the Bee Hummingbird (the smallest bird in the world) and he took us to a house where some turn up to feed on the feeders. There are only a few breeding pairs in the area and he is involved in surveying them every year.


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One response to “Birding from the Yellow Van II: A more detailed record for the keen

  1. Pingback: Birding from the Yellow Van I: An overview by two complete amateurs | Yellow Van Days

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