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Wader Quest: Atacama to Tierra del Fuego

At the Mic: Rick Simpson

We had but four days between returning from New Zealand and arriving in São Paulo, Brazil. If New Zealand had felt familiar, this place was like a second home to me and, of course, actually home to Elis. We had been invited to give a presentation (in Portuguese would you believe) about Wader Quest in Tavares, Rio Grande do Sul at the Festival Brasieiro de Aves Migratórias. During the day at the festival we naturally did our fair share of looking at migratory birds. But the two new species we saw were resident birds; South American Snipe and South American Painted-Snipe. The first of these is quite common but the latter is far from it. We were thrilled to see one at all, largely thanks to our host Batista, let alone get a chance to photograph it!

South American Painted Snipe, photo by Elis Simpson

South American Painted Snipe, photo by Elis Simpson

Soon enough though we were leaving Brazil and heading further west towards Chile, to San Pedro de Atacama and the Andes.

In the middle of the moonscape that is the Atacama Desert there is a salty oasis called Laguna Chaxa. It was to here that we headed the first morning after a good night’s sleep in San Pedro. Earlier in the year in Peru we had missed three crucial species; Andean Avocet, Puna Plover and Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe. At Laguna Chaxa, we were stunned to find the first two within minutes of arrival! We then spent a magnificent couple of hours simply enjoying these birds, often at close quarters, along with a Wilson’s Phalarope and many Baird’s Sandpipers.


Andean Avocet, photo by Elis Simpson

Andean Avocet, photo by Elis Simpson

Puna Plover, photo by Elis Simpson

Puna Plover, photo by Elis Simpson

Once we had scored with these birds we spent the rest of the day looking for the seedsnipe. We did see Least – seen previously in Peru – but no sign of any Rufous-bellieds. Whilst looking for these birds we did come across a new species for the quest though and another that we had missed in Peru but this was one we had high hopes of seeing further south, Tawny-throated Dotterel. A lovely bird and always a joy to find.

Tawny-throated Dotteral, photo by Elis Simpson

Tawny-throated Dotterel, photo by Elis Simpson

Once we had exhausted our possibilities in the north we headed back south to Santiago without seeing the seedsnipe. A meeting with Diego Quevado led to a call to Ricardo Matus, who was very generous with information about our next area of search. We were going to the end of the world, Punta Arenas, and Tierra del Fuego across the Straits of Magellan.

We flew down to Punta Arenas and after checking into our hotel headed for Laguna de los Cisnes at Ricardo’s suggestion. Immediately we came across our next wader species. Two-banded Plover was a dapper and charming little bird that proved to be quite common almost anywhere there was water.

Two-banded Plover, photo by Elis Simpson

Two-banded Plover, photo by Elis Simpson

Very quickly we found another of the South American specialties, Magellanic Oystercatcher. This is a very striking bird with a bright yellow orbital ring and a peculiar habit of holding its tail vertically when excited.

Magellanic Oystercatcher, photo by Elis Simpson

Magellanic Oystercatcher, photo by Elis Simpson

We also saw a ‘Magellanic’ Snipe, considered at this time to be a subspecies of South American Snipe although some suggest it could be a full species. For Wader Quest we have left this as a subspecies, but tucked it away as a potential armchair tick for the future.

South American "Magellanic" Snipe, photo by Elis Simpson

South American “Magellanic” Snipe, photo by Elis Simpson

At this site we were battling against the strongest wind I have ever tried to watch birds in. Normally I wouldn’t have bothered, but time was short and we had a further, rather important, target bird to find. We could hardly stand in the force of the gale; heaven alone knows how Elis got any photographs of the birds we had seen so far. As we were discussing whether or not to give up, Elis spotted a small grey dot a short way off. To me it looked like a rock, but then it moved. We moved too and upon doing so realized that we had found our Holy Grail, Magellanic Plover. My joy was tempered somewhat by the poor conditions preventing me from holding my binoculars still and the fact that this individual was a juvenile and not a stonking full adult, but we had at least seen our key species for the region.

Juvenile Magellanic Pover, photo by Elis Simlpson

Juvenile Magellanic Pover, photo by Elis Simlpson

This meant that the pressure was off and as we headed for Tierra del Fuego, the long way around, we stopped off at a spot where we found and enjoyed great views of Rufous-chested Dotterels in breeding plumage, a real treat.

Rufous-chested Dotteral, photo by Elis Simpson

Rufous-chested Dotterel, photo by Elis Simpson

We had no more wader species to find now and despite running out of money, finding that our card wasn’t accepted in the only bank and cash tills on the island, we enjoyed our time there looking at some amazing birds like Dolphin Gull and King Penguin.

As we headed back to the mainland to end our journey we had one last stop to make. Laguna Verde. The weather was much kinder to us here in terms of the wind, and we came across at least two adult Magellanic Plovers thanks to the information that Ricardo had provided us with.

Magellanic Plover, photo by Elis Simpson

Magellanic Plover, photo by Elis Simpson

We had added nine species on this trip and were happy with the 165 we had amassed for our list. We had nothing planned to follow this trip, at least not that had been booked, but we had a vague idea that our next port of call in was to be The Gambia in West Africa.


Rick Simpson of Newport Pagnell, UK, is a bird guide, illustrator, author of Confessions of a Bird Guide, and a Birdlife Species Champion. 

He previously wrote about Wader Quest at the ABA Blog in Thailand, the UAEFlorida, Washington, California the UK, in South America, and Africa.

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