29 Dec 2017

North Chile, 6th to 22nd October 2017

Northern Vizcacha - Lagidium peruanum

The thirteen-hour flight from Sydney to Santiago crosses so many time zones that it arrives (local time) before it took off.

This meant that our first three nights in Santiago were in “recovery mode” and on Oct 9th we flew to La Serena, a 500km first step on a journey of 2,400km to Arica, in the far north of the country.

We had “Birds of Chile” by Jaramillo et al., and the Footprint guide to Chile, which was useful for ideas and information.

The are islands north of La Serena with colonies of Humboldt penguins and other birds, but our outings were cancelled due to high winds. We found a few waders on the beach. 

American Oystercatcher - Haematopus palliatus

Instead, we did some “Astronomical Tourism”. Many institutions have observatories in the area, and stargazing for tourists is a local attraction, too. We visited El Planque, a small observatory aimed at public use. The people crank the ’scope around to look at various features of the clear night sky. 

El Planque, near La Serena, north Chile

With a lot of ground to cover we took another internal flight, via Copaipo and Antofagasta, to the historic city of Iquique. We were well into the brown, dry hills of the Atacama desert.

Iquique was Peruvian until The War of the Pacific in the 1870s.  The Chileans came out winners, and took Iquique and Arica from Peru, and the coastal area south of these places from Bolivia.  There was an economic boom with the mining of saltpetre (Nitrate of Soda) in the deserts nearby.  The boom peaked in the 1930s, but the industry died off in the 1960s.

Santa Clara saltpetre works, near Iquique

Art Deco Cinema, Humberstone

In a hire car we set off for the former mining centre of Humberstone, named after one of the most famous of the “Nitrate Barons”  James Thomas “Don Santiago” Humberstone.  It’s nothing to do with birds, I just found this stuff interesting.

One night was spent at Pisagua - once a boom town, now just a fishing village with some 130-year old wooden buildings. 



Heading north again on Route-5 we turned off an unsignposted track with the intention of birding the greenery in a valley. 

Hacienda Tiliviche

But instead we found the “Hacienda Tiliviche”, where the owner, Mr Christian Keith Gomez, keeps the key to the British Cemetery nearby.  For a modest fee we could borrow the cemetery key, and have a look at the house afterwards.

So we did.  Mr Gomez has a number of ancestors buried in the cemetery, and I gathered that his family (the Keiths) had come to Chile from Paisley, in central Scotland. The headstones display the sad life summaries of a lot of people who died very young.  I was surprised to find the “star” grave of J T Humberstone himself (who, it must be said, lived to 89).

Back at the house, it seemed like the original occupants had just stepped out.

Eventually we got to Arica, - about as far north in Chile as you can get - where we stayed at the Hotel Apacheta.  It was right on the beach (to the south of town) with a variety of gulls and waders on the rocks in front.

Hotel Apacheta, Arica

We could watch the birds without getting out of bed ! (Although these shots were taken on the beach, obviously).

Surfbird - Aphriza virgata

Red-legged Cormorants - Phalacrocorax gaimardi

(Hudsonian) Whimbrel - Numenius phaeopus (hudsonicus)

(Mostly) Willet - Catoptrophorus semipalmatus

Grey Gulls - Larus modestus

After two nights, a steady 130km drive on a new paved road took us to the village of Putre, base for exploring high-elevation Parque National Lauca.  There were plenty of birds around the chalets we stayed in,  including Andean Hillstar - a hummingbird - which had a nest above our door !  

Andean Hillstar - Oreotrochilus estella

Hillstar nest

Some other birds around were…

Mourning Sierra-Finch - Phrygilus fruticeti

Black-hooded Sierra-Finch - Phrygilus atriceps

Hooded Siskin - Carduelis magellanica

Greenish Yellow-finch - Sicalis olivacens

In the park itself we found disappointingly few Flamingoes and no Andean Avocets, but there were other things to look at.

Andean Goose - Chloephaga melanoptera

Road to Bolivia

Vicuna - Vicugna vicugna

Andean Flicker - Colaptes rupicola
Many of the specialty birds have “Andean” or “Puna” in their names.  

Grey-breasted Seedsnipe - Thinocorus orbignyianus

BUT the bird we really wanted to  see was Diademed Sandpiper Plover... re-reading Graham Talbot's Trip Report, I noted that he had seen them near the Lauca National Park entrance at "Las Cuevas".

We found three near the Las Cuevas boardwalk, but they were very shy.

This was a juvenile, but the adult had gone and hidden among the bofedale tussocks.   

Vizcachas are the funkiest rabbits I have seen*, and there were herds of domesticated Llamas as well.  

*Whoops, I gather that they are rodents !

20 Sept 2017

In praise of - Pied Kingfishers

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis

Exuberant, noisy, full of life - Pied Kingfishers brighten a great swathe of the "Old World" from East Africa to South China...

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis
These photos were taken at Mai Po Nature Reserve, Hong Kong, on 19th September 2017.

5 Sept 2017

Qinghai Province - a Snow Leopard Quest, 25th to 30th August 2017

Early morning, south Qinghai Province

We had first heard about the possibility of seeing Snow Leopards in China when we read Terry Townsend’s “Birding Beijing”  blogposts earlier this year.

Of course wild animals don't get more attractive than big cats, so when a chance to join a tour with four other Hong Kong birding friends came up, we jumped at it.  

The trip was organised by China Wild Tour and led by Mengxiu TONG.

The possibility of having to yomp up mountain slopes with lens or telescope at 4000m + elevations had caused us to be cautious about getting used to conditions.

The others flew up to Yushu from Chengdu in the morning of the 25th.

We had a long drive from Yushu City, and arrived as dusk was falling to stay with our hosts for five nights. We had a large tent and camp beds, and meals were taken with our hosts, in an earth-floored room, cooked on a yak-dung fuelled stove.  It was here I regretted that my Tibetan is pretty much limited to "Tashi Delek".

We had brought fruit and vegetables, and these supplemented what appears to be the main Yak herder diet of flat breads, yak butter, roast meat and yoghurt. Some vegetables and barley are grown near the farmsteads.

Generally, it seems that the arduous tasks of looking after the Yak fall to the local women. Milking, herding, calving and just leading the beasts around.

Here's the view with a head torch as I headed to the "facilities" behind the cowshed. It was basic accommodation, but the important thing was that our hosts were very welcoming.

On our first morning we proceeded to the valley clearly recognisable from TT’s "Birding Beijing" video of “Valley of the Cats”...  

Yak Farm
No sooner had the vehicles come to a halt, then we were partly distracted by a party of Tibetan Partridges, but someone called “Snow Leopard” and we all glanced up - partridges forgotten - to where a fluffy large creature was walking from a rocky outcrop back along a grassy ridge. 

"Don't walk over that ridge..." I prayed....

Snow Leopard - Uncia uncia

Snow Leopard - Uncia uncia

Snow Leopard - Uncia uncia
I had the 500mm and 1.4x converter ready and banged these shots off from by the car, no climbing required.  (But the shots are BIG crops.) The Snow Leopard very considerately ambled along our side of the ridge as everyone clattered their kit together to get photos.

The animal was lost to view, and later re-found beneath a rocky outcrop from where we saw it on and off for several hours. It appears that this is a favourite spot for the animal.

Snow Leopard - Uncia uncia

Snow Leopard - Uncia uncia

Snow Leopard view

A natural prey for Snow Leopards in south Qinghai is Blue Sheep, but they can, and do, take domesticated Yak.

Blue Sheep - Pseudois nayaur

Finally, the Snow Leopard moved off again in late afternoon, heading for the ridgeline opposite us.

Snow Leopard - Uncia uncia

Success on the first day freed us up to go and admire Tibetan Buntings in another area.  We had two full days for scenery and birding, and returned to the original valley on the fourth day (29th) , where we saw not a whisker of anything feline. This was as predicted by our hosts, who said that, knowing it had been seen on the 26th, the Snow Leopard would not return to that area for a few days.

Still, the scenery was outstanding.

Lammergeier - Gypaetus barbatus

Tibetan Buntings - Emberiza kozlowi

Tibetan Buntings - Emberiza kozlowi

We came across family parties of White Eared Pheasants daily, usually in the late afternoon.  

White Eared Pheasant - Crossoptilon crossoptilon

White Eared Pheasant - Crossoptilon crossoptilon

White Eared Pheasant - Crossoptilon crossoptilon

One or two  other species were present to remind us we were birders.

Chinese White-browed Rosefinch - Carpodacus dubius

Common Magpie - Pica pica bottanensis

Pacific Swift - Apus pacificus salimalii

White-throated Dipper - Cinclus cinclus

Red sandstone scenery

Looking back at the trip, I must thank Carrie Ma for inviting us along.

We were very fortunate to get great views of the Snow Leopard and doubly so for getting it so early in the trip. As described in Terry Townsend’s “Birding Beijing”, the Shanshui Conservation Centre hopes to run more tours to the area, with fees for accommodation, food, guiding and transport to supplement local incomes and compensate for Yaks lost to the Snow Leopards.

I hope this works out well.  It will be a delicate act to balance the expectations of more visitors with those of the area’s farming hosts.  Managing the welfare of a shy predator will be harder still.


Added on 8th July 2018 - via Birding Beijing, there's now a "Valley of the Cats" website !

Check it out !  https://valleyofthecats.org