A long day in the Andes

In the PunaPuna

Saturday morning Claudio showed up as planned about 8 AM, and we set out for the mountains. Calama is at an elevation of about 7500 feet, and our birding expedition would take us up a good bit higher. As we climbed, we followed the course of the Rio Loa, which brings snowmelt water down from the high peaks to Calama. Our first stop was at Laguna Inca-Coya, a little sinkhole lake near the village of Chiu-Chiu, at an elevation of about 8000 feet.

At Laguna Inca-CollaClaudio points out a bird at Laguna Inca-Coya

Our first new bird of the day was an Andean (=Slate-colored) Coot. Shortly after we saw that, an Andean Gull flew over. Two lifers at the first stop, not too bad.

Church at Chiu-Chiu
Church at Chiu-Chiu

Next we headed for the geyser field, which entailed driving on some really bad roads. Hamner was up to the task, though, as he continued to be throughout a very long day. As we climbed, the terrain began to change. Clumps of grass abound at the higher elevations, an ecological zone known as Puna. The grass supports a lot of wildlife, including wild vicuña and guanaco.

In the Puna
Guanaco

While you can go to the main geysers and pay an entrance fee, Claudio had another idea. He guided us to a place with a lot of very forbidding signs saying that we weren’t allowed in; it seemed that there weren’t a lot of cops around, though, so we ignored them. We parked, and just down a slope was a geyser of mud, belching sulfur-scented steam.

Mud Geysers
Me at the mud geyser

Just beyond the mud geyser was a marshy seep, where Claudio and I saw two species of Cinclodes and an Andean Negrito. This spot was the highest we went all day, at about 15,000 feet. I had to take two breaths per step most of the time. Next we continued in the Puna to the Rio Putana, to a wide bend that forms a shallow wetland area. It was full of waterfowl such as Puna Teal, Giant Coot, Crested Duck, and Andean Goose, and we also saw a Plumbeous Sierra-finch and a couple of Gray-breasted Seedsnipe.

Puna Teal
Puna Teal

From there, we stopped at a place called Machuca, which had some shops that were all closed. There were, however, several more bird species to be seen, including Greenish Yellow-Finch, Cordilleran Castanero, Gray-bellied Shrike-tyrant, and Black-hooded Sierra-finch. An Aplomado Falcon flew over in a surprise appearance as well. The landscape of the Puna is amazing. The elevation and lack of rain make it an exceedingly difficult place for anything to survive, yet it’s full of beautiful plants and animals. And of course, wherever there is water such as the Rio Loa or the Rio Putana, which carry snowmelt from yet higher peaks, animals congregate. And many of these animals are unique to the region, including of course a lot of the birds – as you might guess from all the ones that have names starting with “Andean” or “Puna”.

Lupine in the Andes
A lupine of some sort

 

We continued on, later seeing a beautiful adult Mountain Caracara, and finally made our way to San Pedro de Atacama, where we had dinner with Claudio and saw some of the festival of San Pedro — the streets were full of people in costumes dancing and parading. We drove back to Calama in the dark, and Hamner had put in a good 10 hours of driving, much of it on dirt roads in the Andes. He deserves a medal. Meanwhile, I had 20 lifers in one day.

 

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