Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Birds of Chile: An Ornithological Extravaganza

When adventurous birders think of travel, they often head to the tropical rain forests of Asia, Africa and the Americas, with their celebrated abundance of species. It’s an axiom of biodiversity that the low latitude tropics, especially the forests, are home to large numbers of species, even if individual numbers of those species are relatively few. By contrast, higher latitudes have fewer species, but larger numbers of individuals of each species.

Chile has no tropical rain forests – in fact, its own sizeable sector of the tropics, between the Peruvian border and the Tropic of Capricorn, running just north of the port city of Antofagasta, is among the world’s driest regions, if not the driest (see the semi-ghost town of Pisagua, pictured above). But the country’s “crazy geography” (a term popularized by geographer Benjamín Subercaseaux), stretching to the tip of Cape Horn, provides enough diverse habitat to support nearly 500 species of breeding or visiting birds (Subercaseaux’s Spanish title Una Loca Geografía has been less literally translated into English as “A Geographical Extravaganza”).

According to Álvaro Jaramillo, author of Princeton’s newly published Birds of Chile, this makes the country an ornithological extravaganza. There have been several field guides to Chilean birds, but most of those cover restricted areas, such as Enrique Couve’s and Claudio Vidal Ojeda’s bilingual Birds of the Beagle Channel/Aves del Canal Beagle, or are difficult to find, such as the English version of Braulio Araya’s similarly titled The Birds of Chile. Jaramillo’s is by far the most current, with illustrations and distribution maps for every species.

Birds of Chile accurately describes all the country’s avian habitats, starting with the northern deserts and altiplano (high Andean steppe). It continues south through the Mediterranean matorral and sclerophyllous (glossy-leaf) forest, resembling the chaparral of California, through the temperate rainforest of Patagonia’s islands and fjordlands. It ends at the Magellanic tundra or moorland at the South American continent’s tip, home to the rare striated caracara (pictured above). Jaramillo also covers Chile’s coastline and islands, including Easter Island and the Juan Fernández archipelago, as well as offshore waters and even the Antarctic Peninsula, the Falkland Islands and South Georgia.

For birders, one of Chile’s underappreciated gems is Parque Nacional Lauca (pictured above), where flamingos fly above cobalt blue lakes and verdant wetlands that are home to nearly a third of all species found in the country. At the city of Arica, on the Pacific coast, the Atacama desert is at its driest, but its highlands near the Bolivian border get ample summer rainfall that make species such as the giant coot, Andean goose and Andean gull abundant. For birders from the northern hemisphere, of course, just about everything is a new addition to their life list.

Jaramillo, whom I know slightly, is Chilean-born and still has family there, but lives near Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco. He operates his own birding tours of Northern California, Argentina, Chile and Easter Island through Alvaro’s Adventures, and also leads occasional trips through Uruguay.

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