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I first heard about the potential for mammal watching in Chile through Richard Webb and the Puma tours he pioneered here for Wild Wings (see his trip reports at the bottom of this page). Not only does Chile have perhaps the finest Puma watching in the world, but it offers a range of other interesting mammals. I shamelessly copied Richard’s itinerary when I visited in February 2009 (and I see that other tour companies are now doing the same).
Parque Tepuhueico is a private park about an hour’s drive south west of Castro. It comprises an impressively designed eco-lodge overlooking a lake in the middle of a good patch of temperate rainforest. It’s a strong hold for Southern Pudu (the world’s smallest deer) and the Critically Endangered Darwin’s Fox, of which only 250 are thought to remain. Both species are easy to see. I saw two Pudus in about 3 hours spotlighting and 3 Foxes. The Pudus stick to the forest and you should come across them on any of the tracks after dark. Several foxes are at least partially habituated and hang around the lodge area where they are occasionally fed. I saw three animals within a kilometre of the lodge. Kodkods (or Guignas) are another good mammal here, but they are rare. Richard Webb found one in 2007, but he was very lucky. Monitos Del Monte – a small arboreal opposum closely related to Australia’s marsupials – are occasionally seen crossing the road, but would be hard to pick up in a spotlight.
In the late afternoon I saw what I think was a Sanborn’s Grass Mouse (Abrothrix sanborni) cross the road about half way along the 12km dirt track into the park (I wouldn’t like to do this drive without a high clearance vehicle). I’m usually pretty reluctant to even try to identify rodents from such a sighting unless I am familiar with all the species in an area. But I saw the mouse well if briefly, and then picked it from the picture in the field guide before reading that it was found on Chiloe and active in the day. So I am pretty relaxed with the ID.
A walk along the waterfall track in the afternoon was mammalless but 3 impressive Magellanic Woodpeckers were a diversion. I took a short spotlight walk along the same track at night. About 100 metres up there is a patch of bamboo that was bursting with Olivaceous Grass Mice (Abrothrix olivaceus). I saw at least 6 animals in 10 minutes (apparently their populations swell after the bamboo flowers so I guess that had happened here).
The hotel itself is very nice but a bit expensive if your focus is on the mammals rather than enjoying the amenities. There are some cabanas attached and if you bring your own food these could be a better option.
Quellon, at the very end of the Pan-American Highway is not Chiloe’s most attractive town. It is the starting point however to take pelagic trips to look for Blue Whales (see Richard Webb’s reports). I didn’t bother to go looking for them and I guess it would also have been quite expensive to do so on my own. In fact I was also told that Blue Whales are quite common off the Punihuil penguin colony and closer in to shore. You could probably arrange quite easily an unofficial trip to go looking for them there if you just turn up and talk to the fishermen.
I did shoot down to Quellon for an afternoon to look for the Chilean Dolphins or Toninos. These are common around Chiloe but hard to pin down. One of Richard’s reports mentioned that the bay between Triscao and Yaldad is a well known spot for them. Yaldad is a few km east of Quellon. I couldn’t spot any in the bay when I arrived but after half an hour parked by the boat ramp I scanned the bay again and found a pod of about 8 animals in the scope. Their small rounded dorsal fins are quite distinctive and the pod spent at least half an hour wandering around the same small patch of ocean. A couple of animals came close to breaching. The only fishing boat around at the time was busy and couldn’t take me over to see them so the views were good but too distant for photographs.
Patagonia: Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales
Punta Arenas is the main airport into Chilean Patagonia. I spent a day travelling from her to Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres Del Paine National Park. My main aim was to see Commerson’s Dolphins en route so I took a detour to the straits of Magellan, where these dolphins are common. From what I’ve read they seem commonest on the eastern side of the straits and in the first and second narrows (off Punta Delgada and Punta Sara respectively). I took the 20 minute ferry trip to Tierra Del Fuego from Punta Delgada to look for them (despite the women in the office in Punta Arenas saying they don’t see dolphins from the boat). I saw my first dolphins from the beach and about 50 on the crossing, many very close to the boat. On the way back 3 hours later I only saw 2, so I guess the tide plays a part in their movements.
If you miss out on the dolphins here then you could scan for them along the eastern shores of the straits. Punta Dungeness (at the northern entrance to the straits and on the mainland) could be another good spot (Richard Webb saw lots here).
About 30km north of Punta Arenas I saw the first of many Guanaco. A few km further on I saw a Patagonian (Humboldt’s) Skunk in the scope. Somewhat surprisingly (after reading Richard Webb’s reports) I only saw one Chilla during the 600km drive and that was near the junction of Route 255 and Route 9.
The road to Tierra Del Fuego
I was also keeping an eye open for Hairy Armadillos on the windswept plains. The owner of the café on Tierra Del Fuego where I had lunch said that they weren’t common in the north of the island but Laguna Blanca, in the southern part of the island, had muchos muchos. But that would have meant another 5 hours of travelling, and the day’s drive took 11 hours as it was. Maybe next time.
Patagonia: Torres Del Paine
There may be more beautiful places on the planet than Torres Del Paine National Park, though I have yet to hear about them. Imagine a cross between Yosemite Valley and the high arctic, with just a suggestion in places of the Australian Pilbara and you will get an idea. But who cares about the scenery: this is probably the best place in the world to see Pumas.
Richard recommended I try to hook up with Jose Vargos Sandoval (or find him on Facebook). Jose is a ranger and occasionally a private guide. He has worked with films crews and others to find Pumas and has shot his own documentary. His skill was outstanding - he had some Puma 6th sense thing happening.
Torres is very busy in the summer and the hotels are expensive. Hostelria Las Torres is the biggest accommodation in the park: on the plus side a Puma lives just above the hotel and is often seen from the restaurant window at night (it was seen twice in the evening and once in the morning during 4 days while I was there). On the minus side the hotel, though quite nice, is overpriced and the surrounding area is very busy and adjacent to a popular campsite. I would stay somewhere else. If you do stay at Las Torres then beware the bridge at the Laguna Amerga entrance – it was about 20 cm wider than my Ute which wasn’t enough the first time I crossed it too fast and too preoccupied with the thought of it collapsing. But hey, I took out extra rental insurance, so it was important I used it: rental cars and I have an uneasy relationship at the best of times.
Pumas: Jose has been searching for Pumas for 20 years and is uncanny in his ability to find them. Without him it would have been a struggle to find them or at least get such good views. I saw what was probably the eyeshine of a Puma about 2km before the Hostelria Las Torres at 12.30am. My first day with Jose began the next day at 6am when I picked him up from his house in Pudeto.
Jose’s strategy is to drive around scanning for animals and occasionally walking up to good vantage points. The Pumas tend to be where the Guanacos are. And the Guanacos are concentrated along the loop that runs from Laguna Amerga to the junction that takes you back to Puerto Natales (just past Lago Nordenskjold) and then to the Lago Samiento gate.
We couldn’t find any along there in the morning, nor in the rock pile behind the Hostelria Las Torres where one sleeps often. In the afternoon we spent time sitting on the top of a hill just past Laguna de los Cisnes and scanning the big slab of country around us. Still no animals. So we moved onto another couple of kilometres and walked around a hill to the south of the road. “Puma” said Jose. “Shit” said I as I put the binoculars onto a cat sitting on the rocks about 500 metres from us. And it wasn’t alone: there were at least two cubs. We moved closer, and as we approached, the mother moved off to the west, leaving the cubs on the rock. We set off after her to intercept her. Jose judged our route so well that we were within 40 metres of her before she looked up and noticed.
She ran off, so we turned back to try to get closer to the cubs. We climbed up the back of the hill immediately above where we thought they were. When we first saw them we were about 50 metres away. As I was lifting my camera Jose pointed below him and there were another 3 Pumas sitting on the rocks just 30 metres below us. Of course they spotted me and all of a sudden there were Pumas everywhere, with the 5 animals charging off to the south.
So a group of 6 animals. Jose has been tracking Pumas for 20 years and this is the first time he had ever encountered a group of more than 5 Pumas. It’s conceivable that there were 5, and the mother we first saw had doubled back to rejoin them before we arrived. But Jose didn’t think that had happened and I’m not one to doubt him in anything Puma-related.
Huemel: the road to Lago Grey is good for these deer. I couldn’t find any along it aduring two evening drives but it seems they might be easier to find in the middle of the day. We saw a very tame individual by the roadside just past the turn off to Salto Chico (a kilometre or two past the Pehoe campsite and hotel) at 1pm.
Guanacos: throughout the east of the park in their hundreds each day (there are 13,000 in the park).
Chilla: commonest around hotels and camping areas but I saw a few each day throughout the park and during the drive in from Puerto Natales. The road to Cerro Guido (about 30km after Cerro Castillo is particularly good – I saw at least 10 in an hour here during the night). There was a tame animal at Lago Samiento.
Culpeo (Argentinian Red Fox): Although apparently not uncommon in the park I didn’t find them easy to come across. They are also, I discovered, quite difficult to tell apart from Chillas. Some Chillas look like Chillas. Some Chillas look like Culpeos ( I photographed a couple of foxes on the way into the park from Puerto Natales that I thought were this species but on inspection of the photos Jose said they were Chillas). The best chance to see a Culpeo is around campsites or hotels. They are regular at the Lago Grey Hotel and at the Lake Pehoe Campsite. We saw animals in both places during one evening.
Patagonian (Humboldt’s) Hog-nosed Skunk: I saw a few every day. The road from Hostelria Las Torres to Laguna Amerga was particularly good for this species after dark, though they are also active in the early morning.
European Hares: common throughout the park and in plague proportions around Hostelria Las Torres
Olivaceous Mouse (Abrothrix olivaceaus): I heard then saw one of these at the picnic area at the end of the road to Lago Grey at about 7pm.
Long-haired Grass Mouse (Abrothrix longipeles): one trapped at the back of Jose’s place at Pudeto.
Stuff I Missed
Big Hairy Armadillo: I tried hard to find this species. Judging by the number of burrows along sandy banks at the roadside they are not uncommon. But they are quite difficult to see. The burrows were most numerous along the Laguna Azul loop road and there were a great deal of Armadillo diggings close to the Cascades along the same road (when you get to the carpark by the waterfall follow the road that took you into the carpark (the track is pretty overgrown) upriver for about 100 metres. It drops into a slight depression and as it veers towards the river there is an even more overgrown track continuing on. There was a lot of digging around here. Armadillo burrows are – unsurprisingly – Armadillo sized and shaped in cross section (an arch with a flat bottom). The animals have got to be more active at night but might be easier to find on foot when the wind isn’t blowing as they can be quite noisy but don’t have any eyeshine.
Geoffroy’s Cat: not uncommon and occasionally reported throughout the park. The Laguna Azul road is supposed to be quite good as is the area around Hostelria Las Torres. They prefer woodland.
Cavy: If I understood Jose correctly he has some living around his house.
There’s also a very slim chance for Grisons, Patagonian Weasels and Pampas Cats. But you’d have to be very lucky.
1. Olive Grass Mouse Akodon olivaceus
2. Long-haired Grass Mouse Abrothrix longipilis
3. Sanborn's Grass Mouse Abrothrix sanborni
4. Coypu (Nutria) Myocastor coypus
5. Puma Felis concolor
6. Culpeo Pseudalopex culpaeus
7. Chilla Pseudalopex griseus
8. Darwin's Fox Pseudalopex fulvipes
9. South American Sea-Lion Otaria flavescens
10. Marine Otter Lutra felina
11. Southern River Otter Lutra provocax
12. Patagonian (Humboldt's) Hog-nosed Skunk Conepatus humboldtii
13. Peale's Dolphin Lagenorhynchus australis
14. Commerson's Dolphin Cephalorhynchus commersonii
15. Chilean Dolphin Cephalorhynchus eutropia
16. Guanaco Lama guanicoe
17. Southern Pudu Pudu puda
18. Chilean Guemal Hippocamelus bisulcus
19. European Hare Lepus europeaus
Andean Cat RFI (April 2013)
Other People's trip reports
South America, 2011 (Argentina, Bolivia & Chile): Janco Van Gelderen, 6 weeks & 19 species including Geoffroy's Cat, Mountain Vizcacha, Mara and other goodies including Pumas. Great report.
South America, 2011 (Bolivia, Chile, Peru & Ecuador): Matthew and Maureen Hart, 2 months & 32 species including Southern River Otter, Northern Viscacha and Anderson's Four-eyed Opposum.
Torres Del Paine, 2011: Greg Easton, 3 days & 5 species including Puma.
Argentina and Chile 2010: Stefanie Lahaye and Tim Lieben, 5 weeks & 39 identified species including a Tawny Tuco-Tuco, Mountain Viscacha and a Six-banded Armadillo.
Blue Whales, Chiloe 2009: Andrew Stanbury's account of whale watching off of Chiloe.
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