Desert Oasis

Nov. 14, 2019

Northern Chile is home to an endemic and critically endangered species of hummingbird. The Chilean Woodstar. Naturally, this is a bird we both we wanted to see. As it turns out, there is a sanctuary devoted entirely to protecting this species of hummingbird. In the tiny town of San Miguel de Azapa, up the Río San José, sits the Santuario del Picaflor. Not only is the santuario one of the last places to find the Woodstar, but it is also a great place to find a number of other species birds only found in the green valleys of northern Chile.

The afternoon that we got the car, we drove the 20 to 15 minutes out of Arica to San Miguel. Along the whole drive, there is a pretty interesting Juxtaposition of vast gray desert and lush green vegetation. Palm trees, giant elephant grass, and crops of corn (which we later found out are probably all GMO corn testing grounds!) alternating with rows of trees and shrubs.

a channel of green cuts through the hills of sand – the oasis valleys of northern Chile are full of life

Passing powerlines draped in West peruvian doves, we turned onto a minuscule one-way dirt road leading to the hummingbird sanctuary. The first neat bird we saw along the road was the Chestnut-throated Seedeater. Fantastic little birds with a great personality that are really fun to watch.

one of the tiny Chestnut-throated Seedeaters along the weedy edge of the entrance road

Pulling into the sanctuary, you’ll see signs for the Chilean Woodstar or Picaflor de Arica. This place looked amazing! Lush green trees, flowers everywhere, even flowing water through small irrigation ditches. A real desert oasis. We had parked, and before we could even find the person to pay, we already had a fantastic array of birds right in front of us! We couldn’t even make it to the office to pay the 1000 pesos because in that first 15 feet we had Oasis Hummingbirds, and one of my most wanted birds of the area, Croaking Ground-Doves! How absolutely fantastic! Another little gray bird flew in front of us and disappeared into the thick green. Spishing for a better look, a Cinereous Conebill popped out right in front of me! Blown away by the bird life, I just kind of laughed! I had thought these these birds, birds that I really wanted to see, would be hard to find. At this desert oasis, they are there right in front of you! And in abundance! Paying that 1000 pesos really doesn’t feel like enough.

young male Oasis Hummingbird
one of the very active but shy Cinereous Conebills

We finally found the woman who owns the place to pay the entrance fee. She pointed us in the direction of the little ‘trails’ that run through the trees in front of what looks like someones home that doubles as the main office.

“WHAT IS THAT?!” I yelled to myself as a small gray bird flew down to a collection of bushes. Of course, soon as I saw it I knew exactly what it was, only my most-wanted songbird here! SLENDER-BILLED FINCH! Those wacky finches with their yellow bills and long tails just fascinate me! I managed to snap a few photos during this 20 second encounter, although it felt like it lasted half an hour.

an adult Slender-billed Finch acrobatically foraging through the shrubs

Not only is this place a great birding hotspot, but also it’s quite a little odd attraction. The woman who runs it has created some odd collections of antique electronics; radios, typewriters, and TVs. She’s arranged them in small bizarre room gardens? I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s even a place that locals visit, to walk the gardens, and get a dose of the lush nature. I image that being in a dusty city surrounded by bleak desert for a while makes you crave some green and some life. I know it did for me!

One of the collections of odd antiques in the gardens

Walking through the bizarre arranged ”gardens”, I ran into a small family of Croaking Ground-Doves that were feeding just a meter or two away from me. They seemed like they didn’t care much as the young birds waddled up so close that the camera couldn’t even focus on them! I was ecstatic to get some good photos of this super cool species!

adult Croaking Ground-Dove
cute little guys!

I have to say birding there, despite how small the little plot seemed, was fantastic. The sinking sun shining through the leaves of the trees and the grasses in the field, the abundance of birds singing and calling everywhere. We spent 2 hours and could have easily spent all day. Being a desert oasis, a lot of birds move through the area and by walking laps you get the chance to see new birds as they move in and out.

Vermillion Flycatchers, Blue-and-White Swallows, Hooded Siskins, and Rufous-collared Sparrows to name a few of the other regular songbirds that were constantly around. Many Oasis Hummingbirds and a few scattered Peruvian Sheartails made each patch of flowers feel alive with activity. Constant cooing from West Peruvian Doves added to the fun.
A great bird that we nearly missed was Bran-colored Flycatcher! Weird name, I know. The little brown flycatcher just barely ranges into Chile from Perú.

At the end of the day, we never saw a Chilean Woodstar. Their numbers continue to decline and if nothing serious is done to help them, they may be gone by the next time I make it to northern Chile. A little sad considering the fate of that bird, but our experience birding the Santuario was not dampened. With 8 lifers and a whole lot of fun, it was a great evening of birding the desert oasis valley!

Croaking Ground-Dove singing.. well croaking

Want to hear what these crazy doves sound like? Check out the recording I made HERE

eBird list:

Cost and Logistics

Getting to/from the Santuario del Picaflor can be done on public transport. We opted for renting a car for the added flexibility while traveling around this vast and barren landscape.
Colectivos leave from next to the international bus terminal in Arica and have a sign for “San Miguel”. A ride should be about 1,000 clp ($1.45 usd) per person. Remember, this is a shared taxi and only leaves when full, and is only one-way. Taking a taxi is another option, which might be a little more expensive.

Santuario del Picaflor

$1,000 clp ($1.45 usd) per person
The turn-off for the sanctuary is off of Route A-27 in San Miguel de Azapa.
It is easily found on Google Maps or under “santuario del picaflor
There is also a small sign at the turn from the main road.

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