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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Argentina: The North - High Andes, the Chaco and Iguazú Falls

2016 Narrative

In Brief:

The 2016 Northern Argentina tour produced 409 species of birds and an impressive 16 species of mammals amid a cornucopia of habitat types. These ranged from Flamingos and Many-colored Rush Tyrants seemingly out of place at the lagoons of the arid Andean altiplano in the Northwest, to the tropical lowlands of the Northeast filled with hummingbirds, motmots, trogons, and antbirds. Everywhere we traveled the group was met with comfortable accommodations, excellent food, and the very nice and welcoming people that Argentina is notorious for. The laid back pace of the itinerary and general openness of the environments meant lots of time was spent getting very good looks at many of the specialties of the region. As luck would have it we completely missed any rain and somehow managed beautiful sunshine and warm temperatures throughout. At the world famous Iguazú National Park we experienced two full days of birding bliss amid beautiful waterfalls and a wonderful rainforest setting while getting up close and personal with Piping-Guans and Robust Woodpeckers.

In Detail:

Right off the bat we hit the road running with lots of birds at Costanera Sur. Immediately Brown-hooded Gulls were flying past, joined by numerous Chimango Caracaras and Monk Parakeets while we waited in line for lunch. Shiny Cowbirds, Rufous Horneros, Picazurro Pigeons and Red-crested Cardinals joined us for our meal. This wonderful reserve is filled with water birds and we enjoyed scope views of Yellow-billed and Ringed Teal, Limpkin, Rosy-billed Pochards, and both Common and Spot-flanked Gallinules. Large Green-barred Woodpeckers and small Checkered Woodpeckers entertained us as we walked the trails on this cool overcast day. Masked Gnatcatchers and Black-and-Rufous Warbling Finches were in good numbers and there was a tree full of Nanday Parakeets enjoying plentiful berries. The marsh’s reeds were very low allowing proper scanning of this habitat and its assortment of birds. A nice comparison was had of Yellow-winged Blackbird and Spectacled Tyrant perched nearby in the same tree, as a Masked Yellowthroat sang at length. Several Rufescent Tiger Herons flapped by as well as a couple Southern Caracaras and Snail Kites. Just before we had to leave a pair of Freckle-breasted Thornbirds sang and showed nicely, and a Bran-colored Flycatcher saluted us as we left for our hotel and dinner.

The next day we flew to Salta where immediately we checked some dry scrubby habitat near the airport and familiarized ourselves with interesting species like Red-crested Finch, Golden-billed Saltator, Plush-crested Jay, Stripe-crowned Spinetail and Rufous-fronted Thornbirds tending to their oversized nest. Heading from here to the Yala River we had a confiding Torrent Duck pair passing right next to us in perfect light posing on a rock for pictures. Nearby the rare and endangered Red-faced Guan flew in for scope views and a main target of the tour, Rufous-throated Dipper, danced on the mossy rocks at point-blank range. Buff-browed Foliage Gleaners and Mountain Wrens creeping along the trees couldn’t even distract us, nor could the Red-tailed Comets and White-bellied Hummingbirds feeding nearby. This river is the lowest part of the interesting southern Yungas forests of northwestern Argentina. This unique region ranges from dense foothill jungle to high elevation podocarpus evergreen forests, all of which we checked thoroughly. A perfectly timed and placed breakfast had us jumping for joy when a flock of Tucuman Parrots landed in front of us while we sipped coffee and ate biscuits. The shrubs here were weighed down by such highlights as Fulvous-headed Brush-Finches, Pale-legged Warblers, and Rusty-browed Warbling-Finches. Aerial insectivores were gleaning in the misty valleys and we managed to see Highland, White-crested, and Slaty Elaenias, Buff-banded Tyrannulet, Plumbeous Tyrant, and Cliff Flycatcher all very well. The next day another well-timed luncheon yielded a bevy of sought-after specialties. While eating our sandwiches both Black-banded and Great Rufous Woodcreepers fed alongside us, Green-cheeked Parakeets ate berries, Golden-collared Macaws perched high above, Giant Antshrike sang perfectly concealed and Plush-crested Jays stole our cookies. Walking slowly along the streamside here eventually produced a very close Amazonian Motmot that we were able to enjoy for 20 minutes while it launched for insects.

After exploring this region we climbed over 5,000 feet from the humid Yungas forest to the capital of the puna, Abra Pampa. Along the way we stopped at several side roads to search for some localized specialties. At least 4 endemic and confiding Bare-eyed Ground-Doves awed the group with their glowing orange facial skin. Another area with running water hosted nesting Streak-fronted Thornbirds, singing Rufous-vented Canastero, Black Siskins and a group of obliging Mountain Parakeets feeding on tiny bushes.

The roads led us near the Bolivian border to the hamlet of Yavi. This pastoral scene boasts tiny country homes amid lush green trees with a small canal system bringing water to this otherwise arid region. This oasis is excellent for birds and we had great encounters with species like hundreds of Citron-headed Yellow-Finches, Brown-capped Tit-Spinetail, Black-billed and Gray-bellied Shrike Tyrants, and the scaled Bare-faced Ground-Doves perched atop mud roofs. Another highlight of the tour was spotted here when a male Wedge-tailed Hillstar flew in and lit on a branch right in front of the group. High up in some wetlands filled with cushion plants Red-backed Sierra Finches were common and we met up with Dark-fronted and Cinereous Ground Tyrants. Several small groups of Gray-breasted Seedsnipe were also encountered here. The high, dry altiplano of northwestern Argentina holds several lake oases full of food for migrating, wintering, and breeding species. At Laguna Pozuelos we picked through hundreds of birds to find the Flamingo trifecta with lots of Andean, Chilean, and James’s Flamingos to look at. Shorebirds here included Baird’s Sandpipers, Wilson’s Phalaropes, Puna Plovers, and a surprise Ruddy Turnstone very far from the coast.

Pointing the compass south and east put us in prime dry chaco habitat filled with different birds. Along the dusty roads we managed to call in a pair of Suiriri Flycatchers, Greater Wagtail-Tyrants, and a very secretive Tawny-crowned Pygmy-Tyrant. The group had a close encounter with a very tiny bird when a Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrant was spotted coming into a nest. While driving slowly with windows down Nico heard some Streak-backed Antbirds singing loudly and the group eventually got scope views of these beautiful songsters. Pushing on hoping for our main target for the area, we arrived at a spot with open fields and heard, bugling from the hillside, Black-legged Seriemas! We poured out of the van and saw at the edge of the further field a duo of these oddities sparring with each other with dust and feathers flying everywhere. This scene played out as we watched for 15 minutes with no clear winners in the end, except for us. A total of five Black-legged Seriemas were detected from this very spot.

Heading west after our delicious traditional Argentine parilla lunch the magnificent Juramento Canyon lay out before us. This area is not only a scenic wonderland, but also boasts a healthy population of nesting Andean Condors. At one unforgettable spot we called in a Chaco Earthcreeper to enjoy at length while several of these majestic Condors soared overhead, all at various ages. These masters of the wind are the emblems of the Andes for so many organizations and after witnessing what they do best there’s no question why.

A special pre-breakfast excursion south of Moldes was to target two special birds of this region. Almost instantaneously a Crested Gallito began calling and perched up showing off its peaked head. In a nearby flock of Rufous-collared Sparrows someone noticed another bird with an odd hairdo, the Black-crested Finch. Heading northwest a brief visit to some grasslands added three new birds for the trip:Blue-black Grassquit, Grassland Yellowfinch, and Black-and-chestnut Warbling-Finch. We traveled through the humid Escoipe Canyon and popped out above amongst the clouds of the Bishop’s Slope. Scouring the cliffside vegetation and watered valleys in this area yielded Rufous-sided Warbling-Finch, Maquis Canastero, and hard-to-find Rufous-bellied Mountain Tanager, three of which gave the group good views of their cinnamon underparts. Finally rising up and over the ridge found us in the middle of the stark Los Cardones National Park with its huge cactuses. The barren grass flats here not only showed Correndera Pipit and Mountain Caracara nicely, but eventually produced the highly sought-after Tawny-throated Dotterel. The Payogasta area hosted more desert habitats that attracted a couple smart endemic Argentinian gems. A foraging White-throated Cacholote ‘sang’ while perched in the open and the chirping melody of the Sandy Gallito attracted our attention and, after copious searching, was finally seen well.

Iguazú Falls proved once again to be one of the most amazing geologic spectacles on earth. Not only were there new birds all over the place, but being able to walk amongst these nearly 300 foot tall waterfalls was truly unforgettable. Our first morning at day-break we were greeted by Yellow-fronted Woodpeckers sticking their heads out of a nest hole, Ochre-collared Piculet, chortling Green Ibis, Swallow Tanagers and Chestnut-eared Aracaris. The best bird of the morning however was quietly feeding on berries in the open as we approached. Luckily the Black-fronted Piping-Guan didn’t mind our gawking expressions or the sound of the shutters snapping continuously while obtaining full-frame pictures. Slowly walking along the well-wooded paths allowed close approach to singing Southern Antpipit, Rufous-winged Antwren and what our local guide called the ‘Marilyn Monroe ‘ of the family: a stunning Blonde-crested Woodpecker. Wetlands here held several interesting birds such as Swainson’s Flycatcher, Greater Ani, Green-winged Saltator, and Black-capped Donacobius. We were even lucky enough to have great views of a singing male Swallow-tailed Manakin directly above our heads, with a gorgeous Red-breasted Toucan sitting close by. Other more quiet locations away from the falls were welcome and hosted a suite of birds not seen previously. Both Surucua and Black-throated Trogons posed, Rufous-capped Motmot and marvelous Saffron Toucanet perched, and the tiny specialty Creamy-bellied Gnatcatcher flitted into view. The main road through this area was also where we met another huge woodpecker to much delight as we observed a pair of Robust Woodpeckers claiming their territory. Also here we ran into several foraging tanager flocks punctuated with colorful Green-headed, Black-goggled, and spiffy Guira. Our last morning we took a quick walk through the hotel grounds that produced several entertaining Thrush-like Wrens. Across the street some new birds were added including Plain Antvireo, Variable Antshrike, Piratic Flycatcher, and even a showy Rufous Gnateater flashing his white eyebrows back and forth for a nice ending performance before having to make our way to the airport. En route however we swung by the Jardin de los Picaflores in Puerto Iguazú where hummingbirds were in good supply. We enjoyed Black-throated Mangos, Black Jacobin, Versicoloured Emerald, Violet-capped Woodnymph, and the star of the show a majestic Swallow-tailed Hummingbird.

This was a trip I’ll never forget. Through the Northwest’s varied landscapes we covered 2,188 km of unbelievable scenery and picked up lots of the region’s specialty birds. At Iguazú the grandeur of the falls themselves impress me each and every time I see them and are rarely outdone by the colorful palette of southeastern Brazilian rainforest birds we encounter only here. The group this year were keen spotters, and full of energy, and helped to add many birds to our trip list. I hope we’ll all be able revisit this country together on a future expedition to the amazing Southern Cone.


- Jake Mohlmann

Created: 11 November 2016