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WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

Paraguay

September - October 2018
with Paul Smith and Stuart Elsom as leaders

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The remarkable White-winged Nightjar is regularly seen at only three locations in South America. Photo: Paul Smith - Fauna Paraguay

Paraguay, located almost in the exact center of South America, is a landlocked country sandwiched between three giants of the continent: Argentina to the south, Brazil to the east, and Bolivia to the north. Its borders are more or less traced by a series of major rivers. The raging, fast-flowing Paraná marks the south and east; the sluggish, weed-choked Pilcomayo defines the southern Chaco; and the Paraguay, the country´s main artery of commerce, bisects the country. Paraguay can be split geographically into two quite distinct zones—the arid Chaco and the humid, forested Oriente.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Paraguay, with its abundance of rivers and esteros, is an internationally important site for migrant waterbirds (including Northern Hemisphere species migrating to Southern Hemisphere wintering grounds) that were previously thought to be strictly coastal.

With over 700 species so far recorded, Paraguay has been overlooked by birders for decades and is one of the least-watched countries in South America, so the potential for new discoveries is vast. Our tour explores all of the country’s major habitats and will concentrate on finding such range-restricted star species such as Chaco Owl,  Strange-tailed and Cock-tailed Tyrants, Saffron-cowled Blackbird, Collared Crescentchest, Ocellated Crake, Ochre-breasted Pipit, Black-bodied and Helmeted Woodpeckers, and the rare and endangered White-winged Nightjar. We’ll also search for species endemic to the Atlantic Rainforest, such as Saffron Toucanet, Bare-throated Bellbird, Red-breasted Toucan, and Blond-crested Woodpecker, along with numerous tanagers, woodcreepers, and antbirds.

Day 1: The tour begins with the departure of the Sunbird group on an overnight flight from London to Asunción, the capital of Paraguay. WINGS participants traveling directly to Asunción should arrive no later than this evening (see Note **, below).

Day 2: Following the early arrival of the Sunbird group, we’ll begin our journey across the Chaco to Laguna Capitán. We’re likely to notch up a surprisingly large list of some spectacular species at the roadside pools of the Trans-Chaco Highway, not least among them Jabiru, Maguari, and American Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbill, Black-collared Hawk, Plumbeous and Buff-breasted Ibis, Limpkin, and Cocoi Heron. 

In areas with more grass Chotoy Spinetail, Whistling Heron, Screaming and Shiny Cowbirds, Savannah Hawk, Long-winged Harrier, and Yellow-headed Caracara are all likely, while in the true palm savanna Southern Screamer, Giant Wood Rail, and Blue-crowned and Nanday Parakeets are abundant. Along the way we’ll stop at reedbeds where we should find Donacobius, Olivaceous Pampa-finch (a potential split), Unicolored and Scarlet-headed Blackbirds, and, with luck, Rufous-sided Crake and some of the smaller bitterns. Night at Laguna Capitán.

Days 3–4: We’ll spend two days exploring Cuenca Upper Yacaré Sur, a rich region of dry Chaco and salt lagoons. Birding in the Chaco is not always a walk in the park, but the rewards are great. Our accommodation is basic, the luxuries are few, but the birding is like nowhere else on earth. Our main aim will be to see the 18 Chaco endemics. Many of them, such as Black-capped Warbling-finch, Chaco Nothura, Brushland Tinamou, Many-colored Brush-finch, and Crested Hornero, are easy to see. Others, such as Chaco Eagle, need a little luck. The real prizes are the Chaco Big Six: Black-legged Seriema, Black-bodied Woodpecker, Chaco Owl, Crested Gallito, Spot-winged Falconet, and Quebracho Crested-Tinamou. 

On the saltwater lagoons we might see the last of the winter flocks of Coscoroba Swan, Chilean Flamingo, and waders and ducks such as Brazilian and Ringed Teals, White-cheeked Pintail, three whistling-ducks, and, maybe, Rosybill. The surrounding habitat can hold Scimitar-billed and Great Rufous Woodcreepers, Chaco Earthcreeper, and Cream-backed Woodpecker.  

Chaqueño forest is a stunted, xerophytic, and often thorny affair, but it’s home to a number of highly specialized species, such as Chequered and White-fronted Woodpeckers, Greater Wagtail-tyrant, Solitary Cacique, Orange-backed Troupial, Short-billed Canastero, Chaco Chachalaca, Stripe-backed Antbird, and Cinereous Tyrant. Only two nightjar species commonly occur in the Chaco—Scissor-tailed and Little—and we expect to see both. Owls, though harder to see, occur in greater diversity, and Great Horned, Tropical Screech, and Ferruginous Pygmy Owls are all possible.  

Mammals are bolder and more visible in the Chaco than anywhere else in Paraguay, and night drives may produce anything from Armadillos and the rabbit-like Chaco Mara to crab-eating Raccoons and White-lipped Peccary. There is also the chance of a Lowland Tapir or even a Puma, which is more abundant here than in much of South America. Nights at Laguna Capitán.

Day 5: We’ll depart this morning for Teniente Agripino Enciso National Park, passing Fortín Toledo along the way. Located in the highest of the High Chaco, this area is conserved mainly for its healthy population of Chaco Peccary. It is a great place for Chaco specialties that are not so common elsewhere. We might expect Stripe-crowned Spinetail, Black-crested Finch (more common in winter but some may be lingering), and maybe Ringed Warbling-finch, Little Thornbird, Short-billed Canastero, Zone-tailed Hawk, Bay-winged Hawk, and Rufous-thighed Hawk. Other sought-after birds here include Quebracho Crested-Tinamou and Chaco Owl. Three-banded Armadillo and Azara’s Fox are both particularly abundant, and Jaguar is also present, although we’ll need to get up early to have a chance of seeing one. The park is also of historical significance, conserving some of the trenches and barracks of the Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia (1932–35).

Almost on the Bolivian border, the nearby Médanos del Chaco National Park conserves the last wild herd of the endangered lowland race of Guanaco. It is more open than Teniente Agripino Enciso and shares many of the same birds, but here we can find an important Chaco endemic that is not present at Enciso—Spot-winged Falconet. It is also an excellent place to see Puma, Plains Viscacha, and Chaco Yellow-toothed Cavy. Night at Teniente Agripino Enciso National Park.

Day 6: Today we’ll proceed back along the Trans-Chaco Highway, birding en route with stops at Proyecto Tagua in Fortín Toledo. This captive breeding program for the threatened Chaco Peccary (Tagua), supported by the San Diego Zoo, has already released over 250 captive-bred individuals, and it offers a good chance to see all three species up close. Differences between the species that are not always obvious in wild animals will be more apparent, and the very different temperaments of the species make this a fascinating trip. The area also has a healthy wild population of Chaco Mara, and the small, weed-choked lakes are a magnet for birds, including the rare Black-bodied Woodpecker and the elusive Chaco subspecies of Olive-crowned Crescentchest (another likely future split). Night in a comfortable hotel in the Loma Plata Mennonite Colony.

Days 7–8: Leaving Loma Plata, we’ll travel through the humid Chaco to Laguna Blanca for a two-night stay. Fourteen species of global conservation concern occur here in just 2500 hectares. The Cerrado birds are the big attraction, and include threatened species such as White-banded Tanager, Sharp-tailed Grass-tyrant, Black-masked Finch, and Cock-tailed Tyrant. Other birds of interest are White-rumped Tanager (at its only known site in Paraguay), Plumbeous Seedeater, and two Cerrado endemics, Black-throated Saltator and Curl-crested Jay, as well as Rusty-backed Antwren, Red-winged, Tataupa, Small-billed, and Undulated Tinamous, White-rumped Monjita, Rufous Casiornis, various Myiarchus flycatchers, Peach-fronted Parakeet, and flocks of migrant seedeaters that at certain times of year include threatened Chestnut, Marsh, and Dark-throated. 

However, the real star here is the endangered White-winged Nightjar, at one of only three locations in the world where it is regularly recorded. Night birding generally is spectacular, and Grey Potoo and Rufous, Little, and Scissor-tailed Nightjars are commonly seen, in addition to the sought-after White-winged Nightjar. Tropical Screech Owl and Ferruginous Pygmy Owl are among the frequently recorded owl species. The crystal-clear waters of the lagoon and the white sand beach make for pleasant resting time as well as being home to populations of Ash-throated Crake, Blackish Rail, and occasionally Azure Gallinule. 

Our host at Laguna Blanca is the award-winning conservation NGO Para La Tierra (PLT), and our presence represents a valuable economic contribution to its programs. PLT has been working tirelessly to protect this globally important population of White-winged Nightjar, a bird featured on its logo. Nights at Laguna Blanca.

Days 9–11: Today’s journey will take us to the Mbaracayú Biosphere Reserve, a model private reserve in Paraguay with 70,000 hectares of pristine Atlantic Forest and Cerrado. Named by WWF as one of the 100 most important sites for conservation on earth, it has so much to offer that we may have trouble deciding where to start, and we have allowed plenty of time for exploration. 

Over 400 species of birds have been recorded here, including the vast majority of the Atlantic Forest endemics. Possible species include the endangered Black-fronted Piping-guan, Bare-throated Bellbird, Black-capped Screech Owl, Saffron and Spot-billed Toucanets, and Helmeted Woodpecker. Other species of interest that are frequently recorded include Red-breasted Toucan, Chestnut-eared Aracari, Surucua Trogon, Blond-crested and Yellow-fronted Woodpeckers, various woodcreepers and tanagers, Streak-capped Antwren, Solitary Tinamou, Red-rumped Cacique, and Rufous-capped Motmot—the list could easily become very long! In the Cerrado, specialties like Rufous-winged Antshrike, Collared Crescentchest, and Rufous-faced and Ocellated Crakes are just some of the birds we’ll look for. Forest mammals include Azara’s Agouti, Paca, Bush Dog, and cats—even Jaguar—though once again we would need a slice of luck to see them. Perhaps easier to find will be some of the big owls, such as Black-banded and Mottled. Nights at Mbaracayú Lodge Hotel.

Day 12: Today is essentially a travel day as we move from Mbaracayú to San Rafael. It’s a long journey, and we’ll stop en route for food, expecting to arrive in San Rafael in the early evening. Night at San Rafael.

Days 13–14:  We’ll travel to San Rafael National Park, where we we’ll look for birds in its Atlantic Forest and Mesopotamian Grasslands. San Rafael is the most biodiverse reserve in the country. After a good night’s sleep to recover from the previous day’s tiring drive, we’ll be up at dawn for a forest walk with some very special birds in mind, specifically some of the more sought-after and threatened passerines of the Atlantic Forest. These include Blackish-blue Seedeater, Creamy-bellied Gnatcatcher, and Southern Bristle-Tyrant. Following an early lunch we’ll be off to the Kanguery grasslands, where more great species await—Russet-winged Spadebill and Saffron-cowled Blackbird are two of these, and, once the sun has gone down, Giant Snipe and Sickle-winged Nightjar. Accommodation is with the conservation NGO Pro Cosara (so we’ll be doing our bit to assist with the conservation of the park). Our hosts, the Hostettler family, are renowned for their hospitality and delicious, hearty, home-cooked meals. Nights at San Rafael National Park.

Day 15: On our last day we’ll take an early forest walk at San Rafael to look for any remaining species and then leave in mid-morning for Isla Alta, where we’ll make a brief stop. This marshland site may produce some interesting species, such as Bearded Tachuri, various seedeaters, and, if the rice fields are at just the right height, Pinnated Bittern. From here we’ll visit the town of Coronel Bogado to try the national food of chipa, a cheesy bread snack. This is traditionally accompanied by cocido, a sweet milky tea made from yerba mate. Coronel Bogado is known as the “Capital of Chipa,” and nobody passes through here without sampling it. The tour concludes with an afternoon return to the Asunción airport in time to connect with flights home.

Updated: 24 October 2016

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Notes

This tour is organized by our British company, Sunbird. Information on Sunbird and an explanation of Sunbird tour pricing can be found here.

* Tour invoices paid by check carry a 4% discount. Details here.

**Accommodation the night of Day 1 and transfers from and to the airport as needed are included in the tour cost for WINGS participants. Meals are not included until you join the Sunbird group arriving on Day 2.

Maximum group size 10 with two leaders. Both leaders will accompany the tour irrespective of group size.