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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

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

2017 Narrative

In Summary: The 2017 Northern Argentina tour produced 429 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 in 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 noted 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 only had rain our last day and otherwise managed beautiful sunshine and warm temperatures throughout. At the world famous Iguazu 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 Rufous Gnateaters and Robust Woodpeckers. 

In Detail: Every trip to Argentina should start with a visit to the bird-rich Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve just on the edge of the bustling Buenos Aires skyscrapers. We strolled along through winding paths picking up several species we would see nowhere else on the tour. Large-sized waterfowl were breeding and fluffy young of both Southern Screamers and Coscoroba Swans were around. Ringed and Brazilian Teals joined the more numerous Rosy-billed Pochards for the group’s viewing pleasure. This place is excellent for seeing coots and we managed the three expected species (Red-gartered, Red-fronted, and White-winged) for nice comparisons. Wheeling parakeets kept us entertained as we watched both Monk and Nanday flying overhead. Intermixed with the numbers of herons and egrets was a Giant Wood Rail that slowly walked out onto the edge of the marsh for us all to study at length. Five swallow species here included numerous White-rumped, and a surprise male Southern Martin shooting by. There was no lack of the always-entertaining Guira Cuckoos with their blonde mohawks and long white-tipped tails. As the wetlands closed we headed back to our nearby hotel for our first of many delicious Argentine dinners.

The next day we flew to Salta where immediately we checked some dry scrubby habitat in search of several bird species. A series of barking calls indicated to us that we were very near some Red-legged Seriemas. After some brief playback, two adult birds came floating down the hillside with sweptback wings, interested in who the territorial intruders might be. Another location down the road showed us just how fast these birds are, as Nico tried to push some of these birds towards the bus for better views but couldn’t keep up as they dashed through the thorn scrub successfully avoiding each other. Other birds of interest in this region were Red-crested Finch, Rufous-fronted Thornbird, and Huayco Tinamou. 

Several days were spent exploring the interesting southern Yungas forests of northwestern Argentina. This unique region ranges from dense foothill jungle to high elevation podocarpus evergreen forests. Lower down we explored the Yala River valley looking for Rufous-throated Dipper, which we found flying up and down the waterway with nesting material, as well as multiple Red-faced Guans sharing space in the area with the much more common Dusky-legged. A family of Torrent Ducks moved surprisingly close to the group. We eventually discovered that the cause of the alarming behavior was a hungry Tayra working the riverbank just downstream. This huge weasel must be a formidable foe with its long sharp claws, dagger-like teeth, and insatiable appetite. Calilegua National Park protects a huge tract of Yungas forest and the resulting species list is usually large. At mid-elevations we had to have patience to get good looks at a White-throated Antpitta that repeatedly dashed across a clearing near the road but eventually held still for a perfect, albeit brief, view. A duo of Cream-backed Woodpeckers had our attention one morning as an impressive adult female showed its female offspring how to forage for grubs. Just after a surprise Rufous Nightjar flushed along the trail a resplendent Amazonian Motmot perched overhead as we watched it come and go from its nest site. Higher up the parrot show was swift and bountiful with flocks of Mitred Parakeets taking turns flying through the misty passes, with the much more difficult to find Tucuman Parrots occasionally swinging by. The beautiful Rusty-browed Warbling Finch was seen throughout this area and bright Fulvous-headed Brushfinches proved to be a welcome distraction from the commoner species like Mountain Wren, Buff-browed Foliage-gleaner, White-bellied Hummingbird and Pale-legged Warblers. Two of the Yungas specialties were discovered in this area. An inquisitive Yungas Pygmy Owl came in to investigate a familiar call and resulted in a mob scene worthy of note. Coming in to harass this owl were Slender-tailed Woodstars and Blue-capped Pufflegs, as well as the brightly colored Cinnamon Flycatcher. Of course the most numerous member of the tribe was the rowdy Common Chlorospingus. Another regional gem was the Yungas Manakin, a bird at its southernmost range in this region of Argentina. We watched a male repeatedly dash back and forth from perch to perch as it searched for females to dance for. 

After exploring this locale we climbed from the humid Yungas forest over 5,000 feet to the capital of the puna Abra Pampa. Along the way we stopped at several side roads to search for some localized specialties. A pair of nesting endemic Bare-eyed Ground-Doves were confiding and awed the group with their glowing orange facial skin, quite an unusual feature for a ground dove. The same area hosted nesting Yellow-billed Tit-tyrant, singing Rufous-vented Canastero, Andean Swift, Brown-banded Mockingbird and a strikingly large Giant Hummingbird. 

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 Citron-headed Yellow-Finch, Brown-capped Tit-Spinetail, Gray-hooded Parakeet, and the speckly Bare-faced Ground-Dove perched atop mud roofs. Even higher, the road led us to a mountain pass just under 15,000 feet that had nesting Dark-fronted Ground Tyrants. High up in some wetlands filled with cushion plants, Red-backed Sierra Finches were present and here we met up with a huge target for many in the group – Diademed Sandpiper Plover. Just as we pulled up to the wet vega a pair of these odd shorebirds were just off the road and everyone was able to study these creatures before they flew off and out of sight far down the canyon. Another nearby wetland hosted three very vocal Rufous-bellied Seedsnipes flying to and fro across the valley in search of food. 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: Chilean, Andean, and James’s. There were many more shorebirds around including Baird’s Sandpipers, Puna Plovers, and both Andean Lapwings and Avocets.

We reluctantly left the Bolivian border region and retraced our steps down through more beautiful scenery. We headed south to spend two days exploring the Chaco and giant cactus-laden scenery of Los Cardones National Park. The short woodlands of spiny forest in the Chaco were constantly scanned as we slowly drove along and eventually we spotted a Black-legged Seriema. These odd giant creatures slowly walk through the understory scanning for unsuspecting prey. In the same field we also found a Red-legged Seriema enabling us to see the entire family within minutes of each other! Scouring the cliffside vegetation and watered valleys on the way to this area yielded Rufous-sided Warbling-Finch, Maquis Canastero, Spot-backed Puffbird, and hard-to-find Rufous-bellied Saltator that gave the group good views of its cinnamon underparts. A special pre-breakfast excursion south of Moldes was to target three special birds of this region. Almost instantaneously a Crested Gallito began calling and perched up showing off its peaked head. In a nearby mixed species flock a Many-colored Chaco Finch sang proudly and someone noticed another bird with an odd hairdo, the Black-crested Finch. The Payogasta area hosted more very dry habitats that, lucky for us, attracted a couple smart endemic Argentinian birds. A pair of White-throated Cachalotes ‘sang’ while perched above their big thorny nest. The chirping melody was interspersed with intervals of Sandy Gallito adding its short call whenever possible. We managed some good roadside birding in this area as well, especially when a Tawny-throated Dotterel ran right beside the bus with popcorn-like chicks in tow.

Iguazu 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 watch these nearly 300-foot- tall waterfalls at sunrise all by ourselves was truly unforgettable. It’s hard to believe that the amazing Great Dusky Swift nests behind this roaring torrent of water – and we had exceptional views of this spectacle just under our feet! The tropical forests of the National Park provided many avian highlights over the next two days, especially away from the bustling crowds. Creamy-bellied Gnatcatchers sang from high up in the canopy and an inquisitive Blonde-crested Woodpecker inspected our group a couple times. Along the Macuco Trail manakins were happy to show themselves and we got to watch as male White-collared, Band-tailed, and Swallow-tailed all sang their favorite songs. Our lodging at Iguazu was quite comfortable and the food tasty. The grounds were well maintained and hosted several interesting birds like Short-tailed Nighthawks, Bat Falcon, Dark-billed Cuckoo and along a nearby dirt road a confiding Rufous-capped Motmot. We swung by the Jardin de los Picaflores in Puerto Iguazu where hummingbirds were in good supply and enjoyed at length Black-throated Mangos, Black Jacobin, Versicolored Emerald, and the star of the show…a majestic Swallow-tailed Hummingbird! 

This year’s tour proved to be a sensational route through many different habitats encompassing everything one could want from this region. In a country full of contrasts new birds kept appearing around every corner. One never knows what they’ll run into while exploring this vast and varied land. The group this year was very mobile, keen spotters, and full of energy, all of which helped add many more birds than last year’s tour. I hope we’ll all be able revisit this country together on a future expedition to the amazing Southern Cone.

- Jake Mohlmann 

Created: 01 December 2017