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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

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

2018 Narrative

The 2018 Northern Argentina tour produced 429 species of birds amid a cornucopia of habitat types. These ranged from flamingos and coots, 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 completely missed any prohibitive rain, experiencing beautiful sunshine and warm temperatures throughout. At the world famous Iguazú National Park we had two full days of birding bliss amid beautiful waterfalls and a wonderful rainforest setting while getting up close and personal with an Argentine parilla!   

Right off the bat Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve blew us away with the abundance and diversity of Southern Cone species that would likely not be seen anywhere else on our itinerary. Water birds were well represented with 15 species of waterfowl including bright Rosy-billed Pochards, stately Black-necked Swans, and regional Ringed Teal. All three species of coot to be expected here—Red-gartered, Red-fronted, and White-winged—were seen in close proximity providing good comparison studies. The largest ponds were mostly wide open and filled with floating vegetation that tried its best to conceal some Masked Ducks, but we managed to pick them out of the debris. The reedy fringes here had lots of perches for both Yellow-browed and Black-backed Water Tyrants, as well as icterids including both Yellow-winged and Chestnut-capped Blackbirds in full song. Dark-bellied Rufous-bellied Thrushes were present and nice to compare to their Creamy-bellied Thrush cousins. Wattled Jacanas were everywhere, creeping over the floating weeds with both Common and Spot-flanked Gallinules and a huge Maguari Stork. We watched closely as a young Rufescent Tiger-Heron successfully stabbed and consumed an unlucky amphibian. Other herons enjoyed here included Striated, Cocoi, and the remarkably colorful Whistling. Huge chinaberry and ceibo trees, many hosting their own suite of birds, border the paths that lead through the preserve. An obvious Green-barred Woodpecker perched atop a dead snag allowed extended views and Narrow-billed Woodcreepers checked every bark crevice for tasty morsels. A calling Straneck’s Tyrannulet announced its presence, and a single Small-billed Elaenia constantly searched for food from the treetops. A Black-and-rufous Warbling Finch was very territorial as we watched the antics and a particularly confiding Red-crested Cardinal sat in the sun very close by and sang its beautiful song while the photographers in the group got the best pictures they could ask for. This certainly showed why this species is on the cover of the most popular field guide for Argentina!

The next day we hopped on a flight to Salta to begin our 8-day adventure through the northwestern part of the country. While having a quick breakfast near the airport we were happily interrupted by some new additions to the tour list. One of the trash bags we noticed fly from the ground to a light pole and realized it was actually a beautiful White Monjita repeatedly coming to the ground for insects. A herd of animals was walking across the grass foraging like mammals but to our surprise they turned out to be a very enigmatic Guira Cuckoo family. This is one of the coolest birds in the country with its orange crest, creamy face, long dark tail, and tendency to get really close to people. Judging by how many flycatchers were around some good bugs abound – we watched several Tropical Kingbirds sally for prey, and both Fork-tailed and Variegated Flycatchers adorned the surrounding treetops. After our delicious lunch including Argentinian tortas and salads, the group headed into the Yacones Valley. Though temps were high, they produced some nice thermals and therefore raptors were out foraying. In a matter of 20 minutes a sleek Rufous-thighed Kite soared by, followed by a nice Sharp-shinned Hawk, and finally Bicolored Hawk, which eventually perched for obstructed views. A pair of Bran-colored Flycatchers chased each other around along the roadside and our first Plush-crested Jays of the trip worked the edges of pastures. A kettle of Black Vultures that was forming slowly attracted a bird species nearly twice as big as several Andean Condors joined the group and slowly circled high into the clouds. This evening’s night birding was a huge success as the group saw Montane Forest Screech Owl close enough to photograph, and watched the antics of a male Scissor-tailed Nightjar repeatedly coursing back and forth across some grassy knolls. Not bad birding for a ‘travel day’!

The next morning after breakfast we shot over to a local forest preserve that protects a huge chunk of the threated Yungas forest habitat. As we were approaching the gate a Gray-cowled Wood-Rail ran speedily along in front of the bus. As soon as we jumped out of the bus a male Cream-backed Woodpecker called and a lucky few were able to get bins on it. Birds were aplenty as we slowly strolled up and down the manicured trails listening to Azara’s Spinetail’s squeaky voice, and Andean Slaty Thrushes’ metallic notes, and we were never out of earshot from Buff-browed Foliage-gleaners’ chattering calls. A pair of Two-banded Warblers encircled the group singing constantly and allowing for close inspection. It was great to see the similar looking Saffron-billed Sparrow with its yellow bill in close proximity to White-browed Brushfinch with its all dark one. Luckily, a Sclater’s Tyrannulet called and alerted us to its presence way up high in a coral tree; otherwise we may have missed this tiny foliage dweller. At the high point of the trail Mario screamed “Black-and-chestnut Eagle!” and we all rushed to a clearing for amazing views of a young member of this species. Apparently this was a young bird from the Yala River Valley, further north, that had made its way here over the last couple of months. (Recent technology of GPS logger tracking on the bird gave the history of this amazing creature’s whereabouts since outfitted with its special bling.)  A ‘bouncing ball’ song quickly distracted us from this experience and a Rufous-capped Antshrike was easily called in for our enjoyment, soon followed by the Yungas specialty Rufous-browed Warbling-Finch. I think we all agreed how nice it was to savor a picnic lunch at this reserve and have the entire place to ourselves for the whole morning’s birding.

Heading north along provincial route 9 we made a couple of stops for water birds. One reservoir added a trifecta of grebes all diving with each other. White-tufted, Silvery, and the oddly huge Great Grebe took turns hunting the rich waters. Cinnamon Teal, and both White-cheeked and Yellow-billed Pintails rounded out the list. A bright male Vermilion Flycatcher perched atop a tree branch, giving the impression it was on fire. While we enjoyed this scene, a couple of Red-legged Seriemas screamed from the hillside though we never did get our eyes on them. After some effort to see this new-for-most bird family we had to leave but within a few minutes back on the main road, four of these gigantic predators were right next to the road, just uphill from the van, allowing us all to get stunning pictures of these highly sought-after bustard-like birds! Another quick stop at a pond en route to Calilegua added the very odd Comb Duck to our bevy of birds, replete with its huge knob on top of the bill. Here we would also record several Bare-faced Ibis and a fly-by pair of the jet-like Peregrine Falcon.

The entirety of the next day was spent birding Calilegua National Park with its vast Yungas Forest and easy access right through the middle with well-developed dirt road. Quickly we heard the two-note song of the White-throated Antpitta, so we ducked into a side trail and all sat still while waiting to see this elusive beast. Usually this group of birds is difficult to observe so we felt lucky only having to wait about 20 minutes for a visual on this terrestrial species. Eventually a Spotted Nightingale Thrush, probably nesting nearby, strolled in and caused the antpitta to chase it away. As we worked up the mountain to the pass we stopped at one particularly productive area. Some taping eventually called in an actual Yungas Pygmy Owl which we all saw well in the scope. The owl’s presence also attracted a mobbing crowd of birds including Cinnamon Flycatcher, Buff-banded and White-throated Tyrannulets, and a feisty pair of Golden-winged Caciques. Some lucky members of the group with eyes to the sky were rewarded with a quick view of a flyover Solitary Eagle. This bird is rare throughout its range and new for the tour checklist! By mid-day the winds were picking up over the forest and allowed some of the other large species to take flight. Several Andean Condors and King Vultures kept us busy while we enjoyed tea, coffee, and cookies during a break. Pushing even further into the forest-laden mountains we birded Loma Chata Preserve, a vast tract protected by a local non-profit. The van came to a screeching halt and stopped just before a pair of White-throated Quail Doves strutted and then dove into the woods. It was a good thing we got out to find the doves because some querulous buzzing alerted us to a displaying Slender-tailed Woodstar zipping back and forth for one lucky female. On our way back through the National Park we stopped at a stream crossing to see if the water was attracting anything and to our surprise a single bird was devouring the insects accumulating over the flowing water. We watched as a female Blue-capped Puffleg, gorgeous in her own right, repeatedly hawked insects a few meters away. Just down the road from there some barking cued us into the call of a Blue-crowned Trogon, which we eventually spotted across the valley on a U-shaped vine tangle. A short side trail led us to the edge of a ravine where a beautiful pair of Amazonia Motmots flew in just overhead and perched for 10 minutes. These birds nest in holes in the banks here and must have been tending an active nest considering how confiding the views were. Nearby a bright Orange-headed Tanager popped into view and we were all happy to finally add this species to the overall list. Another bird with orange on the head belongs to what might be the cutest group of birds in South America. A bold-for-its-size Ochre-faced Tody-Flycatcher insisted on flying back and forth across the road for repeated views of this Yungas highlight.

The following morning we woke up to rain, and a lot of it. After quickly loading the bags in the van we decided to continue with our birding plans despite the moisture and see what was happening at the nearby river. Certainly the water birds wouldn’t mind a little rain! And as it turned out, the rain didn’t negatively affect bird activity and may have even helped us a bit to see the more difficult species that seek harbor in the dense cover. A couple of Tataupa Tinamous were detected and with patience we watched one walk right out into the open, showing off its bright red bill and legs. A duo of Antshrikes, Great and Variable, popped out onto the edges of vine tangles and gave us all amazing views. Both male and female ‘lowland’ Hepatic Tanagers came in to check out an owl imitation, as did both Brown-crested and Swainson’s Flycatchers, Saffron-billed Sparrows, Yellow-billed Cardinals, and Rufous-fronted Thornbirds. A very wet Great Black Hawk precariously perched on a giant reed grass for the duration of our stay didn’t dare take flight in such conditions. Our only Collared Plovers of the tour fed on the muddy edges upstream, and were joined by a couple Sooty Tyrannulets, Striated Heron, and feisty Yellow-chinned Spinetails. After our drench fest at the river we decided to see if we would have any more luck in Calilegua National Park. Even though it was still raining the added cloud cover was a benefit in the forest here as well. Immediately following a quick coffee break a huge woodcreeper flew in next to us and eventually revealed its identity to be Black-banded. Working up the road we were made aware of the 2-part song of the Ochre-cheeked Spinetail that eventually gave us great looks. Just then some croaking overhead gave light to a pair of Golden-collared Macaws searching for a dry place to perch. Our final highlight here before having to head north was hearing, and eventually seeing, a Giant Antshrike while it sang its ‘bouncing ball’ song from atop a cut-off tree entanglement. This huge member of the Antbird family is normally very difficult to spot, but easy to hear, so we were thrilled with the looks we had through the scope! Before we could leave the Yungas forest completely, we explored the famed Yala River Valley for four specialties of this area. The raging river here continues to support a pair of Rufous-throated Dippers, likely nesting just under the bank we were standing on! We were barely off our lifer high when a pair of Torrent Ducks, one white and one orange, were spotted leading their recently-fledged young up the tumultuous waters to safety. There was so much action, we almost missed the rare Red-faced Guan that was watching the entire time from a safe concealed perch overhead! This area also added several other interesting birds like Spot-breasted Thornbird building its football-sized nest, Andean Slaty Thrush singing from a snag, and a male Lyre-tailed Nightjar putting on an amazing show as it swept just meters overhead, showing off its luxurious tail feathers.

After exploring this region 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. At least five Giant Hummingbirds were feeding in one dry wash on an abundance of flowering tree tobacco. It’s also worth mentioning they were feeding in the company of several Red-tailed Comets and Sparkling Violetears! This route also produced such species as Streak-fronted Thornbirds, singing Creamy-breasted Canastero, Black-hooded Sierra Finch, Greenish Yellowfinch, Band-tailed Seedeater, and both Patagonian and Brown-backed Mockingbirds. Anywhere there’s water, birds tend to congregate here. On a slow walk at a special wet patch, small flocks of Puna Yellowfinch were sipping from the streamside, both Rock and Buff-breasted Earthcreepers danced down the rock walls, and Ornate Tinamous picked through the grit. A flock of Citron-headed Yellowfinches was a complete surprise here, perhaps 70 miles south of their normal range. It’s no surprise that we slammed on the brakes for a pair of Variable Hawks perched at eye level on the opposite hillside, but what was surprising was the nesting White-sided Hillstar under the presumed hawk nest just feet away. Talk about a safe location to raise young! This same area gave us several more exciting birds like a flock of bright green Mountain Parakeets, nesting Puna Ground-Tyrants, Straight-billed Earthcreepers carrying food, and both Golden-spotted and Black-winged Ground Doves. Several dirt tracks eventually led us to Laguna Pozuelos, a high elevation saline lake rich with food for the scads of nesting species that call this place home: Giant and Slate-colored Coot, Puna Plovers and Puna Teal, Crested Ducks, Andean Negritos, and the flamingo trifecta. We enjoyed extended looks eye-to-eye at Andean, Chilean, and James’s Flamingos and also enjoyed picking through the hundreds of Baird’s Sandpipers and Wilson’s Phalaropes for the other long-distance migrant, Hudsonian Godwit. On the way back from Laguna Pozuelos we drove across the arid landscape and somehow Mario was able to spot a flock of Tawny-throated Dotterel foraging in a fallow field. This is always one of the most sought-after birds of the trip!

The roads continued to lead us near the Bolivian border to the hamlet of Yavi. This pastoral scene boasts tiny country homes amid lush green trees with small canal system bringing water to this otherwise desolate region. This oasis is excellent for birds and we had great run-ins with species like Yellow-billed Tit-tyrant, Brown-capped Tit-Spinetail, Gray-hooded Parakeet, White-winged Black-Tyrant, and dozens of scaled Bare-faced Ground Doves perched atop mud roofs. Another highlight of the tour came when a male Wedge-tailed Hillstar flew in and lit on a branch right in front of the group. Nearby we found the likely nest with the female perched close. The oddest thing was it had chosen a used teabag for insulation so it was easy to spot the nest with its hanging label swaying in the breeze!

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 Plumbeous Sierra-Finches were also encountered here, as were several fly-by Andean Swallows maneuvering through the ravines with the like-minded Andean Swifts. One of the very few rock outcrops on the way was refuge for a sleeping Great Horned Owl. At just under 15,000 feet, a short stroll up a vega yielded a bird that is extremely difficult to find anywhere in its range when, as luck would have it, a pair of Diademed Sandpiper-Plovers were spotted and allowed close approach by the group on foot.

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 Streak-backed Antbird, which is a very difficult bird to actually see. But we sat silently in the dense wood and all managed to see this bird well! Some loud squeaking alerted us to a Chaco Earthcreeper, and nearby Greater Wagtail-Tyrants flopped around with tails raised singing in duets. Flocks of Chaco Chachalacas were seen (but mostly heard) as we traveled through. A very secretive Tawny-crowned Pygmy-Tyrant kept the laser pointer hopping and Red-crested Finches, Crowned Slaty Flycatchers, and White-fronted Woodpeckers adorned the tops of the spiny trees. An out-of-place male Slender-tailed Woodstar seemed odd at this low an elevation, but the abundance of flowers was clearly why he chose this spot. Glittering-bellied Emeralds and a Blue-tufted Starthroat, new for the tour, were also taking advantage of the productive food source. Some owl imitations brought a male Great Antshrike close enough for us to see its bright red eye. Other birds joining the mob scene included Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Sooty-fronted Spinetail, Grassland Sparrow, and another major target for this area, a showy Many-colored Chaco Finch. As this is one of the main areas to search for Black-legged Seriema we were super excited to see some heads sticking out of the tall grass but alas, JUST another pair of Red-legged Seriemas instead! After deciding to turn around and look elsewhere, as we were moving the bus a pair of Brushland Tinamous tried their best to look like shrubs along the roadside.

Continuing our search by heading west, 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 that were lazily soaring overhead. At one unforgettable spot we stopped to call for Black-legged Seriema and, to our amazement, one of these huge beasts popped up into a tree and began calling. We all sat in awe as we finally tracked down a big target, and were able to get such good looks. While skirting the Juramento River, the road got narrow through a pass and put us at eye level with a pair of Cream-backed Woodpeckers, the male with his bright red head, female with her red crest wisp, and both showing their namesake very well. When exiting the vehicle to get some pictures we were surprised to see a flock of Blue-crowned Parakeets right out the door that were feeding on a seed crop. A stroll down a side road produced a dark male Cinereous Tyrant and in the next tree over a huge Great Rufous Woodcreeper, with its size, had a tough time blending in. A quick stop at the river edge nabbed us a Squirrel Cuckoo jumping from branch to branch up a giant tree, Ringed Kingfisher perched stoically, and Giant Wood-Rail that came out to finish off the freshwater mussel it had only half- devoured before our arrival.

After our breakfast in Moldes we set off to target two special birds of this region. Almost instantly a Crested Gallito began calling and eventually perched up, showing off its peaked head. In a nearby shrub a flock of Black-crested Finches posed with their odd hairdos. Heading northwest, a brief visit to some grasslands added three new birds for the trip: Darwin’s Nothura, Stripe-capped Sparrow, and Black-and-chestnut Warbling-Finch. We traveled through the humid Escoipe Canyon and emerged above 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 the hard-to-find Rufous-bellied Mountain Tanager, one of which gave the group good views of its cinnamon underparts. A pair of Tucuman Mountain-Finches teed up nicely, Andean Tinamous walking slowly by, White-browed Chat-Tyrants nest building, and a flock of at least 30 Bare-faced Ground-Doves replete with vibrant orange facial skin topped other highlights here. Finally rising up and over the ridge found us in the middle of the stark Los Cardones National Park with its huge cactuses. A misty haze covered the grassy hillsides and would have prevented good views of Puna Canastero had it not been so close. Los Cardones also gave us roadside Elegant Crested Tinamous adorned with peaked crests that were spotted by our eagle-eyed driver. In the Payogasta area, more desert habitats attracted a couple smart endemic Argentinian gems. A foraging White-throated Cachalote ‘sang’ while perched on its nest and the chirping melody of the Sandy Gallito attracted our attention. After some searching it was finally seen well, perched on a bush. Weedy fields here were home to Long-tailed Meadowlarks, Spectacled Tyrants, and Great Pampa Finches, as well as a wheeling flock of Burrowing Parakeets enjoying the last rays of the day.

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 walk amongst these nearly 300-foot-tall waterfalls was truly unforgettable. On our first morning we were greeted at daybreak by colorful Toco Toucans perched in open snags, Ochre-collared Piculets, chortling Green Ibis, Swallow Tanagers, and Pale-breasted Thrushes. The Macuco Trail didn’t disappoint this year, though we had to turn around about halfway due to recent sighting of a mountain lion, which we did not see. The tall grasses here gave us a male Chestnut-bellied Seedfinch and our first of several Surucua Trogons. A beautiful Blonde-crested Woodpecker came right in overhead as White-necked Thrushes were plentiful but hard to spot in the dense foliage. White-bearded and Band-tailed Manakins came in to investigate us as did Sepia-capped Flycatchers, Plain Antvireo, Guira Tanagers, and the specialty of the falls, a Creamy-bellied Gnatcatcher. It’s also always a treat to see the Great Dusky Swifts plunge behind the raging waterfalls and somehow find their nests every time. In the afternoon we visited a wonderful hummingbird garden that netted us several Gilded Hummingbirds, Versicolored Emeralds, Black-throated Mangos, and singles of Black Jacobin, Planalto Hermit, and the long-trained bright blue Swallow-tailed Hummingbird.

               A slight change in itinerary sent us east of Iguazu to the foothills and gave us a chance at many birds not normally encountered in this tour. The lush forests of the Urugua-i Provincial Park were hopping with activity including Olive and Gray-bellied Spinetails, Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, Large-headed Flatbill, and bamboo specialist Chestnut-headed Tanager. A pair of Riverbank Warblers put on quite a show as we watched this normally shy resident of the dense vegetation feed a recently-fledged young. Sitting patiently, everyone eventually got views of singing Southern Antpipit in the scope but the pair of Black-billed Scythebills proved more difficult to see well. At another nearby reserve we took a break, enjoying delicious homemade pasta for lunch. Just outside the lodge we enjoyed watching a Rufous Gnateater hunker down in its nest, protecting its popcorn-sized young. A roosting Common Potoo was exciting to see during the day, as were the Violet-capped Woodnymphs defending the hummingbird feeders. The repeated ‘chur-chee-chur-chee’ song of the Planalto Tapaculo eventually gave rise to an actual bird that we all saw as well as we could. A very vibrant Bertoni’s Antbird was a challenge to see in the dense bamboo stands, but easier to spot was the displaying Swallow-tailed Manakin hoping to attract an impressed female. Flycatchers were abundant here and we added Yellow Tyrannulet, Gray and Yellow-bellied Elaenias, Sepia-capped Flycatcher, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, and a pair of the diminutive Eared Pygmy-Tyrant. On our way back to home base we stopped by a remnant patch of Araucaria forest and were able to add even more birds never before encountered on this tour. They included the stark White Woodpecker, Gray-throated Warbling-Finch, and the Araucaria Tit-Spinetail, endemic to this odd forest type. Even on our last morning new birds kept stacking up as we walked the roads and trails near our lodge, which is set amidst a 600-hectare tract of rainforest. As we waited for the group to gather, a few Chestnut-eared Aracaris perched briefly overheard and Chestnut-vented Conebills chipped from the tallest trees. Both Rufous-winged and Streak-capped Antwrens did not like the owl imitations, but neither did the Thrush-like Wrens, Blue Dacnis, or Magpie Tanagers. A pair of the recently-split Buff-bellied Puffbirds enjoyed the view from up high in the exposed branches very close to a completely hidden pair of Rufous-capped Motmots, our last new bird of the trip.

It’s always a treat to lead this tour, taking people to this wonderful part of the world and this was another trip I’ll never forget. Through the Northwest’s varied landscapes we covered over 2,000 kilometers of unbelievable scenery and picked up lots of the region’s specialty birds. At Iguazú the grandeur of the falls themselves impressed us all in our own ways. Though impressive they are rarely outdone by the colorful pallet of southeastern Brazilian rainforest birds we encountered only here. The group this year was very mobile, keen spotters, and full of energy, all of which helped add over 30 more species of 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 of Argentina. 

-        Jake Mohlmann

 

 

Created: 21 November 2018