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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2022 Narrative

IN DETAIL: With the sun shining and an enthusiastic group ready for some top-class birding, we headed off on day one through the swamps and palm savannas of the Humid Chaco towards our destination in the Dry Chaco, Laguna Capitán. Before the day was over we had racked up close to 100 species with our roadside birding, including beauties such as Scarlet-headed Blackbird and Nanday Parakeet, icons like the Greater Rhea and Giant Wood-Rail and Chaco endemics like the Crested Hornero and Brushland Tinamou. Indeed, this year?s trip would prove to be a tinamou fest with a total of 6 species seen and 2 heard before it was over.

We had four full days in the Dry Chaco and The Chaco Big 5 were high on most people?s wish list, and the whole group was able to get great views of all of them. Black-legged Seriemas performed duets at a distance of 30 feet, the Chaco Owl posed for pictures on roadside fence posts, Crested Gallitos strutted around in the undergrowth and the Black-bodied Woodpecker finally put in a belated appearance at Enciso National Park. The fifth and final member of the exclusive club, the Quebracho Crested-Tinamou, gave us some nervous moments when half the group were able to briefly see the bird, before a gigantic passing truck scared it away. An hour or so of patient searching eventually bore fruit with a second individual and everybody was able to enjoy this remarkable bird.

A long and persistent drought in the Chaco meant that many of the salt lagoons were dry, having a negative effect on waterbird diversity (there were very few Chilean Flamingos around and not many migrant sandpipers or ducks), but there were more than enough land birds to keep us occupied. The bird life is plentiful in the Dry Chaco, and even common birds such as Blue-crowned Parakeet, Red-crested Cardinal, Great Antshrike, Stripe-backed Antbird, Lark-like Brushrunner, Brown Cacholote and Chaco Chachalaca are always worth a second look. Other Chaco endemics we became quickly familiar with included the gorgeous Many-coloured Chacofinch, the dramatic Cream-backed Woodpecker, the ear-splitting Scimitar-billed Woodcreeper, the acrobatic Cinereous Tyrant, the imposing Great Rufous Woodcreeper and the hornero-like Chaco Earthcreeper. A second crack at a frustratingly elusive pair of Olive-crowned Crescentchests finally resulted in good views for all as the bird emerged into the open within a few feet of us. The Chaco form is a likely split.

Paraguay is split almost down the middle by the Paraguay River, with the Chaco region to the west and the Oriental region to the east. The habitats in these two regions are completely different, and as we completed the Chaco leg with some additional goodies in the form of Rufous-sided Crake, Warbling Doradito, Toco Toucan, Rusty-collared Seedeater and the evocatively-named Firewood-Gatherer, there was much excitement about the whole new avifauna that awaited us in the east. Leaving behind the thorn forests and palm swamps of the Chaco, we were ready to enjoy the threatened delights of the Cerrado savannas and lush Atlantic Forests.

Our first destination was Laguna Blanca, and the rain clouds that were gathering as we set out into the Cerrado grasslands gave us a moment of trepidation. We were aware of the fact that the evening?s number one target, the endangered White-winged Nightjar, does not fly during inclement weather, so it was with fingers crossed that we birded hoping that the rain would hold off. In the end it did, apart from a light shower for a few minutes in the afternoon, and we quickly wrapped up our Cerrado endemic targets getting White-rumped and White-banded (Shrike-like) Tanager, White-rumped Monjita, Black-throated Saltator, Curl-crested Jay, Plumbeous Seedeater, numerous Cock-tailed Tyrants and Bearded Tachuri with no problem at all. Bonus birds included Lesser Elaenia, Tawny-headed Swallow, White-eared Puffbird, Pale-breasted Spinetail (ssp. albescens), dancing Streamer-tailed Tyrants and Red-winged Tinamou. By the time night fell the clear conditions were thankfully looking great for the nightjar. We had a couple of brief encounters with birds flying close to the vehicle, but a perched male out in a dense grassy field gave us a memorable point blank experience after a challenging bushwhack to get to him.

Our first forays into the mega-diverse Atlantic Forest were at the Mbaracayú Reserve. Here we were treated to mega-ticks such as “South America?s Ivorybill” the Helmeted Woodpecker, Paraguay?s national bird the Bare-throated Bellbird and the “banana aracari” Saffron Toucanet. But these weren?t the only special birds we saw, with gorgeous Atlantic Forest endemics such as Buff-bellied Puffbird, Rusty-breasted Nunlet, Surucua Trogon, Blond-crested Woodpecker and Chestnut-bellied Euphonia added to the list, and views of elusive species like Brown Tinamou, Spot-backed Antshrike, Band-tailed Manakin, Riverside Warbler and Scaled Pigeon making this a rewarding stop. Unfortunately, the low temperatures and dense cloud cover meant that night birding was not very productive. Fresh footprints of a Jaguar a few hundred metres from our accommodation block suggested that we had had a visitor during the night!

Next up was the town of Salto del Guairá, where a tiny forest on the costanera barely 100m x 100m in dimensions has been creating waves in the Paraguayan birding community. No fewer than three new birds for the country list (Ashy-headed Greenlet, Large-billed Antwren and Buff-breasted Wren) were discovered in this tiny enclave during 2022, and we made sure to add all of them to our seen list. Indeed, the birds of this tiny forest were some of the most cooperative the group had ever seen, with all of our targets quickly being ticked off and other species such as Rusty-backed Spinetail, Rusty-backed Antwren, Saffron-billed (Grey-backed) Sparrow, Large Elaenia, Orange-backed Troupial, Black-capped Donacobius, White Woodpecker, Common Tody-Flycatcher and Silver-beaked Tanager putting on a fantastic show for us at close quarters.

From here we headed south to the most biodiverse reserve in Paraguay, San Rafael National Park. Our four nights here provided a smorgasbord of new Atlantic Forest endemics: Slaty-breasted Wood-Rail, Rusty-barred Owl, Spot-billed Toucanet, Ochre-collared Piculet, Robust Woodpecker, Lesser Woodcreeper, Rufous-capped and Olive Spinetails, Ochre-breasted Foliage-gleaner, Dusky-tailed Antbird, Streak-capped Antwren, White-shouldered Fire-eye, Rufous Gnateater, Southern Bristle-Tyrant, Eared and Drab-breasted Pygmy-Tyrants, Greenish Schiffornis, Swallow-tailed Manakin, Rufous-crowned Greenlet, Ruby-crowned and Chestnut-headed Tanagers and Blackish-blue Seedeater all ticked off. However, some of the more memorable forest encounters involved a very cooperative Red-ruffed Fruitcrow and a charming pair of Blue-naped Chlorophonias collecting nest material, unconcerned by our presence. We were also able to experience the Pavonine Cuckoo.

A trip to the grasslands at Kanguery added some more top birds, the threatened Sharp-tailed Tyrant, an angry Lesser Grassfinch, odd male Pearly-bellied Seedeaters, a secretive pair of Ash-throated Crakes, Yellow-rumped Marshbirds and the cherry on the cake, large flocks of Saffron-cowled Blackbirds coming to roost in the marshes. After dark we were unsuccessful in our attempt to see Giant Snipe, the marsh where the birds usually roost having been recently burned. We had to make do with only hearing the birds roding at a distance, and seeing numerous Common Pauraques, Short-tailed Nighthawks and Burrowing Owls and Common Potoos sat on fence posts.

Our penultimate destination was Isla Yacyretá, a mix of gallery forests, swamps and grasslands with its own unique avifauna. After a quick stop at Atinguy to see the habituated Dusky-legged Guans that live there, the appearance of large flocks of Grey-headed Gull in a marsh were a surprise (this is a rare bird in Paraguay). Then we headed into the grasslands in search of the mega Ochre-breasted Pipit, seeing a breeding-plumaged bird easily and well, along with Grey Monjita, Spotted Nothura, White-tailed Hawk and Wedge-tailed Grassfinch. However, with shades of White-winged Nightjar deja-vu, gathering rain clouds hovering on the horizon looked like they might put our shot at the real star of the show, the Sickle-winged Nightjar at risk. But before we could even begin to worry about the weather, the forest guards nonchalantly announced that they had made an error with our permit and the area where the nightjar is found, was not included on the permit that they gave us! Panic ensued, but a frantic half hour of phone calls to the halls of power, and we were eventually allowed in. With poetic timing, the rain clouds parted both literally and figuratively, and the intrepid group were treated to the company of a friendly male who allowed an approach to a couple of metres, before flying off and beautifully displaying his bizarre sickle-shaped wings. A fish dinner was the perfect end to a nearly not so perfect day.

The following morning in the gallery forests on the island we added Little and Crimson-crested Woodpeckers (taking us up to a remarkable 17 species of Picids seen during the trip!), the dainty Orange-headed and Hooded Tanagers, and the not so dainty White-lined and Burnished Buff Tanagers, our final Cacique (Golden-winged), Green-backed Becard, Striped Cuckoo and the extraordinary Red-billed Scythebill. Then it was time to pack our bags and head back to Asunción for some craft beers and good company. 

Our final morning held enough potential promise to finish off a successful trip with a bang and it did not disappoint. The Arroyo y Esteros wetlands are just east of the capital city and are packed with specialities. The wonderful Strange-tailed Tyrant took a little effort with several females showing before we could find a male, the newly-described Iberá Seedeater was seen feeding young and another recent split Austral Spinetail eventually gave great views too. Other new birds such as White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, Yellow-browed Tyrant, Long-tailed Reedfinch and Bran-coloured Flycatcher also gave us a great send off. Unfortunately, a Spotted Rail that initially seemed very keen to show failed to follow through on the promise.

The trip was a resounding success, with target birds well seen, predicted numbers of lifers comfortably exceeded and over 370 species recorded despite the exceptional drought conditions. But Paraguay is not only a great destination for birders, it is also a well-known must-visit destination for mammal watchers. Though the focus was on the birds for this trip we also managed to chalk up a healthy total of 20 mammal species along the way including Puma, White-lipped Peccary, Southern Tamandua, Chaco Mara, several species of armadillo and monkey, and Tayra.

                                                                                                                                                                                         - Paul Smith

Created: 12 October 2022