PARAGUAY BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Paraguay: Day 1 Our Paraguay birding tour begins this morning at Asunción airport in the capital of Paraguay. We will stay overnight in the city.
Our first afternoon will be spent at the RAMSAR site at the Bahía de Asunción, just a few kilometres outside the capital on an inlet of the Rio Paraguay. Located on the South American migration superhighway, we will be scanning this internationally important wetland site for waterbirds and combing the surrounding marshes for secretive reed dwellers.
Nearctic migrant shorebirds will be present at this season and we will likely record good numbers of American Golden Plovers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and White-rumped, Pectoral and Stilt Sandpipers, as well as resident White-backed Stilts and Collared Plovers. Flocks of Wilson’s Phalaropes spin on the water amongst aggregations of White-winged Coots and Neotropic Cormorants. The Bahía de Asunción is host annually to internationally important counts of the near-threatened Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Less frequent, but also possible, are Hudsonian Godwit and Upland Sandpiper. Loafing flocks of Black Skimmers and Large-billed and Yellow-billed Terns are usually present.
Amongst the raptors we will see here are Snail and White-tailed Kites, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Southern Crested Caracara and maybe Osprey. Scrubby areas are the place to look for Red-crested Finch, Greyish Saltator and flocks of seedeaters, of which Double-collared, Tawny-bellied and White-bellied are the most numerous. Striped Cuckoo, Pale-breasted Spinetail, Barred Antshrike and Tawny-crowned Pygmy Tyrant are skulkers in dense vegetation that will take a little patience to see. White Monjita, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee and Tropical Kingbird are the most conspicuous of the many tyrant flycatchers on offer, and these also include semi-terrestrial species such as Cattle and Spectacled Tyrants, Black-backed Water Tyrant and Grey Monjita.
Some of the most interesting birds are to be found in the reedbeds, amongst them Wattled Jacana, South American Snipe, Greater Thornbird (their hanging stick nests are unmissable!), Yellow-chinned Spinetail, both Crested and Warbling Doraditos, Unicoloured and Chestnut-capped Blackbirds and, with some luck, South American Painted-snipe and Grey-breasted Crake. On the ponds, Brazilian Duck, Ringed Teal and Solitary Sandpiper are all likely (and sometimes Silver Teal and Rosy-billed Pochard are also present), along with Limpkin and Ringed, Amazon and Green Kingfishers.
Grey-breasted Martin and White-rumped and Tawny-headed Swallows are all possible overhead, and there is a chance of Sick’s Swift. The handsome Nacunda Nighthawk is commonly-flushed from grassy areas, whilst the raucous calls of Southern Lapwing and buzzing flight song of Yellowish Pipit are two of the most distinctive of the area’s sounds.
Paraguay Day 2 The vast, unspoilt Paraguayan Chaco is almost uninhabited and is traversed by a single, long, straight road – colloquially known as the ‘Ruta Trans-Chaco’. Fortunately, the road sees little in the way of traffic, allowing us to make stops at roadside marshes and pools for some spectacular birding.
Typical waterbirds of the region include White-faced and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Muscovy Duck, Least Grebe, Western Cattle, Snowy and Great Egrets, Cocoi, Striated and Whistling Herons, Black-crowned Night Heron, Rufescent Tiger Heron, Bare-faced, Plumbeous, White-faced and Buff-necked Ibises, Roseate Spoonbill, Maguari and Wood Storks, Limpkin, and Snail Kite (both in large numbers owing to the many apple snails), Common Gallinule and the aptly-named Southern Screamer. Undoubtedly the most eye-catching inhabitant of this region, however, is the impressively massive Jabiru. Giant Wood Rails often feed in the open, unlike their secretive relatives, while Rufous-sided Crake generally takes more effort. Sometimes Fulvous Whistling Duck, Silver Teal and Purple Gallinule are present as well, with a chance of Masked Duck.
Great Black, Savanna, Black-collared and Roadside Hawks, plus Turkey and Black Vultures, are numerous and almost every tall post has either a pair of American Kestrels or a Monk Parakeet nest adorning it. Other psittacids that are commonly encountered include Blue-fronted Amazon, Scaly-headed Parrot and Nanday Parakeet. Denser marshes will likely yield Masked Yellowthroat, Black-capped Donacobius and the striking Scarlet-headed Blackbird.
If we are lucky, we will find the near-threatened, restricted-range Dinelli’s Doradito.
Large flocks of Shiny Cowbirds, Chopi Blackbirds and Baywings flush from the sides of the ‘Ruta’, with smaller numbers of Screaming Cowbirds amongst them.
We will stop for lunch at Buffalo Bill’s, where there are usually small numbers of Rusty-collared Seedeaters around, as well as many Yellow-billed Cardinals. This site is particularly notable for the number and size of the Spectacled Caimans that make their home here.
Spotting mammals during the day requires an element of luck, but Giant Anteater, Lesser Grison and Nine-banded Armadillo are possible today.
Eventually, we will reach Loma Plata, where we will spend two nights.
Paraguay: Day 3 The Central Chaco region was colonized as recently as the 1920s by Mennonite settlers from Canada and Europe. They struck a deal with the Paraguayan government that they would settle what was seen as a hostile frontier, in exchange for them being allowed to pursue their religious beliefs and cultural practices without governmental interference. Despite the considerable hardships that the settlers faced, they triumphed in the face of adversity and their companies now dominate the Paraguayan beef and dairy industries. But while we will not turn down the chance to sample some of that beef at a traditional asado (barbecue), it is the birds that brought us here.
We will spend today exploring the series of unpredictable saline lagoons that make up the ‘Cuenca del Upper Yacaré Sur’ IBA (Important Bird Area).
Our first stop will be Laguna Capitán, officially a Mennonite resort, but also a great place to start finding such Chaco endemics as Chaco Chachalaca, Crested Hornero and the handsome Many-coloured Chaco Finch. The thorn scrub here is packed with birds and we can expect to add White-barred Piculet, Chotoy Spinetail, Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrant, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, Southern Scrub and Brown-crested Flycatchers, and Masked Gnatcatcher. Golden-billed Saltator is one of the more conspicuous members of the local avifauna, but Little Thornbird, Great Antshrike and Black-capped Warbling Finch, though less colourful, are just as easy to see.
There is a surprising diversity of woodcreepers here, notably the huge Great Rufous Woodcreeper, the extraordinary Scimitar-billed Woodcreeper, Narrow-billed Woodcreeper and the weird Red-billed Scythebill! The charismatic Lark-like Brushrunner is always popular, as are the tinamous, of which two restricted-range species are very likely – Brushland Tinamou and Paraguay’s only endemic bird species, the Chaco Nothura. Red-legged Seriema is usually present and there is also a chance of finding the restricted-range White-bellied Nothura.
We will check out roadside posts for the colourful Spot-backed Puffbird and it is always worth searching for woodpeckers; White-fronted, Checkered and Cream-backed are the most easily seen, while Golden-green generally takes a little more time.
A side trip to Laguna Ganso will give us our first stab at the rare, restricted-range but spectacular Black-bodied Woodpecker.
Campo Maria Private Reserve contains the largest of the Central Chaco lagoons. The wetland at the entrance usually holds many widespread waterbirds and drinking Picazuro Pigeons. Though the Austral winter is the best time to visit to appreciate the large flocks of American Flamingos that gather here, a few usually hang around to sit out the Paraguayan summer. Coscoroba Swan, the delightful Ringed Teal, White-cheeked Pintail and sometimes Rosy-billed Pochard are amongst the waterborne highlights, along with large numbers of shorebirds.
In the surrounding scrub, Chaco Earthcreeper, White-winged Tanager and White-browed Blackbird can usually be found, whilst Greater Rheas stride majestically through grassy areas and the stunning Olive-crowned Crescentchest is also quite possible. Short-billed Canastero and Stripe-crowned Spinetail are amongst the furnariids we may encounter.
On our night drives in the Central Chaco, we will look for Tropical Screech Owl and the enormous Great Horned Owl, whilst Little and Scissor-tailed Nightjars sit on the dust roads.
Mammal-wise we might expect to see Lesser Hairy Armadillo, Grey Brocket Deer, Crab-eating Fox, Crab-eating Raccoon and Geoffroy’s Cat, but luck is required to add Capybara and Coypu to the list. Herds of Collared and White-lipped Peccaries are not uncommonly encountered during the day.
Paraguay Day 4 Considered a fossil species until its discovery alive and well in Paraguay in 1976, the remarkable Chaco Peccary is the subject of a captive breeding programme run by San Francisco Zoo, known as Proyecto Tagua. We will pay a short visit to the programme premises to see all three peccary species and witness at first hand their quite different characters. The Chaco Peccary, though the largest species, is the shyest. Collared even verges on affectionate and the White-lipped is frankly terrifying during its aggressive displays!
However, our primary reason for visiting the Fortín Toledo area, where the project is based, is that it gives us another shot at Black-bodied Woodpecker if we missed it at Laguna Ganso.
Other species we could add in this area are Crane Hawk, Aplomado Falcon, Green-barred Woodpecker, Lowland Hepatic Tanager, the gem-like Blue-and-yellow Tanager, Ultramarine Grosbeak and Golden-winged Cacique.
We should also see the bizarre Chaco Mara, a strange-looking creature resembling a long-legged rabbit.
From Fortín Toledo, we will head north almost to the Bolivian border, avoiding the vast congregations of Red-crested Cardinals that insist on sitting in the middle of the road en route and keeping an eye out for Laughing Falcon and maybe even the endangered Chaco Eagle (or Crowned Solitary Eagle) perched on tree-tops along the way.
Our arrival at nightfall at Teniente Enciso National Park, where we will spend two nights, will be just in time for a mammal walk for anybody who wants to participate. Likely new mammals to add to our list include Azara’s Fox and Three-banded Armadillo. There is also a very real chance of Puma and Tapir here, and if the gods really are smiling at us we will even come across a Jaguar.
Paraguay: Day 5 An early start walking the trails at Teniente Enciso National Park will help us add new birds. Black-backed Grosbeak and Orange-backed Troupial are two of the most stunning species we will see this morning, though the loud chattering vocalizations of Suiriri Flycatcher and Brown Cacholote will also capture our attention. Rufous Casiornis, Crowned Slaty and Vermillion Flycatchers, Greater Wagtail-Tyrant, Cinereous Tyrant, Solitary Cacique and Variable Oriole are other potential additions to the list, and if we are seriously lucky the odd Black-crested Finch and White-tipped Plantcutter will still be hanging around and delaying their migration southwards.
We will make a special effort to seek out the secretive Stripe-backed Antbird in densely-vegetated areas, its wolf-whistling call betraying its presence.
Raptors, including Harris’s and White-tailed Hawks, are relatively common in this area, but, though we will undoubtedly hear it, more luck is required to see a Collared Forest Falcon. We could come across a King Vulture here or indeed in a number of other localities visited during the tour.
Hummingbirds include Blue-tufted Starthroat and Glittering-bellied Emerald, while the recently-described, restricted-range Straneck’s Tyrannulet has also been confirmed to occur here, though it is apparently more common in winter.
Our main avian target during darkness will be the glorious Chaco Owl, which is relatively common in this area.
Diurnal mammals that we may come across while walking the trails include the Chaco Cavy (a type of guinea-pig), Brazilian Cottontail and of course the Chaco Peccary.
In contrast to the dense, low forest of Teniente Enciso, the vegetation at Médanos del Chaco National Park is much more open and grassy. Whilst this means that it is somewhat hotter and dustier at Médanos, there are three very good reasons for putting up with the conditions – namely three of the ‘Chaco Big Six’; Quebracho Crested Tinamou, Spot-winged Falconet and Black-legged Seriema.
Other species that we should add today are Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, Blue-crowned Parakeet, the charismatic Crested Gallito and the boldly-marked Chaco Warbling Finch. The Chaco subspecies tucumanum of the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl (considered a separate species, Chaco Pygmy Owl, by some) is also easy enough to find here.
Returning back to Teniente Enciso shortly after dark gives us a great chance of seeing Plains Vizcachas emerging from their roadside burrows.
Paraguay: Day 6 After some final birding in the Teniente Enciso area, we will make our return along the Ruta Trans-Chaco to Loma Plata where we will overnight. We will likely spend the afternoon once again birding the productive Fortín Toledo area.
Paraguay: Day 7 Today we will return to Asunción for an overnight stay, birding the Ruta Trans-Chaco along the way to add any species we may have missed.
Paraguay: Day 8 Though our day will ultimately end in the cerrado belt of northeastern Paraguay, our first stop is at Arroyos-y-Esteros. A roadside wetland, there is one very good reason for spending some time here, and that is to see the rare and aptly-named Strange-tailed Tyrant, a restricted-range flycatcher of humid savanna. The species is frequently seen flitting across the road, perhaps dodging traffic and then perching high up in the tall grass to recover from the ordeal.
Other potential new birds include Azure Gallinule (with a little luck), Smooth-billed Ani, Guira Cuckoo, White-headed Marsh Tyrant, Long-tailed Reed, Saffron and Pampa Finches, Grassland Sparrow, Blue-black Grassquit and Yellow-rumped Marshbird.
Once the new species start to dry up we will continue to Laguna Blanca, where we will overnight at the country’s only true lake (as defined geologically) and so named because the crystal clear waters and sandy bed make it appear white from the air.
Laguna Blanca is a 2500ha private estate, home to a remarkable 14 species of global conservation concern. The cerrado birds are the big attraction here, including threatened, restricted-range species such as the shrike look-alike White-banded Tanager, the diminutive but striking Sharp-tailed Grass Tyrant, Black-masked Finch and the superb Cock-tailed Tyrant, known locally as ‘avioncitos’ for the aeroplane-like display flights of the males. Other birds of interest are two cerrado endemics; Black-throated Saltator and Curl-crested Jay.
In addition, we should find Red-winged, Tataupa and Undulated Tinamous, Scaly Dove, Peach-fronted and Yellow-chevroned Parakeets, Dark-billed Cuckoo, White-tailed Goldenthroat, Buff-bellied Puffbird, Little Woodpecker, Rusty-backed Antwren, White-rumped Monjita, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Masked Tityra, Pale-breasted Thrush, Flavescent Warbler, Blue Dacnis, White-rumped Tanager and possibly flocks of migrant seedeaters, which sometimes include Marsh and Chestnut amongst their number. This is one of several localities on the tour where Ash-throated Crake occurs.
However, the really big specialities here are two very restricted-range species that we see nowhere else; Lesser Nothura (this is the only known site for this rarely-seen bird outside of Brazil, but it is hard to find) and the truly spectacular and easy to find White-winged Nightjar. This is one of only three places on earth where the species is known to breed!
Nightbirding here is excellent, for as well as the glorious White-winged Nightjar, Common Potoo and Rufous Nightjar are likely additions, and if we are really in luck we will come across Long-tailed Potoo.
Paraguay: Day 9 After some final birding at Laguna Blanca, we will make our way northeast towards the border with Brazil, where we will stay for two nights at the bustling market town of Salto del Guairá.
En route, Picui and Ruddy Ground Doves, Burrowing Owl, Campo Flicker, Rufous Hornero, House Wren, Brown-chested Martin, Chalk-browed Mockingbird, Sayaca Tanager and Rufous-collared Sparrow should all be added, if we have not seen them already. This afternoon we will have our first chance to explore the Refugio Mbaracayu.
Paraguay: Day 10 We will spend the day in and around the Refugio Mbaracayu, a small binational reserve on the outskirts of Salto del Guairá. Despite being geographically far-removed it shows a distinct Pantanal influence in its avifauna. Localised specialities that occur here but nowhere else in Paraguay include Horned Screamer, Buff-breasted Wren and the tiny White-wedged Piculet. The Pantanal influence can be felt by the presence of species such as Silver-beaked Tanager, Common Tody-Flycatcher and the sought-after Grey-breasted Crake.
Other species we may well add to the list here include Undulated and Small-billed Tinamous, Rusty-margined Guan, Pied-billed Grebe, Plumbeous Kite, Squirrel Cuckoo, Black-throated and Surucua Trogons, Green-billed Toucan, Toco Toucan (the largest of all the toucans), Chestnut-eared Aracari, White-eyed Parakeet, Grey Elaenia, Eared Pygmy Tyrant, Social Flycatcher, Long-tailed Tyrant, Black-tailed and Black-crowned Tityras, the unusual Bare-throated Bellbird, Riverbank (or Riverside) and Golden-crowned Warblers, Saffron-billed Sparrow, Burnished-buff Tanager, Chestnut-vented Conebill, Red-rumped Cacique and Giant Cowbird, while the reclusive Highland Elaenia is occasionally seen at the forest edge.
This is by far the best site in Paraguay for the marvellous Helmeted Woodpecker, an Atlantic Forest speciality that is not easy in Brazil, while in the grassy habitats we can look for Ocellated Crake, Russet-crowned Crake and in particular the restricted-range Rufous-faced Crake.
Paraguay: Day 11 From Salto del Guairá we begin to head south towards the mega-biodiverse Atlantic Forest. We will spend the night at Cuidad del Este.
Our first stop-over is the Carapá Reserve which will give us an introduction to the unique avifauna that inhabits this endangered habitat. Toucans, trogons, tanagers and many more are possible here and amongst the Atlantic Forest endemics that we may well see here are the inquisitive Scale-throated Hermit and the lanky Slaty-breasted Wood Rail.
A quick afternoon stopover at Limoy Reserve should add the beautiful, restricted-range but endangered Vinaceous Amazon to our trip list as well as the opportunity to experience a raucous roost of White-eyed Parakeet that descend on the trees as darkness falls.
Paraguay: Day 12 In the morning we will pay a short visit to the Saltos del Monday waterfalls (pronounced Mon-da-oo) in order to see Great Dusky Swift. In the surrounding woodland of this pleasant municipal park, we will likely see Planalto Hermit and Hooded Tanager.
Afterwards, we will head for Estancia Nueva Gambach, a Swiss-owned working farm situated in the San Rafael Reserve. Here we will spend three nights enjoying the forest birding and the wonderful food and hospitality of owners Christine and Hans. The farm is situated on a scenic lake surrounded by tall forest allowing us access to a variety of habitats. We should arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Paraguay: Days 13-14 The more time we spend in the forest at San Rafael, the more species we are likely to add to our list, but we will be concentrating in particular on such restricted-range specialities as Robust Woodpecker, Southern Antpipit, Southern Bristle Tyrant, White-rimmed Warbler and the uncommon Creamy-bellied Gnatcatcher.
Other new species we might well see include Swallow-tailed Kite, Red-and-white Crake, Red-capped Parrot, Ruddy Quail-Dove, Scale-throated Hermit, Gilded Sapphire, Versicoloured Emerald, Yellow-fronted, White-spotted, Blond-crested and Lineated Woodpeckers, Ochre-collared Piculet, Olivaceous, Plain-winged, Planalto and Lesser and White-throated Woodcreepers, Rufous-capped and Grey-bellied Spinetails, Buff-browed, Ochre-breasted, Buff-fronted and White-eyed Foliage-gleaners, Variable, Spot-backed and Large-tailed Antshrikes, the impressive Tufted Antshrike, Plain Antvireo, Rufous-winged and Streak-capped Antwrens, Dusky-tailed Antbird, White-shouldered Fire-eye, Greenish Schiffornis, Yellow Tyrannulet, Drab-breasted Bamboo Tyrant, Ochre-faced Tody-Flycatcher White-throated Spadebill, Sepia-capped, Grey-hooded, Yellow-olive, Euler’s and Variegated Flycatchers, Sibilant Sirystes, Rufous Gnateater, White-necked Thrush, Tropical Parula, Purple-throated,, Violaceous and Chestnut-bellied Euphonias, Blue-naped Chlorophonia, Green-winged Saltator and a host of tanager species including Black-goggled, Ruby-crowned, Swallow, Magpie, Chestnut-headed and Guira Tanagers, and Red-crowned Ant Tanager.
We will likely hear Brown Tinamou, Variegated Antpitta and Short-tailed Antthrush, but a mixture of patience and luck will be required to see these retiring creatures.
Reddish-bellied Parakeet, the restricted-range Plush-crested Jay and Purplish Jay could well be new here, while Red-breasted Toucan, Chestnut-eared Aracari and Spot-billed Toucanet will be amongst the more colourful additions, along with Rufous-capped Motmot, White-eared Puffbird and Band-tailed and Swallow-tailed Manakins.
Also quite possible, but more difficult, are Solitary Tinamou, the lovely Grey-headed Kite, Rufous-thighed Kite, the lanky Slaty-breasted Wood Rail, Blackish Rail, Scaled Woodcreeper, Olive Spinetail, Black-capped Foliage-gleaner, White-bearded Manakin, Russet-winged Spadebill, Bay-ringed and São Paulo Tyrannulets, Rufous-crowned Greenlet and the skulking Blackish-blue Seedeater.
By the end of our time in the San Rafael forest, our list will be suitably fattened!
A night excursion will give us our first chance to see Azara’s Agouti, but owls will be our main target. Short-tailed Nighthawks forage around the clearing each evening and we should find Rusty-barred Owl. With a bit of luck, we will also see Black-banded and Tawny-browed Owls and, with a lot of good fortune, Long-tailed Potoo or Ocellated Poorwill.
We will also visit the nearby Kanguery grasslands, where our targets include the restricted-range Sharp-tailed Tyrant and the extraordinary Streamer-tailed Tyrant (the latter a speciality of South America’s south-south-central interior zone which frequently performs an astonishing synchronized wing-raising display), as well as the widespread Grass Wren.
Our prime target of the day is, however, the declining and endangered Saffron-cowled Blackbird. This stunning icterid is now critically endangered in its fairly restricted range due to a number of factors, not least an explosion in the numbers of parasitizing Shiny Cowbirds profiting from a change of cattle farming methods with the use of feedlots.
In the evening we shall look for the impressive and sought-after Giant Snipe, which has a slowly bounding display flight.
Paraguay: Day 15 After some final birding at San Rafael, we will be heading on to Ayolas in southern Paraguay where we will spend two nights and which will be our base for exploring the Mesopotamian grasslands.
Paraguay: Day 16 The highly-threatened ‘Mesopotamian grasslands’ (not to be confused with the better-known Mesopotamia in the Middle East!) are a seasonally-flooded habitat unique to southern Paraguay, northeast Argentina, extreme southeast Brazil and northern Uruguay.
It possesses an important avifauna of threatened specialities, such as the localized Bearded Tachuri and restricted-range Cock-tailed Tyrant and Black-masked Finch. Other possibilities include Short-crested Flycatcher and, with some luck, Pinnated Bittern or Bare-faced Curassow.
During southbound migration in October-November, rare seedeaters such as Chestnut, Dark-throated, Marsh and Pearly-bellied Seedeaters pass through the area, along with the commoner Capped Seedeater and the less frequent Rufous-rumped Seedeater.
Spotted Nothura, Large Elaenia, Wedge-tailed Grass Finch and the less common Lesser Grass Finch are also here, along with the threatened, restricted-range Ochre-breasted Pipit (South America’s rarest and most poorly-known species of Anthus).
The highlight of our nightbirding here will be the extraordinary, indeed bizarre Sickle-winged Nightjar, which in this area, along the Paraná River, facing Argentina, is quite straightforward to find. We will be in pole position at dusk to find the area’s mega-speciality. This area holds one of the highest densities of the species and we should obtain point-blank views of this remarkable bird, the male of which lacks secondaries, thus forming an outrageous wing shape in flight.
Paraguay: Day 17 Today we will return to Asunción airport where our Paraguay birding tour ends this afternoon.