PARAGUAY BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Paraguay: Day 1 Our tour begins this morning at Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, where we will stay overnight.
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.
Our trip is timed to coincide with the southbound migration of Nearctic waders 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, Neotropic Cormorants and, with some good fortune, duck species such as Silver Teal and Rosy-billed Pochard (or Rosybill). 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 Kite, White-tailed Kite, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Southern Crested-Caracara and maybe even Osprey. Scrubby areas are the place to look for Red-crested Finch 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 myriad 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 possibilities are to be found in reedbeds, amongst them Wattled Jacana, South American Snipe, Greater Thornbird (their hanging stick nests are unmissable!), Crested and Warbling Doraditos, Unicoloured and Chestnut-capped Blackbirds and, with some luck, South American Painted-Snipe and Grey-breasted Crake. On smaller ponds, Brazilian Duck, Ringed Teal and Solitary Sandpiper are likely, 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 making frequent stops at roadside marshes and pools for some spectacular birding.
Typical members of mixed waterbird flocks include Snowy and Great Egrets, Cocoi, Striated and Whistling Herons, Bare-faced, Plumbeous, White-faced and Buff-necked Ibises, Roseate Spoonbill, and Maguari and Wood Storks. Undoubtedly the most eye-catching inhabitant of this region, however, is the impressively massive Jabiru. Great Black-Hawk, and Savanna, Black-collared and Roadside Hawks are numerous and almost every lamp 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, Scarlet-headed Blackbird and, if we are lucky, the near-threatened 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 White-faced Whistling-Ducks and Rufous-collared Seedeaters around, as well as larger numbers of 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 possibilities.
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 our first full day exploring the unpredictable series of saline lagoons that make up the IBA (Important Bird Area) ‘Cuenca del Upper Yacaré Sur’. Our first stop will be Laguna Capitán, officially a Mennonite resort, but also a great place to start ticking off the Chaco endemics such as Chaco Chachalaca, Crested Hornero and the handsome Many-coloured Chaco-Finch. The thorn scrub here is packed with birds and we might expect to add White-barred Piculet, Pearly-vented Tody-tyrant, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, Southern Scrub-Flycatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher 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 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 three species are probable – Brushland Tinamou, White-bellied Nothura and Paraguay’s only endemic, the Chaco 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 takes a little more effort. A trip to Laguna Ganso will give us our first stab at the rare but spectacular Black-bodied Woodpecker.
Campo Maria Private Reserve contains the largest of the Central Chaco lagoons. The wetland at the entrance usually holds Southern Screamer and Picazuro Pigeon amongst flocks of other waterbirds. Though 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, Ringed Teal, White-cheeked Pintail and Rosy-billed Pochard are amongst the waterborne highlights, along with large numbers of waders. 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 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 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 be visiting 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 shiest. Collared even verges on affectionate and the White-lipped is frankly terrifying during its aggressive displays!
These interesting mammals, however, are not the only reason for visiting the area. The Fortín Toledo area where the project is based gives us another shot at Black-bodied Woodpecker if we missed it at Laguna Ganso. Other interesting species we could add in this area are 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 American Crowned 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 short mammal walk for anybody who feels up to it. 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 attentions. Rufous Casiornis, Crowned Slaty-Flycatcher, Vermillion Flycatcher, Greater Wagtail-Tyrant, Cinereous Tyrant, Solitary Cacique and Variable Oriole (split from Epaulet) are other potential additions to the list, and if we are seriously lucky the odd Black-crested Finch and White-tipped Plantcutter may still be hanging around and delaying their migration. 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 such as Zone-tailed Hawk and Harris’s Hawk are relatively common in this area, but, though we will undoubtedly hear it, more luck is required to see a Collared Forest-Falcon. Hummingbirds include Blue-tufted Starthroat and Glittering-bellied Emerald, and the recently described Straneck’s Tyrannulet has also been confirmed to occur here, though it is apparently more common in winter. 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. Our main avian target during our night drive will be the glorious Chaco Owl, which is relatively common in this area.
In contrast to the dense, low forest of 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 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 at Enciso we will make our return along the Ruta Trans-Chaco where 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 an hour or so here, and that is to see the rare and aptly-named Strange-tailed Tyrant. The species is frequently seen flitting across the road dodging traffic, and then perching up on tall grass to recover from the ordeal. Other potential new birds include Turkey and Black Vultures, Azure Gallinule (with a little luck), Smooth-billed Ani, Guira Cuckoo, Long-tailed Reed-Finch, Saffron Finch, Blue-black Grassquit, Great Pampa-Finch 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 species such as the shrike look-alike White-banded Tanager, the diminutive 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, as well as Red-winged, Tataupa, Small-billed and Undulated Tinamous, Scaly Dove, Peach-fronted and Yellow-chevroned Parakeets, Dark-billed Cuckoo, White-tailed Goldenthroat, Little Woodpecker, Rusty-backed Antwren, White-rumped Monjita, Blue Dacnis, White-rumped Tanager and flocks of migrant seedeaters, which sometimes include Marsh and Chestnut amongst their number. However, the two really big specialities here are Lesser Nothura (this is the only known site for this rarely-seen bird outside of Brazil) and White-winged Nightjar (one of only three places on earth where the species is known to breed, and we will be visiting two of them!). Nightbirding is spectacular, for as well as the glorious White-winged Nightjar, Grey Potoo and Rufous Nightjar are likely additions, and if our luck holds we may even add Long-tailed Potoo.
Paraguay: Day 9 This morning we will turn our attention towards the small patch of degraded humid forest on the estate to start finding some Atlantic Forest species before we travel to better habitat. Amazingly the rare Helmeted Woodpecker occurs here and this will be our first chance to see this mega-species, along with Black-throated Trogon, Buff-bellied Puffbird, Masked Tityra, Flavescent Warbler and a host of others.
From 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 de Guairá. En route, Picui and Ruddy Ground-Doves, Burrowing Owl, Campo Flicker, Rufous Hornero, Social Flycatcher, Southern 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 much of day at the Refugio Mbaracayu, a small binational reserve on the outskirts of Salto de 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 Buff-breasted Wren, Horned Screamer 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 Grey-breasted Crake. Other attractive species we may add to the list here include Saffron-billed Sparrow and Burnished-Buff Tanager, while the reclusive Highland Elaenia is occasionally seen at the forest edge. This is by far the best site for the marvellous Helmeted Woodpecker, while in the grassy habitats we can look for Ocellated and Rufous-faced Crakes.
Paraguay: Day 11 From Salto de Guairá we begin to head south towards the mega-biodiverse Atlantic Forest. 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 see here are the tiny Eared Pygmy-tyrant, the inquisitive Scale-throated Hermit and the lanky Slaty-breasted Wood-rail. A quick afternoon stopover at Limoy Reserve should add the beautiful 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 visit the Salto de 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, Greenish Elaenia, Boat-billed and Variegated Flycatchers, Hooded Tanager and Golden-crowned Warbler. In the afternoon we will arrive at the lovely Hotel Tirol whose forested grounds are home to a diverse collection of Atlantic forest birds. Some of the species we will likely see here include Squirrel Cuckoo, Versicoloured Emerald, Chestnut-eared Aracari, White-eyed Foliage-gleaner, Planalto and Lesser Woodcreepers, White-shouldered Fire-eye, Short-tailed Antthrush, Yellow Tyrannulet, Southern Antpipit, Short-crested, Yellow-olive and Euler’s Flycatchers, Black-crowned Tityra, White-winged Becard, Rufous-crowned Greenlet, Chestnut-headed and Swallow Tanagers, Blue Dacnis, Red-crowned Ant-tanager, the skulking Blackish-blue Seedeater and Violaceous Euphonia. The hotel’s restaurant overlooks an active colony of Red-rumped Caciques whose antics will no doubt keep us entertained.
Paraguay: Day 13 We will enjoy a final morning of birding at Hotel Tirol, departing after lunch for the 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.
Paraguay: Days 14-15 The more time we spend in the forest at San Rafael, the more species we are likely to add to our list, but we might expect to see Red-capped Parrot, Ruddy Quail-Dove, Scale-throated Hermit, Blond-crested, Robust, Yellow-fronted and White-spotted Woodpeckers, Ochre-collared Piculet, White-throated Woodcreeper, Rufous-capped and Grey-bellied Spinetails, Ochre-breasted and Black-capped Foliage-gleaners, Variable, Large-tailed and Tufted Antshrikes, Plain Antvireo, Rufous-winged and Streak-capped Antwrens, Greenish Schiffornis, Grey-hooded and Yellow-olive Flycatchers, Eastern Sirystes, Rufous Gnateater, Black-tailed Tityra, White-rimmed and Riverbank Warblers, Tropical Parula, Purple-throated and Chestnut-bellied Euphonias, and a host of tanager species including Black-goggled, Ruby-crowned, Magpie and Guira Tanagers. Scaled Woodcreeper, Olive Spinetail, White-bearded Manakin, Russet-winged Spadebill, Bay-ringed and São Paulo Tyrannulets, and Blackish-blue Seedeater are all possible but more difficult.
We will undoubtedly hear Solitary Tinamou, Variegated Antpitta and Short-tailed Antthrush, but a mixture of patience and luck will be required to see them. White-eyed and Reddish-bellied Parakeets and Plush-crested and Purplish Jays could also be new. Red-breasted Toucan, Chestnut-bellied Aracari and Spot-billed Toucanet will be amongst the more colourful additions, along with Surucua Trogon, Rufous-capped Motmot, White-eared Puffbird and Band-tailed and Swallow-tailed Manakins. By the end of our two days in the forest our list will be suitably fattened!
A night drive will give us the 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 have good luck in seeing Black-banded and Rusty-barred Owls. With a bit of luck we might see Tawny-browed Owl, Long-tailed Potoo and Ocellated Poorwill. We will also visit the nearby Kanguery grasslands where some of our targets include Sharp-tailed Tyrant, Streamer-tailed Tyrant, Grass Wren, and in the evening we shall hope to see Giant Snipe in its slowly bounding display flight.
Paraguay: Day 16 After some final birding at Estancia Nueva Gambach 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 17 The highly threatened Mesopotamian grassland (not to be confused with the better-known Mesopotamia in the Middle East!) is a seasonally-flooded habitat unique to southern Paraguay, northern Argentina and extreme southern Brazil and northern Uruguay. It possesses an important avifauna of threatened birds such as Bearded Tachuri, Cock-tailed Tyrant and Black-masked Finch. Other possibilities include Cinereous Harrier, Saffron-cowled Blackbird and, with some luck, Pinnated Bittern. During southbound migration, rare seedeaters such as Chestnut, Dark-throated and Marsh Seedeaters pass through the area, along with the commoner Capped Seedeater and the less frequent Rufous-rumped and Entre Rios Seedeaters. Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch and the rarer Lesser Grass-Finch are here, along with the threatened Ochre-breasted Pipit (a species that is only occasionally encountered). The highlight of our night-birding here will be the interesting Sickle-winged Nightjar, which in this area is quite straightforward to find and much more reliable than other sites further north.
Paraguay: Day 18 Today we will return to Asunción airport where our tour ends this afternoon.