Birding Tours and Nature Photography in Southern South America

Argentina and Chile birding trip 2012

Buenos Aires, Iguazu and Patagonia, Agentina

In October, 2012, my husband and I spent three weeks doing a grand birding tour of Argentina with Horacio Matarasso of Aves Patagonia that covered some of the best birding areas of the country. We started out in Buenos Aires’ Costanera Sur Park where we had a good number of species despite it being Saturday and well populated with city dwellers enjoying a lovely spring day. Speckled Teal, Nanday Parakeet, Glittering-bellied Emerald, Black-and-rufous Warbling-Finch and Gilded Emerald were some of the highlights. We were also treated to a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl that brought all the expected interest from other birds. From Buenos Aries we head north through the state of Entre Rios which as one might expect had some special birding habitats in the delta which are populated with good numbers of species and individuals. Ceibas was exceptional with striking birds such as Roseate Spoonbill and Maguari Stork but also a good selection of ducks: Speckled Teal, Ringed Teal and Rosy-billed Pochard in particular. Special treats were White Woodpecker, Curve-billed Reed-haunter, four species of Spinetail, two species of Thornbird and Lark-like Brushrunner. Flycatchers were also well represented. We spent a day visiting the unique palm-tree expanse called Palmar National Park where we were delighted by the Plush-crested Jay, White-barred Piculet, Green-winged Saltator, Spotted and Red-winged Tinamous and Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrant. An evening excursion (before a rain deluge!) served up Scissor-tailed Nightjar and the strange but appealing Vizcacha, a nocturnal burrowing mammal. Our base of operations was in the old town of Liebig (Scimitar-billed Woodcreeper on the way in), where we stayed in a beautifully restored house and were visited by a Nacunda nightjar in the evening as we did our daily list. It was our first exposure to the Argentinean national obsession with the herbal drink, Mate, which we found not to our liking but we were the definite minority. Thermoses of hot water and hot water dispensers just about everywhere proved that! Next day we were off to Mercedes where we picked up a Crowned Slaty-Flycatcher, Ultramarine Grosbeak, Golden-winged Cacique, Stripe-crowned Spinetail and Greater Thornbird which we celebrated finding with alfajores, another national obsession. This dulce de leche confection was an obsession we could appreciate and adopt!

Our next destination was the still remote area of Ibera and it’s extensive wetlands. A Strange-tailed Tyrant and many marsh-birds greeted us on the road to the small town and an afternoon boat ride provided great drama as we watched a very large caiman wrestle with an equally large anaconda. As usual in this type of habitat Snail Kites and two species of Harrier did their flybys while a juvenile Great Black-Hawk remained undisturbed by our approach. Later we had Blue-crowned Parakeets and the star of the Hummingbird Tree on the lodge grounds: the Blue-tufted Starthroat. Our second afternoon was a special treat as we had lunch with a Guarani family on their estancia, everything having come from their own fields and gardens. We were greeted on our arrival at the ranch road by a pair of Yellow Cardinals who seemed to take umbrage at the intrusion of our vehicle and so “attacked” it. For about twenty minutes we stood watching with delight at the improbable contest.

Leaving Ibera and after a long day in the car we arrived at Iguazu National Park. Everything you’ve heard about this spectacular place is true. It’s an experience not to be missed, and includes the bonus of watching the Great Dusky Swifts dart in and out of the falling water. There are several trails nearby (some in the park) that provide productive birding as well. As so often happens we heard a Spotted Rail calling but didn’t see it at first even though it was very close. Then all of sudden it appeared and we got very good looks at it. Not so difficult to spot was the Toco Toucan raiding the nests of Red-rumped Caciques. Being a rain forest there were the usual suspects including lots of flycatchers, a few tanagers, swallows, antbirds (including Spot-backed Antshrike), Surcurua Trogan, and Rufous Motmot. Even the hotel provided a three interesting species: Pauraque, Tropical Screech-Owl and Thrush-like Wren.

An accident on the only road between our hotel and the airport caused us a few jitters but we finally made it to Buenos Aires and on to our next and totally different area, Patagonia. Patagonia covers a large area in Southern Argentina and Chile although the eastern (Argentinean side) is much drier and the steppes there provide habitat for a completely different set of birds than we’d been seeing. Our base for several days was the warm and welcoming town of San Martin de los Andes (with its iconic Black-faced Ibis), a vacation spot for people from all over South America and beyond, offering skiing in the winter and relief from the heat in the summer. Our bed-and-breakfast, Casona Delalto was wonderfully situated with fantastic views and real luxury. The mix of mountains and steppes made it a perfect birding location. The highlight has to have been the bird everyone asks about: the Magellanic Woodpecker. He certainly didn’t disappoint! Responding to Horacio’s imitation drumming he swooped in to look for his intruder. Magnificent bird. Other exciting finds included Des Mur’s Wiretail and Thorn-tailed Rayadito. On our way to the steppes in a transition area we found Coroscoba, Black-necked Swan, and Austral Canastero. In the steppes we found Patagonian Mockingbird, Sharp-billed, Short-billed and Cordilleran Canasteros. Add to that Common Miner, Patagonian and Straight-billed Earthcreepers, and Bar-winged Cinlcodes, as well as Dark-faced and White-browed Ground-Tyrants and Hellmyr’s and Correndera Pipits and a Lesser Seed-Snipe foraging next to our car. A special treat was a group of surprisingly wary guanacos grazing in the sparse vegetation. Waiting for us back in town were Burrowing Parrots which we saw again the following day at their burrows. This area was the only place on the trip where we saw Lesser Rheas, a bird definitely on my wish list. One of my favorites though was the petit Austral Negrito a common sight all the days we were in Argentinean Patagonia.

Now it was time to see the “other” Patagonia and so we headed across the Andes, (catching sight of Austral Parakeets and Chilean Pigeons at our stop for Mapuche fry bread) to the Chilean coast at Maicolpue, a small and appealing town on a bay surrounded by hills. Our first sightings right in town were the Green-backed Firecrown and busily feeding on the hotel’s grass, Patagonian Sierra-finches and Black-chinned Siskins with the noisy Dark-bellied Cinclodes always nearby. We headed out to look for other coastal birds and found a grand slam of cormorants which included Neotropic, Magellanic, Imperial and Red-legged. And who wouldn’t be excited to see Humboldt and Magellanic Penguins? As matter of fact we were able to approach the latter on foot after a short boat ride to a nearby nesting island where we watched them watching us! After only two nights we were headed back east (stopping to see Slender-billed Parakeets on the way) with two nights in Puyehue National Park on the side of a volcano. In 2011 one of the volcanoes in the area erupted spewing ash over hundreds of kilometers but here in the mountains the amount of ash was most amazing. At the time of the eruption it had to be plowed like snow and remains in large mounds beside the roads. One of the benefits of all this volcanic activity in the abundance of thermal hot springs one of which we enjoyed at our lodging. Driving part way and climbing part way we reached the top of Casa Blanca Volcano, seeing the beautiful Bridled Finch along the way. The view of the chain of volcanoes was stunning to say the least. On the hotel grounds and nearby woods we could see Chuchao Tapaculo and the tiny Magellanic Tapaculo and listen to the noisy and varied calls of the Austral Blackbird. Also of note were Ochre-flanked Tapaculo, Huet-Huet and White-throated Treerunner.

Back across the border we ended the birding part of our trip in attractive and vibrant Bariloche, the largest town in Patagonia, before flying to Buenos Aires and home. While there, after a concerted effort, we finally found the Flying Steamer Duck and Wren-like Rushbird. Better looks at the Tufted Tit-Tyrant and Slender-billed Parakeets were unexpected bonuses. We ended up with over 350 species for the trip.

Many thanks to our excellent guide in the North, Diego, who found many birds hidden in the forest and drove like a madman to get us to the Iguazu airport; to Augusto who made our outings in San Martin so much fun; and to Eugenia whose driving and companionship on the trip to Chile were especially appreciated. The biggest thanks go to Horacio Matarasso whose knowledge, expertise, organizational skills, and calmness during unexpected bumps made the trip one of the best birding excursions we’ve ever had.

Carole Jones
Altadena, California, USA

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