Our tour visits the last remaining stronghold of the incredibly rare White-winged Nightjar. Photo: Stuart Elsom
Paraguay is a land-locked country in the centre of South America, sandwiched between three giants: Argentina to the south, Brazil to the east and Bolivia to the north. Its borders are more or less traced by a series of major rivers. The fast-flowing Paraná marks the south and east, the sluggish, weed-choked Pilcomayo defines the southern Chaco, and the Paraguay, the country’s main artery of commerce, bisects the country. Paraguay can be split geographically into two distinct biological zones - the arid Chaco in the west and the humid, forested Orient in the east.
It is becoming increasingly clear that Paraguay, with its abundance of rivers and esteros, is an internationally important site for migrant waterbirds (including Northern Hemisphere species migrating to their Southern Hemisphere wintering grounds) that were previously thought to be strictly coastal.
Our tour explores all the country’s major habitats, and will concentrate on finding such range-restricted species such as Chaco Owl, Strange-tailed and Cock-tailed Tyrants, Saffron-cowled Blackbird, Collared Crescentchest, Ocellated Crake, Ochre-breasted Pipit, Black-bodied and Helmeted Woodpeckers, and the rare and endangered White-winged Nightjar. We’ll also search for species endemic to the Atlantic Rainforest such as Saffron Toucanet, Bare-throated Bellbird, Red-breasted Toucan, and Blond-crested Woodpecker, along with numerous tanagers, woodcreepers and antbirds.
With over 700 species so far recorded, Paraguay has been overlooked by birders for decades and is one of the least watched countries in South America, so there is great potential for new discoveries.
Day 1: The tour begins this morning in Asunción from where we begin our journey across the chaco to Laguna Capitán. We’re likely to notch up a surprisingly long list of spectacular species at the roadside pools of the Trans-Chaco Highway, not least among them Jabiru, Maguari and Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbill, Plumbeous and Buff-breasted Ibis, Limpkin, Cocoi Heron, and Black-collared Hawk.
In areas with more grass Whistling Heron, Savannah Hawk, Long-winged Harrier, Yellow-headed Caracara, Chotoy Spinetail, and Screaming and Shiny Cowbirds are all likely, while in the true palm savanna Southern Screamer, Giant Wood Rail and Blue-crowned and Nanday Parakeets are common. Along the way we’ll stop at reedbeds for Donacobius, Olivaceous Pampa-Finch (a potential split), Unicoloured and Scarlet-headed Blackbirds and, with luck, Rufous-sided Crake and some of the smaller bitterns. Night at Laguna Capitán.
Day 2: We’ll explore Cuenca Upper Yacaré Sur, a region of dry chaco and salt lagoons. Birding in the chaco is not always easy but the rewards are great. Though our accommodation is basic, the birding is like nowhere else on earth. Our main aim will be to see the 18 Chaco endemics. Many of them such as Chaco Nothura, Brushland Tinamou, Crested Hornero, Many-colored Brush-Finch and Black-capped Warbling-Finch are easier to find, while others, such as Chaco Eagle, need a little luck. The real prizes are the ‘Chaco Big Six’: Quebracho Crested Tinamou, Spot-winged Falconet, Black-legged Seriema, Black-bodied Woodpecker, Chaco Owl, and Crested Gallito.
On the saltwater lagoons we might see the last of the winter flocks of Coscoroba Swan, Chilean Flamingo and ducks such as Brazilian and Ringed Teal, White-cheeked Pintail, three whistling-ducks and maybe Rosybill. The surrounding habitat can hold Cream-backed Woodpecker, Scimitar-billed and Great Rufous Woodcreepers and Chaco Earthcreeper.
Chaqueño forest is a stunted, xerophytic and often thorny affair, but is home to a number of highly specialised species such as Chaco Chachalaca, Chequered and White-fronted Woodpeckers, Greater Wagtail-Tyrant, Solitary Cacique, Orange-backed Troupial, Short-billed Canastero, Stripe-backed Antbird and Cinereous Tyrant. Only two nightjar species commonly occur in the Chaco - Scissor-tailed and Little - and we hope to see both.
Mammals are bolder and more visible in the Chaco than anywhere else in Paraguay and night drives may produce anything from armadillos and the rabbit-like Chaco Mara, to Crab-eating Raccoons and White-lipped Peccary. There is also the chance of a Lowland Tapir, or a Puma, which are more abundant here than in much of South America. Night at Laguna Capitán.
Days 3-4: We’ll depart this morning for Teniente Agripino Enciso National Park, passing Fortín Toledo along the way. Located in the highest of the High Chaco this area is conserved mainly for its healthy population of Chaco Peccary. It is a great place for Chaco specialities that are not so common elsewhere. We might expect Zone-tailed, Bay-winged, and Rufous-thighed Hawks, Stripe-crowned Spinetail, Black-crested Finch (more common in winter but some may be lingering) and maybe Ringed Warbling-Finch, Little Thornbird, and Short-billed Canastero. Other special birds here include Quebracho Crested-Tinamou and Chaco Owl. Three-banded Armadillo and Pampas Fox are possibilities. The park is also of historical significance, conserving some of the trenches and barracks of the Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia (1932-35).
Almost on the Bolivian border, the nearby Médanos del Chaco National Park conserves the last wild herd of the endangered lowland race of the Guanaco. It is more open than Teniente Agripino Enciso National Park and shares many of the same birds, but here we can find an important Chaco endemic that is not present at Enciso – the Spot-winged Falconet. It is also an excellent place to see Puma, Plains Viscacha and Chaco Yellow-toothed Cavy. Nights at Teniente Agripino Enciso National Park.
Day 5: We’ll proceed back along the Trans-Chaco highway with stops at Proyecto Tagua in Fortin Toledo. We’ll visit a captive breeding programme for the threatened Chaco Peccary (Tagua) supported by San Diego Zoo. The project has already released over 250 captive-bred individuals and we’ll be able to see all three peccary species, giving us the opportunity to note differences that are not always that obvious in wild animals. There is also a healthy wild population of the rabbit-like Chaco Mara in this area, and the small weed-choked lakes are a magnet for birds including the rare Black-bodied Woodpecker and the elusive Chaco subspecies of Olive-crowned Crescentchest (another likely future split). Night in a comfortable hotel in Loma Plata Mennonite Colony.
Day 6: After some early morning birding we’ll spend most of the day driving back to Asunción where we’ll spend the night.
Day 7: Leaving Asunción for Laguna Blanca we’ll make a brief stop at Arroyos y Esteros to look for Strange-tailed Tyrant along with the newly described Iberá Seedeater. Other species of interest here include Lesser Grassfinch, Bearded Tachuri, Crested Doradito and Long-tailed Reedfinch. We’ll continue on to Laguna Blanca where we’ll look for a series of cerrado birds including White-banded Tanager, Sharp-tailed tyrant, Black-masked Finch and Cock-tailed Tyrant. Other birds of interest are Red-winged Tinamou, White-rumped Monjita, White-rumped Tanager (at its only known site in Paraguay), Plumbeous and Chestnut Seedeater, as well as cerrado endemics such as Black-throated Saltator and Curl-crested Jay.
However, the real star here is the endangered White-winged Nightjar at one of only three locations in the world where it is regularly recorded. Night birding generally is productive and Grey Potoo, Rufous, Little and Scissor-tailed Nightjars are all possibilities in addition to the sought-after White-winged Nightjar, while Tropical Screech-Owl and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl are amongst the frequently recorded owl species. After our evening of birding we’ll head back to the hotel for a late barbecue dinner. Night at Laguna Blanca.
Day 8: We’ll travel to the Mbaracayú Biosphere Reserve, a model private reserve in Paraguay with 70,000 hectares of pristine Atlantic Forest and cerrado. We’ve allowed plenty of time to explore this fabulous reserve, named by the World Wildlife Fund as one of the 100 most important sites for conservation on earth. Night at Mbaracayú Lodge Hotel.
Days 9-10: Over 400 species of birds have been at Mbaracayú Reseve, including the vast majority of the Atlantic Forest endemics. The endangered Black-fronted Piping-guan, Bare-throated Bellbird, Black-capped Screech Owl, Saffron and Spot-billed Toucanets and Helmeted Woodpecker are all possible, and other species of interest that are frequently recorded include Solitary Tinamou, Red-breasted Toucan, Chestnut-eared Aracari, Surucua Trogon, Blond-crested and Yellow-fronted Woodpecker, various woodcreepers and tanagers, Streak-capped Antwren, Red-rumped Cacique, Rufous-capped Motmot. The list could easily become very long! In the cerrado, we’ll search for specialities such as Rufous-winged Antshrike and Collared Crescentchest. Other garget birds will be several of the big owls such as Black-banded and Mottled. Nights at Mbaracayú Lodge Hotel.
Day 11: This is essentially a travelling day as we move from Mbaracayú to San Rafael. It’s a long journey with few stops, and we should arrive in San Rafael in the early evening. Night at San Rafael.
Days 12-14: In San Rafael National Park we’ll be looking for birds in the Atlantic Forest and Mesopotamian Grasslands. San Rafael is the most biodiverse reserve in the country but our time here is quite limited so we’ll want to spend it wisely. We’ll be up at dawn for a forest walk with some very special birds in mind, specifically some of the more sought-after and threatened passerines of the Atlantic Forest. These include Blackish-blue Seedeater, Creamy-bellied Gnatcatcher and Southern Bristle-Tyrant. After an early lunch we’ll travel to the Kanguery grasslands where more great species await – Russet-winged Spadebill and Saffron-cowled Blackbird are two of these, and once the sun has gone down, Giant Snipe and (with luck) Sickle-winged Nightjar will be on the agenda. Our accommodation is provided by the conservation NGO Pro Cosara (so we’ll be doing our bit to assist with the conservation of the park). Our hosts, the Hostettler family, are renowned for their hospitality and delicious, hearty, home-cooked meals. Nights at San Rafael National Park.
Day 15: We’ll depart early for the rice fields of Isla Alta to look for Bearded Tachuri, various seedeaters and, if the rice fields are at the right height, Pinnated Bittern. We’ll then drive for couple of hours to Ayolas, stopping at roadside marshes along the way to see what birds they hold, and arriving in the town for a late lunch. After a rest in our hotel we’ll venture into the grasslands to search for the threatened Ochre-breasted Pipit and, as darkness falls, we’ll hope to get close-views of the stunningly bizarre Sickle-winged Nightjar. Night in Ayolas.
Day 16: There will be a pre-dawn excursion to the gallery forests of Yacyretá Island where we’ll hope to see the shy Bare-faced Curassow and the secretive Pheasant Cuckoo as well as other forest birds, some of which will be new for the tour. We’ll return to the hotel for a late breakfast before driving back to Asunción. Night in Asunción.
Day 17: We’ll visit the humid chaco region in the morning before transferring to the airport in the afternoon where the tour ends.
Updated: 01 July 2019