With Stuart Elsom as leader. Paraguay, located almost in the dead centre of South America, is a land-locked country sandwiched between three giants of the continent; 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 raging, 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 quite distinct zones; the dry, arid Chaco and the humid, forested Orient.
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 wintering grounds) that were previously thought to be strictly coastal.
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 the potential for new discoveries is vast. Our tour explores all of the country’s major habitats, and will concentrate on finding such range-restricted star species such as Chaco Owl, Bare-throated Bellbird, 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, Red-breasted Toucan and Blond-crested Woodpecker, along with numerous tanagers, woodcreepers and antbirds.
Day 1: The tour begins with a flight from London to Asunción.
Day 2: After arrival we’ll begin our journey across the Chaco to Laguna Capitán. We´re likely to notch up a surprisingly large list of some spectacular species at the roadside pools of the Trans-Chaco Highway, not least among them Jabiru, Maguari and American Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill, Black-collared Hawk, Plumbeous and Buff-breasted Ibis, and Limpkin and Cocoi Heron.
In areas with more grass, Chotoy Spinetail, Whistling Heron, Screaming and Shiny Cowbird, Savannah Hawk, Long-winged Harrier and Yellow-headed Caracara are all likely, while in the true palm savanna Southern Screamer, Giant Wood Rail and Blue-crowned and Nanday Parakeets are abundant. We´ll be stopping at reedbeds along the way, where we should find Donacobius, Olivaceous Pampa-finch (a potential split), Unicolored and Scarlet-headed Blackbirds and, with luck, Rufous-sided Crakes and some of the smaller bitterns. Night at Laguna Capitán.
Days 3-4: We spend these two days exploring Cuenca Upper Yacaré Sur, a rich region of dry Chaco and salt lagoons. Birding in the Chaco is not always a walk in the park, but the rewards are great. Our accommodation is basic, the luxuries are few, but the birding is like nowhere else on earth. Our main aim will be to see the 18 Chaco endemics. Many of them, such as Black-capped Warbling-finch, Chaco Nothura, Brushland Tinamou, Many-coloured Brush-finch and Crested Hornero, are easy to see. Others such as Chaco Eagle, need a little luck. The real prizes are the Chaco Big Six - Black-legged Seriema, Black-bodied Woodpecker, Chaco Owl, Crested Gallito, Spot-winged Falconet and Quebracho-crested Tinamou.
On the saltwater lagoons we might see the last of the winter flocks of Coscoroba Swan, Chilean Flamingo, and waders and ducks such as Brazilian and Ringed Teal, White-cheeked Pintail, three whistling-ducks and, maybe, Rosybill. The surrounding habitat can hold Scimitar-billed Woodcreeper, Great Rufous Woodcreeper, Chaco Earthcreeper and Cream-backed Woodpecker.
Chaqueño forest is a stunted, xerophytic and often thorny affair, but it’s home to a number of highly specialised species, such as Chequered and White-fronted Woodpecker, Greater Wagtail-tyrant, Solitary Cacique, Orange-backed Troupial, Short-billed Canastero, Chaco Chachalaca, Stripe-backed Antbird and Cinereous Tyrant. Only two nightjar species commonly occur in the Chaco – Scissor-tailed and Little – and we would expect to see both. Owls, though harder to see, occur in greater diversity with Great Horned, Tropical Screech and Ferruginous Pygmy Owls all possible.
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 is more abundant here than in much of South America. Nights at Laguna Capitán.
Day 5: We 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 Stripe-crowned Spinetail, Black-crested Finch (more common in winter but some may be lingering) and maybe Ringed Warbling-finch, Little Thornbird, Short-billed Canastero, Zone-tailed Hawk, Bay-winged Hawk, and Rufous-thighed Hawk. Other sought-after birds here include Quebracho Crested-Tinamou and Chaco Owl. Three-banded Armadillo and Azara’s Fox are both particularly abundant, and Jaguar is also present, although we’ll need to get up early to have a chance of seeing one. The park is also of historical significance, conserving some of the trenches and barracks of the Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia (1932-5).
Almost on the Bolivian border, the Médanos del Chaco is a National Park that conserves the last wild herd of the endangered lowland race of the Guanaco. It is more open than Park Nacional Tte Agripino Enciso, and shares many of the same birds, but it is where 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 the Chaco Yellow-toothed Cavy. Night at Enciso National Park.
Day 6: Today we proceed back along the Trans-Chaco highway, birding en route with stops at Proyecto Tagua in Fortin Toledo. This is a captive breeding programme for the threatened Chaco Peccary (Tagua), supported by San Diego Zoo, and it is a good chance to see this beast up close. The project has already released over 250 captive-bred individuals and they have examples of all three peccary species. This gives us the opportunity to see differences between the species that are not always that obvious in wild animals, and the very different temperaments of the species makes this a fascinating trip. There is also a healthy wild population of the rabbit-like Chaco Mara in this area, and small weed-choked lakes are a magnet for birds, including the rare Black-bodied Woodpecker and the elusive Chaco subspecies of the Olive-crowned Crescentchest (another likely future split). Night in a comfortable hotel in Loma Plata Mennonite Colony.
Days 7-8: Leaving Loma Plata we travel through the Humid Chaco to Laguna Blanca for a two night stay. Fourteen species of global conservation concern occur here in just 2500 hectares. The Cerrado birds are the big attraction, and include threatened species such as White-banded Tanager, Sharp-tailed Grass-tyrant, Black-masked Finch and Cock-tailed Tyrant. Other birds of interest are White-rumped Tanager (the only known site in Paraguay), Plumbeous Seedeater, Black-throated Saltator and Curl-crested Jay – both Cerrado endemics – as well as Rusty-backed Antwren, Red-winged, Tataupa, Small-billed and Undulated Tinamou, White-rumped Monjita, Rufous Casiornis, various Myiarchus flycatchers, Peach-fronted Parakeet and flocks of migrant seedeaters, which at certain times of year include threatened Chestnut, Marsh and Dark-throated Seedeaters.
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 spectacular and Grey Potoo, Rufous, Little and Scissor-tailed Nightjars are commonly seen, in addition to the sought-after White-winged Nightjar. Tropical Screech-owl and Ferruginous Pygmy-owl are amongst the frequently recorded owl species. The crystal clear waters of the lagoon and the white sand beach make for pleasant resting time, as well as being home to populations of Ash-throated Crake and Blackish Rail, and occasionally Azure Gallinule.
Our hosts at Laguna Blanca are the award-winning conservation NGO Para La Tierra (PLT), and our presence represents a valuable economic contribution to their work. PLT have been working tirelessly to protect this globally important population of the White-winged Nightjar, a bird which features on their logo.
Days 9-11: Today’s journey takes us to the Mbaracayú Biosphere Reserve, a model private reserve in Paraguay with 70,000ha of pristine Atlantic Forest and Cerrado. Named by WWF as one of the 100 most important sites for conservation on Earth, it’s difficult to know where to start with this location, and we have allowed plenty of time to explore all that it has to offer.
Over 400 species of birds have been recorded here, including the vast majority of the Atlantic Forest endemics. Possible species include the endangered Black-fronted Piping-guan, Bare-throated Bellbird, Black-capped Screech Owl, Saffron and Spot-billed Toucanets and Helmeted Woodpecker. Other species of interest that are frequently recorded include Red-breasted Toucan, Chestnut-eared Aracari, Surucua Trogon, Blond-crested and Yellow-fronted Woodpecker, various woodcreepers and tanagers, Streak-capped Antwren, Solitary Tinamou, Red-rumped Cacique, Rufous-capped Motmot. – the list could easily become very long! In the Cerrado, specialities like Rufous-winged Antshrike, Collared Crescentchest, Rufous-faced Crake and Ocellated Crake are just some of the birds we’ll look for. Forest mammals include such as Azara’s Agouti, Paca, Bush Dog and cats– including Jaguar, though once again we would need a slice of luck to see them. Perhaps easier to find will be some of the big owls, such as Black-banded and Mottled Owl. Nights at Mbaracayú Lodge Hotel.
Day 12: Today is essentially a travelling day as we move from Mbaracayu to San Rafael. It’s a very long journey and we stop en route for food, expecting to arrive in San Rafael in the early evening.
Days 13-14: We now travel to San Rafael National Park, where we we’ll be looking for birds amongst its Atlantic Forest and Mesopotamian Grasslands. San Rafael is the most biodiverse reserve in the country. After a good night’s sleep to recover from the previous day’s tiring drive, we´ll be up at dawn for a forest walk with some very special birds in mind, specifically looking for some of the more sought-after and threatened passerines of the Atlantic Forest. Theseinclude Blackish-blue Seedeater, Creamy-bellied Gnatcatcher and Southern Bristle-Tyrant. Following an early lunch we’ll be off 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 Sickle-winged Nightjar. Accommodation is with 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: Our last day will involve an early forest walk at San Rafael to look for any remaining species, before a mid-morning departure to Isla Alta where we’ll have a brief stop. This is a marshland site that may produce some interesting species, such as Bearded Tachuri, various seedeaters and, if the ricefields are at just the right height, Pinnated Bittern. From here we’ll visit the town of Coronel Bogado to try the national food of chipa, a cheesy bread snack. This is traditionally accompanied with cocido, a sweet milky tea made from yierba mate. Coronel Bogado is known as the ‘Capital of Chipa’, and nobody passes through here without sampling it. From here we continue on to Asunción to connect with our flight back to London, where the tour ends on Day 16.