Thursday, 14 March 2013

Road Trip: Salta to Mendoza

For the last part of our Argentina trip, Barb and I and our friends Fran and Alan rented a car in Salta.  Our other friends Joan and Mike left us in Iguazu and are now back in Victoria enjoying the rain.  Salta is located in the northwest corner of Argentina where the culture there is more akin to that of Bolivia and Peru than to the other places we have visited on our trip.

We picked up the car on Friday, March 8 and went exploring north of town.  We drove 3 ½ hours on a very winding road which had one birding highlight – a roadside lake with a few species including an Andean Gull.  Our destination was Purnamarca - a touristy little town with lots of handicrafts imported from Peru as well as nice views of some colorful hills.  While the others enjoyed a leisurely lunch, I went in search of birds and was pleased to find a Blue-capped Puffleg.  After lunch, we continued to the small town of Tilarca where there are some pre-Inca ruins.  I took a quick look at the ruins but was distracted by the birds.  A female Red-tailed Comet (it would have been nice to see the male with its long tail) landed nearby and there were a couple of Chiguanco Thrushes in the bushes.
Chiguanco Thrush
On Saturday, we just had a short drive of 200 km to El Cafayete but had the misfortune to be behind a group of 200+ cyclists for about half an hour.  Finally we got passed the cyclists and there were to be no birding stops until we were far ahead of them!  The scenic highlight of the trip was the Quebreda de las Conchas – a 25 km stretch of highway that passed through a red rock canyon.
Quebrada de las Conchas
The next day, we drove from El Cafayete to Catamarca with a stop at the Quilmes ruins.  On the way to the ruins, we saw hundreds of Burrowing Parrots.  I wandered through the ruins looking for birds and did find a couple of interesting species – Golden-billed Saltator (which I had had a glimpse of in Buenos Aires) and White-fronted Woodpecker.

Burrowing Parrots (this photo taken in Talampaya; at Quilmes Ruins, parrots had dark bellies)

Quilmes Ruins
Golden-billed Saltator
Our final stop was at Villa Union where we spent a couple of days exploring Talampaya National Park.  We didn’t know much about the park beforehand so we were pleasantly surprised with the scenery that we saw on a couple of guided tours.  As hunting is not allowed in the park, we also saw many Patagonian Maras (a strange looking rodent somewhat like a hare), Gray Foxes and Guanacos.  There were also quite a few Lesser Rheas; otherwise birds were scarce but I did see a couple of new finches.
Canyon in Talampaya National Park
Patagonian Mara
Lesser Rhea
Rainbow Canyon in Talampay National Park
The drive to Mendoza was through desert with very few birds – occasional vultures and caracas were the only birds to be seen.  In Mendoza, we have been concentrating on the wine though I did see a Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle on this morning’s city tour.
The northwest section of Argentina has great birding potential but, as was the case for most of the trip, birding was just a side benefit of sightseeing.  In all, I had 15 lifers on this portion and about 65 for the overall trip.  We have enjoyed our travels in Argentina – it has many interesting sights and a good infrastructure for travel.  If one were to concentrate on birds and perhaps hire a guide or two, I’m sure that you could easily see over 300 species in a 2-3 week trip to this large and diverse country.


Saturday, 9 March 2013


Iguazu Falls are not the highest, widest or most voluminous falls in the world but they are certainly among the most spectacular.  Situated in a jungle on the border between Argentina and Brazil, the falls have many different sections as they span the river.
The Devil's Throat section of the falls
This area of Argentina boasts a bird list of over 500 species so I had hoped to find a few new ones despite having birded southeast Brazil a few years ago.  On Tuesday, March 5 we awoke to thunderstorms and were worried that our day of sightseeing might be a little soggy.  By the time we arrived at the park at 8 a.m. the skies had cleared and we had a wonderful day.  Toco Toucans greeted us at the entrance and we saw a few more species on the walk out to Devil’s Throat including a Black-necked Guan and a Rufescent Tiger-Heron.  We were supposed to do an “Ecological” tour by boat above the falls but the water levels were too low.
Black-fronted Guan
Rufescent Tiger-Heron
Birding in the park was much quieter than I had expected with only Plush-crested Jays and Great Kiskadees making any noise.  Mammals were also scarce except for Brazilian Cavi and tame Coatis.  However, there were many different species of butterfly as well as some huge orbweaver spiders.
Butterfies of Iguazu
A colourful orbweaver spider
After lunch, we took a boat tour to the base of the falls.  We were warned that we would get wet so we wore our bathing suits on the boat and it’s a good thing that we did.  The boat went to within a few feet of the base of the falls and we got soaked!
A section of the falls as seen from the water
We finished off the day with a drink at the Sheraton (the only hotel within the park) and shared a view of the falls with a Plush-crested Jay.  Capuchin Monkeys could also be seen sitting on the balcony railings of the hotel.
Plush-crested Jay
Barb and I decided to stay in town the second day and enjoyed a lazy day.  Early in the morning I walked out to the river where I found a few species, most notably for me some Variable Orioles.  After breakfast, Barb and I visited “El Jardin de los Picaflores” – Hummingbird Garden - where we could see 8 species of hummingbirds.  I like to take flight photos of the hummers but they were too fast for me that day.  However, that didn’t stop me from trying and after about 400 photos I managed a couple of decent shots.
Black-throated Mango
Swallow-tailed Hummingbird
Versicolored Emerald
Although I saw as many or more species in Iquazu as in our previous stops, I only had one life bird – Variable Oriole.  Iguazu is a great spot for birds but early morning thundershowers, not knowing the calls and a focus on sightseeing all contributed to my lack of success.  Still, the falls were tremendous and well worth a visit regardless of the birds.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

El Parque Nacional Los Glaciares - Argentina

Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina is situated in the Patagonia region on the border with Chile.  In fact, the border is not clearly demarcated at the north end of the park (check out Google maps) due to an unresolved border dispute.  The snow cap in the park and in the adjoining park in Chile is the 3rd largest repository of fresh water in the world (after Antarctica and Greenland) and has many glaciers that can be seen easily by tourists.  The glaciers, along with the hiking trails in the park were the reason we came – not the birds (which is a good thing because there weren’t many!).

On Tuesday Feb. 26, we flew from Ushuaia to El Calafete.  Our itinerary was to view some glaciers near El Calafate and then travel a bit further north to do some hiking.   The checklists suggested that Magellanic Plover and Gray-breasted Seedsnipe were a possibility but my realistic targets were Magellanic Woodpecker and Andean Condor.
Reserva Municipal - Laguna Nimez
Upon arriving at our hotel in El Calafate, I was delighted to discover that there was a reserve just 800 m from the hotel.  With nothing scheduled for the afternoon, Barb and I walked down to the reserve – Laguna Nimez.  It turned out to be a great place with a small lagoon bordering Lago Argentina.  The first birds we saw were Black-faced Ibis.
Black-faced Ibis
Continuing around the perimeter of the lagoon, we soon encountered Patagonia Mockingbird, Long-tailed Meadowlark and Chiloe Wigeon.

Long-tailed Meadowlark
The reserve had higher water levels than normal and some of the trails and all of the shorebird habitat was under water (so little hope of the Magellanic Plover and seedsnipe).  Still, we enjoyed the walk around the lagoon and, for me, the highlight was a Plumbeous Rail hiding in the reeds – its metallic-looking bill was spectacular!
Plumbeous Rail
We took a bus tour to the national park to view the Perito Moreno Glacier – in the park we took a boat to within 250 m of the glacier’s edge and then spent the afternoon on a ridge opposite the glacier.  The views were incredible; the birding was not.  However, I did get two lifers – a distant view of 2 Chilean Flickers and a fly-by of a Magellanic Woodpecker.
Perito Moreno Glacier
The next day, we visited two other glaciers by boat – the Upsala and Spegazzini glaciers.  Once again, the views were fantastic and the birding non-existent –7 hours on the boat and I did not see a single bird! 
Spegazzeni Glacier
We then journeyed to El Chalten by bus and spent 3 days hiking in the mountains.  Based  our first two days in the park, I was resigned to a paucity of birds.  We did hike through some nice forests and saw some birds though not many new ones.  Even though we were only at 400 m, Andean Condors were common in the area.  At first, I only had distant views but finally one crossed the valley at low altitude (perhaps it thought I was dying after a 15 km hike!) and I finally got a decent look.
Andean Condor
The other birding highlight was the Magellanic Woodpecker.  It turned out to be one of the most common birds in the mountain forests and usually allowed a close approach.
Magellanic Woodpecker
Perhaps the highlight of our Argentina travels (though they are not yet concluded) was the views we had of Mount Fitz Roy and the surrounding mountains.
Our group in front of Mount Fitz Roy
Cerro Torre
In conclusion, the scenery was great but the birding quiet (perhaps due to the late summer timing?).  Still, I managed to find 18 life birds (most at the Laguna Nimez). From Patagonia, our next stop is Iguazu Falls in the northeast corner of Argentina.