Archive for October 2015

Paraguay: Part one – the Chaco, 19th – 25th September 2015   Leave a comment

The post covers the first part of my recent trip to Paraguay and covers the areas to the north and west of the capital Asunción.

Apologies for not updating the blog for over a month. As we are still in the peak of autumn migration, after my return I have been ringing at Durlston as often as the weather would allow and have spent the remainder of my free time keeping the ringing paperwork up to date.

The trip to Paraguay was a collaboration between Birdquest and the Neotropical Bird Club designed to raise funds for the NBC conservation fund. There were ten participants and three leaders (two of which gave their services for free) which made it somewhat congested on narrow forest trails, but these numbers were needed to raise sufficient funds.

I arrived early and spent a relaxing day in Asunción, getting over jet lag and doing a little birding in the hotel garden. Our first destination was the ‘humid chaco’ a seasonally flooded area to the west of the Paraguay River.

IMG_9420 Chaco

To the north and west of Asunción lies the humid chaco, a region of seasonally flooded scrub, marshes and lakes interspersed with strange Bottle Trees. During our drive to Laguna Capitan we stopped many times along the main route to Bolivia for birding.

IMG_9137 Rufous-sided Crake

Among the many birds we saw was this Rufous-sided Crake ….

IMG_9152 Donocobious

…. and several Donocobious, a bird that has been moved from one family to another over the last 30 years before finally being put in a family of its own.

IMG_9277 Buff-necked Ibis

Roadside pools held the elegant Buff-necked Ibis ….

IMG_9862 Plumbeous Ibis

…. the much rarer Plumbeous Ibis ….

IMG_9201 Ibis

…. and huge numbers of Bare-faced Ibis.

IMG_9812 Jabirus

Three species of stork occurred, Maguari, Wood and the rarer Jabiru (above).

IMG_9825 Jabiru

Jabirus must be the largest and most spectacular stork in the world.

IMG_9858 imm Snail Kite

Snail Kites, which feed almost exclusively on the apple snail were abundant in some areas.

IMG_9345 Flamingos, Black Skimmer, LB Tern_edited-1

On the largest lagoons Chilean Flamingos were common ….

IMG_9348 Black Skimmer, LB Tern

…. along with Black Skimmers and Large-billed Terns. I have nicknamed the tern ‘Sabine’s Tern’ due to the similarity of their upperwing pattern to that enigmatic arctic gull. I hadn’t realised until this trip how different the skimmers from Amazonia (which winter in Paraguay) were. We saw some later near Asunción and they differed more from the regular Black Skimmer than the Indian or African Skimmers do. Time to get the DNA test kit our methinks.

IMG_9330 Chilean Flamingos

Chilean Flamingos are the most widespread of the four New World species and can be easily identified by their red ‘knees’ (actually the tibio-tarsal joint or ankle).

IMG_9258 Chilean Flamingos

Chilean Flamingos in flight.

IMG_9323 Gtr Legs

There were a number of Nearctic shorebirds wintering in the area such as this Greater Yellowlegs (the last time I saw this American species was in Hampshire this summer) ….

IMG_9272 Wilson's Phal

…. the elegant Wilson’s Phalarope. Scottish born Alexander Wilson (1779 – 1813) is considered the father of American Ornithology and his name is commemorated by a storm-petrel, snipe, plover and warbler as well as a journal of ornithology and an orthitholgical society.

IMG_9300 Collared Plover

In contrast to the shorebirds above, this Collared Plover is a Neotropical resident and was exhibiting clear territorial behaviour on the shoreline.

IMG_9437 main road to Boliviar

North of Laguna Capitan the main road deteriorated badly. Although paved, the thin veneer of tarmac had eroded away and we bumped and grinded from one pot hole to the next over a period of six or seven hours.

IMG_6470 driving in dust

Unless you were in the front vehicle (we were in four 4x4s) this was your view for much of the day. Fortunately it was my turn to be in the front on the return journey, so I had an unobstructed view for part of the time.

IMG_9472 BL Seriema

The highlight of the day, indeed one of the highlights of the trip, was great views of Black-legged Seriema. Unlike it’s red-legged cousin, this is a hard bird to see. I have heard it on two previous trips, so was very glad to get such good views. A pair strode along the roadside ….

IMG_9488 BL Seriema

…. and even stopped and displayed, uttering their unearthly wails and showing off their orange gapes. The two seriemas species are the ecological equivalent of the Secretary Bird of Africa (snake predators) but are unrelated. It is thought the seriemas are more closely related to falcons than other raptors and are the closest living relatives of the 3m tall ‘terror birds’ which were apex predators in South America until felines and canines colonised from North America after the formation of the Isthmus of Panama 2.5 million years ago.

IMG_9543 Chaco accomodation

Now in the thorny ‘dry chaco’, we stayed in basic accommodation in Enciso National Park, not far from the Bolivian border. This tree ouside our rooms was full of Monk Parakeet nests, which are made of sticks from thorn bushes. As a result it was impossible to walk anywhere without getting thorns stuck in your boots.

IMG_9513 a night in the museum

‘A night in the museum’. Temperatures were much higher than expected, reaching at least 42 and not dropping below 30 at night. When we found the rooms had no AC, some of us opted to sleep in this small museum which did. However there weren’t enough beds so I slept on a mattress on the floor trying my best to avoid the big spiders and other bugs. We stayed there two nights, so we had ‘A night in the museum 2’ as well.

IMG_9359 sunset

The high temperatures whipped up a strong breeze, which in turn lifted a lot of dust into the atmosphere. At dusk the sun glowed a lurid red in all the haze.

IMG_6461 moth in chaco

The entire trip was full of invertabrates, whether it be the unwelcome biting mosquitos, sand flies, ticks and chiggers or elegant moths, butterflies and preying mantis.

IMG_9564 Little Nightjar

Night-time birding was succesful with lovely species like Little Nightjar ….

IMG_9388 Tropical Screech Owl

…. Tropical Screech Owl ….

IMG_9376 Chaco Owl

…. and best, of all my lifer Chaco Owl.

IMG_9585 Rob Rococo Toad

Here leader and Paraguayan resident Robb Clay holds an enormous Rococco Toad.

IMG_9399 Lark-like Bushrunner

It is interested to speculate why so many Chaco birds have crests. Here are three crested furnarids – Lark-like Bushrunner ….

IMG_9520 Brown Cacholote

…. Brown Cachalote ….

IMG_9604 Crested Hornero_edited-2

…. and Crested Hornero. Hornero is derived from the Spanish for oven because of their oven-shaped mud nests and the family name the Furnariidae or ovenbirds share this derivation.

IMG_9530 chaco rd

We did a lot of driving on the chaco’s dirt roads both by day and by night looking for mammals and nightbirds. We packed into the front vehicles, either inside or on the flat-bed, and then drove two-a-breast on the deserted roads. Once another car came the other way and flashed his lights at us, our driver responded by briefly putting on the mounted searchlight, which was followed by blue-and red flashing lights from the other car – yes, it was the police! Fortunately they passed us without issuing a ticket.

IMG_9440 Pampas Fox

The tour had been advertised as one of the best in South America for mammals but this aspect of the tour proved disappointing. Our night drives failed to deliver the hoped for Tapir, Puma, Ocelot, Jagurundi, Jaguar, Geoffrey’s Cat, Maned Wolf or Chaco Peccary. Instead we had to console ourselves with views of a rather tatty Pampas Fox ….

IMG_9428 Grey Brocket Deer

….and a fleeting glimpse of a Grey Brocket Deer.

IMG_9506 Turquoise-fronted Amazon

Birds did not disappoint however. Here is a selection of Chaco specialities: Turquoise-fronted Amazon ….

IMG_9547 Green-barred Pecker

…. Green-barred Woodpecker ….

IMG_9268 RB Peppershrike

…. a relative of the vireos, the Rufous-browed Peppershrike ….

IMG_9427 Woodcreeper sunbathing

…. a sunbathing Scimitar-billed Woodcreeper ….

IMG_9610 FT Fly

…. the ubiquitous, yet beautiful Fork-tailed Flycatcher. This species is an inter-tropical migrant and sometimes overshoots and turns up in North America, having got as far north as Canada and once reached El Rocio in Spain!

IMG_9198 White Monjita

Another beautiful tyrant flycatcher was the White Monjita

IMG_9185 Guira Cuckoo

The ‘punk-crested’ Guira Cuckoo was common. Apparently the original collector asked the indigenous Guanari what they called it, they replied ‘Guira’ which is guanari for ‘bird’ So really its a ‘bird cuckoo’.

IMG_6478 tropical rattlesnake

A Tropical Rattlesnake provided some entertainment.

IMG_9635 Crowned Eagle

We had a distant view of a pair of raptors that might have been the huge Crowned Solitary Eagle (that’s almost an oxymoron), so we were delighted when on our way back south we had cracking views of one on a roadside post.

IMG_9851 Rally

The area was gearing up for a major car rally and we met processions of super-chargers racers going in the opposite direction.

IMG_6479 3x4

Our Paraguayan drivers, Toni, Dani and Franci were all ex-rally drivers but it wasn’t their driving, but the appalling state of the road that cause this wheel to fall off. Incredibly a part was sent out from Asunción, the drive shaft and brake lines were fixed by the driver at the roadside and the car was with us the following day! We started with four 4×4 but had to put up with three 4x4s and a 3×4 for 24 hours.

IMG_9433 4 pack bottle tree

On the way north we detoured to a spot where our local leaders knew of a nest hole of the huge yet rare and elusive Black-bodied Woodpecker. The nest hole was easy to find – adjacent to this four-pack Bottle Tree.

IMG_9412 White Pecker

However the large hole had been taken over by a pair of much smaller but more aggressive White Woodpeckers. We headed north knowing that our best chance to see the rare Black-bodied had been lost.

IMG_9710 BB Woodpecker

But on our way south we gave it another go and after about an hour the Black-bodied arrived and was promptly chased off by the White Woodpeckers. However it settled down not far away and we go some great views.

IMG_9722 Chaco Peccaries

There had only been a brief sighting of peccaries by a couple of the group at dawn. So we took a chance to visit a centre where the endangered Chaco Peccary is being bred for release in the wild. Unusually this species forms a defensive formation when threatened, which means that if one is shot by poachers then they can all be easily shot. Hopefully education will teach the hunters how endangered this species of wild pig really is.

IMG_9732 Collared Peccary

Also held captive was the much more widespread Collard Peccary, an animal I have seen as far north as Texas.

IMG_9744 White-lipped Peccary

But the White-lipped Peccaries amazed us. Far more aggressive than the other species Whitelips have been known to kill dogs and even people. The males would rush at the fence that separated us from them, baring their teeth, making a loud clicking sound and releasing a pungent scent. As in the wild they can go round in herds as big as 150 individuals, they are clearly not to be messed with.

From here we overnighted in a town originally established by Mennonites of central European descent before returning to Asunción. The second part of the trip to areas east and south of Asunción will appear as soon as I have edited the photos.