Friday, 23 January 2015

Argentina: Part 6 - Iguazu National Park

It's the final instalment... Having survived our slightly nerve-racking journey North, we arrived in Iguazu National Park. It was beautiful (and almost certainly still is!), don't get me wrong, but we were a bit unlucky with the weather. It didn't rain, it wasn't windy, it was far far too hot, both for us and seemingly the birds. We did spend a very enjoyable 3 days exploring both the Brazilian and Argentinian sides of the falls, but it was hard work.

We crossed into the Brazilian side the first day, which when coming from Argentina was rather expensive. We took a trek into the rainforest accompanied by a guide, and we didn't see a single bird as we walked. What we did see though, were butterflies; heaps and heaps of stunning butterflies. Giant Blue Morpho, easily mistaken for small birds were loafing along the trails. We found Many-banded Daggerwing resting in sunny patches along with The Malachite and on almost every bush as we approached the Iguazu river there were resting Diaethria (88) species.

Pyrrhogyra neaerea, common name possibly Banded Banner!

"88" butterfly, Diaethria eluina

Many-banded Daggerwing, Marpesia chiron
Broad-banded Swallowtail, Papilio astyalus

Along with Butterflies, we also found this impressive beast.... whatever it is.

We were also lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a troop of Black Capuchin Monkeys as we made our way along the trails. Apparently they are named after an order of Catholic Friars from the 16th century. Upon reaching the Americas and discovering Capuchin Monkeys, the explorers are said to have thought they bore a remarkable resemblance to said Friars! Having never met a Capuchin Friar, I am in no position to comment! This particularly obliging individual sat in a tree right above us and enjoyed some foliage! There were numerous signs around warning that they have a nasty bite, and you can see from this photo how they get that reputation. However, what we couldn't understand was how you would ever get into a situation where one would need to bite you! But there you go....

Black Capuchin

Aside from all the fantastic wildlife, the main attraction for most in this part of the world are the Iguazu Falls. I feel like I lack the eloquence to describe just how breathtaking these falls are; all I can say is that you must visit. I have been to Niagara, and I hate to say it but they just don't compare to these. There can be anything up to 300 separate waterfalls along the 2.7km edge depending on the water level, some up to 80 metres in height and all contributing to an overwhelming assault on the senses. Add to that hundreds of Black and Turkey Vulture soaring above the cascades and Great Dusky Swifts darting in and out from underneath them, and you have one hell of an experience.    

The Garganta del Diablo, complete with soaring vulture

Panoramic from the Brazilian side of the falls

The following day we stuck to the Argentinian side. Both sides are well worth a visit, and I would suggest the Brazilian side first to get a feel for the falls as a whole, then the Argentinian side for a slightly less busy and more involved experience. We arrived early both days to miss the rush and to try and beat the heat, although there really wasn't any beating it at all, as we easily managed to spend a full day on each side. We managed our best views of the Dusky Swift this side, and it was quite remarkable to see them clinging to the side of the rock as the water tumbled down beside them.

Achingly picturesque. Can you spot the Swift?

A true marvel of the natural world - Great Dusky Swift

We also took a couple of trips on the river, marketed as ecological tours. They were very pleasant, but perhaps due to the heat there wasn't much wildlife around. We did, however, get cracking views of Greater Ani, with its honking bill and unusual reproductive behaviour (not that we observed that). Unable to recognise their own eggs or nestling's, chicks are raised communally.

Greater Ani

Aside from the vast array of butterflies also on offer on the Argentinian side, the two wildlife highlights came in the form of Coatis and a very special dragonfly! The Coatis were common on both sides, and also very tame. Related to the Racoon, they spend a lot of their time in large groups, foraging in the undergrowth using their wonderfully designed snouts to locate food. As they do this, they make a wonderful array of squeaks and grunts, especially the young. According to the signs, they also have a nasty bite! And as for the Dragonfly, well before I saw this I would have probably laughed if you'd told me that there is a PINK Dragonfly out there. Needless to say we were both amazed by this beautiful little insect, and it posed wonderfully for us as well!

Splendid. Carmine Skimmer, Orthemis discolor
Coati mother and baby - look at those teeth!

If you insist. One more of the stunning Iguazu Falls

In order to ease our woes at having missed out on some splendid tropical bird species, we decided to visit the Jardin de los Picaflores (Hummingbird Garden) located in the middle of Puerto Iguazu. We'd read good things, but were not expecting what we found. Upon performing the customary clap to alert the home-owner, we were let into the little garden. It was like a mecca for Hummingbirds, we were blown away. We sat on a little bench and for half an hour (before it shut for lunch) sat and watched no less than six species of Hummingbird including Swallow-tailed and Planalto Hermit, Bananaquit, Sayaca Tanager, Epaulet Oriole, Blue Dacnis and many others.

Violaceous Euphonia

Planalto Hermit

Female Black-throated Mango
Glittering-bellied Emerald

It was one of the highlights of the entire trip for both of us, and a perfect way to end our first South American journey. Until next time.....

Monday, 12 January 2015

Argentina: Part 5 - Esteros del Ibera

Ibera, north of Buenos Aries near Mercedes, to put it simply, gave Peninsula Valdes a run for its money as the best wildlife spot we'd been to in Argentina. In the local Guarani language, the name translates simply as "Bright Water" and upon arrival we could understand why. This roughly 20,000 km2 wetland is the second largest in the world, and an untouched, undeveloped paradise for wildlife lovers. Lana and I spent 4 nights at Aguape lodge (which I can't recommend enough) and we comprised one third of all the tourists we encountered during our stay.....
Unfortunately we lost a day to some torrential rain which made going out for dinner good fun; a job for wellies and wading through the sandy streets with lightning striking slightly too close for comfort. Even when the evenings were warm and sunny we were still the only people enjoying good food as Nacunda Nighthawks hunted around the street lamps outside the restaurant. The Giant Wood Rail below took full advantage of having the pool to itself during the storm.

A typical scene in this wetland paradise

Giant Wood Rail relaxing by the pool

During our stay we took a couple of boat trips out onto the lagoon and got up close to some incredible wildlife. Capybara (in Latin, Water Pig), Marsh Deer and Black Caiman were commonplace. All three of these species were once heavily poached for their various lovely characteristics, but now luckily there is a team of dedicated rangers that in Ibera at least are working on stamping out the vile practice all together. Habitat destruction is also a major threat, especially to the Marsh Deer. Again Ibera provides some vital protection for this stunning species. Capybara are considered less vulnerable as they have the ability to reproduce fairly rapidly (being rodents and all) and a much larger range. Interestingly, they also only ever mate in water.

Capybara family huddling during the storm

Prehistoric and intricately beautiful, Black Caiman

Marsh Deer being marshy

Alongside the aquatic wildlife was a cast of truly stunning birds. Out on the wetland Striated, White-necked and Rufescent Tiger Heron, Snowy and Great Egret, Wattled Jacana, Brazilian and White-faced Whistling Duck and Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture were common. We were also lucky to see Large-billed and Yellow-billed Tern, Ringed, Amazon and Green Kingfisher, Scarlet-headed Blackbird, White-headed Marsh Tyrant,  and Black-capped Donacobious, with the later still proving a bit of a headache for ornithologists as to where it belongs taxonomically.

Beautiful female Green Kingfisher

Just as Redshanks in the UK are "sentinels of the marsh," Southern Screamers keep watch over the marshes of South America

Black-capped Donacobious
Our excellent guide Horatio spotted this hiding in the floating vegetation....

A Wattled Jacana chick

On land the selection of bird life was also unbelievable. We had come very much hoping to be able to see Yellow Cardinal, and ended up seeing two, which I rather tragically worked out constitutes of roughly 0.1% of the entire world population of this endangered and simply stunning bird. This bird has suffered for its beauty, and its chronic exploitation for the caged bird trade has lead to a catastrophic decline, and habitat loss and fragmentation is ensuring this species faces an even more challenging recovery. We experienced first hand the vulnerability of this species while in Ibera. As it is highly territorial, it is easily lured to investigate the calls of other individuals, While we didn't use a tape at all, it was clear that someone had been, as this bird came and sat on the wing mirror of our truck.

One of those special birding moments. Yellow Cardinal

And still present when the truck was empty.

Common species around our lodge and the surrounding dirt roads included Red-crested and Yellow-billed Cardinal, Masked Gnatcatcher, Black-capped Warbling finch, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, White Monjita, Field Flicker, Great Kiskadee and Guira Cuckoo. There are far too many pictures to upload, so I thought I'd stick with my favourites. Firstly, a couple of spectacular Vermilion Flycatchers were present around the village and were always very showy.

Outrageously red (or vermilion) Vermilion Flycatcher

Another species which is classified as vulnerable and still declining is the Black and White Monjita, and it is an uncommon bird to see in Ibera, so to find this pair by the road was a real treat.

Black and White Monjita

Also around were the much more common but equally as beautiful White Monjita. It was very strange seeing virtually all-white passerines which do occur but are rare in Britain (breeding plumage male Snow Bunting is the only one I could think of that comes close).

As I said above, Masked Gnatcatcher were common, however they were lovely little birds. We thought they were the like the South American equivalent of Long-tailed Tit.

Masked Gnatcatcher
And finally, as we made our way North out of the wetlands towards Iguazu Falls, which was one of the most exciting and terrifying road journeys of my life, we were lucky enough to come across a Roseate Spoonbill feeding in a newly created pool. There had been so much rain that the dirt roads had been turned to sludge and there was plenty of flooding. Some "puddles" were so deep we had to remove our seat belts in case the car rolled and we had to make a quick escape.

Roseate Spoonbill enjoying all the rain