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Sunbird – Itinerary

2017 Tour Price £3,300

  • Plus flights estimated at : £900
  • Single Room Supplement : £300


Saturday 15 September to Wednesday 3 October 2018
with Paul Smith and Stuart Elsom assisted by local guides

Maximum group size: 10 with 2 leaders

Our tour visits the last remaining stronghold of the incredibly rare White-winged Nightjar. Photo: Stuart Elsom

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 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 their Southern Hemisphere 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, 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.

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 Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill, Plumbeous and Buff-breasted Ibis, Limpkin, Cocoi Heron, and Black-collared Hawk.

In grassy areas 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. We´ll be stopping at reedbeds along the way where we should find 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 3: We spend today exploring Cuenca Upper Yacaré Sur, a rich region of dry chaco and salt lagoons. Birding in the chaco is not always easy 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 Chaco Nothura, Brushland Tinamou, Crested Hornero, Many-colored Brush-Finch and Black-capped Warbling-Finch are relatively easy to find, while others such as Chaco Eagle need a little luck. The real prizes however 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.  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, and, though unlikely, there is also the chance of a Lowland Tapir, or a Puma, which are more abundant here than in much of South America. Nights at Laguna Capitán.

Days 4-5: We’ll depart this morning for Parque Nacional Teniente Agripino Enciso, 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.

Almost on the Bolivian border, Médanos del Chaco is a park that conserves the last wild herd of the endangered lowland race of the Guanaco. It is more open than Parque Nacional Teniente Agripino Enciso and shares many of the same birds, but is where we can look for an important Chaco endemic species that is not present at Enciso – the Spot-winged Falconet. Night at Enciso National Park.

Day 6: Today we’ll proceed back along the Trans-Chaco highway with stops at Proyecto Tagua in Fortin Toledo. Here there is a captive breeding programme for the threatened Chaco Peccary (Tagua) supported by San Diego Zoo and this offers us 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 which gives us the opportunity to see the differences between the species 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 small weed-choked lakes are like 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 7: After some early morning birding, we’ll spend most of the day driving back to Asunción where we’ll spend the night.

Day 8: Leaving Asunción en route to 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. From here we’ll travel on to Laguna Blanca, where we’ll be looking 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 (the only known site in Paraguay), Plumbeous and Chestnut Seedeater, and cerrado endemics 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. We’ll then head back to the hotel for a late barbecue dinner.

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 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. Also present are several of the big owls such as Black-banded and Mottled Owls which we will look for. 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 with few stops and we should arrive in San Rafael in the early evening.

Days 13-15: At San Rafael National Park we’ll be looking for some very special birds amongst its 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 spend it wisely. After a good night’s sleep, we´ll be up at dawn for a forest walk with some very special birds in mind, specifically aiming for some of the more sought-after threatened passerines of the Atlantic Forest including Blackish-blue Seedeater, Creamy-bellied Gnatcatcher and Southern Bristle-Tyrant. Following an early lunch, we’ll travel to the Kanguery grasslands where more great species await – Russet-winged Spadebill and Saffron-cowled Blackbird are two and, after the sun goes down, Giant Snipe and, with luck, Sickle-winged Nightjar will be on the agenda. Accommodation is with the conservation NGO Pro Cosara (so we´ll be doing our bit to assist with the conservation of the park) and our hosts, the Hostettler family, are renowned for their hospitality and delicious hearty, home-cooked meals. Nights at San Rafael National Park.

Day 16: We’ll make an early morning departure to the ricefields of Isla Alta where we’ll make a brief stop to look for Bearded Tachuri, various seedeaters and, if the ricefields 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 up close views of the stunningly bizarre Sickle-winged Nightjar. Night in Ayolas.

Day 17: There will be a pre-dawn excursion to the gallery forests of Yacyretá Island where we will be hoping 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, completing a fantastic fortnight of top notch Neotropical birding. Night in Asunción.

Day 18: We’ll transfer to the airport for our flight to London where the tour ends on Day 19.



Updated: 19 May 2017