Saturday, 9 September 2023

Uruguay Part 3: Lagoon Shorebirding

February 28, 2023

Our first few days in Uruguay had been very successful. We had been able to experience a few days in the beautiful rural countryside, staying at a wonderful hacienda. We had found our first Uruguayan snake. And we had found most of the potential bird lifers that were available, the most important being the Saffron-cowled Blackbird, of course. 

Laura and I still had a few days remaining in Uruguay and so we considered our options. In the end, we decided to spend a few days in the town of Punta del Este. This beach town is very popular among the throngs of tourists, many of which visit here from Argentina. Villas and apartments were available for rent up and down the beach strip, while dozens of seafood restaurants lined the main street, and many others were situated right on the beach. 

Laura and I found a relatively inexpensive (for Uruguay standards, anyway) hotel that had air conditioning and our own private balcony, and we ended up staying here for three nights. At this point in our trip, we needed time to plan our next few weeks. Our Brazil adventure would be starting soon and I had done almost no research whatsoever. Time to change that! Our plan of attack while staying in Punta del Este was to go birding during the cooler hours of the morning, and then get cracking with the trip research in the afternoon (often while sitting on our patio with a frosty beverage in hand). 

On February 28 we made the drive from our accommodations in La Coronilla to the city of Punta del Este, with a few birding stops along the way. The first pitstop was at Parque Nacional de Santa Teresa. 

Laura and I walked several trails, enjoyed a botanical garden, scanned the coastline from on top of sand dunes, and checked out an aviary. We were happy to connect with some White-throated Hummingbirds near the botanical garden, just our second sighting following the brief view we had of one in Argentina. This was my first chance to photograph the species. 

White-throated Hummingbird - Parque Nacional de Santa Teresa, Rocha, Uruguay

A human-made pond had been created to house a group of Capybaras, no doubt a popular animal amongst the children who were exploring the park with their families. Numerous turtles were also basking on logs, most of which were Black-bellied Sliders (Trachemys dorbigni). They look similar to the Red-eared Slider, which is a closely related species of turtle that has been introduced around the world. Here, however, the Black-bellied Sliders are native. 

Black-bellied Sliders (Trachemis dorbigni) - Parque Nacional de Santa Teresa, Rocha, Uruguay

A single Hilaire's Side-necked Turtle was mixed in with the sliders. This species is native to southeastern South America, including southern Brazil, Uruguay, northeastern Argentina and southern Paraguay. 

Hilaire's Side-necked Turtle (Phrynops hilarii) - Parque Nacional de Santa Teresa, Rocha, Uruguay

Along one of the trails, Laura and I were able to find a female Chestnut-backed Tanager. This was a catch-up lifer for her (I had found mine during her horseback riding session a few days earlier). The tanager didn't want its photo taken, but this Diademed Tanager was a little more cooperative. 

Diademed Tanager - Parque Nacional de Santa Teresa, Rocha, Uruguay

The day had become very hot by this point and so we were happy to indulge in the air conditioning of our rental car for the long drive south to Punta del Este. 

March 1, 2023

The Uruguayan coast east of Montevideo has numerous lagoons which provide critical habitat for a wide variety of birds. Chilean Flamingos are numerous, while thousands of waterfowl, coots, and shorebirds feature prominently as well. Though I didn't anticipate that we would find any new bird species, I was looking forward to a smorgasbord of shorebirding, something I always enjoy!

Silver Teals (and a Black-necked Stilt) - Laguna de Rocha, Rocha, Uruguay

We headed east to Laguna de Rocha, arriving just after 8 AM. The bird numbers were incredible! Black-necked Swans numbered at least 1300, with a smattering of Coscoraba Swans mixed in. You can see many coots amongst the swans in the image, below. Both regular species were present in triple digits: White-winged and Red-gartered Coots. 

Black-necked Swans - Laguna de Rocha, Rocha, Uruguay

It was difficult not to notice the throngs of Chilean Flamingos stretching across the back of the lagoon. 

Chilean Flamingo - Laguna de Rocha, Rocha, Uruguay

I was particularly interested in the shorebirds. Given the sun's angle, I walked to the far end of the beach so that I could scope the birds with the sun behind me. There were 11 species of shorebirds present - not a crazy amount, by any means - but enough to provide hours of enjoyment. 

White-rumped Sandpiper - Laguna de Rocha, Rocha, Uruguay

Despite being far away from my native Canada, most of the shorebirds were species familiar to me from back home. Some of these are long-distant migrants, like the White-rumped Sandpiper above, or the American Golden-Plover below. They would soon be returning north, to nest during the boreal summer.  

American Golden-Plover - Laguna de Rocha, Rocha, Uruguay

Some of the other shorebirds were a little bit more exotic and interesting to me, such as the Collared and Two-banded Plovers sharing a beach with a few Semipalmated Plovers. 

Collared Plover - Laguna de Rocha, Rocha, Uruguay

Two-banded Plover - Laguna de Rocha, Rocha, Uruguay

Try as I might, I couldn't find any locally unusual species, nor could I detect any Buff-breasted Sandpipers which are often found in this area. The oddest 'shorebird' was this ungainly fellow!

Southern Screamer - Laguna de Rocha, Rocha, Uruguay

The Southern Screamer may have only been impersonating a shorebird, but it was an interesting study from close range. I never tire of seeing these dinosaurs.

Though landbirds weren't the focus of our excursion, we found a few here and there. Bay-capped Wren-Spinetails were a big target of ours just a few days earlier in Argentina, but we easily found a pair in the rushes and grasses fringing the lagoon. 

Bay-capped Wren-Spinetail - Laguna de Rocha, Rocha, Uruguay

Great Pampa-Finches were common in this area, too. 

Great Pampa-Finch - Laguna de Rocha, Rocha, Uruguay

The Guira Cuckoo is a common sight (and sound) in this part of the world, and quite a few were up to their usual antics.

Guira Cuckoo - Laguna de Rocha, Rocha, Uruguay

A number of pipit species are possible in this region. I scrutinized them all closely; they all appeared to be Correndera Pipits. 

Correndera Pipit - Laguna de Rocha, Rocha, Uruguay

Prior to departing the area, we stopped to check out a pair of Yellow-billed Terns. This is a widespread species in South America, but I always appreciate a good view of this tiny tern.

Yellow-billed Tern - Laguna de Rocha, Rocha, Uruguay

Yellow-billed Tern - Laguna de Rocha, Rocha, Uruguay

We scanned the pastures and short-grass habitats along the entrance road, hoping to connect with the elusive Buff-breasted Sandpiper (we were unsuccessful in this venture). Here are a few photos of some of the species found along the edges of the fields. 

Chalk-browed Mockingbird - Laguna de Rocha, Rocha, Uruguay

White Monjita - Laguna de Rocha, Rocha, Uruguay

American Kestrel - Laguna de Rocha, Rocha, Uruguay

At one point, an armadillo scurried across the road and so I did what any reasonable biologist would do - I took off after it. Based on my photos, it appears to be a Seven-banded Armadillo (Dasypus septemcinctus). This species is widespread in grassy areas of South America, being especially numerous in eastern Argentina and Uruguay. 

Seven-banded Armadillo (Dasypus septemcinctus) - Laguna de Rocha, Rocha, Uruguay

March 2, 2023

Most of this day was spent cooped up in the hotel and researching Brazil, but we broke up the trip planning with a mid-day birding excursion to nearby Laguna Garzón. 

We added a few new birds to our Uruguay lists including Long-winged Harrier and Pantanal Snipe, and we enjoyed good views of a Giant Wood-Rail and five species of terns. The only organism I photographed was this moth. It is a type of cutworm moth (family Noctuidae) in the genus Helicoverpa. 

Helicoverpa sp. - Laguna Garzón, Maldonado, Uruguay

And with that, our Uruguay trip was a wrap. We had a flight booked to São Paulo the next day but the blogging about Brazil will have to wait for another day. As I write this, I am preparing for my next adventure - leading a tour of Sulawesi and Halmahera for Quest Nature Tours. Should be fun!

Uruguay Part 2: The Saffron-cowled Blackbird Search

February 26, 2023

Laura and I left the hacienda behind and and headed southeast towards the coast. Our route was a meandering one and we took our time on the potholed roads. The countryside was birdy and we didn't mind the relaxed pace. 

We had booked an AirBnB property in the coastal town of La Coronilla for two nights. My main priority in Uruguay was to put in the time to search for Saffron-cowled Blackbirds, and La Coronilla is perfectly situated near one of the more sizeable populations of that species. 

Marsh Seedeater - Rocha, Uruguay

The Saffron-cowled Blackbird is not doing well, having declined by as much as 80% over three generations. That’s….not good. The precise reasons for the decline are not fully fleshed-out, but habitat loss/degradation is the big one, considering that Saffron-cowled Blackbirds live in tall grasslands and marshes. Marshy valleys are dammed, grasslands are being replaced with pine and eucalyptus plantations, and cattle trample their nests. Pesticides are likely having an impact, and collection for the pet trade is also a contributing factor. This species has disappeared over much of its former range in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina. It seems like extinction is inevitable. 

Due to the sensitive nature of revealing exact locations for this species, the range map for Saffron-cowled Blackbird is obscured on eBird. However, with a little bit of internet sleuthing I was able to identify a large marshland that likely held a population. This particular spot isn't a closely-kept secret - rather, it is a go-to spot for many birders who visit Uruguay. The time of year was not ideal, however, as the blackbirds are done nesting and would be roaming around the countryside in flocks. We hoped that we would get lucky and stumble across a flock somewhere. 

Scarlet-headed Blackbird - Rocha, Uruguay

We broke up our drive to La Coronilla with a few roadside wetland stops. The Embalse Arrocera area was quite productive and we tallied many species. This Curve-billed Reedhaunter provided the best views I've ever had of this species, while we also saw Plumbeous Ibis, Marsh Seedeater, Scarlet-headed Blackbird, Giant Wood-Rail and more. 

Curve-billed Reedhaunter - Embalse Arrocera, Rocha, Uruguay

We hadn't yet reached the "best" area for the Saffron-cowled Blackbirds when we spotted a large, swirling blackbird and finch flock, a ways off of the roadside. Brown-and-yellow Marshbirds, Shiny Cowbirds and Grassland Yellow-Finches were the most common species. But a little further out in the field, a shimmering black and yellow flock caught our attention. They were all Saffron-cowled Blackbirds!

Luckily, a female was a little closer to the road and Laura and I soaked in the views of this rare species. We couldn't believe our luck. 

Saffron-cowled Blackbird - Rocha, Uruguay

I was pretty pumped to have found our main target so easily! That evening, we had some celebratory wine and pizza at our AirBnB, as we watched the sun set. 

February 27, 2023

We had originally booked two nights in La Coronilla to maximize our chances of encountering a Saffron-cowled Blackbird. With that out of the way, we had no real priorities today and we could relax and get caught up on things - namely, trip planning for Brazil, our next destination following Uruguay. 

I headed out on my own during the mid-morning, returning to the same area from yesterday in hopes of an encore performance with the Saffron-cowled Blackbirds. 

Giant Sea Holly (Eryngium pandanifolium) - Rocha, Uruguay

The sun was high in the sky and a steady breeze was blowing across the open landscape, stifling bird activity. That being said, I enjoyed slowly making my way along, stopping at suitable looking wetlands and discovering species here and there. 

Black-and-white Monjita - Rocha, Uruguay

Sulphur-bearded Reedhaunters were rather abundant. I finally managed a good look at an adult, and you see the namesake beard in this image. 

Sulphur-bearded Reedhaunter - Rocha, Uruguay

Apart from another crack at the Saffron-cowled Blackbirds, the other bird that I was hoping to find was the Warbling Doradito. Laura and I had finally found our first in Argentina a week earlier, but I hadn't managed a photo that time. In the last number of years I have really focused on photographing every bird on my life list and so far, about 85% of the species now have photos. The Warbling Doradito was one of the few remaining possibilities of birds I "needed" photos of in Uruguay. 

My doradito search was put on the back-burner when a flock of birds appeared in the distance, their black and yellow plumage twinkling in the sunshine. It was the Saffron-cowled Blackbirds! 

Saffron-cowled Blackbirds - Rocha, Uruguay

And wow, luck was on my side this morning. Not only did the blackbirds land nearby, but they eventually moved to some reedbeds directly beside the road, only a few meters from me! 

Saffron-cowled Blackbirds - Rocha, Uruguay

For the next 15 minutes I was in heaven. The 53 Saffron-cowled Blackbirds did not seem bothered by my presence and remained in the area. I captured a number of photos as well as audio recordings of their quiet interactions. Considering that they could have been anywhere in this vast wetland complex, I felt rather lucky that they happened to pick the roadside near my position. 

Saffron-cowled Blackbird - Rocha, Uruguay

Saffron-cowled Blackbird - Rocha, Uruguay

Some call notes in the reeds directed my attention to a Warbling Doradito, my other target! I had Saffron-cowled Blackbirds on one side of me, and a cooperative Warbling Doradito on the other. 

Warbling Doradito - Rocha, Uruguay

It was an experience that I hopefully won't forget for many years. Incredible!

Saffron-cowled Blackbird - Rocha, Uruguay

Thursday, 31 August 2023

Uruguay Part 1: Relaxed Birding In The Countryside

Uruguay is one of the smallest countries in South America and the only one that is entirely situated south of the Tropic of Capricorn. Uruguay was first settled by hunter-gatherers around 13,000 years ago, while the predominate tribe when Europeans arrived was the Charrúa people. The Charrúa were semi-nomadic, often moving around in response to drought, rainfall or other environmental factors (though, it should be noted that most of what is known today about the Charrúa was learned during the period with Spanish contact). The Charrúa were victims of a genocide that was orchestrated by Uruguayan president Fructuoso Rivera in 1831. Today, there are several hundred people who identify as Charrúa, mainly living in Entre Ríos, Argentina. 

Fork-tailed Flycatcher - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

Uruguay gained its independence amid a four way struggle between Portugal, Spain, Brazil and Argentina in the early 1800s. The country has undergone many political phases since then, but currently Uruguay is considered a socially progressive country with a high standard of living and low crime levels. 

Uruguay is one of those countries that I wasn't sure if I would ever visit since my interest tends to lie in the natural world, and Uruguay doesn't stand out when compared to its (much larger) neighbours, Argentina and Brazil. This is mainly due to its diminutive size, since there are few eco-regions or species found in Uruguay that aren't shared with these other countries. However, we were in Buenos Aires - only a short ferry ride across from Uruguay - and it was a convenient stop on our way to Brazil. If we were ever going to explore Uruguay, now would be the time! 

Diademed Tanager - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

There were some potential lifers for us in Uruguay, with one in particular that I was really keen on: the Saffron-cowled Blackbird. This rapidly declining species still has a relative stronghold in Uruguay, though for how long, nobody knows. More on that species later....

Uruguay also has a reputation for being quite expensive for foreigners. After coming from Argentina with its "blue-dollar rate" and massive inflation, this was quite the contrast. Luckily, we only had a week planned in Uruguay since I don't think we could have afforded it for much longer! Gas prices were 2.5 times higher than in Argentina, food prices were equally exorbitant, and hotel prices were comparable to Canada. On a per-day basis, Uruguay was the second-most expensive country we have visited in the last few years, slightly trailing behind Singapore. 

Conognatha klugii - Paso del Jabonero, Lavalleja, Uruguay

February 23 was a travel day, as we took the ferry from Buenos Aires across the strait to the town of Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay, and from there we bused to the capital of Montevideo. We took the afternoon and evening to see the sights and grab some dinner, then listened to a street concert that was happening just outside of our hostel. 

February 24, 2023

Laura and I grabbed an Uber to the car rental agency, and by mid-morning we were off. Driving here is fairly straightforward; Uruguay has a reputation for its relaxed way of life and this is manifested in the habits of its drivers as well. Before long, we were cruising past the countryside under a bright sun. Cattle and Greater Rheas dotted the grasslands and pastures which stretched for miles, interrupted only by the occasional shrub-lined stream. 

Greater Rhea - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

We broke up our drive with a quick detour down a side road which led to one of the aforementioned creeks. Within minutes we had found our first two lifers - an ungainly Dusky-legged Guan, and a vocal Olivaceous Elaenia, neither of which I managed to photograph. The creek was an oasis in a dry environment and we quickly found a couple dozen bird species. 

Glaucous-blue Grosbeak - Paso del Jabonero, Lavalleja, Uruguay

Glittering-bellied Emerald - Paso del Jabonero, Lavalleja, Uruguay

Pressing on, we reached our destination by the late afternoon. As a treat from family members, we would be staying in a hacienda on a ranch for several nights. I have to say, waking up in the morning and listening to the birds in the Uruguayan countryside was a nice change from our usual lodgings, which is generally a cheap motel or hostel in a dirty part of town. 

Our hacienda - Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

February 25, 2023

Laura had organized a private horseback tour for the day with a local guide, and so after a delicious breakfast at the hacienda, we headed out by 8:00 AM or so. Laura is quite adept with horses, having grown up with them all her life, but I decidedly am not. I wisely sat this one out, opting to go birding for the day before picking her up in the late afternoon. 

We were a few minutes late to the appointment since we had been held up along the way. This gorgeous Yellow-bellied Liophis (Erythrolamprus poecilogyrus) was crossing the dirt road and required a certain amount of admiration before we could continue on. 

Yellow-bellied Liophis (Erythrolamprus poecilogyrus) - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

Yellow-bellied Liophis (Erythrolamprus poecilogyrus) - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

I dropped Laura off and continued down the road towards a nature reserve called Quebrada de los Cuervos. I didn't really have any intentions of paying the entrance fee to enter the reserve. Rather, I hoped to bird along the scrub, creeks, and grasslands that lined the quiet roadway. 

Firewood-gatherer - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

Heavy gray clouds swirled around and I worried that I might have a protracted morning of birding. Luckily, I was spared from heavy downpours and the clouds ensured that bird activity remained high. 

Chalk-browed Mockingbird - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

It was one of those magical days in which I found everything that I was hoping for (and then some!), while photographic opportunities abounded and I didn't have to deal with any other people. Bliss.

Blue-billed Black-Tyrant (male) - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

Blue-billed Black-Tyrant was one of three lifers on the day. I found a female as well as two males in different areas, each one regularly performing a display flight. 

Blue-billed Black-Tyrant (female) - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

My main goal was to cross paths with the range-restricted Mottled Piculet. Who doesn't love a petite woodpecker that is smaller than a chickadee, especially if it is only found in one tiny corner of the world?

I played the piculet song while picking through a small mixed flock at one point, and an angry bullet came flying at me.

Mottled Piculet - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

That was almost too easy! The piculet hung around for a few minutes, giving me every opportunity to roast it with photos. 

Mottled Piculet - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

Mottled Piculet - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

Mottled Piculet - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

I lucked out with another great bird early in the afternoon. Walking along the edge of a field was a distinctive tinamou shape - a Red-winged Tinamou! Though I had heard this species on a few previous occasions in Argentina, this was my first sighting. 

Red-winged Tinamou - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

The diffused sunlight through a thin layer of clouds provided excellent lighting for photos, and the birds were cooperating. 

Freckle-breasted Thornbird - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

Diademed Tanager - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

Tropical Parula - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

Stripe-crowned Spinetail - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

The clouds dispersed enough for the sun to break through. Though it stifled bird activity, it also meant that the butterflies came out of the woodwork. 

Roadside birding - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

Spicauda sp. - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

Junonia genoveva - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

As I was driving to a different area along the road, this family of Dusky-legged Guans appeared in front of me. 

Dusky-legged Guan - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

I was down to my final hour before it was time to pick up Laura, and I still hadn't found my other target. Reaching a small stand of trees, a distinctive high chip note caught my ears. And there it was, my first Chestnut-backed Tanager, a female. The males of this species are absolutely spectacular, but the female is quite pretty as well. This was a great end to a satisfying day of birding.

Chestnut-backed Tanager - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

One of the last new species for my eBird checklist was this high-flying Sharp-shinned Hawk. This population has been split by some authorities as Rufous-thighed Hawk. 

Sharp-shinned Hawk (Rufous-thighed) - Quebrada de los Cuervos, Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

Laura had had a blast with her guide as well, though they hadn't been so fortunate with the rain and had endured a good soaking. Otherwise, it had been an excellent day and Laura had thoroughly enjoyed exploring the countryside on horseback. 

While returning to the hacienda that evening, Laura spotted a Great Horned Owl in the plantation along the entrance road. 

Great Horned Owl - Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

Some North American birders may be surprised to hear that Great Horned Owls range this far south! Great Horned Owls can be found in more habitats than any other American owl species: the subarctic treeline, dense conifer woods in the boreal forest, sprawling deserts in the American southwest, the páramo high up in the Andes, and the grasslands of southeastern South America, to name just a few. The populations in the central/southern Andes and Tierra del Fuego have been "split" off as a new species, the Lesser Horned Owl. 

Great Horned Owl - Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

As dusk fell, I watched a Scissor-tailed Nightjar fly over the clearing of the hacienda, while a Tropical Screech-Owl sang on regular intervals. A great day.