Sunday 30 July 2023

Frustrating Times at Parque Nacional El Palmar

Parque Nacional El Palmar is located near Argentina's eastern border, a few hours north of Buenos Aires. The main habitat found in this national park is palm savannah, a severely fragmented ecosystem found in northeastern Argentina, Uruguay and barely into southern Brazil. PN El Palmar was established in 1966 to protect the extensive stands of the Yatay Palm (Butia yatay) which occur here. Though the palm stands are the dominant ecosystem and give the park a distinctive appearance, one can also explore riverine woodland and open grasslands at PN El Palmar. 

PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

Laura and I opted to spend a night car-camping here since PN El Palmar is conveniently located halfway between Parque Nacional Iberá and the city of Buenos Aires. Being a national park, the visiting hours were completely unreasonable if one is hoping to see wildlife; the park gates open once the dawn chorus of birdsong has ended, and close just before the best hours in the evening. But by choosing to camp in the park, Laura and I had the option to search for wildlife that are more easily found at dusk and dawn (namely, everything). 

PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

PN El Palmar is quite famous in the "mammal watching" scene due to the healthy population of Geoffroy's Cats found here. If one dedicates three of four nights to spotlighting for mammals along the park's road system, a Geoffroy's Cat sighting would be more likely than not (but far from guaranteed). In addition to the cats, PN El Palmar is home to many other mammals including high numbers of Pampas Fox and Crab-eating Fox. Introduced Chital share habitat with the native Brown Brocket Deer. Neotropical River Otters can be found (with extreme patience) along the El Palmar river. And a population of distinctive and curious Plains Viscacha live in burrows at the campground, emerging at dusk to cause mayhem through the night. 

Plains Viscacha - Parque Nacional El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

Laura and I enjoyed a relaxed morning at our nearby hotel, then drove through a heavy downpour which, thankfully, cleared as we pulled up to the park gates for the 9 AM opening hour. The morning's rain had caused the birds to also have a bit of a sleep-in, and activity was high upon our arrival. 

Swainson's Hawk - PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

I only had a few bird targets at El Palmar, all of which we would have good chances at later in Uruguay and Brazil. Glaucous-blue Grosbeak was the main one, though Blue-billed Black-Tyrant and Chestnut-backed Tanager were potential lifers that had occasionally been reported at El Palmar. 

Within our first hour in the park we had already connected with both species of foxes. They are clearly used to frequent vehicular and pedestrian traffic here since they did not seem bothered by our presence at all. 

Pampas Fox (Lycalopex gymnocercus) - PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

Crab-eating Fox (Cerdocyon thous) - PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

We took a few hours in the morning to bird along the gravel road leading to Mirador Los Loros. Several hundred Eared Doves provided quite the distraction; they were constantly seen flying past, or moving in the shrubbery, making it difficult to spot any other birds! 

Eared Dove - PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

We slowly picked out other species, though. Swainson's, Harris's, and Roadside Hawks were all accounted for, a family group of Diademed Tanagers called frequently as they perched up on the roadside trees, and we tallied both Black-capped and Gray-throated Warbling Finches. 

Diademed Tanager - PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

We carefully scrutinized a skulky Ultramarine Grosbeak to make sure that it wasn't our target, the Glaucous-blue. 

Ultramarine Grosbeak - PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

The mirador provided an excellent vantage point to scan for wildlife, and this technique paid off with our first Chital that Laura spotted far down the hillside. Also known as the Spotted Deer, the Chital is native to the Indian subcontinent but substantial introduced populations occur in Texas, Australia, and northeastern Argentina/Uruguay. 

Chital (Axis axis) - PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

I thought that a nearby wetland in the palm savannah had high potential for the Glaucous-blue Grosbeak. A brief bit of playback produced an immediate response! I called Laura over and we were soon both watching our lifer Glaucous-blue Grosbeak. 

Glaucous-blue Grosbeak - PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

It was easy to appreciate the differences between the Glaucous-blue and the Ultramarine as we had just observed one of the latter. The Glaucous-blue also had a very distinctive call. 

Glaucous-blue Grosbeak - PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

Glaucous-blue Grosbeaks have a very limited range in Argentina but they are more widespread in Uruguay and southern Brazil. 

Glaucous-blue Grosbeak - PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

Laura and I explored several other areas on foot, eventually retiring to the campground for a nap in the car by mid-afternoon. Our first Bicolored Hawk for Argentina, an adult, was a nice surprise at the campground. 

Bicolored Hawk - PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

Feeling rejuvenated, Laura and I waited for dusk to fall so that the real adventure could begin: spot-lighting for Geoffroy's Cats. But the Plains Viscacha provided a worthy distraction as several eager individuals emerged from their tunnels long before the sky darkened.

Plains Viscacha (Lagostomus maximus) - PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

Plains Viscachas live in female-controlled social groups that rely on a warren of tunnels and burrows. They spend the night foraging on grasses and forbs, returning to the tunnel system by dawn. They will drag large branches over the entrances of the tunnels, creating a barrier of sorts for potential predators. A rather large colony of Plains Viscachas live in the campground at PN El Palmar and they create quite the entertainment for the campers. 

Plains Viscacha (Lagostomus maximus) - PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

Unfortunately, we found out the hard way that Parque Nacional El Palmar is trying to discourage wildlife observation, at least during the best hours. All of the side-roads that branch off the main park road are closed a couple of hours before dusk, and do not open again until the mid-morning hours. Spot-lighting is forbidden, and rangers patrol the park roads at night to make sure that nobody is out searching for cats or other nocturnal wildlife. This was really frustrating for us since El Palmar has long been known as a premier mammal-watching destination in Argentina. Surely the potential impact caused by an occasional biologist or wildlife photographer is rather minimal, since this is still a rather niche hobby. 

Ortilia velica - PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

But alas, we were not able to spend our only evening at El Palmar doing what we hoped. Instead, we went for a brief night-walk, turning up some of the same mammal species as earlier in the day as well as a few other odds and ends. Then we walked back to the campground to watch the Plains Viscachas for a little while before calling it a night. 

Hensel's Dwarf Frog (Physalaemus henselii) - PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

Banded Sphinx (Eumorpha fasciatus) - PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

Laura and I came up with a new plan. We would wake very early (around 3 AM) to give us a chance to cruise the park roads before dawn when cat activity might be high. We hoped that at that early hour, there wouldn't be any rangers patrolling. We fell asleep to the sounds of a Great Horned Owl hooting, and the unusual calls of the Plains Viscachas from all around us.

Plains Viscacha (Lagostomus maximus) - PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

Our plan worked pretty well (other than feeling rather groggy from the scant few hours of sleep) and we enjoyed a peaceful pre-dawn road-cruising session. Unfortunately, we struck out with cats, but that wasn't much of a surprise given the limited amount of time we were able to search for them. We found quite a few foxes of both species, Brown Brocket Deer and, of course, hundreds of Capybara. The main highlight were perhaps the Scissor-tailed Nightjars, of which we counted at least seven on the roads.  

PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

We watched the sun rise at the El Palmar river and listened to the dawn chorus as it crescendoed and then quieted. Eventually, we settled in the car for a quick nap, only to be awakened by a park ranger who informed us that we needed to leave as this portion of the park was closed for the night (even though it was now well after sunrise). We followed the park vehicle back to main road, stopping for a very recently road-killed worm lizard (likely run over by the park truck in front of us). 

Silver-lined Worm Lizard (Ophiodes intermedius) - PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

Of course, by the time that we had reached the main park road, the "road closed" sign had been removed and the side-roads in the park were open for another day. Frustrating, but heaven forbid that someone visits a national park and searches for wildlife. 

Asclepias mellodora - PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

We often have conflicting feelings about national parks. On one hand, without national parks, these large chunks of habitat would not be protected (and protecting these areas, even if it means restricting access, should be more important than the selfish desires of a naturalist). We also realize that there needs to be rules and enforcement in place when members of the public are visiting potentially sensitive habitats. But on the other hand, it is rather frustrating when the park administration makes it very difficult to actually search for wildlife. Laura and I also saw cattle grazing in the park, which we thought was at odds with a conservation mindset, and annoyed us as it demonstrated that the park's priorities may not be entirely reasonable when it comes to conservation.

PN El Palmar, Entre Ríos, Argentina

Laura and I were happy to leave El Palmar behind after another negative experience in a national park. Give us a quiet dirt road without any administration, any day....

Monday 24 July 2023

Parque Provincial Caá Yarí

Our swing through Misiones province of northeastern Argentina was coming to a close with just a couple of days remaining. When researching this part of Argentina, I kept noticing one particular area that had a number of interesting eBird reports, but very little information on public access. The name of this region was Caá Yarí, and it appeared to be accessed from a gravel road south of San Pedro. From the few trip reports that mention this area, it seemed possible to just drive down the gravel road until reaching the forest. Laura and I planned to do just that, hoping to car-camp somewhere along the way. 

February 11, 2023 (continued)   

It was just a short drive to Caá Yarí from the town of San Pedro and we arrived during the heat of the afternoon. The gravel road was of reasonable quality and we eventually parked at the guard house for the provincial park. As expected, nobody was around; it appears that this area receives very few visitors. 

Laura and I poked around alongside the road, and I scouted out sites to set up the moth sheet/light. By 4 PM the heat had subsided somewhat, so we decided to do some late afternoon roadside birding. 

One thing about Caá Yarí is that the good quality forest isn't easily accessible. We only drove a few kilometers past the guard house down the dirt road, and it would seem that during rainy periods this road could be inaccessible for vehicles without 4X4. The areas that we explored consisted of secondary forest with few large trees. Despite this, there were still quite a few interesting species here. 

Our afternoon foray was very productive and we turned up a pair of life birds. Some speculative playback in a decent looking area instigated an immediate response from a Gray-throated Warbling-Finch. 

Gray-throated Warbling Finch - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

A minute later, I spotted this Shear-tailed Gray-Tyrant teed up on the top of a dead tree. 

Shear-tailed Gray Tyrant - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

This was a completely unexpected discovery, as Shear-tailed Gray-Tyrants are pretty rare in Argentina. Most records are from the period of May-November, so this February record was a bit of an anomaly. That being said, Caá Yarí is one of the more reliable sites in Argentina to find this species. 

Shear-tailed Gray Tyrant - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

A small mixed flock in this area produced great views of Green-backed Becards and a family group of Diademed Tanagers. Both of these were lifers for Laura! They didn't really cooperate for photos, though...

Green-backed Becard - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

One of the main reasons that we wanted to car-camp at Caá Yarí was the potential for night-time naturalist activities. The moth sheet, for one, and the chance to night-hike, for two. But also, this area can be somewhat reliable for Long-tufted Screech-Owl, Rusty-barred Owl, and on occasion, Long-trained Nightjar. 

We had one more surprise in store while we waited for night to fall at a particular bridge that had relatively recent eBird reports of the screech-owl. A bit of speculative playback caused a Planalto Tapaculo to lose his mind and start calling back. We even had a great view of him perched deep in the thickets and then flying across the road. Clearly, he had never been "tickled" with playback before. This was a great catch-up bird after dipping on it at Cruce Caballero in the preceding days.

About half an hour after sunset, the Long-tufted Screech-Owls began vocalizing, though we were unable to obtain views. We slowly drove sections of the road where Long-trained Nightjars are sometimes reported, but we came up empty. This ended up being one of our only misses in the Atlantic Forest. It is a tricky species outside of the breeding season.

The best bird that we found on the drive was this Common Potoo, perched down low on a fence post. 

Common Potoo - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Laura and I went for a stroll for a kilometer or so, south of the guard house. We finally succeeded with hearing our first Rusty-barred Owls, but they, too remained out of sight. The walk was otherwise fairly uneventful. Perhaps the dry conditions were making it difficult to find many herps. Below are a few of the scant photos that I took during the walk. 

Adimantus ornatissimus - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Tailed Sulphur (Phoebis neocypris) - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Hypselonotus interruptus - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Coptopteryx sp. - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Stalaeochlora arcuata iguazuensis - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

The rest of the evening was devoted to the moth sheet. 

Manduca florestan - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Euglyphis sp. - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

At one point, I heard some rustling in the trees behind me. Lo and behold, there was a Long-tufted Screech-Owl, also checking out the moth action!

Long-tufted Screech-Owl - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

It was a pretty excellent evening at the sheet and I could have stayed up all night checking out the insects. Unfortunately, I had to drag myself away as we would be up before dawn. Below are some of my favourites from the course of the evening. 

Euphobetron moorei - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Unidenfied crambid moth (Crambidae) - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Coleoxestia sp. - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Idaea zoalma - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Nemoria dentilinea - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Colla rhodope - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Incarcha aporalis - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Rosema sp. - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Dot-lined White (Artace cribrarius) - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Hypocosmia pyrochroma - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Loxa virescens - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Paraethria triseriata - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Asphaera sp. - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Apatelodes pandarioides - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Argyroeides sanguinea - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Syngamia florella - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

February 12, 2023

As a naturalist, my absolute favourite time of day is that period just before and around sunrise. I love listening to and watching the changes in the environment, as the morning light slowly creeps in. The air is cool, the cicadas are relatively quiet (for once!), and the night birds slowly give way to the dawn chorus. It seems like just about every bird in the vicinity is active for a short period of time. 

We awoke before dawn following a short few hours of sleep. The moth sheet had kept me occupied far too late in the evening, and our sleeping arrangement (the two front seats of the car) was not the most comfortable for a deep sleep. 

I rolled down the car's windows and we listened to the start of the dawn chorus for fifteen minutes as we slowly woke up. Long-tufted Screech and Ferruginous Pygmy Owls vocalized early, as did a Common Potoo. A Barred Forest-Falcon and several Rufous-capped Motmots lent their voices to the dawn chorus just as the sky began to lighten. Two Short-tailed Nighthawks cut through the sky above us. Before long, the forest was alive with song. 

Laura and I had a quick breakfast before setting off on foot down the dirt road to the south. The morning was full of promise. 

I thought I heard an interesting call and so I broadcast a bit of playback. Immediately, three dark shapes glided into the canopy of a roadside tree. I could scarcely believe my eyes - Saffron Toucanets!

Saffron Toucanet - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

This oddly-coloured toucan was one of my most wanted species for the Atlantic forest and I was stoked to have finally found some. Laura and I enjoyed the views for a minute or so, then the trio flew off. A quick encounter, but extremely satisfying, nonetheless.

Saffron Toucanet - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Even at that early hour, the sun felt like it had some strength behind it. We could tell that it would be a scorcher, and it wouldn't be long until the bird activity was stifled by the day's heat. It always feels like a race against time during these mornings. I feel self-imposed pressure to not linger at one spot for too long, knowing that these excellent conditions would be short-lived and I needed to cover more ground. 

Red-ruffed Fruitcrow - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

And what a morning it was. The next target to fall was a Spotted Bamboowren, its very distinctive song emanating from a roadside stand of dense bamboo. Laura and I tried to see this skulker; the best I got was a dark shape furtively moving in the dark interior. 

The Dusky-tailed Antbird, another lifer, was slightly more accommodating. We enjoyed the quick views of a pair, though they were too twitchy for my camera as they scampered through the bamboo. I would have to wait until Brazil a month later before finally photographing this species.

Rufous-browed Peppershrike - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Laura and I tallied around 80 species of birds during the morning. Other highlights from this walk included our first Sharp-billed Treehunter, another Shear-tailed Gray-Tyrant, great views of Chestnut-headed Tanagers, two more Planalto Tapaculos, a Red-ruffed Fruitcrow and much more. 

After several kilometres of walking, Laura and I turned around to backtrack to the guard house. The morning was already quite warm and the bird activity had started to dwindle. I was more focused on insect photography at this time. 

Two-barred Flasher (Astraptes fulgerator) - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Fantastic Ruby-Eye (Lycas argentea) - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Pelidnota sordida - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

We were suddenly buzzed by a hummingbird, which eventually alighted on some nearby vegetation. We were pretty excited to see that it was a Purple-crowned Plovercrest! This Atlantic Forest endemic species had somehow eluded us to this point. Of course we hoped to find a male, but this female would be all that we would get. The males are absolutely ridiculous looking and I encourage you to google it.

Purple-crowned Plovercrest - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

That was it for the birding highlights and the last kilometre of the walk was a trudge, given the muggy conditions. We kept watch for interesting insects instead, and here are a few more fruits of our labor. 

Ortilia velica - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Doxocopa kallina - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Calycopis caulonia - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Zoniopoda tarsata - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Orange Banner (Temenis laothoe) - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Widespread Eighty-Eight (Diaethria clymena) - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Unidentified Spread-wing Skipper (Pyrginae) - PP Caá Yarí, Misiones, Argentina

Laura and I packed up and headed out after a very successful 24 hours at Caá Yarí. Our time in Misiones had come to a close, but what a successful week and a half it had been! And we had one more surprise in store. 

As we were only a few kilometres from the western boundary of Misiones Province, a massive raptor perched beside the road grabbed my attention. I slowed the car down just as it lifted off and flew back from the road's edge. I immediately recognized this bird as an adult Chaco Eagle. It was almost all gray with really broad wings and a short tail with white base and black outer band. The wings were so broad that the tail barely projected behind it, similar to a Solitary Eagle, for example. It lacked the orange tones that a Savanna Hawk shows, while the bird was also a lot larger with broader wings and a shorter tail. 

Laura and I waited at the roadside since it didn't look like the eagle had flown back very far at all. Unfortunately, that would be our only view of this enigmatic eagle. I was unable to take any photos to document this very rare sighting for Misiones Province, and it was no surprise that the local eBird reviewer rejected the sighting. It seems that down here, photos/recordings are required to get any sighting through. I can't blame them, to be honest. 

With just over a week remaining on our Argentina trip, Laura and I spent the next couple of nights in the town of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, which is the main jumping-off point for exploring Parque Nacional Iberá (you can read about those exploits here). From there, we began the drive south towards Buenos Aires and beyond. My next blog post will cover our visit to Parque Nacional El Palmar, where Laura and I were hoping to spotlight some interesting mammals at night.