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