Considering it’s the second largest country in South America, and the eighth largest in the world, with the huge variety of habitat that goes with that, Argentina used to keep a low profile with bird and wildlife watchers.
That’s a shame, and fortunately, it’s starting to be put right, as the country’s natural riches for birding tours have started to attract the attention they deserve.
Given that there are only 41 million people spread across that enormous area, there are lots of wide open, unspoiled places. The infrastructure is also well developed, so you can make your own discoveries without feeling that you’re in the back of beyond too often, or that you need to rough it too much. And, when you do meet the Argentinian people, you’ll receive the warmest and friendliest of welcomes (as well as the chance to enjoy quite exceptional steak and wine!).
Here are some of the best places to go bird watching in Argentina.
Iberá Wetlands, Northeast Argentina
The Iberá Wetlands, in the north-east of the country, are too often missed by the more general tourist heading on to the famous Iguazú Falls National Park, but they’re helping to put Argentina on the map with birding enthusiasts. They’re rather reminiscent of Brazil’s famed Pantanal region (and are second in size to it among the world’s wetlands), containing large areas of actual wetland (best explored by boat) as well as rough grasslands dotted with pools and trees.
In the former, you won’t be surprised to hear, water birds abound. Rufescent Tiger-heron is a gloriously red-brown creature, and pops up in all sorts of ditches and channels. While the Jabiru is a very large and imposing stork, with a wingspan second only to the Andean Condor among South American birds. It’s more commonly seen on the ground, in a hunched posture, at which times it can look curiously human.
Photo credit: Trogon Tours, Birding Iguazú National Park
If you do get a guide and a boat (recommended, as they’ll handle the boat, and know the best channels and streams to go down), you’ll find the birds allow you a much closer approach than on foot – it’s sometimes easy to forget that an upright profile is seen as a threat by most species. So, once in a boat, the likes of Roseate Spoonbill, Plumbeous Ibis, Whistling Heron, Stripe-backed Bittern and Sungrebe should be seen well, and at pretty close quarters.
Southern Lapwings are everywhere, and unmistakably lapwings, but a species that doesn’t seem to fit any family of birds you’ve seen before is Southern Screamer. In flight, its broad, fingered wings can convince you it’s a raptor, but seen on the ground, it’s more like a cross between a goose and a turkey, with a bit of wader and pigeon thrown into the mix, all topped off with a raucously unlovely voice. They quickly start to endear themselves to you, though, with their habit of perching on seemingly every prominent tree and fencepost, while Limpkins are another odd mixture, striking you as something between a crane and a rail.
Yellow Cardinal, sadly threatened, is a possibility in some parts of the wetlands, while raptors include the Southern Crested Caracara, largest of a family closely related to the falcons, but which look more like large hawks and behave more like vultures.
Photo credit: Hernán Rodríguez Goñi, Seriema Nature Tours, Jabiru Stork
Both here and in the grassier areas, you’ll see plenty of Rufous Horneros, plus other ovenbirds (so called because their clay nests resemble ovens) such as Brown Cacholote, while Great Kiskadee, a large, bright yellow tyrant flycatcher, is pretty ubiquitous too. Snail Kites, with their distinctively deeply-hooked beaks, appear throughout the wider marsh area.
Burrowing Owls look and behave a lot like our own Little Owls, sharing with them comically grumpy looks and a habit of hunting at dawn and dusk and basking in sunny spots. So they’re a familiar sight throughout the grassland areas, alongside the likes of American Wood Stork.
If the latter strikes you as big, though, your first sight of a Greater Rhea will put it in the shade. These huge creatures, closely related to Ostriches, roam the area, sometimes in flocks of more than 100 in winter, but more often as lone males or small groups of females or young birds. They’re cautious, but generally won’t run away at speed unless they feel threatened.
Urban Birding in Buenos Aires
As any visit to Argentina will involve passing through Buenos Aires airport, it can be a good idea to build at least a day of birding in Buenos Aires into your trip.
That will give you a chance to acclimatise, to visit attractions in the capital such as Eva Peron’s tomb in the extraordinary Las Recoleta Cemetery or Diego Maradona’s tough home area of Boca, to take in a tango show, and to visit the Costanera Sur Eco Reserve.
Photo credit: Germán Pugnali, Seriema Nature Tours, Coscoroba Swans
Just 10 minutes’ walk from the city centre, and on the banks of the wide Rio de la Plata estuary, it has lagoons, reedbeds and grassland, and in fact if you visit outside opening hours you can still enjoy many of its birds from the promenade outside.
These should include the likes of Coscoroba Swan, Giant Wood Rail, Guira Cuckoo (which can be extremely tame), Field Flicker, and Argentina’s national bird, Rufous Hornero.
That doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily see anything you won’t see elsewhere, but it is a great way to ‘get your eye in’ for birding in Argentina.
Paraná River (Río Paraná)
If you explore the marshes from south to north, or from the west, starting at Corrientes, you can finish up by travelling on to Iguazú. Or do some birding on the Paraná River, near where Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil all meet.
The backwaters here are again best explored by boat, with Ringed, Amazon and Green Kingfishers all present, while the forest areas next to the water can hold Cream-backed and Little Woodpeckers.
Photo credit: Hernán Rodríguez Goñi, Seriema Nature Tours, Toco Toucan
But the real star of the show here is the Toco Toucan, a truly iconic species (not least because of a certain brand of Irish stout). Seen in the flesh, it’s every bit as exciting as you’d hope, with those huge yellow/orange bills both distinctive and seemingly an impossible impediment to flying.
They’re not actually a forest bird, being more often seen on woodland edges, in parks and gardens, and in areas of savannah, where other highlights can be the striking Scarlet-headed Blackbird, flycatchers such as the Black-and-White Monjita, and the Streamer-tailed and Strange-tailed Tyrants (they’re both pretty strange-tailed, to be honest).
Sickle-winged Nightjar is a great bird to see, too (although as with most nightjars you’ll have to wait until dusk), scissoring over the grasslands like a huge swift. Little Nightjar and the common and widespread Pauraque should be present, too.
San Carlos de Bariloche and the Andes
If you’ve spent a large part of your trip to Argentina exploring the Iberá Wetlands, you might have to save the bulk of Patagonia for another time – it’s a vast area in itself, with a very wide range of habitats.
But the Andean ski resort of Bariloche is a good place to start to sample its delights if you do have limited time, because there are at least two iconic species to be found nearby.
Photo credit: Luis Segura, Trogon Tours, Magellanic Woodpecker
The first is Magellanic Woodpecker, a true giant of its family reminiscent of the probably extinct Ivory-billed and Imperial Woodpeckers. In spring, summer and autumn, when there’s no snow around, a walk around the area near the top of the ski lifts can bring a close encounter with one – their double-knock drumming gives their presence away, and then it’s a question of looking for the bright red head and crest, and the large black body with a white streak down the back.
Fortunately, they’re in no danger, unlike their previously mentioned relatives further north, but they do face predation from raptors such as Aplomado Falcon and White-throated Hawk, the latter a small buteo (or buzzard) found only in this region.
If there’s one raptor that dominates your thoughts the instant you get within sight of the Andes, though, it’s the Andean Condor. You find yourself scanning the sky for these giants incessantly, trying to turn much smaller birds of prey into them, until when you do finally see them, with their massive 3.5m wingspan, you realise that they are unmistakable.
Photo credit: Claudio F Vidal, Far South Expeditions, Andean Condor
During the day, they feed on the Patagonian plains, but they return to roost sites in the mountains and their foothills each night, and this is the best way to see them. Local guides can take you to sites less than an hour from Bariloche where over 50 of the birds gather on cliffs, occasionally swirling round in the last thermals before settling down for the night.
Mammal watching in Argentina
It’s not just birds. Any trip to Argentina should give you great opportunities to add to your mammal and reptile lists, too.
In the Iberá Wetlands, and any similar habitats, Capybaras are common and widespread – they’re like overgrown guinea pigs (the size of a large dog). Marsh Deer and the rarer Pampas Deer are also around, plus the likes of Black Howler Monkeys, Nine-banded Armadillos, and Common Vampire Bats. There are also two species of caiman – the smaller Broad-snouted (which averages around 2.5m in length), and the truly impressive Black, which can grow to beyond 5m.
In Patagonia, mammals are more often of the domesticated variety, but Guanacos can be seen – they’re large camelids, of which llamas are the domesticated version.
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The Patagonian Plains (the Patagonian Steppe)
Finally, the plains that they scavenge on are best explored from the tourist town of San Martin de los Andes, around three hours from Bariloche. It has a certain amount of birding interest itself, with the likes of Chilean Flicker and plentiful Chimango Caracaras, the smallest of their family, which gather in flocks wherever a feeding opportunity presents itself.
But for greater number and variety of birds, a drive out onto the plains pays dividends. On and close to the Estancia Collon Cura, and the Rio Collon Cura, you can look for Chilean Flamingo, Black-faced Ibis, Great Shrike-tyrant, Two-banded Plover, Greter Yellowlegs, Silver Teal and Red Shoveler, while small areas of reedbed hold one of Argentina’s most beautiful but frustrating birds, the Many-coloured Rush Tyrant.
Photo credit: Far South Expeditions, Many-colored Rush Tyrant
Tiny, and rainbow-hued, it’s willing to allow close approaches, but rarely if ever emerges fully from the reeds, so you can easily spend half a day trying to get one serviceable photo of them. But it’s worth the wait – in their own way, these tiny sprites are every bit as unforgettable as those condors, rheas and toucans.
Are you interested in birding in Argentina?
For more information, contact one of our Argentinian Wildlife Specialists to book directly your next birding adventure.