Days 1 - 2
FLY LONDON-BUENOS AIRES
Our birdwatching tour to northwest Argentina begins with British Airways overnight flight from London Heathrow to Buenos Aires, arriving there on the morning of day two.
Having transferred to our hotel close to the capital's famous River Plate, we start our birding with a walk (and lunch) along the edge of the lakes near the excellent wetland reserve of Costanera Sur. Dotting the reed-fringed lakes we should find a great selection of South American waterbirds, whilst Chilean and Brown-chested Martins along with Chimanco and Southern Caracaras hawk overhead. Alongside such delights as Whistling Heron and the pint-sized Ringed Teal, our visit today will provide a fine introduction to a range of bird families and species we should encounter again elsewhere - from 'everyday' Chalk-browed Mockingbirds and Rufous Horneros to the goggle-eyed Spectacled Tyrant and startling Green-barred Woodpecker. Along the waterfront, weird-looking Guira Cuckoos stalk the pavements and we'll check the fringing reeds for the distinctive Spot-flanked Gallinule and Red-crested Cardinal, plus Yellow-winged Blackbird and - if we are very fortunate - the secretive Many-coloured Rush Tyrant.
After enjoying a splendid first afternoon of birding in the Argentine capital, we return to our hotel to freshen up before dinner - then it’s off to bed early in preparation for the exciting days ahead! Night Buenos Aires
Days 3 - 4
FLY BUENOS AIRES TO SALTA: SELVA MONTANA, HUAICO RESERVE & WETLANDS
This morning we catch a short domestic flight (2hrs) from Buenos Aires, northwest into the Andes at Salta. After landing, we transfer to Selva Montana Ecolodge, in the village of San Lorenzo (about 20 minutes drive to the north of Salta), on the slopes of sub-Andean mountain ridges. We will spend two nights at the lodge.
En route from the airport we could well pick up our first startling White Monjita, with oddly Redstart-like Blue-and-yellow Tanagers singing from the tree tops. By checking the grass verge we may be lucky to see a tinamou in the shape of a Darwin’s Nothura!
The gardens around our lodge at Selva Montana provide excellent habitat for some introductory Andean birding, holding an abundance of resident species such as Sayaca Tanager, Golden-billed Saltator, Brown-capped Redstart, Tropical Parula and the noisy White-bellied Hummingbird, augmented by a number of ‘just-arrived’ summer migrants that might include Piratic Flycatcher, Small-billed Elaenia and Smoke-coloured Pewee.
We will pay a couple of visits to the Huaico Reserve, which protects the specialised Yungas cloudforest cloaking the slopes of San Lorenzo. We'll enjoy our time walking along well-maintained grassy trails in search of forest birds here - and it can be very exciting at times as the thick, tangled understorey can host mixed species flocks. Among a range of targets, we'll be watching for Dusky-legged Guan, Barred Forest Falcon, Yungas Dove, the tiny Ocellated Piculet, and Dot-fronted and Cream-backed Woodpeckers, while noisy parties of Mitred Parakeets wheel above the trees. We may also add Scaly-headed Parrot, Slender-tailed Woodstar and the rather confiding Grey-necked Wood Rail from the list of more than 200 species recorded in this superb private reserve.
Further possibilities include chestnut Stripe-crowned and Azara’s Spinetails, active Straneck’s and Sclater’s Tyrannulets, Mountain Wren, Fawn-breasted Tanager (which actually looks very much smarter than it sounds!), Rufous-capped Antshrike, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Andean Slaty Thrush, Mountain Elaenia and Two-banded Warbler. Common Bush Tanagers travel in noisy groups that regularly attract other species such as Fulvous-headed Brush Finch, Golden-rumped Euphonia, Rusty-browed Warbling Finch and Golden-winged Cacique. Rufous-thighed Hawk and Roadside Hawks frequently soar above the trees.
One afternoon we will drive eastwards to the Sianca Valley and visit a private protected wetland. An amazing abundance of South American wildfowl concentrates at this lagoon, with the rare Comb Duck, Rosy-billed Pochard, Black-headed Duck, White-cheeked Pintail, Silver and Cinnamon Teals, plus Brazilian and Lake Ducks among species we hope to find. This superb lake also has many White-faced Ibis, White-tufted, Great and Pied-billed Grebes, and Grey-necked Wood Rail, along with various coots and herons. The rush beds give shelter to Plumbeous Rails and secretive, 'moped-revving' Wren-like Rushbirds; conspicuous piles of Apple Snail shells are created by the gregarious Snail Kites; and the surrounding thickets provide chances of seeing the attractive Red Pileated Finch, Ultramarine Grosbeak and White-browed Blackbird.
If weather conditions are good this evening, we will pay a visit to the forested Huaico Reserve (close to our hotel) to try for the localised Yungas (or Hoy’s) Screech Owl, Scissor-tailed Nightjar or even Little Nightjar. Two nights Selva Montana Ecolodge
SOUTHWEST TO CACHI
Setting off early this morning, we travel southwest to spend our next two nights at Cachi.
The drive to Cachi is an incredible experience as the landscape changes from the Yungas forests near Salta, through the deep, wooded valley of the Rio Escoibo, up and onto open montane grasslands – our first taste of the puna. After a brief walk in the Valle Encantado, we pass through the open landscape of the Cuesta del Obispo and descend into Los Cardones National Park (named after its fantastic and impressively tall Cardones cacti ‘forest’ that deck the slopes), before reaching Cachi on the old RN40 'Inca Trail'.
We will make regular stops along the valley, looking for local specialities such as Tucuman Mountain Finch, Rusty Flowerpiercer and Rufous-bellied Saltator (which is probably not really a saltator at all, but more a large mountain tanager). In Valle Encantando, we have chances to see some special birds amidst a very special landscape: huge-billed Andean Flickers pick insects from the ground; Rock Earthcreeper, Creamy-breasted Canastero and the rarer Steinbach’s Canastero flit about rocky areas; and Bar-winged Cinclodes feed beside the streams. On close-cropped grassy areas, Moreno’s Ground Doves hide amongst the tussocks, while an assortment of wheatear-like ground tyrants, including Cinereous and Puna, are always much enjoyed. The large Black-billed Shrike-tyrant adds to the mix and vegetated gullies conceal Brown-capped Tit-spinetails, White-winged Black-tyrants, the striking Black Siskin and Rufous-sided Warbling Finch.
Passing over the lofty Cuesta del Obispo at an altitude of 3500m (11,500ft), Andean Condor can be seen - soaring over the ridges or gliding just below us along the deep valleys - whilst herds of elegant Guanacos scamper across the puna grassland. We should encounter Variable Hawk and perhaps Cinereous Harrier, and we will make our first try for the superb and upright Tawny-throated Dotterel - a handsome species that stands tall and seems to epitomise the wild landscape and its colours, and well worth the effort to find it, you will agree! Hellmayr’s Pipit feed on the tracks and we have a chance of the streaky Correndera Pipit, too.
Dropping west and down towards Cachi, we travel through Los Cardones National Park, which encompasses spectacular cacti-clad slopes and towering peaks rising to more than 5,000m (16,500ft). We may well stop for a brief look today, keeping our eyes open for Elegant Crested Tinamou and both Tufted and Yellow-billed Tit Tyrants. We should arrive at our comfortable modern hotel at Cachi in the late afternoon. Overlooking the valley and with gardens that can be alive with Saffron Finches and Band-tailed Seedeaters, if time allows a gentle stroll can be eventful. Night Cachi
CACHI & LOS CARDONES NP
To the north and west of Cachi are very high mountains, where at this time of year the austral spring snowmelt feeds the Rio Calchaqui, creating a verdant stripe through the dry landscape. An early start this morning will not only give us a good chance of seeing the sun strike the high western peaks, but also allow us time to explore the valley in a relaxed way.
Stopping as we drive - if for no other reason than to admire the magnificent morning views - could well reward us with Red-tailed Comet and the peculiar White-tipped Plantcutter. Mourning Sierra Finch is quite common here, too. Pausing near the river we should also see endearing White-faced Woodpeckers perched on the tall cacti, and perhaps cinnamon-hued Cliff Flycatchers on the wires. Many other species inhabit this beautiful valley and we will hope to find Burrowing Parrot, Andean Swift and Chiguanco Thrush, as well as the smart Ringed Warbling Finch. Wide-ranging American Kestrels hunt from prominent posts and wires, and both Patagonian and Brown-backed Mockingbirds may be found – equally smart looking birds, too.
Just to the east of the valley, the dry Cardones forest is home to several key species and we’ll spend time exploring and listening out for the splendidly named and chunky endemic tapaculo, Sandy Gallito. We could well find our first Giant Hummingbirds, here visiting a flowering cactus, and we'll look out for White-throated Cachalote, another key endemic. Elegant Crested Tinamous can sometimes be spotted in the roadside scrub. In the late afternoon, the sun passes behind the western mountains, making those in the east positively glow as we head back to our lodge for dinner and our second night there. Night Cachi
LOS CARDONES NATIONAL PARK, THE CHACO & RETURN TO SALTA
We will take the whole day to make the return transfer from Cachi (170km or so) back to Salta - but boy is it worth it, for our journey will not only take in some of the most amazing landscapes of the trip but should hopefully produce some fabulous and sought-after birds, too!
Driving initially through the Parque Nacional Los Cardones, we can try again for the secretive Sandy Gallito or Elegant Crested Tinamou, both of which root around the low scrub by the road. Finches to watch for in the same area include the very smart Common Diuca Finch and Grey-hooded Sierra Finch. Heading over the Cuesta del Obispo, we have further opportunities to look for the appealing Tucuman Mountain Finch, White-browed and D’Orbigny’s Chat-tyrants, and Rufous-naped Ground Tyrant. Lunch in the valley may be disturbed by a flock of Grey-hooded Parakeets or Buff-necked Ibises.
Once back into the valley near Salta we turn south for a short distance into the Chaco, spending the rest of the afternoon searching this habitat of dry sandy bushes and trees for several local specialities. Two very smart finches can be seen and heard here: the Many-coloured Chaco Finch (which looks like a slimmed down Golden-billed Saltator), and the Black-crested Finch, which may be mono-chromatic, but is rather splendid. The lanky Black-legged Seriema also occurs, but we will be lucky to find one - and we may already have used all our luck up in finding another large tapaculo, the Crested Gallito!
Our accommodation tonight is once more the lovely Selva Montana Ecolodge, at San Lorenzo. We will try to get to there early for a slightly more restful late afternoon and early evening. Night Selva Montana Ecolodge
NORTH: JUJUY, YALA & HUMAHUACA
Leaving Salta behind, we travel the scenic RN9 north to Jujuy today, passing through some lovely wooded landscapes as we climb up over the hills. At the Santa Laura Mountain pass we will check several good spots, hoping to find Red-legged Seriema and the elusive Giant Antshrike. Amidst idyllic countryside, deep-blue lakes - the Dique Campo Alegre and Las Maderas - have shallow margins attractive to wetland species such as Wattled Jacana, Black-necked Stilt, White-faced Ibis, Wood Stork, and Cocoi and Whistling Herons. Baird's Sandpiper and other Nearctic shorebirds may be seen around the shores and the fringing woodlands attract avian delights such as Chaco Puffbird, Tawny-headed Swallow, Black-capped Warbling Finch, Masked Yellowthroat and Vermilion Flycatcher.
Passing bustling Jujuy, we head up the forested Yala Valley, where we stop for lunch - though hopefully not before a quick check for Rufous-throated Dipper and Torrent Duck amongst the bolders of the fast-flowing river! This area has a rich biodiversity and the birdlife is very varied. Simply by strolling up the easy dirt track, we could find new species such as the localised Red-faced Guan and overhead, swifts often include the huge White-collared and Rothschild's Swifts. Other birds typical birds of this narrow section of Yungas forest include Crested Becard, Yellow-browed Tyrant, Slaty and Highland Elaenias, Streak-throated Bush Tyrant, Cinnamon Flycatcher, Smoke-coloured Pewee and Fawn-breasted Tanager.
Tearing ourselves away (although we have another chance to bird here later on this tour, when we head back south), we continue north to Humahuaca, our base for the next three nights. Night Humahuaca
Days 9 - 10
QUEBRADA DE HUMAHUACA, ABRA PAMPA, LOS POZUELOS & ALTIPLANO LAKES
Rising early, we depart for an unforgettable journey into the altiplano wilderness. From Abra Pampa, we head west towards Los Pozuelos, birding as we go. There's plenty to look out for: Puna Ibis, no fewer than six ‘Andeans’ – Flamingo, Goose, Negrito, Avocet, Gull and Lapwing - plus miners and many Ash-breasted Sierra Finches. Dry stream beds hold Ornate Tinamou as well as Scale-throated and Rock Earthcreepers and we’ll take our picnic breakfast by a stream that may well produce Band-tailed Sierra Finch, Mountain Parakeet and the bright canary-yellow Puna Yellow Finch. We will keep an eye out for Vicuña - best looking of the four South American camelids – that gather in small herds, while rocky slopes are home to the unusual Mountain Vizcacha, which looks like a cross between a rabbit and a wallaby! At an altitude of about 4000m (13,000ft) - the highest we go on our tour - the air is thin so we will take things easy (though we should be acclimatised a little by now).
We will aim to reach Laguna Pozuelos - a vast lagoon of shallow, brackish water located high on a mountain-ringed plain - by mid-morning and spend some time exploring this magnificent Natural Monument. It's here that we hope to find some of the highly specialised Andean avifauna: Chilean, James’s and Andean Flamingos, Puna Teal, Puna Ibis and Mountain Caracara. Two sought-after high elevation waders are Andean Avocet and Puna Plover, occurring here alongside freshly arrived migratory North America shorebirds such as Baird’s Sandpiper and the needle-billed Wilson’s Phalarope. It's a fine spectacle and one not to be missed! Lesser Rheas strut about the fields and we could well see another Cinereous Harrier or even Aplomado Falcon. In the evening, we return to our hotel in Humahuaca for our second of three nights there.
After our long day out in the mountains yesterday, we'll enjoy a more restful schedule today (day 10) amidst the painted hills of the Quebrada de Humahuaca. Situated on the ‘Inca Trail’ that comes down from the Bolivian border, this World Heritage Site - where the colourful banded strata of the local rocks is mirrored in the Inca culture - is fascinating. Andean Condors soar above the towering cliffs and the yellow-flowering tobacco plants are attractive to Giant Hummingbirds. Black-hooded Sierra Finches sing from the rock faces and we will hope to see the small but spectacular Andean Hillstar, that nests along the valley.
Revisiting Abra Pampa, we spend time in this upland landscape peppered with altiplano lakes and wetlands that are home to more Andean Avocets, Giant and Andean Coots, flamingos, wildfowl and maybe Puna or American Golden Plover. Two further nights Humahuaca
YALA & LIBERTADOR GENERAL ST. MARTIN
Making an early start from Humahuaca today will allow us time to revisit Yala. This great little patch of Yungas forest certainly warrants a return and we will be able to enjoy ‘seconds’ of species already seen. If we are lucky, we might find the very local Red-faced Guan or, looking down on to the racing river, perhaps enjoy ‘scope views of Rufous-throated Dipper. These species might top a list that could also include the likes of Torrent Duck, Large-tailed Dove, Slender-tailed Woodstar, Smoky-brown and Dot-fronted Woodpeckers, Andean Tyrant, and Buff-banded and Sclater’s Tyrannulets. In trees over the river, we will watch for Black-backed Grosbeak and Golden-winged Cacique; the appealing Rufous-capped Antshrike sometimes comes in close and lovely Fawn-breasted Tanagers add a splash of colour to the morning.
Nestling on the southern edge of the famous Calilegua National Park, and at an altitude of just 400m (1300ft), we reach Libertador General St. Martin for lunch. Having checked in at our ‘oasis’ hotel, in the late afternoon we will head to the park entrance to try for Golden-collared Macaw, Plush-crested Jay and some of the lower slope specialities such as Ochre-faced Tody-flycatcher, Ochre-cheeked Spinetail and perhaps a blue-crowned Amazonian Motmot.
We'll spend two nights at Libertador, staying at a nice hotel located in town. Night Libertador General St. Martin
CALILEGUA NATIONAL PARK
Calilegua encompasses 70,000 hectares of rugged country with deep valleys and vertical slopes carpeted by dense Yungas forest, and is one of the most biodiverse regions we visit on our tour. We will spend all day in the reserve, concentrating on the higher slopes in search of key species we will not have seen elsewhere.
Driving and walking slowly along the main track through the forest, we will hope to spot Dark-capped Flycatcher and Slaty Elaenia, along with Sclater's, Buff-banded and Rough-legged Tyrannulets. Black-banded and Great Rufous Woodcreepers may swoop in and, if we are lucky, an elusive White-throated Quail Dove might be seen foraging at the forest edge or a Spotted Nightingale-thrush might appear for us!
Our efforts will also focus on finding the confiding but difficult to spot Black-capped Antwren, White-throated Antpitta and Giant Antshrike, as they call from the trailside thickets. Easier-to-see Dot-fronted Woodpeckers, and Pale-legged and Golden-crowned Warblers may show on the lower slopes, while in the skies overhead we might encounter Swallow-tailed Kites and have a good chance of the fine King Vulture. Hummingbirds to watch for include Speckled, Planalto Hermit and Blue-capped Puffleg, while among the more common species here, we may see Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Purple-throated Euphonia, and Guira and Orange-headed Tanagers. Night Libertador General St. Martin
RETURN TO SALTA, FLY BUENOS AIRES
This morning we begin our homeward journey, making the two-hour drive back south to Salta, where we catch our return flight to Buenos Aires. If flight schedules allow, there may be time to make a small detour along the way into a patch of Chaco habitat for a last chance of Black-legged Seriema or even Brushland Tinamou.
Arriving in Buenos Aires late afternoon, after a fine restaurant dinner, we rest and prepare for the journey home tomorrow. Night Buenos Aires
Days 14 - 15
FLY BUENOS AIRES-LONDON
Following a leisurely breakfast at our hotel this morning, we transfer to the airport to catch our afternoon flight from Buenos Aires to London.
Arrival at London Heathrow next day (Day 15), where our amazing ‘Argentine Andes’ tour sadly comes to an end.