Speaker: James Lowen
Reporter: Sue Gale
James Lowen is a Norfolk birder and well- known author of books and articles about wildlife. His interests are wide and varied – for example he has two books about to be published on moths – but he has a special interest in birds. He edits the conservation-minded ‘Neotropical Birding’ magazine, and was delighted to show us a newly published ‘Birds of Argentina’, a longdelayed English language guide. He lived in Argentina for four years, during which time he travelled the country birding, exploring and writing about birds.
Argentina is the second largest country in South America, and can comfortably encompass all of Western Europe, so there was plenty to explore. As well as the tango, beef, wine, football and cowboys that we all associate with the country, Argentina has about 1000 species of birds. 18 of these are breeding endemics and 54 are globally threatened. He emphasised the great variety of bird-life to be found, both in size, colour, status and even brown-ness! Species are still being discovered and there are plenty of mysteries to be solved. It was obvious that James is itching to go back and solve some of them. He took us on a virtual (eco-friendly tour around the country, describing 7 different areas and the birds to be found in each. We started with the Pampas and Buenos Aires area, probably the most visited part of the country.
The city itself boasts the enormous Costanera Reserva Ecologica, where you can see many of the wetland species (but not if you only have a Monday, as I know to my cost!). Both species of swan found in Argentina are here, the Black-necked Swan and the beautiful Coscoroba Swan. You will find the White-tufted Grebe and a variety of small birds that seem to walk on water (actually on the tiny leaf pads floating on the water). Out in the Pampas you might see the Greater Rhea, the largest flightless bird in the Americas. Sadly, you might also find feather dusters made from its tail feathers, although these are mostly from farmed birds. The hefty, turkey-like Southern Screamers abound. These are cantankerous birds that fight! They even have a special hook on each wing, the better to attack each other. Prettier by far are the iconic Scarlet-headed Blackbird or the Great Pampa Finch, with their bright colours. And more familiar to us, birds like the Buff-breasted Sandpiper that can be found regularly if infrequently in this country. Further South in the Atlantic coast area a pelagic trip is the thing to do. From a boat you can get good views of Petrels of all sizes, some familiar birds like Shearwaters, and of course Albatrosses. There are Black-browed and Yellow-nosed Albatrosses, but they are dwarfed by the enormous Southern Royal Albatross, one of James’s favourite birds. It was clear from his images that this is really huge. Back on land the estuaries are worth visiting for waders like the Magellanic Plover or a Baird’s Sandpiper. But the main attractions for many visitors are the large colonies of Penguins that are well established along this coast. Even further south are Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego – the southernmost tip of the world! Here on the island are Dolphin Gulls, lovely enough for a gull-hater like James to appreciate, and the White-throated Caracara that frequents the rubbish dump. One of the world’s largest woodpeckers, the Magellanic, can be found here too. Back on the mainland in Patagonia its worth looking out of the window as you travel, as the Patagonian Tinamou is mainly seen by the side of the road. Not to be found so easily is the seriously endangered Hooded Grebe. This large Grebe is not only beautiful but it boasts an extraordinary mating display. Think Great Crested Grebe onsteroids! James showed us a video of the amazing performance. Sadly, this bird is close to extinction, and although a large new nature reserve in the area may help, there is a serious threat from dam building for water and energy. Patagonia is also home to a group of Tapaculos species. There are scores of these that look very much alike but can be separated by their calls. In the Andes, however, only one species is recognised. James clearly sees this as an area crying out for research. North Western Argentina is one of the most important areas for birding, containing some of the High Andes, cloudforest, and desert scrub. By far its most famous inhabitant is the Andean Condor, and much of the conservation effort and the tourist attractions centre on this bird.
Unfortunately, they are susceptible to poisoned carcasses; another example of good work in one direction being undermined by bad practices elsewhere. In the wetlands there are 3 species of Flamingo, all of them threatened or near-threatened. While admiring them you might come across the enormous Horned Coot. In the Yungas forests the rivers are home to the Rufousbreasted Dipper, another favourite with James, but again a scarce bird. Like all Dippers it hunts under water, always an impressive performance. The Chaco and Cordoba regions are where we find the gaucho birding of the title of this talk. The wide grasslands lend themselves to exploring on horseback, and there are plenty of dry and damp scrubby areas. Interestingly some local producers are introducing bird-friendly beef!
Cattle are grazed on natural grasslands at a level that encourages biodiversity and preserves the soil structure. The beef is therefore more expensive, but let’s hope it finds a market. Sustainable ranching would be excellent. This area is also home to a variety of James’s favourite ‘punks’. It seems to have attracted a series of small, perky, crested birds like the Black-crested Finch or the Crested Hornero. It is also where James took part in a celebrated ‘wild goose chase’. It involved goose-spotting from a plane to obtain coordinates, then a long drive in a 4-wheel drive vehicle followed by a walk of several miles in muddy river banks. Imagine the anxiety as they approached the location. What if the geese were no longer there? But they rounded a bend to find a pair of Orinoco Geese – only the second sighting in Argentina.
The last region James took us to was the North East of the country – another very important area and the most diverse in Argentina. This is not too surprising as it contains sub-tropical forests and grasslands and the spectacular Iguazu Falls. The birds found here included many groups more familiar to tropical birders than other Argentine birds have been, like Tanagers, Euphonias and Cotingas. A spectacular example is the Strange-tailed Tyrant – well named as its large, bushy tail-feathers are unmissable. Females of the species must find them irresistible too, as the male yo-yos above her displaying his wares. Perhaps even more remarkable in a less showy way are the Great Dusky Swifts of Iguazu, which nest behind the waterfalls. And these are no gentle trickles. There are hummingbirds here too. James mentioned two ‘new’ species that have been recently identified in the area, and it is clear that there must be many more waiting for some keen birders to find.
James has certainly whetted my appetite for a visit to Argentina, his old stamping ground and one that he obviously still loves. Many thanks for a fascinating talk with absolutely beautiful photographs.