The highlight of the region that Aimee is covering in the new edition of Lonely Planet Brasil is without a doubt Iguacu Falls. Located on the border of Brasil and Argentina, the system of waterfalls is among the most spectacular in the world, compromised of over 250 individual waterfalls, some plunging over 80 meters, and spanning almost 3km of the Iguacu River. Although other waterfalls in the world may rival Iguacu in terms of volume and height, the setting of these falls is truly unique, as the river winds its way through hundreds of square kilometers of pristine subtropical forest before reaching the area of the falls. Although access to the forest on either side of the border is extremely limited, the trails, walkways, and roads that form the infrastructure for general visitors offer excellent birding opportunities.
During her research trip last month, which overlapped with my vacation, Aimee and I spent two full days in the area of the falls, taking in the spectacle from almost every trail and walkway on either side. Staying in the city of Puerto Iguacu, which is accessible by plane or bus from Rio de Janiero or Sao Paolo, we traveled by bus on the first day to the Brazilian side of the falls, which offers a better panoramic view of the falls but from a limited perspective. The Argentine side, on the other hand, allows visitors to reach the precipice of the most impressive section of the falls, la Garganta del Diablo, from a magnificent walkway right along the edge of the cliff. The principal approach to the falls from the Brazilian side takes the visitor past a series of viewpoints, each more dramatic than the last, while passing along mature forest edge. Although birding is a secondary attraction here, I couldn't help skipping several viewpoints while chasing after a beautiful Toco Toucan. Perhaps the most iconic of all the toucans, the Toco Toucan is simply patterned with a marvelously large bright-orange bill. Despite its relatively common status in the region, I was thrilled to track one of my target birds down almost immediately upon arrival and could now relax a bit and enjoy the falls.
Of course, the other target bird here is the Great Dusky Swift, which nests in the cliffs behind the falls and can be seen feeding on insects trapped in the maelstrom of the falls. Watching these large swifts expertly navigate the chaotic vortex of water and wind swirling about is simply astonishing, as they capture prey, carry nesting material, and even mate in this absurdly dynamic environment. From the Brazilian side, the swifts and other swallows can be seen in flight and at rest behind a number of individual falls, although I understand they are harder to find in rainy weather. While Aimee walked out along the walkway into the mist at the base of la Garganta del Diablo, I watched mesmerized as the swifts plummeted in the air over a lower section of the falls while chasing after prey, flying faster than the water fell and then returning to the cliff face just behind the lip of the falls, where they sometimes congregate in large groups.
After having lunch at cafe near the last viewpoint, I birded the forested grounds while Aimee completed taking her notes. Although it was midday and activity was low, I was happy to spot a perched Plumbeous Kite, a spectacular pair of Green-Headed Tanagers, and a confiding group of Plush-Crested Jays. It was neat to see the other tourists awakening to the wildlife around them as well, although most people were more focused on photographing the hoards of Coati that were plundering food at the restaurant than observing the birds. After checking out a mating pair of Violaceous Euphonias building a nest in a tree in the parking lot alongside some noisy caciques, Aimee and I left the park in one of the many double-decker busses that transport tourists from the entrance gate to the viewpoints. Given the time of day, I decided to skip the one trail on the Brazilian side that provides access deep into the forest; this can only be walked in the company of a guide, which didn't sound like much fun either.
Just across the street from the entrance to the falls on the Brazilian side is a refuge for injured or captured birds from South America and other parts of the world called Parque de Aves. Normally, I wouldn't enjoy observing caged birds, but the enclosures are very large and set right in the middle of the forest, creating the illusion that you're observing birds at close range from the ground to the midlevel of the understory. You can actually enter the larger enclosures and approach toucans and tinamous within a meter. It was particularly interesting to find some of the Atlantic rainforest endemics here that I had missed at REGUA, or Reserva Ecologica de Guapiacu, including Black-Fronted Piping-Guan, Saffron and Spot-Billed Toucanets, and Spot-Winged Wood-Quail.
It's a bit of a hassle to reach the Argentine side of the falls from the city of Iguacu by public transportation, but after a few hours Aimee and I were back in front of the falls on the following day, this time viewing them from above as we walked along the edge looking out over plummeting water. Given the width of the river just before the falls, the habitat here is almost like a marsh and Neotropic Cormorants, Anhinga, Greater Ani, Yellow-Headed Caracara, and Snail Kite were commonly seen from the walkways. Of course, the Great Dusky Swift was the most spectacular species present, especially at the U-shaped Garganta del Diablo falls, where hundreds of birds were swooping about in the mist. Although I wasn't birding very seriously, I managed to spot some other good species here, including Swallow and Green-Headed Tanagers, Toco Toucan, Campo Flicker, and Green Ibis. For the dedicated birder with more time, there is a trail on the Argentine side that can be walked and birded without a guide, although arriving on site at an early hour via public transportation can be challenging. Birding groups, therefore, usually stay at the Sheraton located within the national park itself and quite near the falls.