“The key to spotting the rarest hummingbirds and manakins is finding their territories,” said Emilio White, as we crouched among sun-specked leaves on the steamy forest floor of Argentina’s northern province of Misiones. “You find where they court, where they dance or come to feed, then you cut trails that almost guarantee sightings.”
We had left the lodge at dawn, venturing from a garden of canna and guadua bamboo into the wildlife-rich forest beyond. Within minutes, we had spotted fresh puma tracks in soggy earth edging the Río Paraná.
Now, a canopy of earpod and tropical cedar trees closed overhead, their dense boughs coated with twisted lianas and clusters of epiphytes. All around, the forest was alive to the buzz of insects and the cackle and caw of subtropical birds.
Signaling for quiet, Emilio pointed dramatically into a clearing: perched on a twig, emitting a distinctive chirrup, sat a black-breasted plovercrest, a spectacular hummingbird topped with a purple crown.
Emilio had spent months studying the 940 acres of forest belonging to Posada Puerto Bemberg, a 14-room guesthouse an hour’s drive south of the Iguazú Falls. With advice from Aves Argentinas, the country’s ornithology body, he had recently cut trails designed to showcase the 312 bird species found on the property.
As we trod on through the undergrowth, he would indicate a clearing: there, perched conveniently on a twig, would be a band-tailed manakin or a rufous-capped motmot — exotic, localized species much coveted by dedicated birders.
So well-planned are his paths, in fact, that Emilio appeared to locate the rarest birds as if on demand. “What, you’ve never seen the spot-billed toucanet?” he asked in mock horror, referring to one of Misiones’ rarer toucans. A smirk played on his lips as he ushered me 150 feet further into the forest and pointed between a cluster of grapia and tropical cedar trees. “Well, there it is!”
The newly cut trails quickly placed Puerto Bemberg on the Argentine birding map, but it is far from the only lodge drawing a new kind of visitor to Misiones. For years, tourists came only for Iguazú Falls, the two-mile-wide cataract that divides Argentina from Brazil. Now, a swath of new, upmarket lodges is focusing attention on the toucan- and butterfly-filled jungle that lies beyond.
Named for mission settlements established during Spanish colonial times by the Catholic Church’s Jesuit order, Misiones juts like a finger far into Brazil and Paraguay. It was once carpeted entirely with dense jungle, the subtropical Paranaense forest, which extended into Paraguay and as far north as Brazil’s state of Bahia.
Guaraní tribes scraped a precarious but traditional life from the land, fishing its streams for surubí and pacú, and hunting for capybara — the world’s largest rodent — and the wild peccary pig.
Today, much of its undulating landscape has been cleared for farming and forestry plantations, but what remains is protected by the Green Corridor, a string of wildlife reserves with beguiling, unfamiliar names like Salto Encantado, Urugua-í and Yabotí.
On arrival, the province can feel like parts of Africa. The nostrils wrinkle at the odor of sun-baked, iron-rich earth, the ears attune quickly to the insects’ buzz and the crackle of a thousand unknown creatures in the undergrowth.