Uruguay: South American birding oasis

10 reasons why Uruguay is a great choice for nature tourism in general and birding in particular—especially in a pandemic.
By Karen A Higgs
Last updated on March 17, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented. However, through a series of swift and effective measures, Uruguay, a small nation located in south-eastern South America, curbed the spread of the virus for over nine months.

Uruguay has the potential to become an ecotourism magnet. Birding expert and conservationist, Dr Adrián Azpiroz, outlines 10 reasons why Uruguay is a great choice for nature-lovers in general and birders in particular.

Bird watchers © Adrián Azpiroz

#1 COVID-19 management

Uruguay is one of few Latin American countries that has the pandemic under control. The key to its success was the application of a “responsible liberty” policy assisted by government planning and management, scientific evidence and a “mutual trust” strategy. A lockdown was not imposed and, instead, government authorities successfully appealed to citizen common sense and responsibility. Other factors such as the country’s strong public health system helped combat the pandemic. Uruguay is getting back to work; by July 2020, 90% of businesses had reopened (air travel to and from Europe has also been restored). Although the pandemic is far from over, Uruguay is rising as a success story that, hopefully, will continue to avoid serious COVID-19-related problems.

Index ranking: “Best democratic countries for Americans to move to after the pandemic” (#2 Worldwide) / Business Insider

#2 Strong democracy and development

Uruguay is considered one of the 20 most democratic countries in the world and it is perceived as the least corrupt Latin American nation. Uruguay is at the top of Latin American rankings for social stability, prosperity and gender equity. Visitors praise the country’s level of education and skilled workforce, legal security, as well as access to technology infrastructure.

Index rankings: Political and Social Stability (#1 in Latin America); Social Development (#1 in South America); Least Corrupt Country (#1 in Latin America)

#3 Tourism: infrastructure, communications and safety

Tourism represents 17% of the country’s revenues and 53% of the service economy. The government has implemented several tourist-oriented benefits, including tax advantages. The country is safe and has a high quality of life. The “Painted Birds” trail is one of four finalists for the 2020 WTM Latin America Responsible Tourism Awards. Lodging includes a diversity of accommodations such as eco-lodge cabins and “touristic estancias”, which provide safe sanitary environments within exceptional natural landscapes.

Index rankings: Gay-friendly Country (#6 Worldwide); Internet Connectivity (#1 in Latin America)

Birdwatchers combine birdwatching with swimming with seals off the Isla de Lobos in Punta del Este © Adrián Azpiroz

#4 Off-season opportunities and the whole “Uruguayan” experience

Tourism in Uruguay is seasonal and thus, “off-season” rates for accommodation and other services are available. The busiest times of the year are the summer holidays (late December to February), Easter and winter holidays (July). Despite great nature-related attractions throughout the country, most of these sites are rarely full. Apart from birding, a visit to Uruguay is a great opportunity to get to know the local gaucho culture and experience a diverse array of activities and attractions such as world-class enotoursim, relaxing sun-and-beach and hot springs resorts, cross-country trekking and horseback-riding, and football, among many others. Most of these activities can be combined within birding and nature tours.

#5 Small country, short distances

Uruguay is a small country with many birds (480 species recorded, with 2-3 new additions, on average, every year). This country is home to almost 50% of the species found in Argentina and 25% of those in Brazil, in an area that is 15 and 48 times smaller, respectively. For birders visiting the region for the first time, the list of potential lifers is particularly lengthy. Thanks to the very good road network, most corners of the country can be reached within a few hours. This means less driving time and more time in the field with birds. The possibility of visiting many nearby habitats in just a few hours usually produces extensive day species lists (120+).

Hymenops © Adrián Azpiroz

#6 Concern-free land!

Uruguay is the only South American country completely confined to the temperate zone. Several “tropical” diseases are not present (malaria) or have been effectively eradicated (yellow fever, Chagas). Others are rare and localized (dengue and leishmaniasis). Both terrestrial and marine environments are largely free of dangerous animals. For example, there are only four venomous snakes and only two can be considered potential hazards in some habitats. Thus, snake bites are infrequent. Climatic and habitat characteristics do not favor tick and mosquito infestations.

#7 “Natural Uruguay”: not as developed

Some of the most pristine tracts of native grasslands in the whole Pampas biome (extending from eastern Argentina to extreme southern Brazil) are found here. The official “Uruguay Natural” label promotes a wide diversity of products and services, from tourism to agriculture. Although substantial more effort is needed to achieve high nature conservation standards, Uruguayan landscapes, teem with birds.

Masked Gnatcatcher © Adrián Azpiroz

#8 Strategic Location: Pampas, Chaco, Atlantic Forest birds and more…

Southeastern South America, the region where Uruguay is situated, is a transitional zone that separates tropical and temperate areas, to the north and south. Here, the Pampas biome (with native grasslands as its main ecosystem) blends with several forest types, including vegetation with Chaco and Atlantic Forest affinities. Migratory birds from distant regions enrich the local avifauna. During the winter, austral visitors (albatrosses, petrels and passerines) provide a Patagonian/Sub-Antarctic touch to aquatic and grassland landscapes, while boreal migrants (mainly seabirds and shorebirds) add richness to a variety of habitats during the spring and summer.

#9 Many habitat types: grasslands, forests, sierras, sandy beaches…

Biome diversity is coupled with ecosystem diversity, provides habitat heterogeneity for birds and wildlife. Apart from grasslands and forests, the Uruguayan territory includes a vast variety of streams and rivers, more than 500 km (300 mi) of coastlines along the La Plata estuary and the Atlantic Ocean, 50+ islands, rolling hills, floodplains, coastal brackish lagoons, forested sierras and canyons. Each ecosystem includes a characteristic assemblage of birds. Habitat “openness”, a characteristic feature of the Uruguayan landscape, makes spotting and studying birds very easy.

Garza Amarilla © Adrián Azpiroz

#10 Pampas endemics and globally-threatened birds

Most endemic birds of the Pampas biome can be easily found in Uruguay. This is also true for many globally-threatened and near-threatened birds. For example, Greater Rhea (NT), Chilean Flamingo (NT), Magellanic Penguin (NT), White-chinned Petrel (VU), Olrog’s Gull, Mottled Piculet (NT), Straight-billed Reedhaunter (NT), Curve-billed Reedhaunter, Sulphur-throated Spinetail, Black-and-white Monjita (VU), Saffron-cowled Blackbird (VU), Dark-throated Seedeater (NT) and Chestnut Seedeater (VU) are all quite common. Other scarcer species can be found at reliable sites: Red Knot (NT), Buff-breasted Sandpiper (NT), Bay-capped Wren Spinetail (VU), Yellow Cardinal, Marsh Seedeater (EN) and Pampas Meadowlark (VU). Even less predictable birds such as Bearded Tachuri (NT), Azure Jay (NT) and Ochre-breasted Pipit (VU), are frequently found during birding tours.

Globally-threatened categories according to IUCN:

NT = near threatened
VU = vulnerable
EN = Endangered

Great Grebe © Adrián Azpiroz

Cover photo: Cardenal Azul by Adrián Azpiroz




3 Responses

  1. Just spent a week in Corumba’ Brazil. Birds everywhere! Looking forward to our trip to Uruguay, November 10-18th. Love this beautiful country!

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