July 29, 2013: The Bird Park and the Dam

Itaipu
Itaipu Binacional. For scale, note the 5-story building just above the cooling water flow about 1/4 of the way in from the right side of the picture. Spillway water flow is on the left.

Today was a big day, as we planned two separate outings. Our hotel is conveniently located just next door to the Parque das Aves, a bird rescue center and aviary, and we had to check it out. It’s a good-sized place, with a concrete path leading past enclosures for various birds and through several large aviaries where you can get right next to the birds. They have a great collection of parrots and macaws, mostly recovered from illegal smugglers. There are some endangered species that are breeding in captivity here as well. We walked into the first aviary and a Red-Legged Seriema walked up and grabbed my map out of my hand. At about two feet tall, he was a little bit daunting, but I got it back. Turns out the nearest relatives of the Seriemas were the extinct Terror Birds, ten-foot-tall carnivores that were the largest predators in South America after the dinosaurs died out. I guess I was lucky. That guy looked mean, and when we were leaving he kept reaching up and trying to grab the door handle.

Another aviary had a huge assortment of macaws and parrots in it, who apparently express their dislike for mammals invaded their enclosure by buzzing your head – I had a Hyacinth Macaw pass so close I could feel the breeze. It was a little frustrating seeing all these cool birds that don’t count for your life list, being captive, but many of them we’d never have seen any other way. And while I’d seen two Toco Toucans the day before, in the Parque I was able to see one quite a bit closer. And a macaw closer than that.

Me and Macaw

After the bird park, we headed back to the hotel. Robin wanted to rest a bit, and we had about an hour and a half before leaving on our next outing. I, of course, went out with my binoculars. Instead of taking the nature trail behind the hotel, I followed the dirt road past the staff’s houses, and hit the jackpot – I found the hotel’s sewage lagoon. I wish I’d found it a couple of days ago, but even with just a half-hour to spend, I was able to see two new birds – hooded tanager and white-banded tanager, eating caterpillars in the same tree.

Made it back to the hotel and joined our little group, as our car had arrived to take us to Itaipu. At the city of Foz do Iguazu, a few miles west of our hotel, the river Paraná is dammed to form an enormous reservoir. The river is the border between Brazil and Paraguay, and the two countries made a treaty agreement in 1975 to build the Itaipu dam and power plant. It’s the largest water-power plant in the world; maximum capacity is 14,000 megawatts (that’s 14 gigawatts, enough to power 11.5 Delorean time machines). It provides 75% of Paraguay’s electric power (and almost all the rest is water power as well), and 17% of Brazil’s. We paid extra for the Special Nerd Tour and got to go inside the dam and see one of the 20 turbines in operation. It’s an incredible engineering project – it just dwarfed us. On the main floor just over the generators, workers rode bicycles or drove golf carts to get from one end to the other. Outside, we stood on top of the dam and saw the huge lake to the north, and the river to the south. The water was high, so they had some of the spillway gates open to drain the excess. The amount going out (with 5 of 14 gates open) was approximately the total flow of Iguazu falls. At peak flow, it can be 40 times that.

Of course, I was looking for birds when we were outside, and I realized that two nondescript brown birds walking around by the reception center were new to me. I took notes, and when I got back I looked them up and found that they were Rufous Horneros. These guys make mud nests up in trees that look like clay ovens; hence the name, as “horno” is Spanish for “oven.” There was a nest in a tree outside our hotel.

Exhausted, we got back to the hotel, had a light dinner and a couple of beers, and went to bed early. Our flight to Rio leaves the next morning at 6:55.

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