Flamingos are beautiful.  Adorned in a cloak of pink and white, they have a regal appearance.  Their long legs and graceful neck make them truly elegant as well.


Flamingos conjure up warm feelings in everyone however Paula and I  had to brave sub-zero temperatures and a severe lack of oxygen when trying to locate the breeding location of the James’ Flamingo in the high Andes. We drove to nearly 15,000ft, across endless salt flats to reach Laguna Pujsa in northern Chile, arriving just as night fell.



Laguna Pujsa, Chile

Laguna Pujsa, Chile

Overnight ice formed around us as we slept and we woke at dawn half frozen.  The sight that greeted us was worthwhile.  We found ourselves in an amphitheatre of Andean mountains surrounding an ultramarine lake encrusted with white saline deposits and upon this ‘stage’ thousands of dancing pink flamingos!


Uno anfiteatro andino con flamencos

Uno anfiteatro andino con flamencos


The James’ or Puna Flamingo is the smallest of the three species in South America.  They breed in the highest zones of the altiplano in Argentina, Chile and Bolivia and so isolated are they, that their breeding grounds were not discovered until the mid 1950s.



James, Flamingo or Parina Chica.

James’ Flamingo or Parina Chica.



James’ feed on blue-green algae and diatoms whose populations fluctuate according to the season and water quality of the high mountain lakes.   So when looking for these nomadic birds one can travel for days to known sites and yet find none. Paula and  I had struck lucky.


The hardy flamingos have had 65 million years to adapt to their environment and have a combination of feathers that satisfy their three requirements;


Flight –


Un Flamenco en vuelo

Un Flamenco en vuelo

 Display –


Los colores hermanos de un Flamenco

Los colores hermanos de un Flamenco



and  Warmth –


Una pluma de un flamenco

Las plumas especiales de un flamenco dan  aislamiento thermico


A close relative of the James’ Flamingo is the Andean Flamingo, the relationship is based on the similarity in  bill structure and feeding strategy.




Un Parina Grande esta comiendo

Un Parina Grande esta comiendo



In deeper water, flamingos will  dabble their feet to stir up the water and food.  This in turn can  attract other birds  like this Wilsons Phalarope.


Falaropo comun esta comiendo cerca un Flamenco Austral

Falaropo comun esta comiendo cerca un Flamenco Austral




The Andean Flamingo breeds lower down in the Andes but still in the shadow of the snow-capped Volcanic peaks.


Flamingo 10 A


The third species of Flamingo to be found in the Andes is the Chilean Flamingo, this species is different from the James’ and Andean as it feed on tiny molluscs and crustaceans.



Los Flamencos chilenos en la Puna (3500m)

Los Flamencos chilenos en la Puna (3500m)


The size of Flamingos means that they need to run along the surface of the water to take-off.



Un Flamenco a punto de despegar

Un Flamenco a punto de despegar


This makes them vulnerable to predators, particularly at night when they roost in large groups out in the saline lagunas.



Un zorro con su victim !

Un zorro con su victima !


The High Andes is a hostile environment.  This fox is fortunate as the flamingo will feed its family for several days.  Paula and I saw this fox with its prey in the very early morning so the fox had probably been out hunting all night.


Unlike the flamingos, we were not so acclimatized to the environment.  The thin air made it difficult to breathe and outside the freezing wind buffeted our camera tripods, so after a day watching the birds, we reluctantly descended to a lower altitude.


Michael and Paula

Michael and Paula










Wildlife in the Atacama

Paula and I have just spent several weeks in the Atacama desert searching for wildlife.  It’s the driest place on earth  but there are areas where nature provides enough moisture for a wide variety of life to survive.

The Atacama is a huge area  and we found that two factors were key as to where animals and plants thrived, firstly the proximity to the coast and secondly the altitude.

In the west the Atacama starts right on the Pacific seashore, extending across a narrow coastal plain and then up and over a narrow range of mountains about 50 miles wide.  This is the coastal desert and stretches about 600 miles from north to south.


El Camanchaca del desierto de la costa

El Camanchaca del desierto de la costa


The prevailing wind blowing from the ocean moves clouds of fog over the coastal plain and then up and over the mountains, enveloping the plants in moisture. This bountiful fog is locally called the ‘Camanchaca‘.


D W 14

Cacti are the predominant family of plants that have adapted to this.


Un niebla-prado lleno de cactus

Un niebla-prado lleno de cactus



There are a few special areas in this Coastal Desert where cacti thrive exceptionally well , such places are called ‘fog meadows’ and we found such an area near  the Llanos de Challe National Park,  where there were hillsides covered in cacti particularly of the Copiapoa family.


Paula and I spent some glorious days in these ‘fog meadows’ photographing these amazing plants but always being very carful when we bent down !


Paula filmando en los niebla-prados.

Paula filmando en los niebla-prados.


A common reptile of the ‘fog meadows’ was the Lava lizard.



Corredor de Atacama

Corredor de Atacama


To the east of the coastal range of mountains the temperatures soar.  This part of  the Atacama is called the ‘absolute desert’, probably because there is absolutely nothing there and not surprisingly our search for wildlife was almost fruitless.



Pudimos encontrar solamente rocas y piedras en el desierto absolute.

Pudimos encontrar solamente rocas y piedras en el desierto absoluto.



Several hours in the relentless heat was enough for us.  We could find no living things at all, except in the hazy sky  above, where a Mountain Caracara flew.

 The plains of the absolute desert range between 3,500 ft – 6, 500ft  but across these plains there run deep gorges called Quebradas.  Through these gorges team the sporadic floods that tear down from the high Andes in the summer.




Una Quebrada

We tried in vain to access some of these precarious gorges, native Algarrobo trees often found a niche at the foot of the cliffs in which to grow and small groups of Grey-headed Sierra Finches were usually present.




Cometocino de Gay o Comesebo Andino.

Cometocino de Gay o Comesebo Andino.


Continuing in an easterly direction towards the Andes the altitude increases and so does the wildlife.  One special habitat in the Atacama are the saline lakes, salars. These are fed with underground water from the Andean snowfields.  These saline lakes are a magnet for waterbirds such as Andean Avocets and Flamingos.



Caiti o Avoceta Andina

Caiti o Avoceta Andina

When the altitude reached between  6,000ft – 11,000 ft  we encountered an area of the Atacama  known locally as the ‘andean desert’.

Parts of this area are extremely arid but luckily receive run-off from the high volcanic peaks and cacti predominate, particularly tall stately Cardons.







It was in the Andean desert that  we found the greatest  biodiversity.

The most obvious animals were lizards, sunning themselves on rocks or scuttling across the stony ground away from our tramping feet.



Lioaemus andinus

Lioaemus andinus


 It’s quite easy to catch a lizard, one just has to be very patient, careful, slow to start with and very quick at the finish!

Once you have caught your lizard it’s possible to admire its beauty in detail, taking care not to hold it by its tail or it will shed and you will be left holding a wriggling bit of discarded flesh.



He cogido una lagartija

He cogido una lagartija




Often in the chase the lizard will try to escape,  they will hide in a spiky bush, under a rock or disappear down a hole.

Finding them in these situations can be interesting and rewarding, if not scary, for in such places we found scorpions, spiders and numerous beetles.











D W 5


Some of these animals are not everyone’s favourite but we like them!  In the driest place in the world it was fascinating for us to discover at last so many animals.


As a complete contrast to these small creatures the next blog will concentrate on one of the largest, most beautiful and graceful birds of the desert; the Flamingo.

The Chilean coast

We had crossed the Andes from Argentina into Chile and journeyed through its flat, fertile central valley, full of oranges, lemons and rich vineyards.


Then up again into the coastal cordillera from the top of which we could see the whole width of this absurdly thin country.


In front of us now lay the Pacific Ocean.  The air that filled our lungs was different, gone was the dust, now a salty scent enticed us towards the blue vastness.


beach at Constitucion


The narrow winding road led us into the village of Horcon and suddenly were surprised to find ourselves at a tiny harbour full of wooden fishing boats.



We had crossed the continent of South America and there, as if to greet us, was a Pelican !


Pelicans bill 2

In this part of the world wherever there are fish and fishermen there will likely be Pelicans and Gulls and this village was no exception.


Coastal fishing nets



Over the next few weeks we gradually moved south along the coast and found that three species of gull were the most common.

Firstly the Kelp Gull –


Kelp Gull

Then the Brown-hooded Gull –


Brown-hooded Gull

And finally the Franklins Gull, although this is a migrant species from North America.


Franklin's Gull



There were few wading birds, except small numbers of Blackish Oystercatcher which are resident all year round.


Blackish Oystercatcher


Condor liberation in Patagonia

Condors are the iconic bird of South America, worshipped as sacred since the times of the Incas.  Ignorant as to the important role they play in the natural balance of the wild, Condors have been hunted mercilessly for several hundred years, almost to the point of extinction. Argentina has a Condor re-introduction programme spearheaded from Buenos Aires Zoo and since 2001 Condors have been released and monitored in northern Patagonia.  We were fortunate to be invited to this year’s release.

Two Andean Condors first flight



What makes the Argentinian Condor release programme so unique is that like the massive bird itself , the programme has two wings, one scientific and the other cultural.

Sacred Condor feathers together with cultural artifacts.


This year four Condors were released. One bird had been raised from an egg at Buenos Aires Zoo, fed by surrogate puppets that look like an adult bird. The other three were injured individuals from various parts of the country and cared for by the Zoo.

Prior to release the birds are kept in a huge enclosure high up on the top of a deserted meseta , where they are fed and monitored for several months. They never are allowed to see humans.


The Condor release cage.


The day of the release is hugely anticipated, several hundred people turn up. Schoolchildren from all over Rio Negro arrive, it is a very important day in the local community.  After much ceremony the birds are released and to everyone’s relief they all managed to fly, even the one raised from an egg, this bird was called ‘Rayman’ which in the Mapuche language means ‘Flower bird’.  It was wonderful to see the biggest bird in the world take its first tentative flight over the endless Patagonian landscape.


Schoolchildren attending the 2014 Condor liberation.


Once released the work really starts for a small group of dedicated researchers who monitor the birds with radio trackers every day for the next four months.  Such young birds need help, they occasionally tumble down cliffs or get stuck in thorny vegetation.


Scientists with wing tags.  Together with a radio trasmitter the

Returning to Argentina

It has been a beautiful English summer, with lots of BBQs and time with friends.

The photographs we brought back from our first trip were great and one of the end products has been what I am calling a bio-montage. This is a compilation of ‘white background’ images as well as a panorama, more about this in another blog.



Southern Yungas biomontage



We are really longing to get back to South America and Argentina in particular, to see friends and continue with our ‘Search for Species’ in the Andes. This expedition will be longer and will stretch through the southern summer into 2015.

We will find some amazing wildlife and meet equally amazing people, so log into our blog periodically and now we have a Facebook group as well –  Proyecto de Animales Andinos


Burrowing parrots 2



Paula and I are off any day now,  winging our way towards Argentina.





Photography in the wild

The purpose of our project is simple, produce inspirational  images of Andean wildlife.

Paula sometimes uses a slider to give movement to an otherwise static video shot.


Paula with slider


Some of the techniques we use are unconventional. Photographing a fish needed to be done quickly so as not to distress the animal, so this meant working till late one the evening.  With one light behind the aquarium and the other to one side and a lot of patience I was successful.



photographing fish


As I worked I wondered if anyone had ever taken a photograph of this species before  ?





Along the way we meet other photographers, this is Valeria Cannata from Tucuman a member of the Concepcion Foto club.



Andes Ecoregions

The Andean Wildlife Project is to make a photographic record of  ecoregions within the Andes.  An ecoregion is a relatively large area of land or water that contains a distinct assembly of plant species and animals which give it a unifying character. The scale of an ecoregion is highly suitable for consideration for global conservation planning as it encompasses biogeographically related communities, not otherwise found at site level.


On this our first expedition into the Andes we visited two ecoregions.

The first was the moist and humid temperate Southern Yugas rainforests ( no 4 on the above map) our chosen site was the Alisos National Park near Concepcion.

The two groups of animals that were most conspicuous during our time their were the Parrots and the butterflies.  These are Red-mitred Parrots, there was a flock of about 300 of these birds in the valley where we camped.  The whole  group foraged together, noisily moving from one part of the valley to another.  Once settled in a suitable group of trees they quietened down for an hour or so and fed.

Alisos parrots 2

The weather that brings these rains to the forests comes off the South Atlantic in the summer. The clouds speed across the hot Chaco flatlands until they reach the foothills of the Andes, there they stop and it rains and rains and rains.

The Yungas forests cloth the eastern slopes of the Andes from north western Argentina through Bolivia and way up into Peru.

Below is a Helicoius butterfly, probably H melpomene,, the Postman butterfly a common mimicking species in the forests of Alisos.

Alisos butterfly

The second ecoregion we visited was the high Puna  (no 5 on the above map), specifically the Laguna Blanca National Park in Catamarca province at an elevation of about 3,500m.


Laguna Blanca in May

The animal that frequents these raw mountain plateaus were Vicunas.  These were mercilessly hunted several decades ago but protected areas have now brought this beautiful animal back from the brink of extinction.


Top Predator of the Andes

One of the aims of ‘Proyecto des Animales Andinos’ is to seek out conservation programmes and those ordinary people who are passionate about saving and protecting South America’s wildlife.  A chance stop at a petrol station started a chain of events that led to us discovering one such programme and one amazing person.


 Campsite at Londres


Carlos  is the lead  person of a local conservation programme in Catamarca called Coelobe  (Commission Ecological of Londres & Belen).  Condor protection is their main love and they do a great job.  We stayed with Carlos at his finca where the group have constructed several Condor rehabilitation cages.


 Feeding time

During the time we spent with him there were no Condors, instead he was looking after two rescued Puma cubs, with advice from Buenos Aires zoo.   Their mother had been killed by poachers and the two cubs were ready for selling to the highest bidder.  The Puma has the largest range of any terrestrial mammal in the Americas, it is a top predator and is essential to the balance of nature throughout its range.

 Male Puma cub

Carlos and his team are doing a great job in rehabilitating these superb and beautiful animals.  Eventually they will be released back into the wild at an appropriate location. These two cubs, brother and sister are the lucky ones.  Every morning they are fed on fresh red meat, then they rest and become more active in the evening when they play with each other.


Puma cubs snarl



Friends and contacts

We are about to embark on a great challenge, to photograph the animals of the Andes.  To do this we aim to visit every eco-region of this great mountain chain. The Andes harbour the greatest biodiversity on the planet, a third of all the World’s bird species live in South America, 55% of all the Amphibians, a third of all the plant species as well.  The Andes are critically important to the people of South America as the fresh water flowing from its high peaks and down through its verdant ravines and forests supply tens of millions with their water.

Over the next few years we will be speaking to as many people as we can about the importance of the Andes and the need to care for and protect its forests and wildlife, as these are the key to providing a constant supply of clean water. We will be documenting by film and photographs the wildlife of the Andes.  Our aim is to hold national and international  exhibitions and talks about the importance of the Andes, ready for the next UNEP Global environmental summit in 2020.


We cannot do this alone, we need help and support, contacts and friends and so far we have had lots of amazing people prepared to support us . The group above shows Paula together with professional scientists at the Fundacion  Miguel Lillo in Tucuman, www.lillo.org.ar

One evening we also did several presentations to students in Tucuman, at the VIP English Institute.