Swifts !

We had  been told about some White-collared Swifts that had been seen in a cave, behind a waterfall, though they had not been seen for three years.

At dawn one morning we climbed up a mountain,  then down into an arid valley and followed a small stream.  Although it was the dry season the presence of the stream indicated that the waterfall would be there and it was.


Birdwatching under Waterfall,_


We spent some hours searching  in vain for the swifts, they may have been present, hiding in the dark recesses of the cave.   We decided to wait and see if any returned to the cave for the night.

White-collared Swifts breed all the way down from Mexico, through the western side of South America as far as Argentina, so we were at the very southern limit of their distribution.  Three years before, there had only been juveniles seen in the cave, no one had recorded adults.  These swifts being mainly tropical breed in March and April so if they were around now it would indicate year round residency – very important to know.

The sun dropped behind the far mountains, then a blur above us and a flurry of  activity inside the cave: swifts!


No 1 Swift


It happened so quickly.  We had seen nothing in the sky above us; some swifts had flown into the cave almost unseen.


No 4 Swift


We  crept around the waterfall, water was dripping everywhere, including on what was now a very wet swift clinging to the wall.  We could make out its white collar and amazingly long wings, but had to retreat out of the drenching water and maintain our vigil outside.

Another hour went by and the same thing happened. This time we just managed to see the swifts coming.  A small tightly bunched group flew low round the distant curve of the valley.  Like black leather-clad racers, they passed us like a lightening flash straight through the curtain of water and disappeared. I didn’t have time to raise my camera – they were gone into the void.


No 2 Swift

The same thing happened several times.  Small groups appeared as if from nowhere and darted into the cave.  By now we had counted at least 35. As the numbers inside grew so did the noise inside the cave.  Whenever new birds arrived, they were greeted with high pitched screams.  They bunched up together, water pouring over them.


No 3 Swift

It was getting dark and thunder clouds started to roll over the hills.  Afraid of rain making the return treacherous, we headed home.

We had found what we wanted, a resident population of at least 50 White-collared Swifts, rare birds this far south.

Not only swifts but also a stream fed by a graceful waterfall,  a watery haven for a host of animals.

To a waterfall

In early December we found ourselves in the  Andean foothills west of the city of Mendoza, Argentina, visiting a contact given us by Aves Argentinas,  Andy Elias.  Andy had for many years worked for the National Parks authority and was a renowned local naturalist.  One evening he told us about a waterfall he had visited three years before where he had seen White-collared Swifts.  He wondered if the waterfall would be dry. Would the Swifts still be present?  Would we like to accompany him ? YES!

It was  to be about a 1 to 2 hour walk up an isolated valley at approx 2,300 metres, so we started early, shortly after dawn.  On the rock strewn hillside above us we could see bright white shapes, these were the lovely flowers of the Cacti ‘candicans’,  its fragrant blooms normally open at night and remain open until early morning. The bright white petals and yellow centres attract night pollinators such as moths and bats.


candicans cacti


We continued to walk to the top of a ridge overlooking the valley we were to follow to the waterfall. The image  below shows the valley, we followed the one on the left hand side.  The valley to the right was the one where the celebrated  General  Don Jose de San Martin led 10,000 soldiers, the force that eventually defeated the Spanish and liberated Argentina.



Being at such a height, the habitat was alto-andino, so fairly sparse of vegetation, mostly pampas grasses, Chilka and Altepe shrubs as well as many cacti.


Paula 2

It was a long hot walk as we  followed the stream up the valley, but there were many exciting birds along the way,  Brown-capped Tit-Spinetails , White-winged Black Tyrants and White-winged Doves.


Brown-capped Tit Spinetail

Brown-capped Tit Spinetail


White-winged Dove

White-winged Dove


Arid lands such as this can seem barren and devoid of wildlife. The truth is that life abounds and is even more fascinating because of the amazing adaptations that enable survival.  All the plants in this landscape had mechanisms to deal with the lack of rain and high temperatures, eg small leaves with waxy coatings to reduce water loss.  Some have no leaves at all and photosynthesise by having bright green chlorophyll-laden stems or spines, the Berberis grevilleana for example has vicious spines and is locally named the crucero plant, due to its three sharp thorns.


Berberis grevilleana

Berberis grevilleana

We found a rather special beetle bumbling over some pebbles.  This little animal is beautifully adapted to face the harsh realities of this land.  It has given up the power of flight and so its hard outer covering  is fused together.  Over this domed body a series of delicate channels and ridges can be seen.  At night the insect curls up with its head pointing downwards to rest.  During the night tiny droplets of moisture condense on the dome and this moisture flows down the intricate channels into its mouth. An everyday miracle of evolution and nature.


 Tenebrionidae sp beetle

Tenebrionidae sp beetle

and a lizard, beautifully camouflaged and scurrying between crevices in the rocks.


Diplolaemus lizard or Matuasto

Diplolaemus lizard or Matuasto


Still following the valley stream,  we found a rather special animal, a small freshwater Crab.



Freshwater crabs like this are endemic to Argentina and Chile. There are about 20 species altogether, each confined to its own isolated region. Genetic studies have found them all to be related and it is thought that over the millennia when glaciers covered the Andes, they speciated into the varieties to be found today.


crab in hand_


 In the azure skies above us circled an occasional Condor but no sign of any Swifts.

 On we walked towards the mythical waterfall……..

…..was the waterfall dry? did we find the swifts? See the next blog!



The birds of an unknown desert

Paula scans for birds in the northern Monte desert of Salta Province, Argentina, one of the wonderful south American eco-regions and only found in Argentina.


Mont landscape Los Cardones

 60% of Argentina is classified as ‘arid’ and these arid lands are considered to be the Puna, a cold steppe desert at a high altitude in the Andean mountains, Patagonia which is a cold steppe of low altitude and the Monte which is  a warm shrub desert. As these arid lands are sandwiched between the hot steamy Neotropics  and the Antarctic,  they are very important for bird distribution and endemism in South America.


Laguna Del Diamente camp

This is one of our camps near to Lake Diamante in Mendoza Province, at a height of 2300m it represents the limit between the Monte and Puna eco-regions, at such a height it is sometimes referred to as the pre-puna.


Monte - Grey headed Sierra Finch

Grey-headed Sierra-finch




Blach-hooded Sierra finch


Black-hooded Sierra Finch


Mourning Sierra Finch

Mourning Sierra-finch.  The Sierra-finches are a genus of Andean seed-eating birds closely related to the North American Tanagers. They forage on the ground and these tree species are widely distributed across the length of the Monte.


Monte - Straight-billed Earthcreeper

The Straight-billed Earthcreeper is a widely distributed but little known, it is rather secretive, scuttling around rocky crevices in search of insects.



Monte - A Giant Hummingbird

One of the great birding highlights of the Monte is the possibility of locating the biggest hummingbird in South America, the Giant Hummingbird.

We have travelled  well over one thousand kilometres through the Monte and only found one area, in Salta Province, where they were to be seen. On this occasion though we observed courting pairs and witnessed ‘aerial duels’ between several males.  These duels were ignited when one male  strayed into the territory of another.  The defending male would circle the other male and both would rise upwards into the heavens, each facing each other and using their long bill in a manner that resembled sword-fighting.


Monte -Elegant crested Tinamou




Monte -Elegant crested Tinamou 2

Tinamous are only found in South America and belong to one of the most ancient of bird families the Ratites, whose giant relatives ranged over this land  during the Miocene  period, when the earth was much warmer and arid lands were advancing over forested landscapes..  This is the Elegant-crested Tinamou and is typical of the family with cryptic camouflaged plumage.


Monte -Red-shouldered Hawk


 The Red-shouldered Hawk is one of the top predators of the Monte.





 We will be spending more time in the Monte over the next few months, there are so many hidden valleys and mountain ranges to try to visit.

Mammals of the unknown desert.

The word desert conjures up thoughts of camels traversing the lofty sand dunes of the Sahara or kangaroos in the arid expanses of the Australian outback. You get puzzled looks when you talk about the Monte desert of Argentina. Yet this is a great desert; just as hot, just as wild and just as deserted!


Monte landscape 1

Immediately to its east the desert merges into the foothills of the spectacular Andes and to its west the vast flat thorn-bush lands of the Chaco. The Monte stretches over 1500 kilometres down central western Argentina and is one of South America’s great eco-regions. This is a region we wanted to discover for ourselves as well as to photograph its wildlife. After the great Cretaceous ‘break-up’ of the continents, the South American landmass drifted across the ocean for 65 million years.  During this time two groups of mammals, that had previously been present when the landmass was connected to Africa, did supremely well in adapting to their new conditions, rodents and monkeys.  But it was the rodents that adapted beyond all belief to their new environment, some attaining giant hippo-like proportions. These are all extinct, except one, but that animal will  feature in a future blog as it is certainly not a desert animal. Suffice it to say that 40% of all mammals in South America are rodents and many of these do live in the Monte desert.


Monte - Microcavis austraulis or Common Yellow-toothed Cavy

This rodent is a Yellow-toothed Cavy. Cavies are a family of Rodents. There are many species mostly living in desert and arid habitats and one or two species are otherwise known as Guinea-pigs.  We found this species at two locations in the province of Mendoza, in the provincial reserves of Lake Diamante and Laguna Llancanelo.


Monte -Gallea museloides

This is a different species called Microcavia australis.  We photographed it much more to the north, in the Province of Salta in the Los Cardones National Park.  This rodent is diurnal,  but the best time to see it is in the hours around dawn as it climbs into the low llarrea bushes to eat their fresh leaves, from which it derives moisture.


Monte - Grey Fox

Wherever there are small mammals, there will be a predator to eat them and there is no more clever hunter of rodents than the Fox,  this is the endemic Grey Fox.


Monte -Red Fox


There are a number of fox species all confined to Andean  habitats,  This Red Fox or Andean Fox, locally called a Zorro Colorado, is more widely distributed than the Grey Fox,  its range extending the length of the Andes.  This one heard  a small animal underneath the bush, then spent 15 minutes, walking around the bush, peering in one side then another.  Then after a mad digging session successfully emerged with what looked like a rodent.  One swallow and it was gone !



As we were driving across the arid desert lands in Mendoza Province and saw two most peculiar animals run across a sand track.  Quietly we stopped and spent an hour stalking them between the thick mesquite bushes.  They knew of our presence even though we were upwind of them and as we moved slowly they moved faster, always trying to keep hidden. These were the elusive Mara, not a hare or an antelope but another rodent, the fourth biggest rodent in the world !  Very much a rodent of arid lands and the Monte desert in particular.


Camels and their ancestors have a peculiar evolutionary history.  Believe it or not they originated in North America in what is now the Sonoran desert of Arizona and California. They travelled north and colonised Asia and then North Africa.  Much later, only about 1-2 million years ago, they reached South America as part of the Great American Interchange that followed the formation of the Isthmus of Panama.  There are two well known species, the Guanaco and the Vicuna, but it is only the Guanaco that lives at the lower altitude found in the Monte Desert.


Finally, to perhaps the most beautiful rodent in the world, the  Southern Viscacha, closely related to the chinchilla.  We were alerted to a colony of these as we were climbing a rocky outcrop in Salta Province, northern Argentina.  We had heard high pitched whistles as though there was a raptor high above us but some minutes later as we climbed higher, one of these animals made a leap of perhaps 6 metres from one rock to another in front of us.  It looked at us smugly, daring us to come closer.


Monte -Viscacha

Viscachas are vegetarian, eating mosses and lichens in particular.  They live in loose colonies, are highly social and shelter in high rocky crevices.  There are always several keeping guard,  often looking upwards, as  eagles and hawks are their main predators.  It was, of course, their alarm whistles that we had heard as we approached them.


Monte -landscape

Because the Monte desert is so vast and stretches from sub-tropical to quite chilly latitudes it is not surprising that the range of landscapes and their associated plants are hugely variable, but some plant families species, such as cacti, can be found throughout the entire Monte, making it a distinct and rich eco-region.

Spectacular birds of the Southern Yungas forests

We have been so astounded by the richness of the Southern Yungas ecoregion that another visit was necessary. This time to the Eco-Portal de la Piedra lodge in the Santa Barbara region, a mountain range east of Calilegua.  The forested mountains are complex, as you progress upwards you pass through a number of ecologically distinct types.



Southern Yungas forest_

We walked from approximately 1,000m to 2,200m and camped overnight, horses carrying our equipment and food.


On hoseback into the Yungas_

The lower slopes are the domain of the iconic Toco Toucan,  here seen flying over the Quebracho canopy, it’s only in these forests and those in Missiones province, especially around Iguacu falls, that this bird can be seen in Argentina.


Toco over the canopy

Fruiting trees are a magnet for many tropical forest birds like the Toucan


Toco toucan eating


 the Scaly-headed Parrot –


Scaly-headed Parrot

and the Green-cheeked Parakeet


Green-cheeked Parakeet


The lower  transitional forest is more humid and comprises many dense thorny acacia shrubs with taller trees such as the Cebil and Laurels. Tropical Kingbirds, Narrow-billed Woodcreepers, Tropical Parulas, Red-eyed Vireos and White-tailed Doves appeared and then disappeared, almost as if the forest absorbed them back into its greenery.  Big colourful birds are outnumbered by tiny indistinct ones, such as  the Tyrannulets –

A Mottled – cheeked Tyrannulet.


Mottled-cheeked Tyrannulet


We criss-crossed the jungle, following ancient logging trails, dropping down to a stream then up again.  By following precipitous ridges we avoided deep forested ravines, these ridgeways were more open than the forest either side, ideal habitat for the Rufous- collared Nightjar.


Rufous-fronted Nightjar


At around 1500m we entered the rainforest with its moss draped Myrtles and Ceder trees, tall evergreens that provided a dense canopy,  The thorny acacias disappeared, replaced by luxuriant ferns and here we found the  Black-capped Elaenia & Cinnamon Flycatcher, pictured below.


Elainia in the Yungas_

Cinnamon Flycatcher

This was also the home of White-crested and Slaty Elaenias, Grey Flycatchers, inquisitive Plush-coloured Jays, Black-capped Thrushes and  this White-chested Tyrannulet.


White-throated Tyrannulet

  as well as the endemic Yellow-striped Brush Finch.


Yellow-striped Bush Finch

We passed along a narrow, dark, damp, rock strewn pass and were immediately ‘buzzed’ by the tiniest of birds, the rare and local Blue-capped Puffleg.



Blue-crested Puffleg


The following day we explored the montane ‘alisos’ forest above 2100m, home to the nesting Alder Parrot. Above the trees soared the Andean Condor, but the Alder Parrots were keeping quiet, after all they would have eggs by now, we heard a few in the distance even saw several pairs as they passed over the forest canopy but were unable to find a nest in the time we had.    After the breeding season this endangered parrot moves to the lower Transitional forest for the winter and congregates at large roosting sites.

It seems that if we wish to photograph this wonderful bird we will have to return in the winter also.

Battling with biodiversity

The lush forested hills in the foothills of the Andes in NW Argentina, reaching up to 1700 metres, are an immensely valuable source of water for the agricultural lowlands beneath.  For six months of the year from November, the moisture laden winds blow from the Atlantic. These clouds race across the hot dry chaco plains and then in a series of violent thunderstorms drench the greenery of these slopes.  This ‘vertical’ rain combined with the summer heat creates low ephemeral clouds that drift amid the trees, giving rise to cloud forest.  The ‘gift’ these clouds give to the vegetation is a slow magical release of  moisture ‘horizontal rain’. The trees beneath are clothed in moss, lichens, bromeliads and orchids – this is the Yungas !


Selva Yungas forest , Calilegua


 We accessed the area along route 83 and spent a week in this wonderland, in the Calilegua National Park.

 Route 83 into Calilegua N P


One of the rangers of the park is Nicolas, he lives in the park with his partner Soledad and young child, Andina.



The rangers house where Nicolas, Soledad and Andina live.


 Rangers house  in Calilegua


The richness of this national park is due to the three types of distinct forest it contains. The lower slopes a threatened habitat – Piedmont woodland, a little higher the Selva and higher still the Montana forest.  Steep ravines intersect the whole, giving rise to a multitude of complex micro-climates, ecosystems and wildlife.

Swallow-tailed Kite

Swallow-tailed Kite


Female Red-brocket deer

Female Red-brocket deer

Rusty-browed Warbling-Finch

Rusty-browed Warbling-Finch



A dozen lifetimes would not be enough time to see and understand its unique flora and fauna. We could but only raise our binoculars and cameras to that which passed us by, marvelling at the wonders that crossed our path.

Calilegua butterfly



Where ever we walked the variety of nature exploded before us with vibrancy and energy.  We battled to identify what we could, but the odds were overwhelming.   Insects that looked like Crane flies but were multi-coloured and hopped on the ground.  Birds that sang and called but tantalisingly remained hidden in the dense foliage, flocks of parrots that flew noisily overhead.  Trees of every hue, some small and leggy,  others massive that soared into the heavens, this was the Southern Yungas  eco-region.



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.





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