Birding across South America

On August 28th 2015 Paula and I returned to South America from the UK.  The Andean Wildlife Project resumes and our objective from now on will be more ornithological and in particular to understand why there are so many bird species on this incredible continent.


Where best to start this quest than to head for one of the most avian rich countries in the world, Peru.  To get there we needed to drive right across Argentina, traverse the Andes mountains and then up through the Atacama desert  in Chile and finally to cross the border of Peru at Arica. Birding across South America.

We left Buenos Aires and headed north following the flat marshlands of the Parana river.  This massive series of wetlands is now much reduced, replaced instead by cattle ranching country.  Nevertheless a variety of Egrets, Ibis, Wood Rails and Snail Kites abounded.

Moving east we entered the Chaco ecoregion.  We found that much of the land was degraded and much used as cattle pasture.  Eventually we found a series of sand tracks that penetrated the almost impenetrable thorny scrub, interspersed with candelabra cacti and small low growing acacia type trees. In this area we found Black-crested Finch, Golden-billed Saltators , Duica Finches and Monk Parakeets.


Paula at Chaco campsite




Golden-billed Saltator


The journey northwards from Cordoba to Tucuman took us into an altogether richer agricultural area, where great machines were harvesting the sugar cane.  Picui ground doves swarmed over the plantations and Guira Cuckoos, usually in small groups, were common.  To our west we saw tantalising glimpses of the Andean foothills and longed to reach those verdant valleys where we had spent so many happy hours earlier in the year.  The nearer we got to Tucuman so the Lemon groves increased, trucks piled high with the fruit vied with the even larger trucks carrying sugar cane.

We spent a day with our good friends in Tucuman and also had some necessary minor repairs done to the vehicle, putting new rivets in the steps, which had vibrated out on the poor roads.

Still further north of Salta, passing alongside the transitional forests on the foothills, White-tailed  and Roadside hawks were regularly perched on the larger trees and high above circled Turkey Vultures and the occasional Aguila mora. We passed the turnoff to El Rey National Park; a place we had not visited and wanted to in the future, but our destination in deepest, darkest Peru remained a long way off, we needed to press on.

On Tuesday September 1st we started our climb into the high Andes, into the beautiful  Puna ecoregion where stipa grasses dominated and the few small wetlands held resident Crested Ducks.


Puna with Stipa grasses


Crested Ducks

 We reached the Jama Pass in the late afternoon only to find the border closed.  We spent a fitful night’s sleep in the freezing cold and at an uncomfortable altitude of 4500m.

Crossing the border the next day we climbed even higher onto the Chilean altiplano, an arrestingly stark and barren environment.


Chilean altiplano


We dropped down the western slope of the Andes into San Pedro de Atacama and continued onwards across the Atacama desert and eventually to the Chilean coast at Paposo.  We had visited this area eight months prior and were interested to find if the heavy rains that had occurred after we left had led to a rare flowering of the coastal desert.  There were many small shrubs that were in flower and certainly everything was  much greener, but the spectacular flowering of the bulbous plants had not yet started.


Coastal desert at Poposo

We camped on the shore and were surprised by the number of Snowy Plovers and Seaside Cinclodes.


Snowy Plover


Seaside Cinclodes


Spending more time on the beautiful Chilean coast would have to wait for another time, we had to move on .


Paula driving the Atacama

It took two more days driving north through the endless Atacama desert to reach Arica in the very far north of Chile, the gateway to Peru and the goal of this journey, the famed lush sub-tropical forests of the eastern slope of the Andes.


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










The ‘dancing’ Sea Star

Paula and I have had close encounters with the second largest animal on the planet, the Fin Whale, on several occasions.  The nutrient rich waters of the Humboldt Current  attract them as well as many other large mammals and seabirds to the Chilean coast.


Rorcual comun

Rorcual comun



Whales and Dolphins, Sea Otters and most other mammals are identifiable as individuals and we know them to be highly social in their behaviour. Rarely do we attribute these traits to the lower groups of smaller animals but soon we were to be surprised by meeting one such special animal.


We wanted to spend some time looking for the animal life upon which the marine profusion of larger animals depended.  South of the city of Copiapo, we located an isolated area on the coast to spend a few days.  Its small white beach was comprised of crushed shells thrown up by periodic winter storms whilst the daily cycle of tides swept the rocky, seaweed fringed shore, refreshing a myriad of translucent rock pools.


Nuestro camping a  Los Burros

Nuestro camping a Los Burros



Peruvian Boobies, Neotropic Cormorants and Pelicans patrolled offshore, but it was the rocks and the rock pools which attracted us.

We would wait till the turn of the tide to start our searching over the black slippery boulders and we weren’t alone.  This was feeding time in the intertidal zone, two species of birds appeared as if from nowhere, each seeking food from entirely different niches.  Blackish Oystercatchers would probe deep into crevices for shellfish such as oysters.


Pilpilen negro

Pilpilen negro



Whilst the Seaside Cinclodes would almost creep over the rocks, extracting small invertebrates with its narrow slightly de-curved  bill.


Churrete costero

Churrete costero



As the tide receded and more of the rocks appeared so crabs started to emerge from hidden recesses and climb up onto the rocks and graze on the algae.


Un cangrejo come alga

Un cangrejo come alga



At the slightest movement from us the crabs would dart for cover, but if we sat quietly they would approach so close we could eye each other up.


El ojo de un cangrejo

El ojo de un cangrejo

We scrambled with difficulty over the slithery rocks in our searches, peering into the ‘crystal ball’ like pools of water, never knowing what was to be revealed to us. Brightly coloured sea anemones were usually the first to appear, their tentacles waving in the retreating water.  The most common was a small crimson one, but in deeper water there were larger orange ones and another even larger, as blue as the midnight sky.


Sea anemones are predators and we noticed that many tiny animals steered well clear of their waving tentacles, not so this particular small crustacean, no doubt protected by its hard outer covering.


Anemona y crustaceo

Anemona y crustaceo

An even larger crustacean, a type of prawn, hid in the darker recesses of the pools. This animal was simply gorgeous, red and black and studded with bright white and sky blue dots.


Crustaceo hermoso

Crustaceo hermoso

There were a number of sea stars, (they used to be called starfish even though they are not fish at all, but echinoderms). They are amazing animals, each arm of a sea star, if broken off, has the capacity to regenerate itself into a completely new animal.  The biggest we saw had forty arms and was the size of a dinner plate.  The undersides of these animals are covered with thousands of tiny suckers as well as thousands of simple legs but despite the number of legs, sea stars move extremely slowly.


Estrella de mar grande

Estrella de mar grande

A much smaller sea star caught our attention, a purple and green five-armed species.


Estrella de mar morada

Estrella de mar morada

This small sea star moved over the rocks much faster than we would have expected, on occasions when another animal touched it, the sea star would react by flipping up one of its arms.


Estrella de mar y crustaceo

Estrella de mar y crustaceo



 In other pools we found similar sea stars but none moved as this one did.  We continued to watch its antics and after a while the animal started to move its arms about in an erratic way.

This individual seemed as if it simply liked moving about,  as it turned, flipped and bounced.  We had found our own  star, a ‘dancing ‘ sea star!



Un estrella de mar baila

Un estrella de mar baila


Certainly the marine life we found was as rich as we thought it might be, a reflection of the bounty of the Humboldt Current.

As for individualism among animals, maybe after all, the lowliest and smallest of species have characters in their populations and it’s just us humans that do not see or understand the significance of their behaviour.




The Humboldt current

Travelling north on the Chilean coast has reminded us of being on the Hebridean islands off the west of Scotland.


Below is Isla Choros, Chile.



Los Pinquinos

Both places are in remote locations, sometimes difficult to access, giving visitors a sense of isolation, a rare commodity in this overcrowded world.  Both have exotic white beaches and turquoise seas.



White beach

Both places are blessed with sea currents which promote a profusion of marine life around them. The  seas off  the Hebrides are ‘brushed’ by the warm Gulf Stream  and despite being at 58 degrees north one can amazingly find Palm trees on the seashore.


The Chilean coast  has its own ‘marine’ magic wand, the Humboldt current.  The similarities end when comparing both sea currents, the Gulf Stream is a warm current from Mexico which interferes with the cold waters of the arctic, whereas the Humboldt is a cold current flowing from the Antarctic into warm tropical waters.


The Humboldt is an amiable ‘monster’ of a current.  As it flows north it splits into two as it reaches Tierra del Fuego.  One part flows east,up the Argentinean coast.  The other part flows westwards up the Chilean coast –  a 1000 mile wide mass of nutrient rich water.


The importance of the Humboldt first became obvious to us as we were seawatching at La Boca.


michael seawatching



The sea was absolutely teaming with Shearwaters.  Whereas off Western Scotland we were used to seeing  hundreds of Shearwaters in a day,  here we were seeing tens of thousands at any one time, too many to count.


Sooty Shearwaters



Sooty Shearwaters mixed in with  Pink-footed Shearwaters and the occasional Giant Petrel.


Sooty Shearwaters 2



There were great seabird nesting colonies, Pelicans, Peruvian Boobies and Guanay Cormorants .


Cormorant colony



and not only birds, but marine mammals lke Bottlenosed Dolphins


Bottlenose Dolphin 2

and pods of Fin Whales, the second largest mammal on the planet.


Fin Whale 1

The effects of the Humboldt current are truly awesome.


Another Condor released

A Condor was found near Tafi del Valle, with a damaged wing and half starved.  Kind people rescued it and it was looked after by skilled professionals working at Buenos Aires Zoo, for Bioandina, PCCA, as well as volunteers. Now was the time for its release and we were not going to miss it, so back to Tafi we travelled.

The day we arrived we found the mountain where the release was to take place.  A long, treacherous and steep track led upwards, past half-built houses and up further still, skirting narrow ridges and onto a vast undulating  isolated mountain top.  This was a place revered by the local  Diaguita community.

We arrived at dawn, a cool morning and though we were over 3000 m up the air was still , the grasses motionless. Rocks leading up to a nearby cairn hid a variety of bulbous, ground hugging cacti, a pair of Andean lapwings eyed us up from a nearby ridge.  This was an inspirational landscape, peaceful yet full of tension, surly the right place from which to release the most magnificent of birds.


Isolated mountain


The next day we returned for the ceremony and release.  As we approached the site, cars, motorcycles even small coaches and minibuses scattered the route.  As we came over the last ridge we gasped at the gathering on the distant mountain top. Several  hundred people had found their way to the. Joining them we circled around the pile of rocks donating the top of the mountain, flags  were unfurled, seats for elderly brought out, clearly this was a great celebration for the locals.


1 Condor crowd on the hill,_

Beautifully woven cloths and blankets were brought out upon which sacred and cherished items were laid, feathers, small statues, flower petals, food, wine and colourful stones.


2 Sacred items


The ceremony was long and detailed, conducted by the head  of the Diaguitas.  Pachamama was invoked to help support the Condor in its new lease of life. Praises were given for the goodness of the earth, the need for rain for the crops and kindness of the wind for the Condor to soar in the sky.


3 Hands up to the sky


Eventually the great bird was brought forward.


4 Carrying the Condor_


Immediately before release, incense was lit, small choice foods laid out and incantations spoken.  The crowds parted to allow the great bird room to manoeuvre and not feel threatened.


5 Prayers before release

The cage doors were opened and out stepped the giant, one of the most magnificent of birds.  It stood proud, reminiscent of its Jurassic ancestors.  Onlookers were in awe, would the bird fly ? could the bird fly ?


 The biggest flying bird_

A minute passed, it seemed like an hour, then  with stretched wings casting a shadow over those beneath, the bird slowly walked to the edge –


7 condor flying_

and flew !



8 man with andean flag


The ‘super’ bird gradually caught the wind and gained height, moving first one way and then another.  Around us silence changed to cheers, clapping,  hugs and even tears.  Many just stood still, watching as the bird became smaller and smaller a dot in the heavens, their own thoughts with the great bird.


9 hugs_

Success led to celebration, back in the village a great meal was set out, huge cauldrons of locro, a type of meaty broth was dished out to all, children rode about on horses or played football.  Dignitaries on a stage thanked all concerned for making the event possible then musicians took over, singers, drummers and  dancers.

All this for a bird, but not just any old bird this was for a CONDOR, the greatest of all birds.


celebration meal



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



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,

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




The Hilux has landed

The long awaited time has come to see if our ‘Proyecto de Animales Andinos’ vehicle has arrived safely in Montevideo. The wonderful person of Virginia Vizgago working for Repremar ensured its passage through customs was easy and without any problems.


With the paperwork complete and all the necessary formalities done we went to the warehouse and found the Hilux in perfect condition.


Now we are almost ready for the expedition to start.