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.

We find the waterfall

We had spent a couple of hours walking up an arid valley, following a tiny stream in the hope it would lead us to a waterfall.  It was the dry season so we didn’t know if the waterfall even existed and if it did, would we see any of the rare White-collared Swifts which had been seen some years before.

Eventually we rounded a curve in the valley and there before us stood the waterfall.

There was nothing pretentious about this waterfall, it was neither imposing or magnificent, but it fitted into its surroundings as naturally as a nut fits into its shell.  At the top of a small cliff, lay a huge boulder around which the water flowed and then down over a red sandstone drop , cascading about sixty feet to a clear pool beneath, but behind the tumbling water there appeared a deep, dark cleft in the cliff.


best waterfall

We were overjoyed to re-discover this watery gem.

Hot and tired we stood beneath, unable to hear one another for the force of the spray hitting the rocks by our feet.

Thank you Swarovski for waterproof binoculars !




The most noticeable bird was not a Swift at all but a stout little passerine, a Grey-flanked Cinclodes.


Grey-flanked Cinclodes

Grey-flanked Cinclodes

The Cinclodes called and then a second bird appeared from around the side of the Canyon, then the first flew round the cascade and disappeared, whilst the other alighted on a nearby boulder, almost directly under the cascading water.  It called again and out from under the boulder appeared a fledgling, which was duly fed by its parent.


grey-flanked Cinclodes at nest

Not to be outdone by a mere bird, I likewise darted under the cascade – only I had both an umbrella and a light !




Once behind the silvery tumult I found myself in a dark dank chasm.  Behind me the cave stretched twenty or so metres and disappeared into a narrow tunnel, where I had no intention of going.  On top of me, water either trickled or poured, depending where I stood.



Light  streaked in from the outside, creating mesmeric rainbows.


Cave colours

The cave walls were wondrously covered in a kaleidoscope of emeralds and browns where mosses, slimes and fungus flourished.


cave walls 2

Slime 1


more cave walls 1

As I turned round and looked up in the hope of seeing a Swift more colourful patterns emerged, this was a beautiful place to be.


cave walls 1



The ground inside the cave was littered with the carcasses of freshwater crabs.  Maybe a small mammal was catching the crabs and bringing them in the cave to eat them and maybe that animal was lurking in the tunnel at the back of the cave.  Whatever was taking the crabs had clearly found a safe and secure place.

Looking down again I saw a live one in the water at my feet.


Cave crab

So we had found the waterfall.


Looking at the waterfall from a distance the cave behind it seemed nothing,  just a black ‘smudge’ across a red rock face.  But penetrating that ‘smudge’ was entering a mysterious place with its unique beauty, a  watery world of colour and patterns.


Standing inside and looking upwards the cave split into multitudinous crevices where black voids were separated by mossy envelopes dripping with water,   Swifts could easily hide in such places.


A Cinclodes flew through the spray and started to probe about in the moss looking for food, it found a long worm and then flew away with it.



searching for food


Once I thought I could see a swift in a hidden crevice, but I wasn’t sure.


The sun outside was high in the sky,  if there were any swifts they would no doubt be away in the clouds catching insects.


Had we hiked along the thorny and arid hillside for nothing, definitely not  !  we had seen a fantastic cave, a beautiful Cinclodes and a strange freshwater crab. But no swifts.


We settled down to wait till sunset, if there were any Swifts that’s when they might return.


See our next blog for news of the swifts.


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!