Safari to Itiyuro

There are 979 bird species in Argentina [1] and 656 (67%) of them are found in Salta Province [2], one of the reasons that prompted us to get our small farm located in the foothills of the Andes mountains.

Although quite familiar with Eastern and Southern African birds, we try to keep up with those present in Salta but it is a rather hard job to remember the vernacular names of the species present. That is why we are lucky to have our own resident ornithologist in the shape of Oscar, the owner of the farm next door!

We often consult him on bird (and other) matters and he does not disappoint us. So, when he and Ágata -his wife- invited us for a trip to the Itiyuro-Tuyunti (Itiyuro) dam to watch some unique birds, we readily accepted although we have not eard of the place before! It was only later that we learnt that the place was actually located about 350km from our farm on the very Northeastern part of Argentina, very close to the border with Bolivia.

The idea was to stay two nights at a Government house close to the dam while accompanying Oscar on his bird census work as well as trying to spot some “specials” of the area such as the Military macaw (Guacamayo verde in Spanish), Ara militaris and the Yellow-collared macaw (Maracana Cuello Dorado), Primolius auricollis among other birds, some of which are not easy to see.

We left our farms at about 08:30hs and travelled North through a mixture of farmland and sub-tropical hills framed by the snow-capped pre-Andes in the distance. The latter showed a rather heavy snow cover despite being quite early in the year and added a great contrast with the heat of the area we were moving through.

After a brief stop at the bridge over the San Francisco river where -from some fishermen- I learnt that some good fishing for dorado, surubí, patí and other species is possible. The San Francisco flows into the Bermejo (some info on the Bermejo) and the fish move upstream.

“We did not catch anything this time. The water is too muddy” they said and then, showing me their arms added “no fish but the marigüis are plentiful”. I felt sorry to see the number of bits they hd suffered and memories of fishing in Bolivia under a similar “challenge” came back. I made a note to come prepared if I ever attempted fishing there!

Before we finally got to Itiyuro we stopped again to buy fruits and veggies at Pichanal as the offer was very tempting and we could do with good avocados, papaws and bananas. I also spotted some special medicinal honey from the local Moro-moro bees and made a note to buy a jar for Nena -a friend in Salta- on the way back.

After quite a mission to find the keys for our house, we got to Itiyuro in mid afternoon, a bit later than planned but still in good time to try to watch the macaws’ “fly-over” that Oscar knew takes place after 16:00hs. We were lucky to see a number of Golden-collared macaws flying overhead, returning to their roosting places.

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The dam.

We were disappointed not to see any of the “specials” of the place, the Military macaws. This bird of about 65cm in length has a red forehead and an overall bluish tinge to its plumage while its face is rosy with black lines like some other of the macaw species. Its distribution in Argentina is stated as “Yungas (a small population North of Salta)” [1] so our willingness to see them increased. “Do not worry” said Oscar, “tomorrow we have a chance of walking towards a special area where -if very lucky- we can see them”

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Keeping watch for the macaws.

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Although we watched a few water birds at the dam, our sights were already set on finding the rare Military macaws. We learnt from Oscar that the “top spot” for the macaws required a 20km walk and he added “the path is wide and we may be able to cross the river with the car so we can save about 2km”. We estimated that our daily walks had kept us fit enough to attempt it. Before going back to our house we drove to the river and realized that crossing with the car was out of the question.

Although the depth could be negotiated and the bottom was quite firm, the access to the road on the opposite bank had been washed away and a 4WD pick-up that had tried to cross was still submerged in the river with water up to its seats! Its occupants were digging while waiting for another car to tow them back. We left knowing that the following day we would have to ford the river on foot and walk the distance.

So, after the customary asado (barbeque) accompanied with roasted sweet potatoes and a bottle of an excellent Cabernet Franc, we prepared our bags for the following day and went to sleep. Apart from binoculars and cameras we needed to pack sufficient water, food and -above all- insect repellent as we remembered our experiences of walking in the Madidi National Park in Bolivia where the marigüis (a Simulid of ths sandfly kind) were worse than the piranhas!

Although we planned an early start we realized that senior citizens required more sleeping time in the tropics so we got somehow delayed by about one hour. Despite this we decided to set off anyway as the walk offered other attractions apart from seeing the macaws and the weather was superb. So, the plan was adjusted accordingly to take in the possible higher temperatures to be suffered and we agreed that if we felt strong we would aim for the “máximo” (top spot), otherwise we could turn around earlier. The top spot we were cheerfully informed by Oscar was worthwhile.

Oscar guided us. He had visited the place a couple of times before and had a GPS with the top spot in its memory. Although the intention is to preserve the area as a protected area in the future, at the time of our walk there were no facilities in place apart from the road opened up sometime ago during the exploration for oil and gas.

So we walked across the murky river and succeeded as -luckily- the bottom was clean sandy-clay and no yacarés (caimans), stingrays or piranhas lurked under the surface. More importantly for me, the water temperature was rather pleasant…

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Once across we were treated to a few interesting birds in the riverine forest. The most visible and interesting were a Toco Toucan (Ramphastos toco) and a Blue-crowned Trogon (Trogon curucui), the latter quite similar to Narina’s trogon, found in Africa. As if these two beautiful birds would not be enough, suddenly Oscar pointed to the sky and there, in all its glory, an Andean condor gave as a display of its amazing gliding skills, a beautiful sight considering that we were at a sub-tropical forest.

Not crossing the river in the car was a “blessing in disguise”. A few hundred metres forward we came to some heavy eroded area where the wooden bridge that we would have used with our car had been destroyed by flooding and we would only have been able to make use of our motorized transportation for a few metres after crossing the river!

And then we walked! It was mostly uphill although a few descents to alleviate our legs also appeared. The first stage of about 5km would take us to some human habitation known as “the Post” where we could rest and decide whether to go on or return to base.

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The path to the Post.

While moving through the forest we saw few birds and most were “flashes” of colour across the path as it is usually the case in rather thick cover. Despite this, we observed footprints from peccaries and red brockets as well as a number of interesting insects, flowers and fungi, apart from the magnificent trees and climbing vines that surrounded us. Luckily, our repellent was working and the marigüis were kept in check, at least most of them.

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Before arriving to the Post we found an old earthmover resting in the foliage. Judging by its condition it had been in this place for a few years, most likely from the times of the oil and gas prospection that took place during the 1900’s. I had been abandoned after having done its duty of opening the road.

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I climbed on it to have a look hearing Oscar’s warning about looking our for snakes as these tend to find refuge inside old machines. A quick look did not reveal its make but I could see a rather powerful eight-cylinder engine that, unless some major mechanical work is done to it, will not start again.

Oscar, the conservationist, said “this looks like the revenge of the forest against its destroyer” and he walked on.

After about 90 minutes we arrived to the Post and needed to decide whether we continued to the top spot or took a detour back to our car through another dam known as the “Limoncito” (small lemon) that was quickly re-named “Lemoncello” by the mostly Italian-influenced crowd.

We unanimously decided to continue agreeing that we were already half-way and that we may never had the chance again! So, we calculated that it was 11:30hs and we would need another two to get to the place, an hour to observe the area and possible macaws and then return the 10km at one go! As the latter were mostly downhill, we estimated 3 hours so we would just make it with enough daylight to ford the wide river back. We set 15:00hs as our latest return time and set off again after a welcomed drinking stop.

The way beyond the Post was tougher! The going was mainly uphill through a narrow and often muddy path. We climbed for about 5km until Oscar estimated that we needed to leave the path to deviate down a steep ravine in order to find the stony bed of a normally dry stream that would take us to the top spot. To find the right turning was hard as the floods that had taken place after Oscar’s last visit had dramatically changed the landscape. Despite the GPS, he could not find the right path down!

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After a few fruitless attempts at finding the right path we decided that it was a good time to pause, have lunch and rest a bit. It was a rather forlorn group that sat on tree trunks rest and recharge energies.

Luckily, the pause had a positive effect as, soon afterwards, Oscar located the begining of the path and we managed to move in the right direction. A large tree had fallen and pulled down the foliage around it, blocking the usual entrance. We climbed down the ravine and followed the stony stream where we negotiated some high stone steps until, about 200m further we could see some light among the trees. We continued our walk towards the light and then we could go no longer and we just looked forward in silence.

The path/stream on which we were walking ended in what clearly during the rains is a spectacular waterfall but that now it was dry and offered a great platform from where to watch the beautiful forested gorge that opened in front of us. We had reached the top spot!

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The “lost” path re-found.

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Some of the steep steps we negotiated

Just before we settled down a Peregrine falcon (identified by Oscar) flew across the opening and it was gone at high speed. We sat down facing the gorge and, at the distance, some red cliffs were seen.

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The macaw cliffs are seen in the distance.

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The cliffs zoomed in.

Oscar informed us that the macaws liked to come there and they were seen at the cliffs although nesting there was not confirmed. If very lucky, they would get closer. We waited and watched. As the difficulties finding the right place had delayed us, we also delayed our departure to 16:00hs to give us sometime to wait for the macaws and to rest.

The cliffs were a few hundred metres from us so I had not much hope of seeing much as -for the sake of saving weight- I had only small binoculars! A bad choice but one that was too late to regret! We sat in silence and waited. After about 30 minutes we heard the classical loud calls of the macaws and my wife (who else?) spotted four of them flying from the cliffs towards the forest behind. There were about three seconds of birding and I saw nothing!

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The fleeting sighting of the macaws took place here

As our departure time approached and nothing else had happened after the fleeting view, we decided to extend our departure time by another few minutes as we estimated that, as the way back would be mostly downhill and assuming that this would enable to walk faster, we could still make it with some daylight left. Our decision proved to be wise. AGain we hear the loud calls and probably the same 4 birds returned to the cliffs. This time I was better prepared and managed to see them, long-tailed and bluish against the emerald green of the surrounding forest!

After that second sighting (only sighting for me!) it was time to go. The going was downhill indeed and we did walk faster. I also lived up to my reputation of falling in forest paths (particularly when watching macaws!) and I fell in the mud! Luckily there were lots of tender branches that counterbalanced my fall and I survived.

Without any further hitches we managed to get back to the wide river in time and, after a deserved swim in its muddy waters by those members of the party that were well preapred and had swimming trunks (Ágata and Oscar), we were able to get back, thirsty, tired, stung by marigüis and sunburnt but happy to had seen birds that although we hope will endure forever, may not be there for very long.

These are a couple of embedded pictures from Getty images for you to see what we were after and managed to see in the distance!

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[1] Narosky, T. & Matarasso, H. (2010). Checklist Argentina. Aves, Birds. Vazquez Mazzini Eds. 60p.

[2] Moschione, F., Spitznagel, O. & González, M. (2013). Lista de Aves de Salta. Birds Checklist. Gobierno de la Provincia de Salta. Ministerio de Cultura y Turismo. 49p.

Final Note:

Oscar saw or heard 117 species and I managed 63 that I actually saw. Not a bad number for a weekend spent mainly in a forest. Some of the interesting species seen by the bushsnob, apart from the macaws were:

Roseate spoonbill (Espátula Rosada), Platalea ajaja

Swallow-tailed kite (Milano Tijereta), Elanoides forficatus

Real Ornate hawk-eagle (Aguila Crestuda), Spizaetus ornatus

Squirrel cuckoo (Tingazú), Piaya cayana

Crested oropendola (Yapú), Psarocolius decumanus







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