Bush Pills

Very short comments and observations

Isolated bushsnob

While going ahead with a planned holiday with our friend Tom from Zimbabwe, we also got caught in the Covid mess. We planned to visit the Iberá wetlands and then proceed to our farm in Salta where his wife would join us for a few trips around Salta province.

As soon as we were at the Iberá we realized that the virus was behind us or rather the lockdown was and we needed to take fast decisions. So, after only one night there, we opted to go on and attempt to reach our (very) isolated farm where we guessed our chances of survival were best.

So it was that we helped Tom’s wife to cancel her trip and we left very early in the morning. We drove without delay through Corrientes Province towards the Chaco where we spent one short night at Presidencia Roque Saenz Peña, already weary of the approach of the lockdown.

Again, before dawn, we drove non-stop to our farm and we got there a day before the quarantine was imposed by the Argentinian Government and all borders were closed and non-essential travel stopped. Luckily, before this happened we managed to stock-up with essential food to last the three of us for a while. But we were in the countryside, away from the virus!

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The view towards the Andean mountains.

We have spent many days watching birds and carrying out house and farm chores that we had accumulated over the years while having a few asados (BBQs) and sessions in the outside oven cooking bread and other delicacies.

So, today we celebrate our 90th. day in quarantine and a couple of days ago, instead of the virus we got internet arriving to the countryside after 13 years of visiting this place so I can resume blogging while I still watch the beauties of nature at the foothills of the Andes until we are able to move again, whenever that may be.

 

 

Siesta with a Tataupa Tinamou

Like every year we spend a few summer months of the Southern hemisphere at our small farm in the region known as “El Gallinato” in Salta Province, Argentina [1]. The area belongs to the Yungas ecosystem that is still rich in vegetation and wildlife.

There are over 216 species of birds that inhabit or have been seen in the area of our farm and we are lucky to have some real special birds, some of them even come to feed at our bird table. Unfortunately we cannot boast the presence of hummingbirds in large numbers although they do live and we see them often. However, there are other interesting species of larger size.

Being here only during a few months does not enable us to observe all possible birds and we are away during the dry winter months when there is less vegetation and the birds become more obvious.

This year has been especially good for some of the birds at our farm. Among these, the rather abundant plush-crested jays (Cyanocorax chrysops) adds lots of colour to our front garden where they congregate to feed on the cracked maize and seeds we offer.

We had also a good sighting of the elusive and colourful cream-backed woodpecker (Campephilus leucopogon).

The large dusky-legged guans (Penelope obscura), however, are the real attraction at the moment as, somehow, they have decided to come close to the house and they also  starting feeding on the bird tables for the first time since we bought the farm about 13 years ago.

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Our neighbour, himself an ornithologist, mentioned that this winter there had been two families that raised their young around our farms and they have decided to stay around.

We had over the years watched toucans (Ramphastos toco) a couple of times before. Our quince (Cydonia spp.) and kaki (Diospyros kaki) trees had produced a god crop of fruits the latter appear irresistible to toucans. So, three of them have been busy finishing all the kakis at a really fast rate and there will be nothing left very soon. Luckily, we are not kaki fans!

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Today, while entering the house after taking some of the above pictures, I saw something scurrying under a table. At first I thought it to be a rat or a guinea pig although the latter rarely enter houses. I followed it and it was a running like a dwarf version of a New Zealand kiwi.

It entered the house and I lost it. Thinking that it would go out the way it came in, I left it alone and forgot it. We had lunch and I went for my siesta a very civilized activity, essential at my age and in tropical situations.

This particular siesta ended up abruptly when I woke up startled by an unfamiliar noise. The bird visitor was flying about my siesta quarters, trying to leave through closed windows! I got up fast and managed to net it and keep it quiet while Mabel was calling our neighbor for identification purposes before release.

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Tataupa tinamou. My siesta foe. Credit: Dreamstime.com.

The small beast, the size of a partridge, was a Tataupá Tinamou (Crypturellus tataupa) a bird that prefers to walk or run rather than fly but that it had been seen around frequently.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2014/12/30/at-the-foothills-of-the-andes/

Rain bird

A few days back we have started hearing the by now familiar ‘wip-wip-weeu’ that the rain bird or red-chested cuckoo (Cuculus solitarius) make endlessly at the time the rains should start in Zimbabwe. But, where have they been since their appearance last year?

 

Before I knew much about bird movement and migration, I often asked myself this question. I recall watching in awe widowbirds displaying in Northern Kenya and asking my friend Paul about their whereabouts during the rest of the year. His reply, was that they would go to the Sudd[1], a huge swampy area located in Sudan.

Sudd_swamp Credit NASA (Public domain)

Sudd Swamp -a Flooded grasslands and savannas ecoregion in South Sudan. To the left the river/wetland Bahr al-Ghazal connecting to Lake No (top). This photograph was taken during the driest time of year—summer rains generally extend from July through September. Taken from space, May 1993. Credit: NASA (Public domain).

So, every time that someone asks me now where a particular bird is when it is not seen, I say that it is in the Sudd, a very convenient reply!

The truth about the rain bird is that they are intra-African migrants that breed in southern Africa between September and March, although most arrive in mid-October and the majority are gone by the end of April.

The rest of the year they reside in Sub-Saharan Africa, in countries of Central, East and West Africa, including the Sudd wetlands in South Sudan!

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Rainbird distribution map. Attribution: BirdLife International (2019) Species factsheet: Cuculus solitarius. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 02/11/2019.

Their preferred habitats are woodlands where they perch high up in the trees. The red-chested cuckoo is usually solitary and it takes on more than a single mate so it is polygamous. Every year they visit our garden where they are occasionally seen while they feed on caterpillars and other insects in the tall msasa trees.

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While in Southern Africa -including Zimbabwe- the rain birds practice brood parasitism by breeding through egg-laying in other bird species nests, some twenty-seven of them! The most common hosts are thrushes and robin-chats and the Cape robin-chat (Cossypha caffra), the Cape wagtail (Motacilla capensis) and the white-throated robin-chat (Cossypha humeralis) are the most popular hosts.

The cuckoo’s resemblance with a small bird of prey (like a sparrow hawk for example) scares the future parents from their nests and the cuckoo female lays the egg that, not always, resembles their hosts’. It is estimated that they lay about twenty eggs scattered in various nests every season. Then it is up to the surrogate family to raise the chick.

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A cape robin feeding an almost fully-grown rain bird. Attribution: Alandmanson [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f4/Piet-my-vrou_%26_cape_robin.jpg. Downloaded from Creative Commons on 2/11/19

A very interesting biological phenomenon helps the cuckoo chick to have a head start from the other chicks in the nest: the female cuckoo literally incubates the egg inside her for 24 hours before laying it! [1] This ensures that the chick will hatch first and eliminate the competition at the nest.

Cuckoos are great travellers, capable of flying enormous distances during their migration and, although the red-chested cuckoo covers less distances than others, it uses the same mechanisms to do so. These navigation skills are genetically passed on to their young. The latter stay behind to complete their development while their parents depart but the new generation are able to fly back north on their own to join their parents!

Now we only need good rains while we watch the cuckoos until they depart and then we wait for them to announce the rains in 2020.

 

[1] See: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-11401254

Spot the beast 58

I saw this beast flying off from our verandah when I turned the light off early morning.

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Here it is. Just visible even when I cropped the picture.

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The moment the moth gets ready to fly, it is a different story! Quite beautiful.

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Mana Pools reception

The unexpected is commonplace at Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe! Below are the receptionists!!!

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We just waited a bit while they approved of us…

Later Mabel, my wife, experienced a close encounter with another elephant while sitting at this bench checking her WhatsApp!

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The unique experience of Mana Pools!

Too close!

During our recent visit to Mana Pools National Park we saw a Yellow-billed stork (Mycteria ibis) feeding in one of the pools that give the name to the park. This was nothing strange as we often see these birds in that pool.

What was unusual was that the stork was feeding very close to a semi-submerged crocodile of a size that could have gone for it!

What else can I add? My immediate thought was that the stork meat must be so bad tasting that this is its best defence!

Batmask

We bought the mask during a trip to the Chiquitanía region of Bolivia in 2002 while I was posted there. The Chiquitanía is a beautiful part of Bolivia where six churches (San Francisco Javier, Concepción, Santa Ana, San Miguel, San Rafael y San José) built by Jesuit and Franciscan missions in the 18th century have been restored and selected in 1990 as UNESCO World Heritage Sites under the name Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos.

The mask is used for to the dance of the “macheteros” (machete bearers), a local dance typical of the Beni region of Bolivia and it was acquired because of the insistence of our son.

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Our young daughter posing as a “machetera” wearing her brother’s mask.

After the trip the mask was quickly forgotten joining the vast amount of jumble that we have accumulated over the many traveling years. Eventually the mask ended up hanging in the back verandah of our farm in Salta where it is to be found today. But not for long…

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Noticing that the bat droppings extended beyond the two bat nests my daughter (a bat fan!) and I placed outside the house (see: https://bushsnob.com/2017/04/02/homely-bats/) Mabel checked the mask and, through its mouth, she spotted some fur and requested that I carried out a thorough inspection of the inside as a bat was surely living there!

I did check and found a bat trio sheltering happily in the mask, cozy and away from the rain!

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The bat trio in detail.

Although I am trying to defend them, it seems likely that both mask and occupants may need to move away from the verandah to a more ventilated area where their droppings and other odours would not interfere with our lives.

 

Surfing heron!

Someone made a positive comment in YouTube about this video I took in Mana Pools and I looked at it again and liked it!!!

Hope you enjoy it also.

Ticks growing on trees!

I devoted my scientific life to study ticks in Africa. For this reason, Sterculia africana, the Tick tree or African star-chestnut caught my interest during our recent trip to Zambia.

We had seen this tree at Kariba, Zimbabwe and collected some “ticks” from it. I somehow remember the sight of the tree and driving from lake Kariba to Lusaka I stopped to have a look and managed to collect some of its interesting fruits. Unfortunately, grass burning had taken place and it was difficult to find the nicest seeds (ticks).

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Three fruits of the Tick tree.

A small to medium size tree of dry areas with a smooth silver-white papery bark, it produces bunches of yellowish flowers marked with reddish lines. The fruits are boat shaped of up to 140mm long with tapering ends of a golden velvety appearance. They are loaded with blue-grey seeds that, amazingly, resemble engorged female ticks.

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Two “ticks” collected from the ground and placed inside the dry fruits.

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The fruits and “ticks” with a match for a scale.

The “ticks” are attached among hairs which, I forgot, are extremely thin but able to embed easily in the skin. Once lodged, they are very irritating as I learnt (again) this time. Luckily, I managed to remove them and was able to use my fingers (again) to write this post.

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A close up to show the nasty hairs.

 

 

Spot the Beast 51

While staying at Mana Pools National Park we encountered this beast, easy to spot but interesting nonetheless.

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I am sure that you can see the small tree frog on the top left of the picture. However, this was not all as we had also its relatives taking care of the time…

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One frog o’clock

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Two frog o’clock

Clearly humans and frogs do not share the same time!

There were a few frogs around the lodge and, as in earlier opportunities at Mana, a few inhabit the toilet and, somehow, they are attracted to the mouth hygiene tools! I am sure that my dentist from Salta would be quite surprised…

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