Out of Africa

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/

Spot the beast 57

See if you can spot this one. Please, do not look too much if you fail to find it in a few seconds…

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This one is really a different “Spot” as it is quite clear that we have a terrapin in front of us. However, have a good look at it.

I did not notice anything strange until my son, said “look at the terrapin doing Yoga”!

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It was rather hot in Roma so the beast was sunning one leg at a time at leisure!

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Although it is pretty obvious, it was interesting that it was found by my wife that is not a fan of these beasts. She carefully avoided getting close to it and took the pictures with her cellphone from a distance!

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This small beast, a yarará (Bothrops diporus) measured about 25cm and, according to my wife was quite aggressive… After rolling itself up in the middle of the road, it eventually departed.

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Snakes of this genus (there are a few) are responsible for most fatalities in the Americas. Their venom is hemotoxic and cause severe lesions at the bite site (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bothrops#Behavior)

 

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The setting makes spotting this -rather delicate- beast difficult. However, I am sure you will find it…

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Here it is, probably not what you expected? I was pretty sure that you would check the sticks thoroughly and probably (at least at first) miss it.

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It is a rather delicate moth that does not visit us very often.

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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.

 

Rescue!

While in Salta I got an invitation to join a group of friends on a fishing trip near a place called Goya, in the mighty Paraná River, the same river where we have spent some great days fishing in the eighties (See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/01/28/a-fishing-expedition/).

This time the fishing was not memorable as there seems that the river is suffering from too much fishing pressure and the large fish are disappearing.

At one stage during the fishing we were traversing a smaller tributary known as the Santa Lucía River when I spotted three large birds of prey circling a floating object. I kept watching their activity from about one hundred metres away and saw that one of them landed in the water and started to peck the object.

I realised that the birds were three Caranchos or Caracara (Caracara plancus) and I was surprised to see one landing in the water. Then, the bird lifted the object in its paws and started to fly away but dropped it. At that time, I saw that what they were mobbing was a smaller bird so we went to have a look.

While moving towards the spot, there was a second attempt at lifting the bird again and, again it was dropped.

Our approach scared the predators and we found the prey to be a Ringed Kingfisher (Megaceryle torquata), a rather unusual target for the Caracaras that, although known as opportunistic, I did not think capable of going for a rather large kingfisher!

When we approached the bird, it swam with the aid of its wings towards us.

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A “rushed” picture of the kingfisher “swimming” towards us seconds before I lifted it.

I lifted the bird, risking its rather strong beak. Soon I managed to close it with a sticking plaster to avoid becoming a victim myself! I checked the bird and, fortunately, it did not show any visible injuries.

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Bushsnob and soaked wet rescued bird with its beak closed by the plaster!

I kept the bird on the boat for about two hours, waiting for it to dry and to keep it from struggling I covered it with my hat, burning my bald head in the process!

Eventually, it got dry and became rather active so I judged that it was as ready for release. As soon as I removed the plaster and held it in my hand for a few seconds, it flew away strongly.

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Waiting for the now dry kingfisher to fly off.

Unfortunately I can only speculate as to how the kingfisher ended in such a tight spot that, surely, would have cost it its life if we would not have come to look. In my view, the most probable scenario is that it was a young and inexperienced bird that had recently left the nest and, being still insecure, made a mistake spotted by the caracaras that took advantage of the situation. However, I could well be wrong.

Spot the beast 54

Another beast to test your observation powers. Not too difficult this time but good camouflage nevertheless…

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Good dress to deceive in Autumn!

Rococo

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A rococo is a large toad as you would expect with such spectacular name! It has been classified as Rhinella schneideri and it is also known as cururú toad in other parts of South America. In English it goes under the much less spectacular name of Schneider’s toad.

As toads go, a rococo is a large one: the males can measure between 15-17cm and the females between 18-25cm with a maximum weight of  2kg of weight! Pretty sizable if you ask me.

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Rhinella schneideri is a widespread and very common species that occurs in a variety of habitats but most commonly in open and urban ones. It breeds in permanent and temporary ponds.They are found in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Brazil where they are sometimes kept as pets. I remember my aunt in Salto, Uruguay that used to have one in her garden that would come every evening from the cover of the plants to get its mince meat!

Luckily, at Salta, although we are at about 1,500 m above sea level we do get rococos and we see them sometimes around the house, feeding on the insects attracted to the outside lights. They are fierce predators feeding not only on invertebrates but they have been seen feeding on rodents, snakes, small birds and even fish and other amphibians.

Despite this, it a a shy animal that itself falls prey to snakes and birds of prey.  In fact, just a few days ago we saw a roadside hawk (Rupornis magnirostris) catching one on the road but our approach by car scared the bird that -luckily for the toad- dropped it unharmed (as we stopped to check it). They are able to pump themselves up to avoid being swallowed by snakes but this is clearly no defense against birds.

They are mainly nocturnal and very imposing creatures with a rather large body but rather weak hind legs that makes rather slow. They are distinguished by their supraorbital crests and their pupils are large and slit-shaped. Apart from their size they also have tibial glands located in their hind legs that secrete a milky bufotoxin. The later causes nausea, vomiting, and even paralysis and death in potential predators.

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Luckily, they are not threatened despite being collected for the pet trade.

 

 

Annual migration

Every year we embark on our annual migration that covers three continents: Africa, Europe and South America. We find this ideal. Not only we avoid the bulk of the rainy season in Zimbabwe but we also get to Uruguay and Argentina to take advantage of the summer time there. After our sojourn in the Americas we avoid the winter and return to Zimbabwe with a summer stop in Europe to visit our children.

This year things changed as our son moved to Tenerife in the Canary Islands and we decided to spend the end of the year holidays there. We traveled there via Rome to spend a few days with our daughter and friends prior to our trip to Tenerife. This, unfortunately, was not the best move as we picked up severe flus that matured on arrival to the Canary Islands and kept us homebound for several days, some of them spent in bed!

Despite this, the fact that the family was together offset our sicknesses and, fortunately guided by our son we had some good time touring Tenerife and have a look at its attractions although planned trips other islands and visit to friends were cancelled.

After this, already recovered, we traveled to Uruguay where we spent a few days in the company of relatives and childhood friends. It was summer time and we enjoyed the warm weather that sometimes turned rather too hot but always preferable to the cold and wet winters that Uruguay can also deliver.

It was soon time to travel to Northern Argentina, a long but interesting journey that would take us to our farm in Salta “La Linda” (the beautiful) as it is known in this latitude.

After a few years of traveling this route we have decided to divided into three legs of about 600km each. The first takes us to Mercedes in Corrientes, the second ends in Presidencia Roque Saenz Peña and the final one -slighty longer- takes us to our final destination in Salta. This time, because of a basketball tournament there was no hotels in Mercedes so we booked a place in Curuzú Cuatiá, a few km nearer to Carmelo.

The weather during the journey was expected to be stormy but, despite some rains on the way, we had no difficulties. After driving about 600km? we reached Curuzú Cuatiá, a small town whose name comes from cross (curuzú) as it is placed at an important crossroads with traffic to and from several important Provinces in Argentina and Buenos Aires. The Jesuits had marked this place with a large wooden cross but the local Guaraní already had a name for the place: Curuzú Cuatiá.

After a good night rest we continued North, this time under heavy rain until, …km later and driving through the Iberá wetlands, we crossed the Paraná River at Corrientes through the large bridge that joins the Provinces of Corrientes with the Chaco. This time, the waters of this wide river showed a ribbon of clear water on the side of Corrientes (the waters from the high Paraná) and a wide brown area occupying more than half of the river course on the Chaco side. The latter indicated that the Paraguay River, that joins the Paraná a few km upstream, was in flood. The view reminded me to that seen at Khartoum with the Blue and White Nile running in parallel.

A couple of hundred km after crossing the river we arrived at our destination for the day: Presidencia Roque Sanz Peña. The reader may ask why we stopping in such an unsung place. As I mentioned, we needed a stopover that would be located about two thirds of the way to Salta and, after trying a few options Presidencia (for short) was chosen. It is the second city in importance in the Chaco Province after Resistencia, its capital. Luckily we discovered that it has a comfortable hotel with a sauna, adjacent to a thermal water spa. Just a short walk away there is also a good BBQ place where a large display of various meats allows for the choice of dinner to be made. A great desert of cheese and papaya in syrup is usually tasted after a good portion of “asado” (barbecued meat).

The final leg is the harder as it is a bit further and the road offers some “challenges”! Hence we departed as early as possible stocked with plenty of water. The straight road took us across what was a vast expanse of forest known as “El Impenetrable”. The straight road traverses the Chaco and Santiago del Estero provinces before getting to Salta. It passes through places with dramatic and even scary names, some of which are worth mentioning.

The first location we find is Avia Terai, (originally “Aviauck Tadaek” meaning large or thick forest in the Toba Qom language). Unfortunately, only isolated clumps of forest remain this day although, because of its woodlands of white and red quebrachos (Schinopsis spp) a very hard (density 0.9–1.3) wood tree species whose name means “axe-breaker”; algarrobo (Ceratonia siliqua) and guayaibí (Patagonula americana) was once known as the “Fortress of the woods”. Charcoal burning, the extraction of the hard woods and the clearing of lands for cultivation (mainly soybean) have taken their toll throughout the region nowadays

You then reach Concepción del Bermejo, a rather symbolic village that evokes an earlier settlement known as Concepción de la Buena Esperanza. This early attempt at colonizing effort was founded in 1585. Although it was the most effective Spanish occupation of the Chaco Province, it came to grief in 1631 when a tribal coalition destroyed it and forced the survivors to migrate all the way to Corrientes (240km), luckily ignored by the attackers!

The string of dramatic names starts with the next settlement called Pampa del Infierno (Hell’s Pampas) that clearly illustrates the feeling of the early settlers that chose the name when confronted with the intense heat and humidity that prevailed there. The next town, Los Frentones, is another small enclave that remembers the indigenous nation of that name that roamed this area. They used to shave their heads half way up their skull appearing to have a wide forehead (frente) hence their name that means “large fronted”.

Río Muerto’s (Dead River) is the next place we crossed. Its rather gloomy name comes from a dead “cauce” associated with the Bermejo River that apparently was blocked during the Chaco conquest through which the Argentinian Government conquered the aborigines. Pampa de los Guanacos is the next town name as a herd of these ruminants? were seen in the area at some stage. The place is home to a Mennonite colony? that came from Paraguay over thirty years ago. They live their rather isolated lives working the land and producing excellent cheese that is very sought after in the area!

We then came to Los Tigres (The Tigers) where probably jaguars once lived but no longer. Here the asphalt road deteriorates taking a rather “political” characteristic that also makes it interesting. It runs smoothly through the Chaco until you enter Santiago del Estero where the potholes become more frequent until it becomes a totally broken road. If your car survives the knocks, you emerge triumphantly back in the Chaco at Taco Pozo (hole of the tree or hole of the the algarrobo in Quechua) about 70km later after having driven through Monte Quemado (Burnt Forest).

Happy that we made it through this bad stretch, we decided to stop to regain our breath and recover some of the energy spent.

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Preparing a coffee and snacks.

Aware that, after spending time negotiating the bad road drivers tend to go really fast we drove off the road down a gentle slope a few metres towards the railway track that runs parallel to the road most of the way and enjoyed our food while discovering a few interesting inhabitants.

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See if you can spot one of the locals… The answer is at the bottom of the post!

When the time to go came we were surprised that the car did not move although the engine was making an effort to go! We got out and discovered that one back wheel was spinning in the hitherto undetected red mud. I engaged 4WD and tried again with no difference. Well, there was a difference as a wheel at the front also buried. Used to these situations, I stopped the car and proceeded to inspect the situation learning that the grass upon which our left wheels were it was very soft and the wheels were deeply set. We were well stuck!

Luckily we carry a few tools for these occasions and the spade came very useful to dig in front of the wheels to enable them to move as their thread was totally filled with sticky mud that did not allow any grip. To make matters more sticky, raindrops were falling and it was imperative that we dug fast. We had about two attempts at going but our rather optimistic digging did not work. Eventually, after quite an effort the car move about one metre. That was all we needed and I rocked it back and forth until it gain some motion forward and, with the engine screaming, Mabel pushing and spreading mud all over, the car moved and I did not stop until I was on high and firm ground. It was a relief as we had lost about two hours between the picnic and the mud!

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With the car back on the tarmac, we took a picture of the trench we made!

From then on we had no other difficulties and we soon caught sight of the hazy mountains in the distance that are always welcome as they are the sign that we are getting close to the Andean mountains and our destination: Salta La Linda from where I will be writing for the next three to four months.

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An immature mantis waiting for the right prey to pass by!