Out of Africa

Spot the beast 80

A rather special “beast” found in the morning. I am sure that you will see it rather easily.

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A delicate white moth that I am sure was not designed by Nature to use its colour to appear invisible on a white wall!

Spot the beast 79

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Our beast is a toad known around here as a “Rococo” and in English as a Schneider’s toad (Rhinella schneideri), a rather large toad known to occur from North and Central Argentina (including Salta, where we are), central Bolivia, the Atlantic coast of Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay in elevations up to 2,000 metres above sea level and in various habitats, including urban areas. They are often found around houses in rural areas.

The males can measure up to 17 cm in length and the females 25 cm. Their maximum weight can reach 2 kg! (the one in this post is probably 6-700g). It is a shy and mostly nocturnal beast that during the day relies on its colour and remaining flat and inmobile not to be detected by potential predators.

We often see this one at our small dam near the house but also it frequents our outside lights feeding on insects attracted to them.

Their call resembles a stake being hammered fast. The females deposit up to two thousand eggs in double strands deep in water pools and the rather large tadpoles hatch and feed on algae.

Despite its large size and excellent camouflage, rococos have some enemies, apart from men. The “Sapera” snake (Xenodon merremi) is one of its worst enemies but the toad can puff up with air to avoid being swallowed. It also secretes a bufotoxin that can cause vomiting, paralysis and even death in predators. We have observed a rococo attacked by a “caracara” (Polyborus pancus) that abandoned it when we approached them (I believe that the rococo only survived that beacuse of our fortuitous arrival).

Spot the beast 78

By chance I bumped into this beast yesterday. I wonder if you can identify it.

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It is a very dark immature mantis, as usual looking rather fierce. Below a few more pictures of the beast for you to enjoy.

Spot the beast 77

While I work on my Zambia posts, I take the opportunity to challenge you to find this beast:

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In fact, I took the picture as an excuse to present you with this small mammal, the apereá (Cavia aperea) or Brazilian guinea pig.

As you can gather, it is a relative of the well known domestic variety, the guinea pig (Cavia porcellus) a more colourful and better known around the world. Its name is confusing as it is not related to pigs and it did not come from Guinea but from the region we are now: the Andes where they are an important and sought after food item.

Credit: Photograph taken with a digital camera by Kazulanth of a pregnant guinea pig (Cavia porcellus) 1 week before delivering 3 pups. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The apereá is a diurnal and grass-eating mammal, pale grey-brown on its dorsal area and greyish-white ventrally. It is almost tailess with an adult length of about 25 to 30 cm and a top weight of about 600 g,

The apereá is found in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela where it is a rather common mammal, often spotted on the roads, running away from cars, seeking shelter in their thick superficial grass burrows. They breed throughout the year and females can have up to five litters of one to five young each time.

Pirpintos

A short post to share with you a special situation that we have been going through at the farm for the last week or so. White butterflies that usually fly past on a migration somewhere they only know, have arrived. Unlike previous years, they have decided to stay.

Ascia monuste, the great southern white or pirpinto in Argentina is the only species in the genus Ascia. It is found from the United States to Argentina where they migrate yearly but only in one direction and without return. Despite their English name, they are rather small with a wingspan of 63 to 86 mm.

Pirpinto feeding on a Lantana flower.

Their main aim is to find plants of the Brassicaceae family (Cabbage, Kale, etc.) to lay their eggs for their larvae to feed on them. However, as there are several sub-species, they can also feed on other plants such as Lettuce, Alfalfa, Cotton, Rice, Potato, Chicory, Cassava, Passion Fruit, Corn, Mustard, Radish, Rocket and Soybeans to name a few.

The larvae will develop in 4 to 5 days and the adults will be appearing a fortnight later and they will feed on the nectar of plants such as saltwort, lantana and verbena while laying their eggs on some of the target species mentioned above.

We were enjoying their visit as they staged a great show that reminds us that Nature is able to create amazing sights.

Unfortunately, Mabel noted that the winged visitors had discovered her treasured rocket plants and they were busy laying their eggs on them so our focus has recently and urgently moved from contemplation to biological control to save our veggies!

Spot the beast 75

The advent of the rains in our farm in Salta brings, like every year, an explosion of life. Today’s beast is not very common but rather spectacular (if you can find it…). At the bottom I include more pictures and videos of it for you to appreciate its beauty.

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It was an Imperial moth (Eacles imperialis) first described by Drury in 1773, clearly being too obvious to be missed!

This moth is one of the largest and most stunning of the Imperial moths. It is found from Canada to Argentina. Both larvae and adults are highly variable in coloration. They have a wingspan ranging from of 80 to 174 mm, the females being larger than the males.

Their immature instars feed on pines, oaks, maples, sweetgam and sassafras trees. Adults emerge before sunrise and mate after midnight and the females lay eggs singly or in small groups on both sides of leaves. Both sexes do not feed and are short-lived.

Some more pictures and videos below:

I found these moths a couple of years back and observed that they responded in this way to the touch. I filmed them as I found the behaviour interesting. I imagine that this behaviour could be useful the moths to survive while mating and laying eggs?

Condors!

At the end of the year, taking advantage of a relaxation of the Covid control measures in Salta, we left our quarantine and travelled to the Calchaquí valley [1] for a well-deserved break from the routine of the farm where we had been since March 2020.

We travelled to a small town called Payogasta where we spend three nights exploring the Los Cardones National Park [2] and then continued to Molinos, travelling on the well-known national route 40 (RN40) that goes from North to South of Argentina traversing almost 5200 km and crossing eleven provinces [3] through the most amazing and changing landscapes.

The cardones (Echinopsis atacamensis) give the name to the National Park.

While in Molinos we visited the Brealito lagoon, a natural water reservoir, and the Acsibi caves, both near the small town of Seclantás. I will deal with these visits in due course.

We enjoyed our stay at the Hacienda de Molinos hotel and when we were due to depart, decided to enjoy an extra night and explore Angastaco, another small village 50 km further on on the RN40 towards Cafayate, the wine-producing area, towards the South.

The entrance of the Hacienda de Molinos hotel.
The patio of the hotel with a very old molle tree (Schinus molle)

We traveled to Angastaco with the expectation of visiting the “Quebrada de las Flechas” (the Arrow’s gorge), meant to be a spectacular sight. This northern section of the RN40 is a rather twisted murram road crossing mountainous terrain and we drove with care following the Calchaquí river on our left. Although along the river there is a green valley where agriculture is practiced (including vineyards), the dominating landscape is one of dramatic dry rocky hills of different colours that change with the light and where one hopes (against hope) to see condors after turning each corner.

Because of the Covid 19 situation, we were among the very few people moving through so our journey was very relaxed until, as usual, I heard Mabel saying “these are Condors!”. As usual, without seeing anything but the rather twisted road ahead, I stopped to look and I could see some tiny objects against the horizon on one of the hills that I took for rocks, until one of them moved and we got excited! There were indeed Andean Condors (Vultur gryphus) [4]

The condors as spotted by Mabel (they are on top of the hills!).
A close-up of our first view of the condors.

We stopped to watch them with the binoculars and to take a few pictures. There were about ten birds along the edge of a cliff and then she started spotting more flying above us until we realize that there were many.

Condors flying.

We advanced slowly to get a better angle on the birds on the cliff and then saw a large number of smaller birds on the ground and on a tree. These were Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus). We also saw a few Southern crested caracara (Caracara plancus) and other smaller birds of prey that I could not identify as they were quite far. Among the Vultures there were a few more condors and more were discovered by Mabel all around the area. So, we had hit a “condor jackpot”!

To give you an idea of what we saw, below I include a slide show.

We saw the remains of a carcass under the tree and decided to have a good look. We found a number of dead cattle, probably disposed off there by farmers as a consequence of the dry conditions in the area and this “cattle cemetery” attracted all the birds we saw.

We watched the birds for a long while while feeding until it was time for them to take off. The condors started first, followed by the Black vultures. The latter are super flyiers and gliders but they are no match for the truly majestic condors that, after the first few wingbeats they can go for long distances without the need of flapping their wings.

We enjoyed observing both vultures and condors after they had taken off while they glided up until they disappeared and then we decided to continue to Angastaco and have a look at the Quebrada de las Flechas. This did not disappoint us. The road snakes through a very dry gorge made of large pointed rock formations that extends for several kilometres. As I am not good with descriptions, the following slide show hopefully will reflect what we saw.

Despite the drama of the gorge and the beauty of the landscape that we traversed, nothing will make us forget our first close encounter with the magnificent condors.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calchaqu%C3%AD_Valleys

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Los_Cardones_National_Park

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Route_40_(Argentina)

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Condor

A short video to show you more “action”.

Spot the beast 64

Now that the winter is over, things start to happen at the farm in Salta, Argentina. The following “Spot” is difficult, perhaps too difficult but what follows I believe it is interesting. Here there are two pictures for you to look at and try to find the hidden “beasts”.

Here you can see our finding:

Well, in reality there were “future beasts”. It is a nest of the Southern lapwing (Vanellus chilensis). This bird is common throughout the southern part of Latin America. The nest with two to four eggs looks like if the eggs were dropped anywhere as nests go. The idea of “egg incontinence” came to mind…

Meet the birds known locally as “Tero” or “Teru-teru”, because of their calls, that happens to be the national bird of Uruguay:

As much as the nest looks like a careless affair, its defense by the birds is not. Apart from their loud screams, they go through a routine that I can prove is a good deterrent to anyone approaching the nest.

First they try to attract you to a spot far from the nest by pretending to be sitting on it. If this fails, one or both start behaving weirdly, showing signs of being wounded or just trying to distract you, staying quite close to you.

If the above noisy diverting tactics fail, the birds go into the next line of defense that is quite aggressive. The screaming goes up a few decibels while taking off and flying low directly towards you until veering off at the last second! When close, you can hear a clicking noise that I believe they make with their beaks as well as the spurs in their wings.

Although I have being mobbed many times I can assure you that they can be extremely intimidating as the following sequence of images show.

More info on the species can be found at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_lapwing

To hear their calls:

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/