Argentina

Suicide season

The Rufous-bellied thrush (Turdus rufiventris) is a songbird that occurs in most of eastern and southeast Brazil (where it is the national bird), Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and central and northern Argentina. While in Uruguay they are known as “zorzales”, here in Salta they are called “Zorzales chalchaleros” or just “Chalchaleros”. While the English name for the species describes its distinctive reddish-orange underparts, the vernacular name in Salta reflects its preference for feeding on the fruits of a tree known as Chal-chal.

The Rufous-bellied thrush -very similar to the African Olive thrush (Turdus olivaceus)- occurs in different habitats (forests and urban treed areas) and it is common around rural houses where its song is one of the pleasures of rural living. An omnivorous bird that prefers arthropods and fruit it can eat broken maize during our dry winter season when food becomes scarce. As I mentioned earlier, one of its favourite fruits are produced by the Chal-chal (Allophylus edulis)[1].

We do have Chal-chal trees in the farm but not close to the house. However, about ten years back we planted a row of Hawthorn bushes (Crataegus spp.) to act as a wind-breaker against the predominant eastern winds that often blow in this latitude. This resulted in a rather unexpected high wall of trees that not only help to stop the wind but also yield what I estimate to be several hundred kilogrammes of red berries, towards the end of the summer months.

This plethora of fruits attracts a number of birds that include the large Dusky-legged guans (Penelope obscura), Chachalacas (Ortalis canicollis), Toco toucans (Ramphastos toco), Blue-and-yellow tanager (Rauenia bonariensis) and Sayaca tanager (Thraupis sayaca). Although the latter are rather spectacular, the most common birds that come to feed on the hawthorn are the Rufous-bellied thrushes. We probably have a few dozens of them constantly moving to and from the red berries.

Year after year, the resulting thrush heavy and uncontrolled air traffic causes casualties announced by loud bangs coming from our only large east-facing window in the house (that also faces the row of hawthorn trees about twenty metres away). Usually, about two or three thrushes (no other species do this) either die or get stunned after heating the glass. So far we have accepted this as an unavoidable consequence of the increased number of birds brought about by the abundance of food.

The offending window showing the reflection of the surrounding garden.
A stunned thrush after crashing.
Sometimes the thrushes came at such speed that they broke through the mosquito screen as shown here by the Bolivian guiro (a musical instrument).

This year, however, the suicides (birdicides?) reached alarming levels and yesterday we had four hits (three dead and one recovered), a rather alarming number! Although the first bird that hit during early morning recovered, a second one crashed about an hour later so we decided to do something about it.

I remembered having read somewhere that if you drew lines on the glass with a highlight pen, somehow the birds eyesight would see them from far and avoid the window. I drew the lines and, satisfied with my job I called Mabel to see it. The moment we were close to the window a bird nearly hit Mabel’s head and the loud thud indicated another fatal outcome! The fluorescent lines did not work so, do not try this at home!

So, “encouraged” by Mabel I placed a rather obstrusive zig-zag of flourescent yellow tape that occupied the top of the glass, at the area the sky was reflected. We decided that it was better to interfere with our view rather than nhaving more casualties!

The yellow tapes in place.

So, proud with my work but now tired, I went for my obligatory siesta (a pleasure of these regions!) to recharge my batteries.

When one hour later I woke up, Mabel was very upset as a fourth bird had killed itself!

In desperation and after some more thinking, we remembered that we had bought some bird netting to protect our fruits. We placed the netting in front of the window in a way that resisted me throwing the Bolivian guiro that was the closest to a thrush I could find for a test!

The Bolivian guiro itself.

Below I show you the netting and a video showing how we expect it to work.

A lateral view of the netting.

We believe that the deaths will stop now but our discussion has turned now to resove the reason that compels the birds to do this.

A couple of years back we thought that the birds could see a mirror that we have in front of the window and tried to fly through. As the birds continued hitting the glass when we covered the mirror, this idea was abandoned.

However, we are convinced that the birds see the reflection of the sky in the window and try to fly through.

The presence of predators, in particular the Sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus) make us also believe that it could chase the thrushes and the latter, trying to escape, bump themselves against the window. In favour of this hypothesis is that we have seen the hawk catching thrushes and other smaller birds around us. However, it is unlikely that the hawk would try to kill four birds the same day when one would be sufficient for a few days.

That leaves us with the last hypothesis that had been put forward by Mabel: the ripe fruits of the hawthorn ferment in their crops and their small livers are not able to process the resulting alcohol with the result that they get drunk! The fact that the berries are ripe now and likely to ferment faster, supports this hypothesis. In addition, after “googling” the idea, I found that at least one similar event involving the hawthorn and Cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorumhas) happened in the USA [2] and other instances of drunk birds also exist [3][4].

[1] I did not find an English name for this species.

[2] S. D. Fitzgerald, J. M. Sullivan and R. J. Everson (1990). Suspected Ethanol Toxicosis in Two Wild Cedar Waxwings. Avian Diseases 34, pp. 488-490.

[3 See: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/10/04/drunk-birds-are-causing-havoc-in-a-minnesota-town-police-say-theyll-sober-up-soon/?noredirect=on or https://time.com/5415378/drunk-birds-minnesota/

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7071081/

Spot the beast 80

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

?
?


?
?


?
?


?
?


?
?


?
?


?
?


?
?


?
?


?
?

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

?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?

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.

?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?

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:

?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?

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.

?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?

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 73

While working on my next Ethiopian post that I promise will be interesting, I present you with this beast to see if you can find it. I must confess that it was difficult even for me to see it a few days after taking the shot!

?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?

More pictures to give you a better idea of this moth:

Spot the beast 72

On the road and without time to write the few final posts on Ethiopia, I present you with my last contribution for 2020 (although for some of you may be already the first of 2021) with my best wishes for the New Year during which I expect we will all avoid Covid!

Anyway, I found this at the garden and here it is. It seems straight forward but…

?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?

Clearly, the ladybird was too obvious and a distraction! The real hidden beast is this small bluish-gren moth, a real delicate creature, well camouflaged among the leaves.