Salta

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 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!

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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…

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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.

Spot the beast 71

Finally, after nine months at the farm, Covid 19 cases have decreased in Salta Province (Argentina) and travel restrictions were lifted, although still maintaining the usual precautions.

For a change of scene, we headed for the “Valles Calchaquíes” a string of valleys that go through Catamarca, Tucumán, Jujuy and Salta Provinces. Although I will probably expand on this in future posts, we are now at a place called Payogasta and in the garden of the hotel Mabel found this beast while checking the identity of some of the plants there. So, if it is a tricky “spot”, it is not my fault this time as she found it and took the pictures!

To the left of the yellow flower, there is a toad that was busy catching flies, its whitish mouth gives it away. It is raining in Payogasta, a very dry area. Because of this, a lot of animals usually not seen are now active, including the toads.

Spot the beast 69

While trying to catch up with the next post about our time in Ethiopia, I present you with this beast captured in the video below. These are frequent visitors in our garden now that the jasmine is flowering. Nice beast but what is it?

Is this what you believe you saw?

At first I also thought I had seen a small hummingbird of the various species present at the farm. However, it was really too small for a bird.

A more careful look reveal it to be a moth that also drinks nectar!

The beast is a day-flying moth in the family Sphingidae described by Jacob Hübner in 1819. More specifically it is known as a Titan sphynx moth (Aellopos titan), a species described by by Pieter Cramer in 1777 [1].

The genus Aellopos occurs from the United States through Central America and down to Argentina and Uruguay in South America. It has a wingspan between 55 and 65 mm and it is dark brown with a distinctive wide white stripe across the abdomen.

The larvae of this moth feed on seven-year apple (Casasia clusiifolia), bottombush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and white indigoberry (Randia aculeata) among others. They pupate in shallow underground chambers. The adults are around throughout the year in tropical areas, feeding on nectar of various flowers by rolling out their long proboscis, estimated at twice the length of their bodies.

They are fascinating insects to watch as they buzz rather loudly while moving actively between flowers. They are capable to beat their wings up to 70 times per second and they can fly at speeds of up to 20 kph. Their oversized and rather menacing eyes are meant to look like those of a bird so, do not feel bad if when you saw the video you did think it was a hummingbird as I also did!

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pieter_Cramer

Spot the beast 68

Having given you difficult assignments before, today I give you a relatively easy one…

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I hope you found it easily as I expected. What I am not sure of is whether you are familiar with this rather large moth known as the Black Witch moth (Ascalapha odorata), an interesting beast in the way that it elicits fear in some parts and good luck in others!

Named by Linnaeus in 1758, the Black Witch is found from the southern United States to Argentina. The adults feed on overripe fruits while the earlier instars feed on legumes’ leaves such as Acacia species. The female of this moth is one of the largest in the American continent reaching up to 17cm (the one illustrated below was about 16 cm). The males are paler and smaller.

The Black Witch was already known by the peoples of America well before Linnaeus. They associated this moth with death and bad luck with names that meant butterfly of the land of the dead, death’s butterfly, and terror’s butterfly. It is believed to bring death in North American, Mexican and some Caribbean cultures and if one of these flies into a house, it is considered bad luck and most likely killed.

In some parts of Mexico, people joke that if one flies over someone’s head, the person will lose his hair. I was in Mexico and have lost my hair but I did not see the moth…

Closer to our present home, in Paraguay, the moth is wrongly associated with Dermatobia hominis as there is a mistaken belief about the moth urinating over their human “victims” and thereby inoculating their eggs, which then develop into maggots under the skin of the victim. In parts of Argentina it is known as the “pirpinto de la yeta” that could be translated as “bad luck’s butterfly”.

These beliefs have influenced the genus name Ascalapha. It comes from Ascalaphus, the custodian of the orchard of Hades who was the god of the dead and king of the underworld in Greek mythology. Ascalaphus was turned into an owl by either Demeter or Persephone (Hades’ consort) because of his misdeeds [1].

In the Bahamas they are know at the “money moths” as it is believed that if they land on you, you will get money, the same as in Texas if one lands outside your house. Just yesterday Carolina, a good friend, told me that she recalls her grandmother telling her that these moths brought good luck to the family that finds them.

They are not common at our farm in the Yungas of Salta but it makes some appearances attracted to the lights, resembling the bats that often fly around at night with which they are also mistaken. They seem to lose their bearings, and some have remained in our house for several days -despite our attempts at returning them to the outside- until they move off or just die.

Although the dorsal side of their wings look dark brown and almost black, its colours change depending on the angle of the light. On close inspection they can reveal areas of iridescence, mainly purple and pink, crossed by a whitish bar in the females. The small, comma-shaped green/pale blue surrounded by an orange line on each forewing are diagnostic of the species.

While we had not seen it, the larva is large (up to 7 cm) green and dark brown/black. Black Witch moth pupae were placed in the mouths of victims of the novel “The Silence of the Lambs” although in the movie they were replaced by death’s-head hawkmoth pupa.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ascalaphus_(son_of_Acheron)

Spot the beast 66

Aware that this can be difficult, I give you two different views of the beast in the first two pictures. Below you will find it enlarged in both.

Have a good look and you will find it.

View 1
View 2

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Here are the enlarged views:

View 1
View 2

Two more pictures to show it over a black background and give you an idea of size.