Ibera wetlands

Water cows

After our trip to the Iberá wetlands reported earlier in this blog, my mind remained on the fishing, as I almost could not remember when the last time I caught a fish worth lying about was!

A very simple armchair exploration showed me that the above-mentioned wetlands drained into the Paraná River, via the Corriente River. Further investigation revealed that in this area there is a town called Esquina in the Corrientes Province where people go fishing! I had heard about this place before but never gave it sufficient attention as it is closer to Buenos Aires than other fishing spots in the region and my belief is that large cities and fishing do not go together.

Arriving back to Esquina.

Esquina.

So, taking advantage of the need to travel from the Andes foothills to Carmelo, our town in Uruguay, I decided to explore the Esquina area with a view to go fishing there in the future.

Esquina, founded with the name of Santa Rita de la Esquina del río Corriente started its life in 1785 when fifteen families of which six were of Italian origin settled in the area. It is located on the left (eastern) margin of the Paraná River, about 670km North from Buenos Aires. Predominantly a cattle-rearing area it is also known for its watermelon production!

The city still maintains the air of a colonial town where its low houses -of Italian influence- are shaded by large trees. Esquina’s main attraction resides in its riverine location where it enjoys the calm waters of the Corriente River delta that connects to the Paraná -located further West- through a man-made channel.

Enough history and back to our trip!

The town can accommodate up to two thousand visitors. This large bed availability for a city of 26,000 people is explained by its hosting of street carnivals in January and February and the Fiesta Nacional del Pacú (National Pacú Festival), a fishing competition that attracts around 25,000 visitors, in May of each year. So, in view of this situation we did not book in advance and left the choice of accommodation to an in situ choice.

Casa del Puerto B&B.

Casa del Puerto B&B.

It did not take too much time to find a place to stay, the very nice “Casa del Puerto” that offers reasonable B&B and its lawns end at the river. Seeing the beauty of the riverfront, exploration turned into action and it was not long before a fishing trip was booked for the following day while we spent the rest of the afternoon walking about town and resting, after the rather long journey.

Fishing started at 07:00 hours when our guide José came to meet us at the hostel’s small jetty. All was taken care of and we agreed to fish in two stages, morning and afternoon with time in between to avoid the heat of lunchtime and have a siesta to recharge our batteries. We left with high hopes, as the setting was clearly fishing-friendly!

A channel in the delta of the Corriente River.

A channel in the delta of the Corriente River.

Despite the predictions by the hostel owner and our guide, fishing did not live up to our expectations and none of the “Big Three” Dorado, Surubí and Pacú were caught. To save you reading time, we did fish three “Palometas” (also called “Piranhas”) of the Serrasalmus genus (probably S. aureus) and one “Patí” (Luciopimelodus pati).

Our fishing efforts.

Our fishing efforts.

The bushsnob with a pati.

The bushsnob with a pati.

The bushsnob with a "palometa".

The bushsnob with a “palometa”.

The affair was rather disappointing and we remained with the doubt of whether it was a strike of bad luck or the area has too many fishing enthusiasts! Although we fear the latter, we will come back to find out and report accordingly.

Despite the poor fishing, boating through the various channels of the Corriente River delta was a beautiful experience. We saw many water birds and even managed to spot one capybara, a sign that they are either very shy or few as hunting goes on in the area.

And then, while cruising through the channels, we saw it! A large head bobbing in a channel ahead of us that, for a few seconds, brought us back to an African river! We were aware that hippos in South America are still confined to Colombian rivers and it was not a semi-submerged capybara or tapir head either! It was a humble cow swimming to move from island to island in search of greener -or different- pastures. Clearly, to be a successful cow in the area you need to be a good swimmer!

The water cow...

The water cow…

The cow in shallow water.

The cow in shallow water.

We watched and followed the “water cow” for a while and learnt from José that, although the animals are used to water, when floods come cattle still need to be evacuated to dry land to save them from drowning. Further, I could also appreciate the difficulties of rearing cattle in such an amphibian environment and pondered the difficulties of mustering the cattle and the need for good (water) horses as well!

Swimming to safety.

Swimming to safety.

ALmost on dry land.

Almost on dry land.

 

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Riding my fears

The Senior Editor (daughter) certifying in person that what is written is real...

The Senior Editor (daughter) certifying in person that what is written is true…

One of the activities offered at Rincon del Socorro, during our visit to the Iberá Wetlands, was horse riding. Unlike all other members of the team that eagerly awaited the day, I dismissed it without thinking and made an alternative plan with our guide Mingo. I do not like horses or rather I am scared of them! The worse part is that they detect my fear from a mile away!

I have no doubts that it all started when, as a baby, a cousin placed me on a horse. I have a pictorial record of the event and my face while enduring the experience is telling! I am sure that although I cannot remember the event, it left a mark that I am not able to overcome without expensive intense psychiatric therapy! As avoiding horses is an easier solution, this is the path I have chosen after -as an adult- I became aware of this “trauma”.

Dodging horses during my four-year stint as a practitioner in Uruguay, a country where these beasts are revered and left to die of natural causes to reward their loyalty was, to put it mildly, difficult! So I tried to overcome my dreads and did what I could. Most of this involved referring the cases over to other colleagues!

To actually sit on a horse is an even more terrifying experience for me as I become rigid with fear and tend to fall off the horse at the first unexpected movement. I studied veterinary medicine with Álvaro, the second of nine brothers who owned a cattle ranch in the centre of Uruguay. They were a horse-loving family and each brother had a few riding horses as a lot of the tasks were carried out on horseback. The few times I visited the ranch it involved joining the routine cattle work. While I like working with cattle on foot, I had difficulties joining the necessary horse-dependent preliminary preparations inherent to cattle work.

My first time on a horse started early in the morning with the saddling of the beasts. As all were aware of my limitations I was given the tamest horse. In retrospect, as the mare’s name was Tarántula (the local name for a hairy spider!) I should have politely refused the offer but I did not! I received “riding instructions” from all and I was declared “ready to go”! I mounted and sat on the horse and followed the others, or rather Tarántula followed the others. It all went well while we walked towards the field where the rather lively Aberdeen Angus cows and calves were. The task was to separate them, as we needed to vaccinate the calves.

We entered the field and, before I knew what to do, Tarántula started moving faster and trotting in anticipation. I discovered too late that the mare was tame but not stupid… She had clearly identified a “separable” cow-calf pair and went straight towards it to perform the task. I followed (I had no option!) and managed to stay on during the trotting-galloping-trotting that took place and began to feel proud of myself as we were succeeding. My elation came too early! The moment Tarántula got between the pair and the mother lost contact with the calf it veered back to join its offspring. Tarántula reacted swiftly by swerving to the left to avoid their reunion in a great move for her equine brain. Although my more advanced brain understood a millisecond earlier what the horse was attempting, time was not enough to adjust my body to hers! What happened next lasted at most a couple of seconds: I went over the side head-first and hit the ground, luckily absorbing some of the knock with my arms. In the process I destroyed my watch and got badly knocked. To make matters worse my foot went through the stirrup and I became trapped. Flashes of western movies seen in earlier life of cowboys being dragged all over fields and disintegrating in the process assaulted me. Luckily, the mare did not watch the same movies and, confused and I am sure amused, she stopped in her tracks and looked at me in surprise, not understanding what had happened to the rather rigid human she had been carrying!

My working companions’ help with my condition was severely delayed by hilarity and rude remarks. Eventually I was released and, enduring all imaginable jokes, I abandoned the exercise to lick my wounds while, after tying the horse on a tree, I decided to watch and admire my friends’ riding skills!

Although funny in retrospect, this experience has remained in my mind all my life and it was the reason for making alternative plans for the Iberá horse-riding proposition! However, human folly has no limits and, when time arrived and after thinking about it, for the sake of teamwork (and under silent and subtle peer pressure…) I decided to join the equine adventurers not without obtaining assurances beforehand from the organizer that the mounts were tame almost to a stupid level.

I hasten to inform you that I did not fall and I feel so proud about it that I fail to find the right words to describe this feeling. In fact, with the exception of a couple of hitches, I enjoyed the trial.

The Bushsnob being optimistic about the challenge. Picture by Mariana Terra.

A rigid Bushsnob being optimistic about the challenge. Picture by Mariana Terra.

The first challenge came when we needed to cross a rather deep river that implied a brisk descent, water fording and a steep climb up the other side! I got my feet and legs water-logged as all my attention and extremities were holding on to avoid a worse fate. After that success I felt physically soggy but spiritually high. This glorious feeling lasted for a few minutes until the horse skidded on the muddy ground and my heart missed a beat. Luckily the four legs quickly recovered their verticality and I continued my triumphant parade all the way through the obstacle course and back to the ranch.

The Bushsnob being looked after by a member of the team.

The Bushsnob being looked after by a member of the team.

The ride took us through areas of tall grass, difficult to walk through, that opened up in a large flooded area where lots of water birds were present. An interesting sight was a lone Marsh Deer (Blastocerus dichotomus), the largest deer species from South America.

The good news is that I quite enjoyed the ride as it was far more comfortable than anticipated and the fact that I managed to stay on the horse made it 100% better than earlier experiences! The bad news is that, after this success, I may try again!

Tarántula Terminator

Picture by Mariana Terra.

Picture by Mariana Terra.

During our first walk around the Rincón del Socorro ranch we came across a large wasp dragging a spider. Although we have seen this several times both in Africa and Latin America, it was the first time we witnessed a confrontation of such large and colourful adversaries. The wasp was about six centimetres long and the spider even larger!

Picture by Mariana Terra.

Picture by Mariana Terra.

Before our arrival a Tarántula Hawk (a wasp of the Pompillidae family) caught a large Tarántula (Grammostola sp.) and was dragging it through the grass. The wasp stings the spider in order to paralyze it and later it lays an egg on it so that its offspring can feed on the inert -but living- arachnid. Apparently (see link below) the young wasp eats the spider’s non-vital organs first so that the paralyzed spider remain as a supply of fresh food for some time.

The Spider compared with a -muddy- foot...

The Spider compared with a -muddy- foot…

The female wasp (males do not hunt) was determined to keep hold of her prey, and clearly looking for her burrow or a place to bury the spider.

Life is, albeit rarely, also dangerous for the wasp as she deals with dangerous prey as sometimes she fails and becomes the prey instead of the predator. Even if she wins the battle, she is still very vulnerable while she drags her prey across rough terrain; she is earth bound and reluctant to abandon it.

If you are interested in more details I recommend you to consult the following link:

http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150109-the-wasp-that-scares-tarantulas

A lucky strike at the Brilliant Waters

View of swamp

We visited the Esteros de Iberá (Yverá in its original Guaraní denomination)[1] a few years back and the idea of returning stayed with us. Taking advantage of the visit of our children during the 2015 season’s holidays we booked a three-night stay at Rincón del Socorro. I quote from their web site (http://rincondelsocorro.com/):

Rincón del Socorro has 12.000 hectares and is located in the Iberá Wetlands. It has been historically managed as a cattle ranch until 1999 when it was bought by The Conservation Land Trust (CLT), who now dedicates to care for its environment through a group of biologists and veterinarians who develop different restoration and reintroduction programs of species. As a touristic establishment, we provide to our guests a close understanding to the local ecosystem, appreciating the importance each different natural environments and conservation it has“.

The CLT was created in 1992 by Douglas Tompkins to protect wild lands, primarily in Chile and Argentina. It was blatantly obvious that a large investment has taken place not only in the refurbishment of the ranch but also in the general area of the wetlands. The hostel at Rincón del Socorro is managed by a private concession that employs about 40 people, including the guides. We were very fortunate to get “Mingo” as ours as he proved to be a great companion who patiently explained most of the questions we asked and who had no problems in admitting not knowing an answer on the few occasions that he did not.

RdS view cropped

Rincon del Socorro: parking and reception areas.

To reach the place required a long journey of about 750 km from Carmelo, our hometown in Uruguay. Bookings were made about one month before the visit and being this a wet summer I immediately got “cold feet” about the very likely possibility of a rains during our visit planned for 2-5 January. However, there was not much I could do but hope that the usual luck that accompanies us would be with us again.

My concerns were not lessened the day before as 2015 started with heavy rain! A rather desperate last minute check to the weather forecast showed “suns” so hope was somehow maintained. The lucky strike started when getting up very early on the 2nd of January where clear skies greeted us. This magnificent weather stayed with us and we had four beautifully -and even relatively cool- sunny days that enabled us to enjoy the trip to the full and the playing cards and dice we brought with us in case of rain were not remembered. Amazingly, it started raining after we got back to Carmelo and it continued to pour until the 8 January!

During our stay we joined all available activities: animal watching walks and drives, boat trips to lake Iberá as well as a -rather painful to me- horseback ride. All these activities combined allowed us -with the advice of Mingo- to understand the different ecological areas that are found in the wetlands that I will try to briefly describe to you.

A general view of the Ibera wetlands. Capybara coin: Rincon del Socorro; Armadillo: Ibera lagoon.

A general view of the Ibera wetlands. Capybara coin: Rincon del Socorro; Armadillo: Ibera lagoon.

The Iberá Provincial Reserve is a protected area in the northwest of Corrientes Province, northeastern Argentina. The entire area is in the shape of a funnel, with the conical mouth towards the northeast and the stem pointing towards the southwest, ending in the Corriente River. Established on 15 April 1983, with an area of about 13,000 km2 it contains a mix of habitats that I will briefly describe to put the place in context. More information is available in the web, of course.

The lagoons, up to a depth of five metres, and the floating islands are an important feature. The latter are composed of floating organic material where giant bulrush (Schoenoplectus californicus) (Totora in Spanish) predominates among others such as yellow laurel (Nectandra angustifolia). These islands determine the shape of the open water while the water circulates underneath towards the Corriente River (the funnel’s stem). The latter with its sandy banks maintains a constant and slow flow that will eventually flow into the mighty Paraná River. Its very wet and sandy banks do not allow for the growth of large vegetation.

A Yacare (Caiman yacare) on a floating island at the Ibera lagoon. Picture by Julio A. de Castro.

A Yacare (Caiman yacare) on a floating island at the Ibera lagoon. Picture by Julio A. de Castro.

There are large areas of swamps and reeds, particularly towards the northeast where the water has filled depressions and accumulated over time, creating large flooded grasslands and reed beds mainly formed by piripiri (Cyperus giganteus) a kind of papyrus and giant bulrush that rarely dry out. In other areas grass fields made up predominantly of red grass (Andropogon lateralis) predominate and walking on it reveals small depressions filled with water. These micro lagoons enable the development of truly small aquatic systems. Finally, there is another grassland system in the sand hills of North and West Iberá where scattered patches of forest and/or little round blue lagoons interrupt the grasslands known locally as “espartillares”.

A Capybara in its private bathtub.

A Capybara in its private bathtub. Picture by Julio A. de Castro.

Palms occur in the form of groves of the small Dwarf Yatay Palm (Butia paraguayensis) that grow in the higher parts of the area as well as Caranday Wax Palm (Copernicia alba) that grow in sand and clay. As these palms are water tolerant they can survive floods and form dense forests that occupy areas where most land and aquatic plants do not survive.

There are patches of wet forest that have a limited lifespan as conditions are not ideal for the growth of the common forest trees such as queen palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana), the gum tree (Sebastiania brasiliensis), the ombú tree (Phytolacca dioica), the pacara earpod tree (Enterolobium contortisiliquum), and the lapacho tree (Tabebuia spp.). Drier areas are populated by Ñandubay trees (Prosopis affinis), with their medium height and flattish canopies creating dry forests in the savannah.

A group of Southern Screamers at the Ibera lagoon. Picture by Julio de Castro.

A group of Southern Screamers at the Ibera lagoon. Picture by Julio A. de Castro.

The place is also an animal paradise with many interesting and rather unique species. Abundant southern screamers (Chauna torquata) were spotted while living up to their names and screaming in alarm at our approach while the rheas (Rhea americana) grazed undisturbed.

Rhea and chicks feeding. Picture by Mariana Terra.

Rhea and chicks feeding. Picture by Mariana Terra.

The estimated number of bird species identified in the wetlands is nearly 400 and therefore there are too many to mention. However, the pair of Jabiru storks (Jabiru mycteria) nesting near the ranch were simply spectacular.

A pair of Jabiru Storks on their nest. Picture by Mariana Terra.

A pair of Jabiru Storks on their nest. Picture by Mariana Terra.

Taking off... Picture by Mariana Terra.

Taking off… Picture by Mariana Terra.

Taking off and in flight. All three pictures by Mariana Terra.

Taking off and in flight (below). Both pictures by Mariana Terra.

Mariana jabiru flying 2On the other end of the size spectrum (tiny), but not less impressive were the various humming birds as well as the aptly named Strange-tailed Tyrant (Alectrurus risora), spotted too far to capture it on film but that can be seen in: http://www.pbase.com/james_lowen/image/88253519.

A Glittering-bellied Emerald Hummingbird (left) and probably a female Blue-Tufted Starthroat Hummingbird at a feeder in Colonia Carlos Pellegrini.

A Glittering-bellied Emerald Hummingbird (left) and probably a female Blue-Tufted Starthroat Hummingbird at a feeder in Colonia Carlos Pellegrini.

Close-up of the Glittering-Bellied Hummingbird.

Close-up of the Glittering-Bellied Hummingbird.

A Glittering-bellied Emerald Hummingbird (left) and probably a female Blue-Tufted Starthroat Hummingbird at a feeder in Colonia Carlos Pellegrini.

Blue-Tufted Starthroat Hummingbirds (perched, left and in flight top right) and a Glittering-Bellied Emerald Hummingbird (flying, right). All Hummingbird pictures by Mariana Terra..

The mammals spotted were mostly rodents. Capybaras (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) being very abundant both in the swamps as well as in the small lakes we visited. It was interesting to notice that while the latter were rather brown in colour, the ones inhabiting the swamps and grasslands had a reddish tinge as if henna would have been applied to them.

Female Capybara feeding her babies.

Female Capybara feeding her babies. Picture by Julio A. de Castro.

Plains Vizcacha (Lagostomus maximus) were also present in numbers, mainly grazing around their burrows and it was very entertaining to see them carrying various objects to their burrows. They are the largest of the Genus and they build elaborate burrows that house successive colonies for generations.

A family of Plains Vizcacha out in the evening.

A family of Plains Vizcacha out in the evening.

Grey (Lycalopex gymnocercus) and Crab Eating foxes (Cerdocyon thous) were seen daily and three Hog-nosed Skunks (Conepatus chinga), a mother and two babies, were seen daily at the ranch’s park, stamping their forelegs in warning when we got too close, failing to get good pictures as they appeared only at dusk. We also saw a family of Black Howler Monkeys (Alouatta caraya) but did not see the rare Maned Wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus) or the re-introduced Giant Anteater (Mymecophaga tridactyla). However, our disappointment was somehow lessened by enjoying the sight of a Screaming Hairy Armadillo (Chaetophractus vellerosus) standing in its burrow and three Nine-banded Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) walking in the meadows.

Rincon del Socorro: guest accommodation area.

Rincon del Socorro: guest accommodation area.

We were accommodated at the refurbished ranch facilities. The rooms were very comfortable and they were up to the high standards we have enjoyed. All activities and meals were included in the price. The latter were good and the service did not make us wait. We were all very satisfied except for our son who in his early twenties, who during dinner on the first day got small portions of food and only his British education kept him from making the remarks I would have made being in his place! He also stoically tolerated our jokes. He was pleased at breakfast as it was a buffet and he could serve himself the portion size he wanted!

The respite given by the good breakfast ended at lunch where he received the smallest portions again! After that, anticipation regarding his portion size for dinner grew as the day went on and, yes, we were not disappointed as he again got the smaller portion. This made us all laugh loud to the surprise of the other guests and waitresses who did not understand the reason for such a mirth! As the situation repeated itself at all meals, it soon became an expected event and we did not laugh anymore but felt sorry for our son and even contributed from our portions to enlarge his! Well, his mother did anyway…

Finally, during our last dinner it was the time for us to get the surprise as he was somehow rewarded when he was presented with the largest -by far- cheesecake portion of all. He did not leave one crumb as he ate it with a smile in his face!

[1] Iberá means Brilliant Waters.