Snake attack… [1]

There are two important venomous snakes in the Gallinato area of Salta where our small farm is located: the Cascabel (South American rattlesnake, Crotalus durissus) and the Yarará (crossed pit viper, Bothrops diporus) [2]. The former’s venom is neurotoxic while the latter’s can cause severe tissue damage although, contrary to general belief, it is not often a cause of death. (See:

Enoc, a boy of eight was returning from school after lunchtime with his brother Angel and his father Juliano, our caretaker. When fording a small river, the boy either stepped on or near a snake of about 120 cm. The snake reacted angrily and bit him. “I saw the snake going for him and heard him shouting that he had been bitten” Juliano told me later, and then he added “I hit it with a couple of stones but it hid under some large stones. I left it as I thought that taking Enoc to the nearest clinic was more important”.

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The small river crossing showing the stone at the centre of the picture used to step across. Tee snake was above my shadow.

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Another view of the crossing.

Juliano, wisely, calmed the boy, ran to his house, got the boy in his car and drove straight away to the public clinic. He was also shrewd enough to stop at the Police post located 5km from our farm to report the accident. In turn the Police radioed the Vaqueros [3] clinic and, by the time of Juliano’s arrival an ambulance and a Doctor were on standby! The boy was taken immediately to the Hospital Público Materno Infantil in Salta city  for treatment.

While this was taking place we were returning from the city of Salta after having dealt with pending administrative issues as well as getting some essential farm supplies. We were near our farm already when we got a recorded message from Juliano telling us of the accident. We immediately turned around and tried to get in touch with him. I was concerned about the availability of anti-snake bite sera at the Vaqueros clinic (I was unaware that Enoc was on his way to the large hospital in Salta!).

We failed to talk to him but we met him at Vaqueros and collected him to follow the ambulance. Bea, Enoc’s mother was already with him and over the phone we learnt that he was stable and -apparently- well. The hospital has an emergency unit to deal with these kinds of problems so I should. Juliano believed that a yarará was the responsible snake but was not sure.

We managed to get into the emergency room (against the rules). Enoc was calm and already they had given him all needed medication for snakebite. I expected to be told to leave the room any minute so I had a quick look. His vital signs were normal (great relief!) Further, a rapid look at his leg revealed that he had been bitten just below the right knee and, apart from some small amount of dried blood I failed to see any fang marks but only a small scratch. Then, as expected, I was told to leave!

The conclusion was that the snake failed to take hold of him, perhaps because of him wearing long sweat pants. The medical personnel were very keen on the identification of the snake so we drove back to the farm to look for the culprit. Unfortunately, we failed to find it and informed the hospital accordingly. We learnt that the boy would be kept under observation for 24 hours but he was stable.

The following day in the afternoon I went again to look for the snake and this time I found it. It had died, probably from Juliano’s stoning and it had been already partly eaten, probably by a fox that had pulled it out of its final resting place and had a “snack_e”.

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The rear end had been eaten but, the marks were not those of a yarara! It was a rattlesnake!

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The dead snake markings.

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The markings of an earlier rattlesnake caught at the farmhouse and later released far away (See: 

I immediately informed Juliano of this but by then the boy had been discharged from hospital as he continued to be healthy.

As the snake had a clear bulge, I spent a bit of time doing a post-mortem that revealed that it was busy digesting a large rat that it had caught a couple of days earlier. My conclusion was that it was sunning itself digesting its meal when Enoc stepped on it or too close for comfort and this prompted the snake’s reaction.

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The fangs that failed to reach their target!

Luckily the incident ended well but I still I wish to highlight the excellent public health coverage that exists in Salta where after an accident such as this not only there was an ambulance on stand-by to take the patient to the specialized hospital but also that it was immediately given the correct treatment and kept under close medical supervision until the doctors considered that he was out of danger!

Liking snakes but being a coward, I am buying myself a pair of wellingtons that I plan to wear from now on instead of my usual sandals!


[1] This event took place about ten days ago but, because of communication “challenges” I am only able to publish it today.

[2] Moschione, F.N. (2014). Relevamiento de Fauna. Finca El Gallinato, La Caldera, Provincia de Salta. Informe Relevamiento 2013-2014. 55pp.

[3] Vaqueros is the small town located about 10km from the farm on the way to Salta city on the national road No. 9.


Note: for those of you curious to see the stomach contents of the snake, I place the picture below. I warn you that some may not wish to see it and hence I place it here.




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Snow in the Chaco

Crossing the Chaco region of Argentina on our way to Salta is rather hot and monotonous as we are dealing with a rather straight road that goes on for a few hundred kilometres across this semi-tropical area of the country.

While driving we were talking about the news and pictures received from our daughter and our friend Lola from Rome where we learnt that snow had fallen a few days back. We agreed that we were lucky to be mostly in warm climates, away from winters most of the time!

We were in the middle of the discussion when we passed an area where, maybe because of the subject we were discussing, it was snowing!

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Or so it seemed to us for a few seconds until we realized that we were crossing an area populated by millions of white butterflies known locally as “pilpintos”.


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Apparently, these butterflies appear after the rains and live rather short lives and mainly stopped in the rain puddles to recharge water and salts.

We were happy to realize our error and continue on our way to our summer South American hiding spot!


Spot the beast 25

When my computer crashed earlier this year I was fully aware that this would be a set back that would affect my internet activity. However, I knew that I had a back-up in Zimbabwe, albeit a few thousand miles away! Nevertheless I knew that I had no duplicates of the pictures taken during the first part of the year while in Carmelo and Salta.

Luckily the contents of my hard disk was rescued as I mentioned to you earlier. Unluckily all pictures were placed in one file called “Images” by the file recovery programme used. After searching a few days I found one of the recent pictures and that gave me hope and the needed patience to keep searching. Eventually, thousands of files later, I found most of them, including the ones included in this post that, in my opinion, are worth the time I spent finding them…

So, without further ado, here is a new beast for you to spot (if you can!!!). I warn you that it is tricky if it does not move (as in the bottom pictures.

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Are you ready for the surprise?


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Its secret revealed, I rate this moth as one of the most striking I have seen so far!

Rude plants

While living in Bolivia, in the early part of this century, someone told me a story of the war when Bolivia lost its exit to the Pacific Ocean to Chile. It was apparently during this conflict that a Bolivian General[1], aware that his chances of winning the war were dimming, tried to cheat the incoming Chilean ground forces by dressing the cactuses present in the area with the uniforms of the Bolivian army, pretending that his men were more numerous than they really were! The ruse failed and we all know that Bolivia is now a landlocked country!

I have had the story in my mind since then and recently, when I tried to confirm it by Google for this post, I failed to find any reference to it! In any case, it is a good way of starting to tell you about one of the most emblematic plants that populate parts of the Andean Puna[2], the Cardones [3]. We had a chance to see many of them during our trip to Cachi (Salta Province) that traversed the Los Cardones National Park.

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A view over the Los Cardones National Park. Amazing place!

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A Cardon forest as far as the eye can see.

The park has an area of 65,000 hectares and it was created in 1987, to preserve a sector of Andean biomasses including the Puna, Pre-Puna and related dry forests. It ranges in altitude from 2,700m (Tin-Tin valley) to 5,000m (Malcante hill). Although it only gets an annual rainfall of less than 200mm, its aridity does not stop many plant and animal species to thrive there, too many to mention here but well described elsewhere [4].

Apart from the cardones there are other interesting finds in the area. In the plant world the Jarilla (Larrea divaricata) provides the cardones with needed shelter for them to grow under its protection until reaching suitable size to continue its growth alone.

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A cardon growing under the protection of a Jarilla.

Another amazing plant found at higher altitudes is the haermaphroditic Yareta (Azorella compacta) also known as pasto de piedra [5].This plant is literally a vegetable stone whose leaves develop into an extremely compact and hard mat that reduces heat loss in order to survive. The result is a very rare plant that looks like a giant moss. Of extremely slow growth, some of the specimens in the Puna are estimated to be over 3,000 years old! Unfortunately, because of its slow growth and its traditional harvesting for firewood, it is becoming scarce.

The guanaco (Lama guanicoe) population is not as large as I expected and we only saw three or four groups of these special camelids. Their observed scarcity is apparently the consequence of the competition for food from thousands of feral donkeys (Equus asinus) that once got established there and continue to multiply despite past efforts to control them through culling schemes that will need to be reinstated to give the guanacos a chance to expand. Unfortunately, my pictures of both guanacos and donkeys are still in the deep recesses of my now comatose hard disk!


Guanacos ahead!

Puma (Felix concolor) are present and they predate on the young of both guanacos and donkeys. Luckily, they are seen with certain regularity and the park is one of the areas where the visitor can, if lucky, spot these beautiful cats.

The dead from both donkeys and guanacos are fed upon a number of scavengers among which the condor (Vultur gryphus) is the most prominent and best known. These veritable flying colossus of about one metre in height have a wingspan of three metres or, to be more graphic, a line of about a dozen school children standing side by side! With such wings they can only be superb flying birds, capable not only to cover great distances but also to reach amazing heights.


A condor flying overhead.

I was pleasantly surprised to be able to spot (of course after my wife!) quite a number of condors flying high in the very blue sky. Showing similar skills to African vultures, condors are not easy to spot on the ground as they inhabit and nest in difficult terrain. I am proud to announce, though, that I was able to contribute to our condor observations by spotting a far away nest with a fledgeling! I made sure that my companions noted this but, as usual, my effort was largely ignored.


Although mammals and birds are really fascinating, the cardones were the real stars of the show for me. These very thorny plants are everywhere and they can occur singly, in groups or form true forests that reach as far as the eye can see. Although the majority were very rude by showing me their middle finger, some were polite and welcoming. Admittedly the latter were very few! Clearly, nature comes in all shapes and moods!

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A rude cardon!


Exasperated by so much plant rudeness the bushsnob attempts at giving some back…


The cardones start their life under the protection of the Jarilla bush and they produce their first flowers at about fifty years old. These white flowers are known locally as “pasacana” that gives the species name to the plants. The flowers are eaten by animals and people and it is estimated that when the plants reach 3m high they are three hundred years old so some of the ones we spotted must have been much older, probably near one thousand and I never stop from being amazed when watching such creatures that can exist for such a long tie and still look like they would continue being there for another millennium.


[1] I was told that it was President Melgarejo.

[2] Basically a very dry, cold, high and silent area by the Andes mountains.

[3] Spanish for cacti of the species Trichocereus pasacana.

[4] Chebez, J.C. (2012). Noroeste. Guia de las Reservas Naturales de la Argentina. Editorial Albatros. pp. 88-93.

[5] Spanish for stone grass.


Apunado [1]

I am well aware that one of my numerous weaknesses is not being able to handle heights. I am not talking about vertigo here but high altitude and the absence of O2. During our five years spent in the Bolivian highlands we realized that our family has two clear gene lines when it comes to live in high places. While I am pathetic, my wife does not bat an eyelid when it comes to highness.

While there we also had ample time to discern that the genes ruling altitude resistance are passed independently to your offspring. Our son inherited his mother’s altitude resilience while our daughter had the bad fortune of getting, among several of my bad traits, the one of very low altitude tolerance!

We were of course oblivious to this pairing until we arrived to La Paz in 2001. While my wife and son enjoyed a quasi-normal daily life, my daughter and I acquired a greenish skin tinge and felt sick most of the time until we reached a kind of equilibrium at 3,400-3,800 m in La Paz where we spent most of our time. The situation improved remarkably when we discovered that sleeping with a window opened increased the oxygen content of our bedroom although the temperatures decreased dramatically.

However, as soon as our travels took us to higher places such as Potosí at 4,070m our precarious balance got tilted in favour of the altitude and our discomfort would come back. It was enough for us to see the “Cerro Rico [2]” in the distance to start feeling unwell! Conversely and to our great annoyance, wife and son continued with their usual unresponsiveness to altitude!

During our recent trip to the Calchaqui valleys in Salta I had a “reliving” of that experience. We drove from our farm in the Gallinato (1,300m) to Cachi. This meant a climb to areas of higher altitude that crosses a really picturesque area and the road goes through a number of mountain passes and climbs to finally reach the Puna. On the way we passed through the Los Cardones National Park [3] (3,350m) to finally reach Cachi, a nice village in the confluence of the Cachi and Calchaqui rivers, located at 2,300m and framed by mountains, including the “Nevado de Cachi” [4] above 5,000m.

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Going through Los Cardones National Park.

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The Nevado de Cachi from the distance.

It was after the 180km drive, and parking the car at the hotel that I felt the start of my predicament and I had difficulties reaching the reception! The headache came without warning, suddenly and, although it was not the worst I had suffered, it was bad enough. Together with a general feeling of malaise comparable to that of a strong cold, it lingered on for the rest of the day and you could not ignore it. The combination was not conducive to enjoying my stay and by dinner time I felt truly dreadful!

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I was already apunado when I arrived at the hotel entrance in Cachi.

It was time to consider the options at my disposal. Remembering old advice from Bolivia I decided to have a light dinner in the shape of a garlic soup (I could refrain from kissing my wife good night for once!). In addition, I discussed my predicament with the locals and they advised me to chew coca leaves -legal in these parts- as this would make me feel much better.

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Coca leaves for chewing.

Of course I knew of coca, having supervised alternative development projects in Bolivia aiming at substituting coca growing for other forest-related activities. I am also aware of the controversy that surrounds the issue of coca and cocaine so I was reluctant at first. However, I had already seen large number of people “coqueando”[5] in Salta so I decided to take the plunge and chewed the dose I was recommended to take: about four leaves! Regrettably, the only clear effect I noticed was that my tongue went to sleep before the rest of my body and I could not detect or see any advantage in the chewing!

Disappointed by the lack of reaction of my organism to the “hoja milenaria”[6] I decided to cut my losses and retire to bed well before my companions. While walking to my room I went through the ABC of altitude sickness control: sleep alone, eat little, walk slowly and drink lots of water. It was then that I realized that the latter was the obvious cause of my trouble as, during the long drive I had –for some reason- not drank the water amount that I normally take.

I reached he room and drank as much water as I could hold. I also took one gramme of paracetamol for the now splitting headache and went to bed. Sleep came immediately and –luckily- the following morning I was as good as new. I returned the remaining coca leaves to the hotel management with thanks and I managed to feel well for the rest of the holiday and explore the attractions of the area in good health while drinking profusely to avoid being apunado again!


[1] In Spanish, someone with altitude sickness.

[2] Rich hill in Spanish. Potosí‘s landmark from where the Spaniards extracted tons of silver, activity that continues today.

[3] The park is named after the cardon cactus, Echinopsis atacamensis.

[4] Snowy mountain of Cachi in Spanish.

[5] Chewing coca leaves.

[6] Millenary leaves in Spanish, another name for coca leaves.

Spot the beast 22

As usual, during a walk we spotted this sight that offers a hidden beast that I thought I would put to you to discover. See if you can see it.

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Being helpful, I can tell you two things: (i) I really liked the morning dew drops on the web and (ii) do not jump to conclusions too fast…

Here it is.






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The “spider” you spotted on the right of the picture was either a dead one or an old exoskeleton of the real one that was located deep inside the web tunnel!

Homely bats

In my earlier post I mentioned that we built some bat houses. The idea started with my daughter that somehow is very partial to bats. Together we had observed these unique mammals flying around in the farm at dusk and we thought we could attract them into small houses to avoid them getting in our roof.

We Googled for bat houses or bat boxes and found a large number of ideas. Finally we settled for a simple design taken from a page such as and built one as a test case adding our own modifications such as the addition of an inner layer of cork for insulation against the cold and a piece of cloth at the bottom as a landing pad.

A few months later when we returned to Salta, we were delighted to note that about half a dozen bats had moved in! Being ambitious I built a second house following the same concept and the well-known premise “if it works, do not mend it or improve it”! Again, it got inhabited fairly soon after opening its doors to the bat community.

After a couple of years I noted that the first box only had one bat left in residence and I thought “they are clever and moved to the newer house and probably a grumpy old bat was left behind!”

Then a few days ago I noted that the last resident bat of the old box had gone. Its inner cork lining had detached from the sides and it was probably interfering with the bat movement so I decided to remove it to have a look and re-position the box at a better place in relation to the house and the prevailing winds. While unhooking it I noted that the bat was still there but hanging on outside the box and that for this reason I had missed it.

After opening the box, when I pulled the cork lining I disturbed a number of bugs that, when I exposed them to the light, rapidly withdrew to the darker recesses of the box. “Hmm, I thought, negative phototropism”, remembering my high school days!

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The old box opened for servicing. One of the walls have been removed to show the cork lining. The bugs were underneath.

Thinking that the situation was worth further investigation I prepared to catch some of them to identify them at a later stage, if possible. While rummaging around the house finding some alcohol, a catching jar, forceps and a brush I was thinking that I had found a colony of pseudoscorpions, really interesting arachnids that I have found earlier living in the bat guano at the Suswa caves in Kenya. I still have the memory of entering the cave with my wife and Paul and finding thousands of bats inside while we walked on their soft guano that was truly hutching with pseudoscorpions!

In the opened bat box there were many bugs but without pincers! I could see clearly different instars, from reddish brown adults to yellowish showing a darker gut content that reminded me of old blood. After a while I could count their legs and decided that I was watching insects and then I realized that they were bugs of some sort! I confirmed my suspicion when I took pictures of them and even saw the eggshells like those of animal or human lice.

I was lucky that my children had given me a set of VicTsing Clip 12 X Macro+ 24 X Super Macro lenses that enabled me to take the 12X to 36X magnification pictures of the bugs with my cell phone.

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I then realized that the bug infestation in the box had reached such an intensity that the bats must had felt very uncomfortable and decided to move out, away from their tormentors!

All this is still hypothetical, as I have not yet identified neither bats nor bugs with any degree of scientific rigour! However, my educated guess is that the bats are Big brown bats (Eptesicus furinalis), based on work done in the area[1].

The identification of the bugs was more difficult as not much is known (and available to me) on bats’ ectoparasites in Argentina! Again Google’s existence proved very valuable. Bat bugs do exist and one species that has been described for the Americas is very similar to the ones I observed. These are the Eastern bat bugs (Cimex adjunctus).

They are closely related to the infamous Bed bugs (Cimex lectularius). So what? you would ask. Well, I made the mistake of informing my wife about this close bat bug -bed bug relationship and she was not amused that I had been “playing” with them. As a consequence I had to shower carefully before I was allowed in bed!


[1] Moschione, F.N. (2014). Relevamiento de Fauna. Finca El Gallinato, La Caldera, Provincia de Salta. Informe Relevamiento 2013-2014. 55pp.

Cheeky birds

We try to get our farm house’s surrounds as bushy as possible by planting as many trees, shrubs and plants as they would grow. We have had many failures as last years we had severe frosts that took care of many of the tender trees we planted such as jacarandas, bombax, fig trees, olives and others.

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Luckily the past two years have been benign in terms of temperature and we have witnessed an almost luxurious growth of almost every seedling we have planted. Knowing the place, we are ready for the next bad winter that will even things out again!

In the meantime we are enjoying the Crataegus and Cottoneaster in fruit at the moment that are attracting several species of fruit-eating birds such as the Plush-creasted jays (Cyanocorax chrysops) and the occasional Toucan (Ramphastos toco)! Apart from plants we have placed several artificial nests that have been occupied at various times by different occupants such as House wrens (Troglodytes aedon), Saffron finches (Sicalis flaveola), Sayaca tanagers (Thraupis sayaca), rufous-bellied thrushes (Turdus rufiventris) and others. As bats were seeing perched under our verandah, we also built a couple of houses for them after Googling for modern designs.

We also feed the birds and the Plush-creasted jays are constant visitors to the feeding plates together with the Rufous-collared sparrows  (Zonotrichia capensis). In addition we also have the visit of Gray-necked wood-rails (Aramides cajaneus) that have a running battle with the plush-crested jays for the dominance of the plates.

Despite their rather small size the Rufous-collared sparrows are by far the cleverer though. They are fearless of humans and although the jays let you realize when the birdseed is finished the sparrows come to let you know that they are hungry!

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This year they overstepped the mark and for the first time they dared to come inside the house in search for food. I knew that they were known for doing this at the rural kitchens in Uruguay but it had not happened at our farm yet.

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One evening we heard strange noises near the place we normally seat to read and talk and to our surprise a sparrow was walking about the house, tic, tic, tic their small jumps on our dry cow hides while walking about in search of dead or dying moths, an abundant source of food at our house as they tend to mass in the lights during the night and enter the house all the time.

After chasing and feeding on moths for the first few days, the bird discovered the small container with broken maize seeds that I used to fill the bird feeding plates, the  bottom half of a large soda bottle. It did not take long for it to get inside and pick the best morsels!

After a couple of days of visits, a second bird came and the pair went straight for the kill, getting inside the maize seed container without any delays.

They are now so confident that they either walk in or even fly in and out of the house depending on their desire for food! They have also got used to enter either from the back or front doors or, if they so wish to fly through the house avoiding us at the last millisecond but giving us some frights by brushing themselves against our faces!!

They are now part of the household inhabitants and we hardly noticed them, except when the time comes to clean their tiny droppings from the floor.