Salta

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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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 http://picphotos.net/plans-for-building-a-bat-house-to-control-bugs/ 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.

 

Murder in the verandah

I have placed a number of “man-made” bird nests at strategic locations in our farmhouse so that we can get those birds “friendly’ to humans to find good places to lay their eggs and raise their families.

Despite this initiative, some birds decide that these are not good enough and still choose to build their own, sometimes next to the ones I offered so I have realized that some birds’ thinking differ from mine!

So it was that a pair of Sayaca tanager (Thraupis sayaca), defined by my bird book as “tame” and inhabiting populated areas, decided to nest under our font verandah about four years ago. Luckily their breeding was successful and, eventually, young birds were seen leaving the nest. The same birds (although I am not sure that there were the same individuals) built another nest on top of the existing structure but the mummified remains of their offspring were the evidence of some kind of tragedy.

Last year, a pair of Saffron yellow finches(Sicalis flaveola), also keen on inhabited areas, added their own contribution to the already untidy grass mass and this year, the same bird species yet again completed the structure by adding more straw and deciding to breed there.

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The untidy nest today. The original nest is the palee straw structure on the top left.

For the past couple of weeks the female had sat on the nest and the male was also seen nearby but not actually incubating and we did not observe any sign of hatchlings.

One afternoon, a couple of days ago, we returned from Salta town in mid afternoon after running some necessary errands there, and soon after arrival we heard loud shrills coming from the verandah. As expected my wife discerned what was happening. The nest was under the attack of a snake!

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We knew that a snake lived on the roof of the house as it had been spotted sunning itself coiled and I had seen it slithering away by the side of the verandah. So there it was, its front end on the nest and its rear holding on to the roof timber.

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P1170483 copyThe birds were mobbing the snake while chirping loudly and flying very close to the intruder but not actually pecking it (see videos below). However, they were clearly too small to have an impact on the aggressor and eventually they just perched nearby to watch the tragedy!

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P1170493 copyOur arrival and photographic efforts disturbed the action taking place and the snake started to abandon the nest and eventually slipped down the stem of a climbing plant and, once it got into the thick of the plant, it immediately change direction and climbed back towards the roof of the house where we lost sight of it. I am not yet sure of its identity.

While the snake was moving, I caught the sight of a bulge in its otherwise slim body that was a signal that the attack was successful and that it had either eaten the eggs or the nestlings. (confirm what it ate when the snake is identified). ALthough the parents remained for a short while next to the nest, they have now abandoned it, another indication that the young are no longer there.

We wait and see what happens next as the Saffron yellow finches are known to lay eggs throughout the year and they may try again on the same nest. As I told you earlier, I do not understand the way birds think!

Regret the video quality but things were happening very fast and we were lucky that my wife was ready with her phone to record it!

Gallinato butterflies (1)

Our farm is located in the northern part of the Gallinato gorge in the La Caldera Department, Salta province. It is a transitional area between the Yungas and the Chaco. It rains abundantly during the summer months and it is dry during winter and spring.

It is still a forested area that offers not only interesting trees and plants but a varied and interesting animal life. A study carried out in 2013-14 in the adjacent farm[1] found 14 spp of Amphibiae, 23 spp of reptiles, 28 spp of mammals and 216 spp of birds. Both mammals and birds are rather difficult to observe but this is not the case of the 152 spp of butterflies found as well as an amazing number of moths and other critters that are easier to see. In other words, our farm is an insect paradise!

As our life evolves around avoiding the winter by commuting between Zimbabwe and Argentina and Uruguay we are in Salta during the summer, warm and humid, ideal conditions for the development of insects, particularly butterflies. Aware of this fact we have planted “butterflies-friendly” plants that attract a good number of these beautiful creatures to the area around our farmhouse. However, it is over the 5 km of the access road that butterflies are really amazing and we record most of what we see.

Over the next few posts I will present you with pictures of butterflies, moths and other “beasts” that we are finding this year during our morning walks when the rain allows us to walk.

I start with the butterflies. I have omitted their names as I am not yet sure of a definitive classification and also because I think it is a question of beuty rather than scientific facts. However, unable to escape my technical background, I will be naming them when I am sure of their identity.

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