Thursday, 28 January 2010

Up to the Alto Plano - Alpaca Country

I now believe you can judge the inhospitable nature of terrain from Google Earth images, it looked bad from the satellite, and in real life a darn sight worse, but what a place for a days 'birding'. Haven't even started sorting my own images out today so guess there will be some delay with this post, but OK for those in UK.

Unusual for this part of the world, the driver was 15 minutes early this morning and complete with his entire family. My first thought was that he intended taking them all along, so got myself fired up for 'their' bad news as we all greeted one another. Not so, it was simply that they all loved Dad so much that they wanted to wish him a good day. The daughter, who was probably only 3, burst into tears as we reved up to go, but that may have had something to do with the son (about 12) being allowed to come with us. I had no problem at all with that as, if I can, It's great to encourage the young into birding. However, the early start had a sting as firstly we stopped for bottled water, then it was petrol, then a newspaper and finally a few sticky buns.

The distance to Reserva National Salinas Aguada Blancas was said to be 22Km, but my guess was nearer 60. OK, after the first 10 'clicks' we hit the desperately bumpy dirt track, which slowed us no end, but still it took us 3 hours to get there. We were in Toyota's version of a Land Rover, whatever it may be called, and it was soon apparent both the height/bulk of the vehicle and the 4 wheel drive, would be the absolute minimum requirement to travel this road. Long before we got anywhere near the Reserve the birds started falling to us, and even though there are still quite a number to confirm identification, Mourning & Black-hooded Sierra-Finch, Golden-billed Saltator, Bare-eyed Dove and what must have been Planalto Hermit entered the log. There is still a little doubt about the latter, being a good way out of the range given in the book, so I'll have to give that another look. The foothills of the Andes really are an exceptional place to be as, while the vegetation is sparse there are many interesting plants, a few mammals and beautiful views of snow capped volcanoes.

Both driver and his son are named Fernando, and long before we reached the sign for the Reserve I was realising what a bonus Junior was. You cannot beat 'young eyes' and this lad, like most of his age, was already picking them off easily and seemed to be enjoying the new venture. Dad also had a keen eye and was first to pick up a pair of Andean Geese and a few Ducks , which appear to be well grown juveniles, I still have to get a grip of. Next he picked up a pair of Vicuna, which I seem to remember are the smallest of the Llama family, as we neared the Salt Lake. There we found just a few Flamingos, all distant but recognisable with half black bills, darker legs and pink knee joints as Chilean, no James' (Puna) unfortunately but at least they are on the World List. By now Junior was following me on my forays and while I did pick up both Pied & Andean Lapwing, it was he who spotted the first Andean Gull. I can tell you my heart was in my mouth as we watched it fly in the direction we had just come, towards the village. We made an effort to catch up with it, but 'effort' is the operative word in that sentence. Walking at sea level I can hold my own with most (perhaps Bomber is the exception there) but this is altitude and my lungs were fighting for the O2. We made it to withing 200 meters of the road when the darn thing took off and headed back from whence we had just arrived. I loosed off a few shots in manual focus, but there not the sort of images I want. Trouble is, with the Gulls in particular, I've been so lucky I think they are all going to be equally obliging. However, I have a plan B up my sleeve.

I had intended taking a shot of the road we had covered, from altitude, but as we started for home the cloud lowered and soon the valleys were filled with mist. Winding isn't the word, and it looked like common practice to cut the journey short by diverting down what are, or were, melt water channels. Can't say as I liked the idea of driving over these loose boulders and sand, and I'm sure some remember how it was put in The Hobbit - Shortcuts make for long delays Gandalf. Yes Mr Baggins, and Inn's make for longer ones. Anyway we negotiated 4 or 5 of these and were none the worse for the experience and in addition going this way I was able to see the terraced cultivation and the ingenious irrigation system. Not to mention the birds. There were hundreds of them, mostly flighty, but a key one that didn't escape us was Mountain Parakeet, a species I thought I had earlier in the trip, but properly identified for me by The Psittacine Kid himself, Dave Penney. You'll have to take my word for this one matey, too far south for Pacific, but unfortunately no photie. At the outskirts of Arequipa we picked Mum and Sister up and the youngster was full of it, despite me not having a clue what was said. Hiring 4x4 with drive isn't cheap but I have had such a fantastic day, seen so much stuff and in fine company, I've decided to go to a place Fernando Senior has suggested, where he has said there are Andean Gulls, so let's hope for an improvement in the photos tomorrow.

The Alpaca was delicious!

Mourning Sierra-Finch

Band-tailed Sierra-Finch

Golden-billed Saltator

Bar-winged Cinclodes

Probably the best capture of the day. A reaction shot as I saw this Greater Yellowfinch take off, another 'lifer' and didn't see another.

A couple of Andean Geese

and another, but honestly I didn't flush it!

Two views of

the Salt Laguna

A part of the village

and some of the Locals

We only saw 3 Andean Gulls all day,

and all were as flighty, and distant as each other.

Me, and the 2 Fernando's above the Salt Lake.

White-throated Sierra-Finch

Vicuna a truely wild animal out here.

and just to show there are no hard feelings, here's a bit of one of his cousins, the Alpaca, that I had for dinner this evening!