Going to Salta to visit the puna

November 7, 2019

This was our last morning in Buenos Aires (for now) and we actually slept in until after 7 am, having no pressing engagements. We met up with the remainder of the group at breakfast, where there were plenty of choices from the buffet. Our checkout time was noon so at about 11:30 am we headed downstairs to check out; the last half-dozen of our group had also chosen that time to leave.

We arranged for a taxi to take the two of us to the airport, an unnerving trip since our taxi driver was very aggressive in the busy streets. We got there safe and sound and checked in for our flight to Salta. There were actually two flights to Salta, one leaving at 2 pm and the other at 2:35 pm, so we checked very carefully that we were lining up for the 2:35 pm flight!

The flight left on time, and it was a bit bumpy in spots but for the most part it was fine. Our guide Ricardo Clark met us at the airport and drove us up to the Selva Montana hotel in San Lorenzo, the same place we had stayed last year. We arranged to meet him at 7:30 pm to go for dinner and then we were going to go owling in the Huaico Reserve.

We had dinner at a restaurant where we had eaten last year, and while waiting we watched National Geographic Wild on their TV. At 9 pm Ricardo returned and off we went to the reserve. We first looked for nightjars, unsuccessfully, but we did see a beautiful Barn Owl. Probably the nightjars were keeping out of its way!

Ricardo drove around the grassy paths and finally stopped at a likely location for our first target, the Montane Forest Screech-Owl. It’s a very localized species. We had both brought our headlamps but they were unnecessary because Salta’s city lights illuminated the overcast sky. We could hear a Common Potoo singing but we had to wait for the owl. After a while we heard one calling, but it took a long time it to come in and perch near us. But finally it did and we had a good view of it. (But not a good photograph.)

November 8, 2019

We were heading towards an area of lagoons in the Andes where flamingos lived, but today we were just driving a shortish distance to Cafayate. So luckily it was a not too early start. Ricardo’s wife Patricia was coming with us; she is doing research into flamingo populations up in the puna. There are several breeding lagoons so she was hoping to get a good idea of the breeding population numbers before doing the breeding survey in February. She would also take the opportunity of having meetings in some of the towns up there.

Variable Antshrike

Variable Antshrike

Las Conchas gorge

Las Conchas gorge

The trip from Salta to Cafayate went through some spectacular country. We stopped several times to look for interesting species like Chaco Chachalaca and Streak-crowned Spinetail. We were in chaco habitat here, so we stopped several times to look for White-throated Cacholote, an Argentine endemic which builds bulky stick nests. We saw some nests but none of the birds. We even toured the Cafayate dump, which had numerous nests, but we still saw no cacholotes.

Cliff Flycatcher

Cliff Flycatcher

Southern Martin

Southern Martin

We were also in a wine-producing area, so a lot of the good areas for birds are being cleared and replanted with vines. We stopped at a really nice restaurant for lunch, whose chef used to work at Selva Montana when it operated a restaurant.

Black-crested Finch

Black-crested Finch

Our hotel in Cafayate was reasonably good, but its main advantage was that it would give us a one-night reservation on a Friday night. We went over to the town square and had a very good meal at one of the restaurants there.

November 9, 2019

We were ready for a 6:30 am departure today, because it was a long drive to El Peñon. Luckily the hotel had put out some breakfast food, so we sat down and eat before leaving.
We carried on southwards through the Cafayate vineyards, where there were no birds to be seen. Rosemary’s lunch yesterday had contained a lot of onions, and now she was starting to have violent stomach spasms. It was going to be a long day!

Sandy Gallito

Sandy Gallito

From time to time there were small areas of native vegetation among the vineyards. We stopped at one of them and tracked down a Sandy Gallito and a pair of Ringed Warbling-Finches. And last but not least, the mythical White-throated Cacholote, at a nest!

Ringed Warbling-Finch

Ringed Warbling-Finch

We stopped a few times but it was a long way to El Peñon. Soon we left Route 40 and turned up a provincial road into the mountains. There were a lot of places where rivers were allowed to cross the road, but this was the dry season so luckily we didn’t have to ford any rivers.

American Kestrel

American Kestrel

We stopped in Barranca Larga for lunch, but Rosemary wasn’t hungry at all and didn’t order anything. In the end she ate a small piece of bread to see what would happen, and within half an hour she had the stomach spasms again, for the next hour or so.

The road climbed up into the puna, where there were no bushes and no more grassland. After a while we started to see small groups of vicuñas near the road. Apparently the local people round them up from time to time and shear them, so that their hair can be made into exotic fabric. We could see that some of them had been shorn.

Young vicuña

Young vicuña

The scenery was spectacular, with colourful red and green geological formations, distant high mountains, and the occasional salt-fringed lagoon. We climbed over a 4,200-meter pass and soon were down in El Peñon, a remote village of about 200 people, arriving at 3:45 pm.

The hotel was an adobe building with a few rooms around a dirt parking area, and it was surprisingly cool and comfortable. Rosemary went to sleep and Ricardo found the town doctor, who gave her some Omeprazole tablet to cut down on the acid in her stomach.

Dinner was at 8 pm, and Rosemary was dubious about eating anything. But she had some soup and some of the shepherd’s pie, along with a small cup of herbal tea made from a local plant. It was a lovely tea and supposedly good for the digestion.

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