Flamingos in the puna

November 10, 2019

We were up at 6:30 am for a light breakfast at 7 am, and then we headed out. Today we were going to Laguna Grande to see flamingos and anything that might be around.

We started out on the paved road but soon we turned off onto a dirt road. It was impossible to get lost now because there was only the one road. It started out as a good dirt road but later it became quite rocky, so we proceeded very slowly.

Puna Miner

Puna Miner

It was a beautiful day and the scenery was spectacular. High in the Andes puna the mountains didn’t seem all that high, but then again we were climbing to 4,300 meters. After a while we came to a field of rica-rica bushes, which are what the locals harvest to make tea which is supposed to protect against altitude sickness. We had had some of that tea last night.

Black-fronted Ground-Tyrant

Black-fronted Ground-Tyrant

It took over two hours to reach Laguna Grande, and we stopped several times to see little birds like Puna Ground-Tyrant and Puna Miner. After a while we started to see small groups of vicuñas, and we guessed that we saw several hundred. We were also lucky to see an Andean Fox, looking hopefully at the flamingos.

Andean Fox

Andean Fox

Laguna Grande was absolutely full of flamingos! Ricardo and Patricia estimated there were about 4,000 of them in the lagoon, and they’ve been studying them for 20 years so they should know. There was a scattering of other birds but the flamingos were what made it impressive. The James’s flamingos were the most abundant, and they were absolutely gorgeous birds in their breeding plumage!

Our first flamingos, James’s Flamingo

Our first flamingos, James’s Flamingo

James’s Flamingo

James’s Flamingo

From here the track kind of evaporated and Ricardo had to pick his route carefully. There were hazards ranging from cliffs and soft spots to holes dug by tuco-tucos. But we got through to our lunch spot by the third lagoon, where we had a picnic out of the back of the truck.

Vicuña herd

Vicuña herd

This was where Ricardo and Patricia’s research place was set up. Basically it was some stone walls to keep the wind out and an area inside to camp. But they said they don’t use it much anymore because of altitude sickness.

Flamingos near the research station

Flamingos near the research station

After lunch we walked along the foreshore and checked out the birds, finally locating a Grey-breasted Seedsnipe. That’s not always an easy species to find. But by now it was after 2 pm so we started our return journey, arriving back at El Peñon at about 4:30 pm.

Baird’s Sandpiper

Baird’s Sandpiper

Dinner tonight was to be barbecued beef. Rosemary had eaten lunch without too many stomach spasms so perhaps the medicine the doctor had given her had done the trick. The barbecue was supposed to be served at 8 pm but it wasn’t really ready until 8:40 pm. There were six other guests besides us, and the room also seemed to be the hangout for locals to watch soccer games on TV.

Besides beef and lamb we also had lettuce and tomatoes, potatoes and eggs. It was a really good meal.

November 11, 2019

Again we were up at 7 am and on our way, this time on our way to the small town of Antofagasta de la Sierra. The scenery along the way was amazing, all different landscapes from pumice fields to dunes of sand to volcanoes.

Llamas at a ranch

Llamas at a ranch

The town was about the same size as El Peñon, but a bit more developed because it’s the county capital. Patricia was meeting officials in the town to discuss water use by the local mines, so we took off with Ricardo to look for birds. The town itself had birds other than Rufous-collared Sparrows and there were other birds in the fields just outside the town.

Statues of llamas in Antofagasta de la Sierra

Statues of llamas in Antofagasta de la Sierra

There were lagoons just south of the town, and it also had flamingos. But there were only a few juvenile Chilean Flamingos and no Andean or James’s. However it had a lot of coots, three species including Giant Coot, and lots of ducks. There was even a Rosy-billed Pochard, which Ricardo had never seen there before.

Antofagasta Cone and lagoons

Antofagasta Cone and lagoons

Giant Coot

Giant Coot

We watched the waterfowl for a while before deciding to go for a drive through the lava fields. The track was very rough as we bounced along, and eventually we came to a very sandy area. It looked like somebody had had to dig a vehicle out of an “armadillo hole”, and so we decided to turn around and head back to town. Getting stuck would have been a bad thing.

Cinnamon Teal and Yellow-billed Pintail

Cinnamon Teal and Yellow-billed Pintail

Volcanic lava field

Volcanic lava field

We met Patricia after her meeting and had lunch at a restaurant in Antofagasta de la Sierra. Once again the meal was quite good but very large. It’s amazing that the food, especially fresh salads, is good food considering how remote the place is.

Black-hooded Sierra-Finch

Black-hooded Sierra-Finch

From here it is a day and half drive back to Salta, so it was time to get started. We retraced our route for most of the way and then headed south through a narrow canyon to the town of Belén, where we arrived at about 6 pm. Our hotel was a few blocks away from the main square; it was a new hotel and very nice too. Our room was quite large, with a covered patio at the front.

The two of us went out for a walk to check out some artisanal textile shops. (According to Lonely Planet, Belén is noted for its textiles.) The first place was in the back of a house and looked like a cooperative. Nothing really appealed to us so we headed along the road to find the other shop. It looked more interesting, and the man inside gave us a good tour, showing us the different types of wool, explaining the spinning, and also told us that the dyes he used were all natural. This was all in Spanish but we could follow it very well. He even had a sample of the very expensive vicuña wool, but he didn’t have any products made from it.

After looking around for a bit we bought two small table runners dyed in a variety of colours. One would be for a birthday present and we’d keep the other one for ourselves.

We went out for a dinner at a good restaurant; it opened at 9 pm and it was only 8:15 pm, but they opened up for us anyway. We ordered our meals and chatted until they arrived. Just as the waiter came out of the kitchen there was a resounding crash. This turned out to be Paul’s dinner. The other three got their meals and we asked for a clean plate so that Paul could share Rosemary’s dinner of chicken with mushrooms, which was a huge serving. Later Paul’s actual dinner of ravioli arrived, but Ricardo explained what had happened and sent it back.

November 12, 2019

It was a long drive back to Salta, over 400 km, so we were up early. We retraced part of yesterday’s route and then joined the main road heading to Salta. We did very little birding, although we did stop for a group of Elegant Crested-Tinamous crossing the road with their elegant crests.

We stopped at a place where Ricardo buys his favourite grappa. They also sold local olive oil and other jams and salsa. We bought some olive oil and balsamic vinegar, hoping it would survive the trip home. Later we stopped at a winery/hotel for lunch. We sat out in the garden to have our meal, and it was a lovely setting and very peaceful.

Quebrada de las Conchas view

Quebrada de las Conchas view

About 5 pm we stopped at Posta de las Cabras, a popular restaurant in the gorges north of Cafayate, for a coffee and tea stop. Unfortunately we got there just after a convoy of tourist vans so the ordering counter was a bit of a zoo. But eventually we got served and relaxed for half an hour.

Chimango Caracara

Chimango Caracara

We headed onwards and almost right away a Black-legged Seriema ran across the road in front of us! There were two of them and they ran into the grounds of the Sombra de Toro artisan workshop, where Rosemary got a good picture. Seriemas are funny-looking birds; there are two species of seriema and we’d seen the Red-legged last year, so now we had the whole set.

Black-legged Seriema

Black-legged Seriema

Onwards we went, taking the back route into San Lorenzo so we could look (without success) for Brushland Tinamou. This was our last night with Ricardo and Patricia, and we had certainly enjoyed our time with them learning about the flamingos as well as the water problems of the high puna.

We checked into the Selva Montana hotel again, in the same room we’d had a few days ago. Later we went down to Don Sanca for dinner. We’d been there last year and found that their pizzas were pretty terrible. But this year we sat outside and tried other menu items, which were actually pretty good. The evening was really lovely and it was such a nice way to spend our last night in the area.

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