‘Out of this World’ landscapes are to be found in South America..
After the continent broke off from Africa 100 million years ago it floated as an isolated island across the surface of the earth. During this time the continent was subject to gigantic and cataclysmic events effecting the whole planet.
Specific to South America was the creation of the Andes mountains and the spectacular landscapes. No mountain chain on the planet has had such a dramatic effect upon the evolution of wildlife as the Andes has.
As the Andes rose up, the mountains altered the direction and force of both winds and ocean currents and the effect of these on the continent was the creation of both deserts and rainforests.
Before the Andes were formed the amazon basin was an inland sea. With the formation of the Andes the prevailing winds from the Atlantic were stopped from travelling westwards and deposited their rain on the eastern slopes of the mountains. Rivers which up to that time had flowed westwards now were diverted eastwards into the Amazon basin. Eventually the mighty Amazon waters broke through the eastern cordillera on what is now the coast of Brazil, to enter the Atlantic. The volume of water from the Andes was so great that annual flooding inundated huge swathes of land. The formation of the wonderful amazonian forest had begun.
The other rain forest, created by the Andes is called the Yungas rain forest and this occupies the extensive eastern slopes of the Andes from northern Argentina up to Columbia. This is an image of the Calilegua National Park in northern Argentina, an area where the ‘Living Wild in South America’ team has spent some time filming.
A secondary effect of the Andes, was the rain shadow formation on the western slopes of the Andes, in Chile. In rain shadow regions little or no rain falls and so here the Atacama desert developed.
The Andes were formed by the collision of two continental plates. This collision zone lies in the Pacific Ocean and runs parallel to the continent several hundred miles offshore. This created a massive trench miles deep and helped to drag cold water up from the Antarctic, the Humboldt current. Where this cold current meets the warm tropical current the effect is the formation of more rain clouds. These clouds are pushed eastwards by the prevailing winds off the Pacific, but the air currents off the hot dry Atacama forces the clouds up and over the Andes and leads to seasonal rains being deposited for a second time on the eastern slopes.
Much further south, in the temperate areas of Southern Chile, the prevailing winds off the Pacific are much stronger than the ones off the Atlantic. What happens in this area is the opposite to what happens in the semi-tropical north. The rain falls on the western side of the Andes creating the vast Valdivian rainforests, temperate rainforests (similar to those in the NE of the United States).
Whilst the east of the Andes is in the rainshadow, which has led to the vast arid desert lands of Patagonia.
So the great Andean mountains in South America have formed both deserts and rain forests.
We had a lunchtime fright, we heard a muffled scream and out from underneath a bush ran a Screaming Hairy Armadillo.
Its name is derived because it screams when it is threatened and has long flowing hairs along the flanks of the body.
The Screaming Hairy armadillo has 18 bands of which six to eight are movable bands.
The Armadillos are a very ancient group of animals, alive when the dinosaurs roamed the earth and could be called a ‘living fossil’.
Here are a few of my favorite 16 x 9 widescreen images, mostly landscape photographs.
Newer televisions and computer monitors have an aspect ratio of 16:9, which gives a perfect fit for high definition television. Since we owned one, we have been impressed with the 16 x 9 Widescreen images.
Most DSLR cameras shoot in the most common aspect ratio of 4:3. Though a lot of newer consumer cameras shoot in 16:9
The 16:9 aspect ratio is a product of movie producers.They wanted to find a way to make their movies bigger and better in order to attract more customers.
The widescreen format of the 16:9 aspect ratio also allows viewers to see a bigger picture when compared to the old 4:3 aspect ratio. In addition, the 16:9 aspect ratio also enhances the quality of the image by allowing for bolder backdrops and scenery.
However many photography clubs still like exhibition prints to be in 5×7 or 8 x10 ratios. If you want to print to this standard you still need to shoot in a 4:3 aspect ratio.
I rarely print photographs now but am looking at my images every day on my widescreen monitor.
Recently I have started to crop my 4:3 images to a 16 x 9 size so that I can better see them on our T.V. and I love it.
I have started to go back through old images and look at them in a 16 x 9 format and wonder why I didn’t do it years ago.
They look so much better, the 16:9 aspect ratio gets rid of ‘ dead space’ in the image.
Raptors are birds of prey.
They are the hunters of the skies. The soaring shapes between the clouds, that suddenly burst out of the heavens and plummet down towards a chosen victim.
They are the secret wraiths of the forest, leaf hidden and watching, waiting for the moment they spy their prey. Swiftly through the branches with the ease of a bullet and gone, they excite the senses, that’s why I love raptors.
There are less predators than prey, a rule of nature. Like kings and queens, presidents and emperors they rule the smaller beings, they rule the skies.
There is no half measures with raptors. I love raptors because like emperors, they are both magnificent and graceful.
They cut a dash.
For the Inca, that dark spot present over the highest peaks, found close to a kill, was a semi-god.
The Condor messenger that took the souls of the dead to heaven.
Kites have been associated with scavengers, but these scavengers are the hyenas of the skies, alert and powerfully strong, waiting their chance.
Harriers hunt with stealth, a low-level attacker, with the agility to drop vertically out of the sky. Buoyant in flight they drift low as if they were a very part of the grass.
Falcons are smart, compact raptors. Swift as darts, that strike as lightening does, sudden and dramatic.
Paula and I were driving slowly through the dry Chaco scrub, in-between Paraguay and Argentina. I spotted a white flash and bird alighted on a distant tree and looking at it through binoculars its dark eye patches were reminiscent of an Owl.
We looked at each other for five minutes. The bird did not move, I did not move.
Our spirits joined for a moment and the bird flicked its tail, lifted off and settled much closer.
Still we stared, locked into an ageless search for understanding.
I knew it was a falcon, blinked, and it was gone, into the forest, laughing as it flew, absorbed into the green cloak of cover.
That’s why, I love raptors.
Perhaps the bird with the biggest bill in South America, for its size, is the Scimitar-billed Woodcreeper.
There are 52 species of Woodcreepers, they live only in South and Central America and are essentially sub-tropical woodland birds.
Paula and I were able to film and photograph this beautiful bird feeding on the ground in the Copo National Park in Argentina. We also watched it as it climbed a tree. Its long toes and stiff tail enabled it to do this with ease. Using its amazingly long de-curved bill it probed into a bromeliad plant and extracted what looked like an insect.
Then one day we found a Red-billed Scythbill and knew that THAT, compared to the size of the birds body, was the bird with the biggest bill in the world.
The long de-curved bill allows the bird to hunt where the other birds with a shorter bill cannot reach for food. Once the prey is caught in the bill tip, it throws back the head and drops the food into its mouth.
Deserts are not barren places, the wildlife is limited, specialised and just as beautiful as anywhere else in the World. This is about the Desert mammals of Argentina and Chile.
Deserts are arid lands that have little or no water.
The location of South America between the two great oceans of the world, the 6000km length of the Andes and the direction of the prevailing winds creates the deserts in both Chile and Argentina.
In Chile the desert is called the Atacama. This is a true desert, 600 miles long where very little, or no water, has fallen for 100 years or more.
In Argentina the desert is very different. In the north of the country and spreading down the middle is an area of arid lands, known as the Monte desert.
Whereas further south are the arid lands of the windswept plains of Patagonia.
The mammals to be found in these deserts are unique to South America, most are rodents, but then half of all the mammal species found in the whole of South America are rodents.
They are very difficult to identify, scientists usually have to catch them in order to do so.
We are wildlife photographers and getting shots like these is a delight.
The ‘Living Wild in South America’ expeditions have camped in all of these deserts and seen many different looking ‘guinea-pig like’ mammals.
The most common is the Tuco-tuco, which is a type of gopher. Like gophers in North America they burrow underground and their tell-tale mounds of earth are to be seen commonly.
Another is the Mountain Viscacha, as big as a medium sized dog. They are difficult to find as they remain motionless, hidden among boulders and rocks, at the last moment they will emit a sharp whistle and bound over the rocks as effortlessly as a gymnast. They seem to almost fly through the air using their long tails to keep balance. They look like big rabbits but they are really rodents.
The large mammals are dominated by two Camelids, the Guanaco and the Vicuna.
The Guanaco was domesticated by a number of indigenous peoples over thousands of years, the domesticated animal is called the Llama and was used as the beast of burden, transporting goods back and forth over the Andes.
To cope with the harsh and variable climates they encounter throughout their broad distribution, guanacos have developed physiological adaptations that allow them to respond quickly to changes in environmental conditions. By adjusting their body position, for example, individuals can “open” or “close” thermal windows—areas of very thin wool located in their front and rear flanks—in order to vary the amount of exposed skin available for heat exchange with the environment.
On the other hand the Vicuna is a small, slender, elegant animal of little use to carry goods. However the wool of the Vicuna is so fine, light and waterproof that it is highly valued by local people and goes to make woollens sought after by the world’s rich and famous.
Wildlife lovers and wildlife photographers should visit these amazing deserts, and if you want a good read on deserts, the best book I’ve read is ‘A Desert Calling’ by Michael Mares.
Our journey into Argentina’s flooded forest came about by accident. We intended to go to Paraguay but recent heavy rains had caused serious flooding of rivers and roads and we could not get access into the country.
Instead we headed west and explored the Formosa province in the north of Argentina.
We followed the river Pilcomayo, the boundary between Paraguay and Argentina. The Pilcomayo drains the vast and luxuriant eastern slopes of the Andes in Bolivia. It then flows thousands of miles south east before joining an even greater river, the Paraguay. In the 1920s, the Pilcomayo broke its banks and inundated hundreds of square miles, including a great forest. This is now Argentina’s flooded forest, called the Banado La Estrella.
The new wetland gradually killed most of the Quebracho and other native trees. To-day all that remains of this leafy kingdom are skeletons of bleached timbers thrusting into the sky, an eerie, but hauntingly beautiful forest.
The dead and dying trees have become festooned with climbing water plants making them the ideal hiding places for Yellow Anaconda snakes. The only trees still living are the Palms and even those are now starting to die.
We were able to drive along tortuous muddy tracks to one of the isolated indigenous villages that skirt the wetland and camp close to the village where the following morning a local man took us out in his canoe.
The shallow depth of the water and the profusion of aquatic plant life meant that the man used a long pole to punt us through the myriad of narrow channels.
All around, hungry looking eyes were upon us, long snouts occasionally piercing the surface, Caiman heaven.
Argentina’s flooded forest surrounded us. As the man pushed hard on the pole, the canoe moved through the open channels, the slow pulsing of the boat making it easier for Paula to film the wildlife that we saw.
Newly-weds Pamela and Paul visited the mighty Iguazu waterfalls for their honeymoon, but they didn’t expect honeymoon butterflies.
Neither did they expect to meet Paula and I.
Pamela and Paul were both keen photographers, so we had plenty to talk about.
The Iguazu waterfalls are magnificent, the landscape and the thunderous noise of the water assails every sense.
In such a place it’s not easy to be alert to nature’s smaller creatures, but butterflies are special.
These airborne jewels bedazzle and beguile and Pamela was captivated, these were good ‘Honeymoon Butterflies’.
Butterfles are delicate, fragile and a kaleidoscope of colour, but in nature all things are connected.
Butterflies help pollinate the flowers and trees close to the river. The trees will flourish , protect and cleanse the flowing river and the water is necessary for everyone.
These are the best honeymoon butterflies.
The Gaucho is to be found in Argentina. The Cowboy is to be found in the North American West. Both these characters have permeated the social history of the regions and both are surrounded in mythology which perpetuates their existence.
As we drive the tracks and trails through Argentina, we meet up with Gauchos in the most remote areas. Often driving cattle or horses, the Gaucho is rarely alone, travelling together is safer in the wide open parries and they are usually accompanied by dogs.
The Gaucho arose to hunt and capture the huge herds of horses and cattle that roamed the plains of the pampas.
The Gauchos of the Chaco region have to contend with dense thorny scrub so they and their horses are heavily protected with thick leathery hides.
Originally of mixed European and Indian ancestry the Gauchos were know as mestizos.
Tools of their trade always included a knife and a steel sharpener tucked into their wide leather belt.
In the 21st century modern industrialized cattle rearing means the once extensive estancias now require people who understand computers, DNA blood-lines and genetics, not the bolas and lasso.
The Gauchos life on the windswept plains, rounding-up and driving cattle, of night-time fires and drinking mate is coming to a close. The Gaucho will soon be a shadow.
The thieves of Iguazu lie in wait for people who visit the wonderful waterfalls that straddle the border of Argentina and Brazil.
The thieves of Iguazu are furry and cute looking, they are Coatis and they are thieves.
Their ploy is wait, concealed in the undergrowth around the visitor trails, until they see a group of people. When the people are close, a couple of animals will appear and often the visitors are delighted to see them, children ‘coo‘ and adults ‘ahh‘.
Close to restaurants, cafes and sitting areas, the visitors may get from their bags some food or buy a drink and a snack at the cafe and that’s what the thieves of Iguazu have been waiting for, they pounce.
With the sounds from the rustling of paper or the opening of a bag, the Coatis rush from their concealment. Ten or more of the animals will surround the people, inspecting bags, jumping onto the backs of chairs or the tops of tables, even climbing onto prams. The Coatis are after food and they are crafty thieves.
So, if you visit the Iguazu waterfalls, which are absolutely, stunningly beautiful, please no not feed and animals.
If you have children do not allow them to walk around with Ice creams or a bag of sweets as the Coatis will try to steal it.
That way you will enjoy your visit to one of the great natural wonders of the World.
Large soft eyes make a female blush.
But for frogs they are not intended to.
They need them as they don’t have flexible necks and as their eyes protrude, giving them almost 360 degree vision, so the eyes seem huge compared to the size of the animal.
Don’t underestimate frogs, they can see in colour and can see the smallest of movements.
This frog is called Alsodes montanus and lives in the fresh unpolluted streams flowing down the western slopes of the Andes, where the surrounding vegetation is Mediterranean scrub.
The ‘Living Wild in South America’ expedition into Chile found the frog, an example of the rare wildlife to be found in the central part of the country.
Unfortunately the species is threatened. Central Chile is where the majority of the population live and many streams are polluted.
South Americas second biggest bird in is the Jabiru, a huge stork like bird.
They are a common wetland bird in the Pantanal, which is where most birdwatchers see them in South America.
Paula and I have seen them in a number of locations in Northern Argentina but nowhere more numerous than in the Banado La Estrella in Northern Formosa province.
Banado La Estrella is a vast marshland which has seasonal inundations when the river Pilcomajo bursts its banks. During the very hot summer the water dries out and its at those times that many fish lie stranded and die.
That’s the time when the Jabiru clean up the thousands of rotting fish, doing a great job of ridding the environment of harmful bacteria and the potential for disease.
We really do have the World in our hands.
Mankind can do almost anything.
and an individual can do almost everything he or she puts their mind to.
We have the World in our hands, so in this New Year of 2017 let’s all try to be a little kinder to the planet, both the people who live on it and the wildlife that we unfairly share our space with.
We have the World in our hands so this New Year lets care for the well being of our children and teach them to love and understand.
“In the end we will conserve only what we will love,
we will only love what we understand,
and we will understand only what we are taught”
A Very Happy and Peaceful Year Ahead
Would you like an Armadillo for Christmas? Yesterday we were driving close by an indigenous village in the Formosa province of Argentina and noticed a little girl holding a baby Armadillo in her hands, she was very happy.
We stopped and asked her how and why she had the baby armadillo.
She said she and a friend had found two of the animals hiding under a bush and had brought them home to play with for Christmas. They were keeping them in a little pen on the ground, but said that the animals kept burrowing hard, making tunnels to escape.
Armadillos like all animals, are having a hard time of it these days. Their habitat is shrinking and many are killed on roads. We asked if we could buy the baby armadillos and she said we would have to speak to her brother. In poor village communities animals like this do have a value. They can be eaten, tasting a little like chicken and some armadillo shells are used as musical instruments.
Eventually her brother appeared and we negotiated to buy the animals for the equivalent of $20. The brother said that the money would be really useful for the family, helping them to buy rice,milk powder, sugar and something special for Christmas, like meat. The two girls seemed unconcerned, even happy, smiling all the time.
We released the two armadillos some distance from the village and as the two animals scuttled away to freedom we reflected on the number of lucky children around the world who would be surrounded with expensive presents this Christmas. How many of these children would be happy to only have two dusty, muddy animals to play with and how many children would be happy to see their Christmas presents sold to buy a Christmas meal.
The two little girls we had left behind wouldn’t have many presents but they would have a good meal.
Most importantly they seemed happy and as we drove out of the village, through the hazy dust were two smiley faces waving madly to us, but would you like an Armadillo for Christmas?
What sort of bird has a spoon for a bill?
The Roseate Spoonbill does and the best place to see them in South America is Ibera .
The Ibera marshes is one of the best locations in all South America for birds and for a wildlife photographer.
Roseate Spoonbills are one of most recognizable birds in the Americas and closely related to the Herons and Egrets. They feed by swishing their ‘spoon’ shaped bills through shallow water for a variety of invertebrate life.
In this photograph, the smaller of the two white egrets is the Snowy Egret. They feed in shallow water, carefully stalking small fish, often standing motionless until one comes close, then swiftly darting its spear-like bill down and catching it.
The much larger Great Egret employs a similar habit, but in deeper water and for larger fish.
Their different feeding methods means that many different species of birds can live together without exhausting a finite food supply. This sustains a healthy freshwater ecology.
There are no crows in South America.
We have been birding in South America for two years. Our wildlife photography expeditions take us to Argentina, Chile and Peru and we’ve crossed the Andes five times.
During these travels we have missed seeing our feathered friends, the Crows. This is not surprising as there are no crows in South America.
Why are there no crows in South America ?:
There are three reasons.
- 1 From an evolutionary perspective the North American crows originated in what is now Asia.
- 2 The North American crow species have not moved south, probably because there is no reason to do so.
- 3. There is ample competition from Mexico southwards, with a number of families of birds which have evolved to occupy a similar ecological niche as crows, the Caracaras for instance, of which there are eleven species.
The family of Caracaras are in fact closely related to Falcons, but in the field we noted that their behaviour and ecology closely resembles that of the Crows.
We have seen three species so far on our travels in South America, the commonest being the Crested Caracara (see above). This species has taken advantage of the agricultural revolution that has swept over South America in the last fifty years. The bird is omnivorous and we have counted hundreds on them, feeding on invertebrates on wide swathes of agricultural land.
The Mountain Caracara (see above) lives in the Andes. We found this nest site high on a sheer cliff in the Los Cardones National Park in the NW of Argentina.
The Yellow-headed Caracara lives in Northern Argentina and Brazil.
All these three Caracaras are scavengers by nature, like the Crows.
In that respect they are highly beneficial, clearing away rotting carcasses and waste, nature’s own cleaning machines!
Motherly love in the World’s rarest deer is an important part of in the species battle for survival, as its South American habitat disappears.
Wet grassland and marsh is the preferred habitat of the Marsh Deer, but this habitat is disappearing fast due to two factors.
Firstly, much of the native grassland and marshlands in South America is considered of low value by many land owners and is converted into plantations of pine. The Argentine government allows tax incentives for this change of land use, so international businesses and financial institutions can earn a higher return on investment by buying the land and converting it. One of these institutions is Harvard University in the United States.
Secondly, there has been a massive expansion of Soybean cultivation Worldwide. Soybeans are used as a commodity in many processed foods but the majority goes as cattle feed. South American natural habitats are being devastated by the boom in the growing of Soy, particularly in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. As the populations of China and India grow and become more wealthy their diet is changing from rice based to meat. Cattle need feed and Soy is becoming a preferred source of feed.
Wildlife suffers and one of the mammals that has suffered is the shy and secretive Marsh Deer.
The Marsh deer has a very restricted range (see above). The Marsh Deer was once abundant throughout this range. In Uruguay it is extinct.
The Marsh Deer population is losing ground and is ranked as Vulnerable with a decreasing population by the ICUN.
Paula and I visited the Corrientes province of Argentina several times and have been fortunate enough to find and watch the elusive Marsh Deer.
Not a lot is understood about the biology of this deer.
But as we watched the Deer, we were delighted to see that the small family units were very caring to each other.
Females would never wander far from their youngsters.
We saw many occasions when the mother and young would mutually groom each other.
It is this strong parental bond which gives us hope that this beautiful deer will find a home and succeed in maintaining a viable population in today’s populous world.
Patagonia at last.
We have arrived in Patagonia, an area of Argentina that we have been trying to get to for two years.
The reason why it has taken us so long, is that the other parts of Argentina have been so good. The people have been wonderfully friendly, the wildlife outstanding and the landscapes have ‘blown us away’ – much as they are doing here in Patagonia.
Up until a few months ago we were aiming to travel in Patagonia to birdwatch, to film and photograph the wildlife as before. Specifically to continue with our main project to discover why there are so many bird species in South America.
But, just before we left the UK, a request from Aves Argentinas, (the pre-eminent bird conservation NGO in the country) changed our plans. We we asked if we wanted to make to make a film about one of South America’s rarest birds, the Hooded Grebe.
We said YES, so here we are in Patagonia.
Patagonia at last.
AND we have seen our first Hooded Grebes, a pair. They were displaying to each other on a lake that was quite low down, not on the high plateaux where they breed.
We watched the pair of birds all afternoon. They were mixed in with Red Shoveler and Silvery Grebes.
The following morning we returned and they were gone.
Hedgehogs are prickly, some people are too. The best three prickly places we’ve been to are all in the coastal desert of Chile and that is perhaps the best place in the world for cacti.
We had never imagined a landscape full of Cacti, but that was before we had set off on the ‘Living Wild in South America’ expeditions. The Americas are the global stronghold for cacti and the map shows the best tree areas to find them.
One of the most prickly places in South America is the Paposo area.
Paposo is a small village on the north coast of Chile, about 50 km north of Taltal and some 200 km south of Antofagasta. Along this coastal strip the Atacama desert reaches down to the sea. Here the stony ground is brushed by the coastal fogs or ‘camanchaca‘ which generates just enough moisture to sustain a splendid floral landscape of cacti.
Some of the more abundant types of cacti are those belonging to the Copiapoa, as can be seen in this picture.
This is Copiapoa cinerea, a rare and vulnerable species.
Paula and I first travelled through this area of Chile in February 2015, shortly afterwards El Nino brought heavy rain and flooding to many places in northern Chile. So we returned in October in the hope of seeing the desert in flower
In October the desert was much greener and some plants were even flowering. It wasn’t the mass of flowers that we expected but it did show us the real effect that rain has on this ‘prickly landscape’.
The Southern Screamer is a real screamer of a bird and found only in South America.
It looks like a goose and its closest living relative is the Australian Magpie goose. This is not surprising as millions of years ago the continents of Australia and South America were joined.
For the nature and wildlife lover the Ibera Marshes in the Corrientes province of Argentina, is a ‘must go ‘ location. As for birds, there are over 300 species and birdwatchers flock to the area to see them.
Southern Screamers have huge feet and can swim well. We found them fairly common in the Ibera Marshes of Argentina.
This image shows a territorial display, the birds love having control of a tree, bush or prominent perch from which they can emit their loud and penetrating call, an emblematic and evocative sound of the marsh a true Screamer of a bird. (Click on Screamer to hear it for yourself!)
Many travel companies operate tours to Ibera. For the specialist wildlife photographer or birdwatcher these tours can be linked to other notable places to visit. Ibera marshes are in the NE of Argentina and so is the internationally famous Iguacu Falls, which is further NE on the border with Brazil. Between the two lie the Atlantic rain forests, one of the most threatened forest environments in the world and full of endemic wildlife. You can fly from Buenos Aires to Posadas and hire a car for yourself or use a local tour company.
The Northern access point to Ibera is from Ituzaingo. This is a delightful town and is the base for Turismo Diversidad , an English speaking tour company which specialises in wildlife and bird tours.