Thursday, 2 February 2023

El Valle Encantado (The Enchanted Valley), And A Bump In The Road

January 19, 2023

It is not always easy to find trails worth exploring in the Andes, and the reason for this is simple. The extreme topographical changes in the mountains, combined with frequent rainfall and thick vegetation do not lend themselves to the construction and regular maintenance of trails. But that doesn't mean that it is impossible to access these diverse habitats, full of weird and wonderful creatures.  The answer to that is obvious - vehicles. 

Cars and buses need to drive from the lowlands to the highlands and back again, and so roads have been cut into the mountainsides. And while walking alongside roads has its challenges, it at least allows one to access different habitats and altitudinal gradients that would otherwise be impossible to visit. You may notice a theme for us here in Argentina, in that we have been doing much of our exploring along various mountain roads, and that would continue. Today's route: Highway 33, heading west from Chicoana in Salta Province towards Parque Nacional Los Cardones, and travelling through El Valle Encantado (The Enchanted Valley). 

Chiguanco Thrush - El Valle Encantado, Salta, Argentina

The road begins in the humid lowlands, passes through kilometres of beautiful yungas forest, and climbs into a drier ecoregion where scrub dominates. At the highest elevation of the road, pampas grasslands proliferate and continuing west, the conditions become quite xeric with the plant communities reflecting this. We had budgeted for two days to explore this beautiful area. 

El Valle Encantado, Salta, Argentina

We awoke to heavy rain but didn't fret much about this, as we knew that we would be climbing high enough up the mountain to an area where the storm clouds rarely reach. By the time that the sun rose, it was a gloriously clear morning. 

El Valle Encantado, Salta, Argentina

We made a breakfast stop at around 2100m in elevation and quickly found a bird species that was new for both of us, a Spot-breasted Thornbird. Most thornbirds seem to prefer fairly open habitats, but the Spot-breasted is a little bit unique in that it prefers stunted woodland and dense scrub. 

Spot-breasted Thornbird - El Valle Encantado, Salta, Argentina

We finished up breakfast and continued driving, making one more quick stop for some roadside birding en route to our target elevation. Laura and I had three main bird species on our mind, and all three were limited to the higher elevations: Rufous-bellied Brushfinch, Zimmer's Tapaculo and Maquis Canastero. 

Andean Tinamou - El Valle Encantado, Salta, Argentina

I plugged in the GPS coordinates for a particular ravine and we soon arrived to begin our search. It was here that some of the annoyances of birding alongside public roads came into play. For one, traffic was much more frequent that we would have liked. And two, the rain had not reached these elevations in quite some time, meaning that the road's substrate included a thick layer of dust. Every time a pickup truck blasted by us, we were coated with it. Fun!

El Valle Encantado, Salta, Argentina

We tried to not let this bother us too much as it was a beautiful morning. And while our main target species were not cooperating, we enjoyed our first good views of an Andean Tinamou. Like most tinamous, Andean Tinamous are quite vocal, and indeed, we had heard this species many times before. But this was our first chance to study one with binoculars, and for me, my first chance at photos. 

Andean Tinamou - El Valle Encantado, Salta, Argentina

We also found our first Dot-fronted Woodpecker in this area, though it quickly disappeared. A little while later, we re-encountered the same individual, this time for a prolonged period of time. 

Dot-fronted Woodpecker - El Valle Encantado, Salta, Argentina

The Dot-fronted Woodpecker is endemic to the semi-humid yungas forests of northwestern Argentina and southern Bolivia. 

Dot-fronted Woodpecker - El Valle Encantado, Salta, Argentina

We encountered our first Rock Earthcreepers here as well. Despite their name, Rock Earthcreepers are rarely found in open rocky landscapes as they much prefer shrubby and grassy areas.

Rock Earthcreeper - El Valle Encantado, Salta, Argentina

Red-tailed Comets were around, too. These guys are just spectacular, and I couldn't help but expand my photo collection of this species. 

Red-tailed Comet - El Valle Encantado, Salta, Argentina

We continued higher up the valley, hoping to have better luck with our main target species. I stopped the car at an intriguing little ravine and we relished the chance to get off of the dusty road by hiking up the creek bed. 

Cream-winged Cinclodes - El Valle Encantado, Salta, Argentina

Our instincts were correct and we found a pair of Rufous-bellied Mountain Tanagers just before leaving!

Rufous-bellied Mountain Tanager - El Valle Encantado, Salta, Argentina

This species used to be considered a type of saltator; not an unreasonable assumption given its appearance. With the proliferation of genetic sequencing in recent decades, ornithologists determined that it was not actually a saltator, but closely related to the mountain-tanagers. It was then placed in its own genus, Pseudosaltator. The Rufous-bellied Mountain Tanager prefers high elevation scrub and Polylepis forest on the east slope of the Andes in Bolivia and northwestern Argentina. 

Rufous-bellied Mountain Tanager - El Valle Encantado, Salta, Argentina

We connected with several Maquis Canasteros at the next little creek valley in an area of dense shrubbery. We would go on to find this species in several other locations later in the morning. 

Maquis Canastero site - El Valle Encantado, Salta, Argentina

Maquis Canastero - El Valle Encantado, Salta, Argentina

The Zimmer's Tapaculo was the only remaining member of the "Big Three" that we had not found up to this point. We climbed even higher to where a side track leaves the highway and there are interpretive signs for El Valle Encantado. This gate is sometimes open, but we were not so lucky and it was closed. We headed out on foot, knowing that we had a reasonably long walk to reach suitable habitat for the tapaculo. The scenery was incredible along the way: I love the wide-open spaces of the high Andes. 

El Valle Encantado, Salta, Argentina

The birding was pretty good along our walk. Some of the standouts included Andean Hillstar, Rusty Flowerpiercer and more Maquis Canasteros and Rock Earthcreepers. 

Rusty Flowerpiercer - El Valle Encantado, Salta, Argentina

Andean Hillstar - El Valle Encantado, Salta, Argentina

Maquis Canastero - El Valle Encantado, Salta, Argentina

Most of the sierra finches were accounted for, as were Black Siskins, Black-billed Shrike-Tyrants and a few distant flying Andean Condors. Ornate Tinamous vocalized from all around and we spotted one in an area of very short grass.

Ornate Tinamou - Valle Encantado, Salta, Argentina

Our long walk paid off when we heard the distinctive croaking vocalizations of a Zimmer's Tapaculo from within a small creek valley. But despite our best efforts, it remained a "heard-only" species. 

Our walk back to the car added a few additional species of birds including a small flock of Bare-eyed Ground Doves. Definitely a sharp looking dove! 

Bare-eyed Ground Dove - El Valle Encantado, Salta, Argentina

We continued up over the crest of the Andes where the road opened up into a broad, flat valley. Our first Guanacos of the trip roamed these plains. These camelids are the wild ancestors to the domestic llama. Vicuñas, which we have seen elsewhere in Argentina, are the ancestors to alpacas. 

Guanaco - Parque Nacional Los Cardones, Salta, Argentina

Guanaco - Parque Nacional Los Cardones, Salta, Argentina

We continued westward and watched the landscape change further, with cacti replacing the grasses. We checked a site for Elegant Crested Tinamous during the heat of the afternoon but were unable to see any - just heard one calling from somewhere, likely hidden in the shade under some shrubbery. 

The drive back to Chicoana was a little bit more eventful than we would have liked...

A slight problem...

It wasn't just a simple flat tire as the tire was basically destroyed. With the help of a local couple that stopped to provide assistance, we got the temporary spare installed and very carefully navigated back down the mountain. Luckily, the rest of this drive was uneventful. 

January 20, 2023

As I mentioned earlier, Laura and I had budgeted two full days to exploring El Valle Encantado. We had been quite fortunate in that we had found all of our major bird targets during the first day, meaning that we could spend today trying to acquire a new tire, knowing that we were not wasting any additional days. And so that is what we did. 

If it was just a simple patch job that was required, we could have had it fixed in an hour. But we needed to purchase a whole new tire. In the end, we had to drive all the way into Salta to a particular tire dealer to buy the exact same model. The rest of the morning and early afternoon was chewed up by running errands, and by taking the car to the rental agency in Salta since it was determined that the remaining three tires were rather bald and needed to be replaced, too. Enterprise, and their local partner Alamo in Salta were fantastic in taking care of this for us. They let us borrow one of their cars so that we had wheels for the afternoon while the car was undergoing its maintenance. 

Once the heat of the day had subsided, Laura and I drove to a park on the outskirts of Salta for a few hours of birding. We really needed the mental break after the stress of everything with the car.

Great Antshrike - Parque Bicentenario, Salta, Argentina

Parque del Bicentenario filled that need for us and we enjoyed over 50 species of birds. Some of these were lifers, including Chestnut-capped Blackbird, Lined Seedeater and Yungas Sparrow. 

Chestnut-capped Blackbird - Parque Bicentenario, Salta, Argentina

Lined Seedeater - Parque Bicentenario, Salta, Argentina

We watched the display flight of a male White-browed Meadowlark with a smile on our faces. This was a new species for Laura, and what a stunner!

White-browed Meadowlark - Parque Bicentenario, Salta, Argentina

Ducks and other waterbirds were plentiful here, while the long grasses were filled with a nice variety of songbirds. Below are a few more bird photos from the evening. 

Blue-black Grassquit - Parque Bicentenario, Salta, Argentina

Andean Duck - Parque Bicentenario, Salta, Argentina

Tawny-headed Swallow - Parque Bicentenario, Salta, Argentina

Great Pampa-Finch - Parque Bicentenario, Salta, Argentina

Fork-tailed Flycatcher - Parque Bicentenario, Salta, Argentina

We picked up our car at 7:30 PM, complete with a full set of new tires, and we were good to go again. The next day, we had plans of birding chaco scrub and yungas forest north of Salta. 

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