Friday, March 25, 2016

Wildlife scenes in the Chubut province of Patagonia.

I left you in Esquel boarding an overnight bus for Puerto Madryn on Patagonia’s east coast. We go with a taxi to the Hi Patagonia hostel run by the charming and very helpful Gaston. So helpful that he had no problem putting a  kettle on to boil so that we could have our first proper cup of tea since arriving in South America. Tea lovers know what I mean!

Gaston soon put us on to the first of several wildlife encounters. We boarded a big zodiac, fit for 50+ passengers and headed out in the bay to see some dolphins, seal lions and birds.

Sea lions and cormorants on the rocky shore of Golfo Nuevo
 The dolphins did not oblige but the seal lion colony, dominated by a big bull, on the rocky shore was interesting, especially when we saw Imperial Cormorants and a single gull standing nearby. Later we identified it as a Kelp gull.

Under the boat and a farewell wave
We may have missed out on the dolphin but then an extraordinary bonus presented itself. The boat crew asked us to watch for disturbances in the water surface. Long before any of us amateurs saw anything the skipper called out “There it is.” At once we saw the tell-tale of a tail above the surface. 

It was a juvenile humpback. The guys at once identified  it as a different one from that seen the previous week.

 As if this was not enough of a thrill the magnificent creature swam right under our boat, not once but twice within fifteen minutes.

On our walk back to the hostel we once more admired the variety and number of graffiti on any available wall.   They are in every community we visited

Over the next two days we hired a car, a much newer, more comfortable and more reasonably priced Ford than the crummy Chevy for which we had been gouged in Bariloche. Two hundred dollars American in the Andean town was outrageous. 

We headed for Peninsula Valdés a fascinating area that has been designated as a national park.  

A road sign makes things clear.
Along the way there were several groups of  wild guanacos, a few rheas and an array of succulent flowers that we could not hope to identify.

 The red one is thought, by the authors of this site  to be a member of the Aizoaceae family.

 The yellow is probably Opuntia maihuen. All were fleshy and low to the ground, seeming to be drought and salt resistant.

Jo puts things in perspective

A lunchtime stop at Punta Delgado gave us a chance to see the skeleton of a Southern Right whale. The whales  themselves gather in the Golfo San Matias on the northern side of the peninsula over the months of May to December. 

We were too late to see them congregate there, but they are reported to be so tame that one can get close to them as they calve and breed. Maybe we’ll see them next time we go.

After lunch we were led by a charming guide down a steep incline to see a group of female elephant seals. They look like giant slugs. There were no big bulls around so we did not see the noisy and vicious fighting that is so readily viewed on all sorts of wildlife movies and no doubt on YouTube. This one, shot by Richard Sidey is a good example. 

Next day we headed to Punta Norte, the northern-most tip of the peninsula to see much larger colonies of sea-lions.
A disproportionate weight advantage
We saw one breeding event. A huge male smothered a female that seemed to be trying to escape. How she survived her mate's crushing weight (400 kg) is thought for reflection.

            We hoped to see the famous beach hunting of sea–lion pups by Orcas. No luck. We were about a week early. The pups were still with their mothers and had not yet ventured out to swim. From Gaston we learned more about the unique hunting technique. It stems from an old human activity. At one time the ranchers used to capture the pups for food. They would chop off the heads and flippers and chuck them into the water. The Orcas soon found out about these free lunches. Next step, self-service. This National Geographic clip, shot on the same beach, shows what we missed. The commentary is inane and way over the top. It makes no mention of the human induced behaviour.

The next two days took us bird watching. We had heard that there is a huge lagoon near the town of Trelew, a ninety minute bus ride south of Peurto Madryn.
Chilean flamingos and others on take-off
 We found it, but were in for a surprise. It is indeed huge, many kilometres long, but it is a sewage lagoon. There were thousand of ducks and swans swimming on it. They rose in a cloud as we approached. In the distance I saw some Chilean flamingos, one of three species seen in South America. The others live in the high Andes. A stalk behind scrub and bushes got me within a hundred metres. As they also rose I was able to snap their departure. In silhouette there are many ducks and a couple of ibis, identifiable by their long down-curved beaks. An hour of the smell was enough.

Our last day in Puerto Madryn gave us two spectacular experiences. The morning two-hour taxi ride to Ponto Tombo led to an amazing experience.  Ponto Tombo's name comes from the site where the aboriginal people buried their dead (tombs). We walked among a Magellanic penguin colony of something like one million birds. 

At the entrance to the trail a sign shows that not only folks in wheel chairs can gain prior access, but also pregnant women, a nice touch with a simple graphic message.

 The path for visitors is clearly marked with a two-strand wire fence.

Competing for food. Two chicks mob one parent
Our taxi driver, who had taken tourists there many times, knew the area well, told us that there had been no penguins at the site before 1978. 

 The tiny penguins come to the beach and the walk (waddle) up, in some cases over a kilometre to their respective burrows. Every pair returns to the same burrow each year for the nesting season. By the time the chicks are weaned they are the same size, or a tad bigger that their parents.

The birds have right of way on the fenced paths where tourist are permitted. They know it. One walked within half a metre of Jo, ignoring her completely.
We watched chicks mobbing parent birds as they returned with full stomachs from feeding in the ocean. Outside some burrows there were two chicks competing with vigour to get at the regurgitated food. The adults trade off every ten days and are said to travel up to six hundred kilometres out to sea to find their food.

As we returned to the parking lot I needed to answer a "call of nature".  The choice of cubicles was clear, but shown in a delightful way.

Our visit to the town ended up with a fine sea-food supper and a magic rainbow show.  

The sea front at Puerto Madryn

 Then it was off to the bus station for another overnight ride north. Next stop Coronel Suarez. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Seven Lakes of Argentina

In my the last report about our trip to Argentian I left you in San Martin, the final town on the seven lakes tour in the Andes.  The evening before we departed we stopped in the town square to watch a couple performers and their amazing tricks on a big hoop and a slack tight rope (is that an oxymoron?). Here is a short movie clip of the show.  

Lenin volcano from route 40
Then it was further north to visit the Lanin Volcano Even from the roadside thirty kilometres short the snow-cap was spectacular. Then came a turn on to a rough dirt road. We skirted lake Huechulafquen and then crept slowly through a maze of hairpin bends until we reached the end and stopped on the shore of the north western arm of the lake. Now the mountain was in full view, Spectacular!
The majestic volcano

 We were in for a surprise. Three mounted gauchos rode their horses straight into the lake at its narrow junction with the main body of water. At no time did the horses go deeper than their hocks. The shallow water was no doubt well known to locals. The posse was leading, sometimes dragging, a reluctant Hereford heifer.

The gauchos cross the lake
A reluctant Hereford heifer being brought home
Every now and again the heifer simply sat and refused to move. It had to be ‘persuaded’ The men stopped right by me and so I was able take a few photos of the drama. The animal had escaped from its herd mates and was being returned to base.

Over a picnic lunch of empanadas and ham and cheese sandwiches, purchased at a panaderia (bakery) in San Martin we could see the volcano framed by numerous monkey puzzle trees that are native to the area.   .    

There is a traditional Argentinian folk story about the volcano. It involves a hunt, an angry god that causes the mountain to shoot flames and smoke into the sky, and the sacrifice of a young girl to appease the god. Since the sacrifice the mountain has remained quiet and has never lost its snowy peak. The story is recounted on several websites that vary a tad from one another. 

Our next stop was in Villa Traful. To get to this little resort we had to leave the excellent paved route 40 and go down a gravel road with hairpin bends and plenty of rock. It was here that we learned more about the history and biology of the tree.  There are males and females, each bearing cones that differ in shape and colour. The taxonomic name of the ones that are native to the southern and central parts of Chile and Argentina is Araucaria araucana. It is the national tree of the former and is long-lived (up to a thousand years according to some).

female blossoms
Male pine cones
There is a related tree in the genus, native to Australia, known as the False Monkey Puzzle, or Bunya tree Araucaria bidwillii. It has been suggested that both trees, members of the Araucariaceae family, flourished during the Jurassic and into the Cretaceous from two hundred million to sixty-five million years ago. At the start of those long-ago times the super continent of Pangaea began to drift apart so it is possible that the original ‘living fossil’ has evolved into the two species in Australia and South America.

Human beings have always been interested in trans-locating plants and animals to a never-ending list of foreign countries (think New Zealand, think Australia). There are monkey-puzzle trees in Canada, the UK and many others. In UK the most famous spot is  Kew Gardens. My own memory of the tree comes from the front garden of the house at 79 Salisbury Road in the city of Salisbury, Wiltshire, where our family lived when I was nine years old. 
Unclimable bark
There was a huge one there and one thing was for sure, I was not going to try and climb it. The spiky trunk made sure of that. No wonder it is called the monkey puzzle.

            Another piece of useful information is that both species of the tree produce edible nuts

            Then it was back to Bariloche for a night before heading across to the east coast. On the way we stopped for lunch at a beach with a splendid view of mountain peaks with lake Nahuel Huapi in the foreground.
A shore-line view of lake Nahuel Huapi

Harldy big enough to damage a car, Just means TAKE CARE
 On the road back through the seven lakes began we passed a road sign that warned of tiny pudu. Because I worked with deer for most of my university career it was a creature I would love to see for real.

A souhern pudu
As I noted in the last post they are the smallest of all deer species, standing at a maximum 45 centimetres. There are two subspecies, the northern and southern.  Once hunted as a food source they are now threatened by habitat conversion and dog predation. 

Bariloche town square. Just jamming for the fun of it.

In Bariloche we headed out for a bite to eat and watched a bunch of musicians jamming in the town square. They had no interest in any cash rewards. They were just having a good time. So were the crowd.

Next day we boarded a couple of the fine buses that carry folks all over the country.  In the afternoon we went south to Esquel. After supper in a pub there we headed back to the bus station and at eleven at night we left for Puerto Madryn. 

Our overnight bus
This overnight bus had seats that turned into reclining beds and offered both supper and breakfast during our seven-hour trip out of the Andes, across the pampas to the east coast. 

More of that next time. 

Saturday, March 5, 2016

A trip to the Argentinian Andes - part one

Back to blogging, after a hiatus of eighteen months. My excuse?  I was working hard on a new book. This one about work in Canada. Title: Porcupines to Polar Bears

There are stories from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, the Forestry Farm Zoo in Saskatoon and the wilds of Canada.

As I wait for the release in May I can write about the trip that my wife Jo and I took in January and February to Argentina. There are so many memories that I’m going to start with the time had in Patagonia. To get there Air Canada took us to Santiago in Chile. After that a bus and boat trip across the Andes took us to the town of San Carlos de Bariloche, conveniently known as Bariloche in the Andes. We had booked into the beautiful Llao Llao hotel a twenty-minute bus-ride from the town.

The lawn below the Llao Llao hotel

 We arrived on the 25th of January, known world-wide wherever Scots have ended up at Robbie Burns day.

We do not participate that poet’s traditional haggis-based supper as it happens to be our wedding anniversary. In this case the 47th.

Dinner with roses

It was great to find that the concierge had acted on my emailed request to have roses on our table at dinner-time. Jo knew nothing about this arrangement. It was a special moment to see her reaction.  

Next morning we began to explore. There were interesting Ashy-headed geese , with their russet breast feathers grazing on the lawns and a great view of lake Nahuel Huapi below the hotel.

 The spectacular view of the Andes, and the snow-capped peaks, gave us the opportunity to sit and relax on the lawn below the hotel beside the lake. It is huge. It  covers five hundred and thirty square kilometres and its shore line stretches three hundred and fifty-seven km.

On the shore of Lake Nahuel Huapi

In Bariloche, to our dismay, car rental is brutally expensive. $200 (US) a day for a very basic stick shift Chevy! There wasn't much choice if we wanted to explore.  Even at that price we decided to hire one and head north along the seven lakes route. There were stunning views, good restaurants and interesting things to do. 

From Bariloche we headed north to Villa Angostura, here we stayed at the Sol Arrayan  hotel, again on the shores of lake Nahuel Huapi, which is huge. The views of the Andes from the hotel and the shore are spectacular.

The view form the 5th floor

 By this time we had learned that in Argentina the correct pronunciation of a double ‘L’ in any word is not, as we expected, a ‘yao’ sound. The two ‘l’s sound as ‘sha’. So, our next stop in the trip was at ‘Visha’ Angostura.

Jo in front of Coihue a tree stand. Ground up view
  There were two interesting treespecies that we saw in Villa Angosturs.  Right outside the hotel was an Arrayan tree, with its rust and yellow bark. It grows up to 15 metres. It is a member of the myrtle family, is an evergreen with fragrant flowers and is limited to the central Andes between Chile and Argentina. The other tree(s) were a mass of Coihue standing straight as an arrow, up to 45 metres tall. The largest one on record had a girth of 8 metres.  Their most striking feature is the absence of any branch for the first twenty metres above ground.

Black-faced ibis
 Next morning my fascination with birds and their photography was further excited when we saw a pair of black-faced ibis on the lawn. There are at least ten species of ibis in South America, but this is the only kind we met.

I was somewhat astonished to see bronze or rock statues of red deer in the communities. This version is depicted in full rut, neck stretched, roaring his power and ardour to one and all. The real rut is in  autumn, March in Argentina, so the hills may soon resonate with the grunts and gurgles.

A bronze stag bugling into the sky
Have a listen to the sounds that echo across the Scottish Highlands in September.

 I was aware that these creatures had been exported to South America at some time early in the 20th century but I did not realize that they had become iconic and more celebrated in art forms than the native deer. We saw candelabras concocted from interwoven antlers and the standard wall mounts in most hotels.

One of the natives is the pudu, smallest member of the deer family that stands, at most, fifteen inches (45 cm) at the shoulder and weighs 10 kg. The other is the huemul, critically endangered throughout its range, mainly due to human activity and competition for resources with those cervid foreigners. There are some signs of recovery of this situation, but they are not out of the woods yet.

Thence to the town of San Martin de los Andes (abbreviated as San Martin). It lies on the shore of the lake of the same name. This lake is more or less the same size as Nahuel Huapi. San Martin is a favourite destination for skiers and has a good ski lift system just south of town up a winding gravel road.

           The downtown area somewhat resembles a European mountain resort, with many buildings of log construction and window boxes. 
A  pub with half a minibus through its front.

The architect of pub, no doubt tongue in cheek,  has the front end of a VW micro bus embedded in the upper front wall. Happliy this 'crash' did not adversely effect the Warsteiner beer, a local brew.

For the folks who do not speak Spanish here is a useful tip, an essential addition the vocabulary for the beer drinker.  A craft beer, or one made in a micro brewery is un cerveza artesanal.

It was time for dinner. We had decided to double up and have a meal a restaurant advertising food and a tango show. Jut inside the door stood a large rack of wines. As we stood there a waiter told us that there would be no tango that evening.

Just one of three racks in the 'dinner and tango ' restaurant
The atmosphere was ideal with low lighting. The menu looked reasonable so we decided to have a meal anyway. Steak was on the menu and there were pasta dishes.

Next came a surprise. Only one small glass of water, from the tap, which we favour, was available. After that it had to be bottled water.

Ridiculous. We left.

There were hitchhikers outside every town we passed through. One of the most interesting encounters was with an Australian couple in their thirties. They arrived at the same hostel as us and we fell into conversation. They are inveterate cyclists. One of their less adventurous trips had been a ride from Barcelona to Berlin. That does not sound too arduous for the dedicated,  but these two were traveling with small children, a four-year old and a toddler of eighteen months!

Our journey continued. Next stop a volcano with a history and a folk tale.