Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Atacama Desert

One of the places I always wanted to go.  It is considered the driest desert on earth and as a result my lips were all cracked and my hands dried up too.  It is cold at night and I really did not suffer much from heat in the daytime but sunburned. Surprisingly there is water in the Salares, small salty lakes where birdlife is abundant as well as a few species of rodents.  The terrain is varied with flat rocky areas, volcanoes and as can be expected, lots of sands and salt in the dried-up lakes.  San Pedro de Atacama, a small tourist town was the place from where I departed for the daily adventures; usually left before the sunrise and returned by sunset.  Two weeks before I arrived there was a rare rain period during which the desert was converted into a colorful flowered garden but by the time I got there, they were all gone. There are not trees unless they were planted by humans around the small villages.

Probably the bigger reason to go there is the colorful rough topography among the canyons and rock formations.  These are better photographed in the early and late afternoon. It is difficult to capture a representative set of images to characterize this desert due to the variety of formations caused by erosion throughout thousands of years.  The alluvial fans and the canyons are geological formations resulting from the action of water during eons of years?  Waters shows up as torrential rains in with an average rain fall of less than ½ inch per year and not every year.  There is a Valley of the Moon and a Valley of the Death and interestingly, there are valleys with the same names in the neighboring countries of Argentina and Bolivia. I did not bother to identify most locations where most of the landscapes were taken because the topography as in music, variations in a theme. The rock tower below is at the Salar de Tara.

 El Tatio is a geyser field not as extensive as those found in Yellowstone or Iceland but still a worthwhile visit.  In 2009 there were attempts to develop geothermal energy that failed resulting in abandoned equipment ruins the views.  The geyser field name in Quechuan means oven; several tourist tours brought breakfast to the field and their major attraction was to boil the eggs in the hot pools. It is a good strategy to get there early in the morning before the geyser field gets full of tourist ruining the landscape.  Do not expect to see frequent or very high geyser eruptions. In the road to the geyser field to there were fresh water lakes where several species of birds were nesting. The giant coot was most active making nests and a bit lazy. Below, one coot going to the nest being built by a gull; when the later was gone looking for more materials, the coot will come and steal it; that is why the gull was attacking the coot.  After delivering the stolen material to its nest, the coot exchanged places with the nesting one that in turn went to eat the grass at the bottom of the lake. The church at the closest village of Machuca dates back to 1765 has mud walls and the doors visitors allowed.

At the Laguna Chaxa national park where various species of birds where I photographed the Andean avocet and flamingos. There are also a lizards not found in other areas as well as Darwin’s leaf-eared mice. In the way back I stopped and visited the church in the village of Socaire where the door was open.

 I had never seen a vizcacha before but I was told that these were rare in the area and not easy to find.  I was lucky…saw a friendly couple that were not too active; one sat at the entrance to its cave totally ignoring me, so I got some shots. There were also rodents that lives in colonies called tuco-tucos because the calls they made.  As soon as they saw me they ran into their burrows, I sat on the ground and waited for about 15 minutes.  They came out and just ignored me while grooming and doing their tuco-tuco talk. Any fast movement or bird of prey flying overhead and they dove back into their tunnels; I had a great time with them.

I was adventuresome and flew a South African Aerotrike Delta ultralight with a wing made in Ukranie with engine from Austria. The flight was smooth overall and got the opportunity to take some aerial photography of the Valleys of the Moon and the Death.  The white color is not snow but mostly salt. The helmet was sliding behind my back all the time; I was afraid that it will be dragged by the wind into the propeller behind me. But the pilot assured me that in case of engine failure, we could safely glide and land.  I will do it again.

 It is time to move on to another adventure to the other end of the world, where there also geysers but a frozen environment; stay tuned.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Falkland Islands?Malvinas

The Falkland Islands, or the Malvinas, are located in the South Atlantic off the coast of Argentina.  To get there, one must fly to Santiago, Chile, then to Punta Arenas, Rio Gallegos and finally to Stanley (below) in the East Falkland Island.  As the name implies, it is a conglomerate of small islands and two larger ones known as East and West Islands.  The islands are cold and mostly treeless, with small rocky elevations and peculiar rock formations that look like dried-up river beds (but are not) and called stone runs.  The weather is mostly cloudy, rainy and windy but fortunately I had no more than a total of one day of rain but the winds were common and at times very strong.
 Besides East Falkland Island, I also flew to Sea Lion, Carcass and West Point Islands and all have the same topography varying mostly in size.  There are several species of birds, and no endemic island mammals (except for the now-extinct fox).  Cats were seen just in the vicinity of Stanley.  Rather than going location by location, I will go by the animals seen in the islands. The reason for visiting these islands was to photograph the different colonies of penguins, albatrosses and sea mammals.

 The Rockhopper is my favorite penguin and the smaller of those seen in the Falklands. They are fast when walking/hopping among the rocks and outpaced me when trying to follow them.  Most of the other penguins set their colonies near a sandy beach for easy access to the water. Not the rockhoppers, They choose rocky shorelines with steep cliffs.  It is amazing how they arrive on the cliffs with the incoming waves, hop onto a rock and start their way up to their nest.  As most other penguins, they travel in small groups where there is always one leading the group jumping and stumbling until they reach their nesting colonies.

 Occasionally a few of the rock hoppers instead of going directly to the nesting sites, deviated to fresh water springs coming from the side of the cliff, jumped into the pool, drank fresh water, and then proceeded to take elaborated baths. This was unreal…I had the great thrill of watching them, just like people coming off the ocean and going to the beach showers to remove the salt and sand.  While one was doing its thing, others waited for their turn…and then proceeded to the nesting areas.

 The Gentoo penguin is bigger than the one previously discussed and they nest in areas that have sandy beaches providing easy access to the ocean.  As the other penguins, they nest in large colonies with very rudimentary nests.  They were seen in all the islands but Sea Lion Island has a beach facing East, and when they return from fishing at the end of the day, it is a photographer’s paradise.  Catching them jumping out the water is hard to capture.

 Once they arrive on the beach, they pause to preen and dry a bit and then join others to walk inland to their partner waiting at the nest.

 The King Penguin is the biggest in the islands and also nests in areas similar than those used by the Gentoo but not mixed together.  At the time I was there most of the chicks were as big as the adults but covered in brown down.  They would hang around in groups waiting for the parents to return from the sea and feed them. When an adult was returning from the ocean with food, all the chicks started begging, but did not fool the parent, as it knew exactly who its baby was!

 Magellan penguins were also seen in the islands but did not appear to be as common as the others since.  These make underground nests and appeared to be shy; as soon as they were approached they retreated into their nests.  The Rockhopper and Macaroni Penguins are similar, but the Rockhopper has the yellow tuffs over the eyebrows while the Macaroni has them in the forehead; notice the difference in the third image below.  I saw all the 5 species of penguins that reside in the Falklands.

 The Falkland Steamer-Duck is endemic to the islands: it is very tame and easy to approach.  There is also a Flying Steamer-Duck but I could not tell the difference from the endemic if I saw one.  A Speckled Teal was also seen.

 There are also several geese and they are below in the following order:  Kelp, Upland and the Ruddy-headed. The latter were fighting over territory since this was the breeding season.  These fights also occurred in between species.

 Pelagic birds include the blue-eyed cormorants, pale-faced sheathbill and the southern giant petrel.  The cormorants were nesting in large colonies and were mostly bringing nesting material.  Some already had laid eggs and on one occasion, a skua stole an egg from the nest; I was just not really aware of what was going on I missed a shot of a lifetime…it was amazing how the skua could hold such a big egg in his bill and fly away.  The pale-faced sheathbill when first seen looks like a white pigeon even in the way it feeds, but the bill readily identifies it a different bird.  The southern giant petrel is impressive and aggressive; below is one eating a cormorant and was capable of defending its meal from gulls and skuas.  It takes a long time to get airborne.

 Other birds seen were the striated caracara, the Magellanic snipe, the two banded plover, Magellanic oystercatcher (the one in the photo was feeding a chick), the Cobb’s wren that is endemic to the islands and the tussacbird or blackish cinclodes.

 And finally the more majestic of the birds - the black-browed albatross that nests in large colonies, its aloof attitude making it most appealing.  It allows close approach and ignores you.  If you can’t get a great photo of this bird, you might as well retire. Below is the image of a colony sharing space with rockhoppers. The birds are very sociable and are always displaying beak strokes among the pairs.

 Elephant seals and sea lions are abundant along the coastline.  As the name implies the elephant seals are really big and did not mind the intrusive photographers but were annoyed by a tussacbird picking at bugs on their skin.  There also pups in the colonies.  They come ashore to give birth, breed and shed their skin once a year.  There is a group Italian scientists studying these animals and to identify them they write their assigned names in the furs…graffiti under the disguise of science research.  I despise all these researchers defacing animals with radio collars, bands and tags.  The one below is named CIP.  The last image is that of a young seal looking in wonder at the small duckling; I was lucky to catch this moment.

I was gone for a long time and took more than 10,000 images; it makes the selection and processing of images a tedious task.  I will upload the second location I visited prior to the end of 2015; no promises.