January 17, 2015, Cerro Negro, Argentina — I rolled out of my tent this morning, ate some sugar biscuits, packed and waterproofed my gear to be strapped to a mule, and set off with Freddy, Claudia, Jose, and Fabri, who I will be camping with for the next several days. We forded a thigh-deep river (pausing to admire a pair of Torrent Ducks) and began to ascend a steep mule track through the cloud forest, making slow progress as we birded our way from flock to flock. New sightings came fast and bright: A knuckle-sized Slender-tailed Woodstar perched and showed off its brilliant colors, and, in one animated stretch, I added Smoky-brown and Golden-olive Woodpeckers, White-winged and Crested Becards, and a skulking Azara’s Spinetail. The Yungas cloud forest is quite beautiful: incredibly green and lush, full of stunted trees like something from a Tolkien novel, wisps of fog trailing around the trunks.
That beauty comes with a price, though. About an hour into the hike, the heavens opened, and birding closed. Pretty soon, while we climbed an increasingly exposed ridgeline, a storm plowed directly over, around, and under us; in one cloud break, I realized I was watching lightning strikes in a valley below. There was nowhere to go but up the trail, and it was an interesting hour in half twilight, full of weird crackling and popping sounds amid deafening thunder, monsoon-like rain, and whipping fog. I carried an umbrella but soon folded any hope of staying dry; the rain fell so hard that it splashed off everything, and the trail became an ankle-deep muddy torrent. At one particularly close bolt, Fabri, walking in front of me, reflexively threw down his metal tripod, which he’d been carrying on his shoulder, and picked it up with a sheepish grin. I tried not to think about the 20,000+ people that get hit by lightning each year, and, completely soaked, climbed for another couple of hours while the storm passed.
We arrived at our camp in the afternoon just as the rain stopped. The mules came right behind us, and we laid our tents on a grassy saddle overlooking steep valleys on either side. Mountains swirled into indefinite layers of mist. What a place! The rain returned, without thunder this time, just before dinner, and everyone dove into their tents for a good night’s sleep.
New birds today: 28
Year list: 384