January 18, 2015, Cerro Negro, Argentina — The rain stopped during the night, and, after I pulled on my wet pants, soaking socks, and sloshy shoes, I opened my tent flap today to a crazy view. Our camp, at Abra Cana, sits among 5,000-meter peaks, which were frosted with fresh snow this morning. Their slopes fold into endless ravines, valleys, fog banks, and, lower down, a green carpet of Yungas forest. As I stood on a precipice a few yards from my tent, I thought, This is why I came here!
Today’s objective was to bird the high-elevation northwest Argentina Pastizal grasslands above treeline. To get there, Freddy, Jose, Fabri, and I would continue up the mule track we took yesterday, winding into the heavens. (Claudia, a botanist, decided to stay in camp all day to make plant collections.) This particular track is used by just two or three farmers who eke out a tranquil existence in this area by running a few cows, sheep, horses, mules, and dogs. The landscape seems about as far from civilization as you can get.
It was a long tromp, and everyone except me did it in rubber boots, spooked by yesterday’s rain (my tennis shoes stayed wet anyway, thanks to condensation on the grass). My watch stopped last week, and my cell battery is dead, so I have no way of knowing how far we walked, but I’d guess about 10 miles, to an elevation of 3,500 meters (11,500 feet). Birdwise, this hike paid off big: Tucuman Mountain-Finch, Maquis Canastero, Zimmer’s Tapaculo…these species are rarely seen except by those who make an effort. Just before lunch, a gray bird hopped onto a rock, and I saw that it was a Short-tailed Finch carrying nesting material. “El nido de este bicho no es conocido,” said Freddy, and it took a minute for me to translate and digest this fact. “You mean nobody has ever found a Short-tailed Finch’s nest?” I asked, in Spanish. “Yes, it it still unknown to science,” he replied. We spent a while looking, but the bird had disappeared, so we left that discovery for another day.
In the afternoon we reached a couple of low stone huts, which housed two ageless-looking farmers who emerged to greet us. One, a shorter, creasy guy with a huge plug of coca leaves in his cheek, did all the talking, and his country accent was difficult for any of us to understand, but it gradually became apparent that these two were excited to have visitors. They brought out tea, grated cheese in a bowl, and cold, fresh water from a nearby stream. It was relatively late, and, for a while, we considered staying over. Lacking sleeping bags, though, it would have been a cold and uncomfortable night on a dirt floor, so we decided to head back to our camp. I think the farmers, who gave us a huge wheel of cheese as a parting gift, were disappointed to see us go.
New birds today: 19
Year list: 403