Friday, 1 June 2012

A Dry Andean Valley, Bolivia

Relaxed birding


We knew we were leaving with Herman at 5.00am the next morning but had no idea where we were going.  The day was listed as one looking for the endemic Bolivian Spinetail, which was a day trip from La Paz but we didn’t know in what direction.  Sandro had confirmed that we were going for the Spinetail but said that we were also going for another endemic, Berlepsch’s Canastero, which we knew was only found at near Sorata, north east of La Paz and past Lake Titicaca.  He was not feeling 100% because of the altitude and so we assumed he was confused, as we thought we were going to Lake Titicaca and Sorata next week.

We piled into the vehicle at 5.00am dressed in thermals and winter birding gear, not knowing where we were going, what altitude or how long it would take.  We were all tired and in need of good sleep.  I did wonder where we were when I woke up an hour and a half later to see flat barren habitat with mountains in the distance, but was freezing cold so put on my hat and gloves, coat and Chris’s coat and waterproof trousers over me as blankets.  Later still, we woke up to find ourselves in an Aymara town.  It was -2 degrees outside and the women were dressed in typical highland indigenous dress, complete with bowler hats.  As we left town, I saw a sign for Sorata.  I told Chris that I thought we were near Lake Titicaca and did he know where we were.  He said that he had seen a beautiful lake an hour before but had assumed it was some other lake.  I then asked Sandro whether we were going to Sorata? He confirmed that we were and that both endemics were in fact at the same site.  Just after this, we again drove past the edge of Lake Titicaca, which was very blue and beautiful and felt pretty foolish. 

Lake Titicaca is at 3,800m, from which we dropped to about 3,550m along the bendy road about ½ hour above Sorata, which is at 2,600m.  Here we quickly had to remove our layers, as the sun came out.  We turned to see two enormous snow covered peaks, Illampu and Anchuma, appearing out of the clouds at about 6,500m each.  This valley gets little rain and has alpine grass and flowers, with mountain shrubs and small low level cactus plants.  We managed to see both endemics, Bolivian Spinetail and Berlepsch’s Canastero as well as Puna Tinamou and were relieved to be able to sit on the ground and enjoy the sun.  We all felt the effects of the altitude today, each time we tried to walk up a steep bank, we had to stop to breathe!  Chris started to feel quite unwell, though refused to admit it was the altitude.  He eventually agreed to take a tablet for altitude sickness.

We headed back to the vehicle, for another lovely camp lunch.  We noticed some mandarins had appeared in the vehicle and thought Herman had been very thoughtful getting them out of the boot for us.  Over lunch, Herman pointed out a dent in the start of the barriers, protecting cars from a sheer drop on a bend 20 metres up from the car.  A truck carrying mandarins had crashed into the barrier when the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel.  Half a second earlier had he would have missed the barrier and gone straight down the cliff, killing himself and the two small children with him.  Instead, all had been unhurt.     

On the way back, we stopped at a small highland lake and saw Giant Coot and two Andean Geese.

We also stopped at an Aymara town square, where I bought a llama wool blanket and a brightly coloured blanket, worn to carry babies.  These were sold to me by an old lady in traditional dress and brown bowler hat.  Birdgirl noticed some children with purple cheeks and I explained that this was caused by living at altitude.  Apparently, it is a problem with not being able to exhale carbon dioxide rather than not taking in enough oxygen.

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