Thursday, 10 December 2015

Lauca National Park - extraordinarily high and highly extraordinary

Until this year my experiences of Chile had been in the far south, plus stop-overs in Santiago. In September however I had the opportunity to explore some of the far 'other end' of Chile, 4,000 kilometres to the north. Here the forbidding but compelling Atacama Desert dominates, where there are places where rain has never fallen in the 450 years of written records. This near incomprehensible aridity is, in turn, driven by the impacts of the cold Humboldt Current just offshore, and the towering Andes to the east, whose eastern slopes catch most of the moisture moving west from the distant Atlantic. 

There are a few sites and regions I'd like to share with you in due course, but today I'd like to introduce the remarkable Lauca National Park, covering a spectacular 138,000 hectares of high Andean puna steppe-land. 'Puna' can be a confusing concept because it refers to two different things - the Puna Plateau is a high tableland between mountain ranges in Argentina and Chile, while puna is also used for the vegetation type, a largely treeless grassland which also contains some hardy shrubs and cushion plants. (In Ecuador 'páramo' is used instead.) Lauca is inland from Arica in the farthest north of Chile, between the small town of Putre and the Bolivian border. 

Lauca National Park is high in the Andes, on the Bolivian border, at the approximate end of the red arrow.
The lowest part of the national park is 3,000 metres above sea level (masl) - 700 metres higher than the loftiest point in Australia! From here it soars to 6,300masl, providing a challenge to those of us from lower elevations. It is characterised by scenery that would take the breath away if one had any left to spare; snow-dusted volcanoes, impossibly blue glacial lakes (glaciers formed much of the landscape), and highly significant alpine wetlands known as bofedales where wildlife concentrates.
Bofedal, above and below.
Just two of hundreds which sprinkle the landscape of Lauca.
Glacial moraine (material deposited by retreating glaciers) around Lake Cotacotani, Lauca NP.
A panorama of volcanoes, some of them in Bolivia, above Lake Chungará which,
at 4,500 masl, is one of the highest lakes in the world.
(The queue of trucks in the right background is part of a 13km long back-up waiting to get through
the border post; opinion seemed to be divided as to how 'normal' this was.)
Part of the queue - they had a very scenic place to wait in at least!
Chungará is truly entrancing - I think it's fair to say that most of us forgot how hard we were working to breathe (it was the highest place I'd ever been while still standing on the ground), as we revelled in the amazing scenery. The lake formed some 8,000 years ago when a massive volcanic cone collapse formed a dam. It is dominated by Volcano Parinocota, one of those ridiculously perfect volcanic cones.
Volcanos Parinocota (left) and Pomerape in Bolivia (right), above Lake Chungará.

A closer view of Parinocota.
Parinocota last erupted 1700 years ago, but it should not be assumed that these volcanoes have all retired from an active life.
Volcanic smoke gently puffing from an unidentified cone, Lauca NP.
I mentioned earlier that the puna is 'largely treeless', but there is one significant exception. Polylepis is a genus of about 20 tree species but the copses they form at high Andean altitudes are very significant habitats indeed, supporting many other plant and animal species, many of them unique to the Polylepis forests. Restricted to the tropical Andes, they are the highest altitude flowering trees known, growing to over 5,000 metres above sea level. They are in the rose family but, unlike most roses, are wind pollinated because pollinators are not common at such altitudes. 
Polylepis trees growing in a harsh glacial landscape well above 4,000masl in Lauca NP.
And the landscape is harsh; we were there long after daybreak on a spring sunny day, but much of the water in the bofedales was still frozen.

Frozen pools in a Lauca bofedal.
Even this stream was substantially frozen.
Another characteristic plant form in the high puna - and indeed in alpine areas throughout the world - is the 'cushion plant' form. These are usually woody plants forming dense ground-covering mats with substantial tap roots. This form, which recurs in a wide range of families, seems to be a powerful adaptation to growing in sparse low-nutrient soils, in low temperatures and with limited water and frequent harsh winds. In Lauca, a common cushion is formed by Azorella species, family Apiaceae.
Azorella sp. mounds, above and below, in a harsh landscape.
And by looking at the cushion plants, we're very likely to find another inhabitant too...
Mountain Viscacha Lagidium viscacia;
despite its rabbity appearance, it is one of the old South American rodents and very much
at home in apparently unhomely habitats like Lauca.

In fact, wherever you go in high Lauca there's likely to be a viscacha watching!
Like the South American monkeys, the old rodents have their roots in Africa and, like them,
it's not at all clear how they got here some 45 million years ago, though it must have been by sea.
But it's in the bofedales that much of the animal life can be found.
Here a viscacha has been joined by another enigmatic South American,
a Grey-breasted Seedsnipe Thinocorus orbignyianus.There are just four species of seedsnipe, all South American, and apparently aberrant waders.
In the puna the ground-tyrants - members of one of the two ancient South American passerine sub-oscine groups which dominate here - are prevalent.
Cinereous Ground-Tyrant Muscisaxicola cinereus.The tyrant flycatchers apparently arose as aerial insectivores in the neotropical rainforests, where many remain. Others have extended into the Andes, including the ground-tyrants
which have adopted a primarily terrestrial lifestyle.
Puna Ground-Tyrant Muscisaxicola juninensis.

Rufous-naped Ground-Tyrant Muscisaxicola rufivertex. (It's really the crown which is rufous.)
White-fronted Ground-Tyrant Muscisaxicola albifrons.
The other great sub-oscine group, the funariids or oven-birds, is also represented.
White-winged Cinclodes Cinclodes atacamensis. Cinclodes represent some 14 species of ground-foraging mostly cold-loving birds found throughout the Andes and Patagonia.
Crested Ducks Lophonetta specularioides.
A single-species genus which also favours the high mountains and deep south.
Black-hooded Sierra-finch Phrygilus atriceps, another high-altitude specialist. (Thanks Juan!)
(And perhaps because this is South America, sierra-finches are actually tanagers...)
The bofedales have also been sought by human settlers for at least three thousand years, as places to graze stock and grow crops such as quinoa. Traditional use is still permitted in Lauca.
Alpacas Vicugna pacos grazing in Lauca NP.
And finally, along the shores of Lake Chungará, another special South American.
Giant Coot Fulica gigantea.
This superb bird, a specialist of the high Andean lakes, is the second-largest of all living rails;
it can be over 60cm long and weigh over 2.5kg.
(The more familiar Eurasian Coot F. atra is up to 40cm long and weighs perhaps a kilogram.)
Lauca's not on everyone's South American 'must see' list, but I really think it should be. Bear it in mind anyway...



Flabmeister said...

The wildlife is excellent but I found myself distracted by the daftness of humanity. Did you have to pass through the border post? If so, how long did you take to get through the queue?


Ian Fraser said...

No, fortunately we stayed in Chile, and the lake was as far as we were going, so didn't need to join the nightmare queue. It's unfortunate that the main highway from northern Chile to Bolivia goes through the park.

Juan said...

What a great post Amigo!! Definitely it brings good memories with amazing mates.
The sierra finch is black-hooded sierra finch (Phrygilus atriceps). It doesn't happen in Peru as far as I know.

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks Juanito - soy un gringo tonto!

Flabmeister said...

Si hubiera estado fuera hoy sería un gringo flamingo!

Martin (with help from