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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Heights and Depths: Peru's Colca Valley

Colca Canyon is much-publicised as one of the deepest canyons in the world; only the nearby Cotahuasi Canyon is deeper. Colca's deepest point is 3.4 kilometres below the rim, twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. However this is only part of the valley of the Colca River and the section between the historic town of Chivay and the canyon represents a magnificent landscape with lots of wildlife.
The upper Colca Valley and Chivay are indicated by the arrow, in the southern Andes of Peru;
Chivay is at 3,600 metres above sea level, and the rim of the canyon at a similar height.
Whether coming from Arequipa to the south, or from Puno (on Lake Titcaca) to the east, you will see some spectacular Andean scenery, especially when you reach the highest point of the road at Abra Patapampa (abra is a pass). This is seriously high by most standards; at the lookout you are at 4,900 metres above sea level, and even the few steps up to the viewing platform can provide a challenge.
Part of the remarkable vista from Abra Patapampa, looking west.
From the left the volcanoes are Ampato (6300m), Sabancayo (6000m) and Hualca Hualca (6000m).
Some of the cloud is actually volcanic smoke.
Looking back to the east; this is a tough forbidding landscape, formed from volcanic eruptions and mountain uplift.
From here the road descends, but not to anything reminiscent of lowlands! East of Chivay, above the valley, we pass through high swampy plains, bofedales, rich in wildlife, especially waterbirds. The next few photographs were taken from the roadside.
Crested Ducks Lophonetta specularioides; these are old South Americans, the only one of their genus,
lovers of the cold windy expanses of the Andes and Patagonia.

Puna Teal Anas puna, another high Andes specialist.
Yellow-billed Teal Anas flavirostris; this little duck is widespread in the southern part of the continent,
and north up the Andean chain. (Formerly lumped with the Andean Teal, from further north, as Speckled Teal.)

Two other birds of the bofedales are also Andean specialists, with the range centred on southern Peru.
This is the Puna Ibis Plegadis ridgwayi.

Giant Coot Fulica gigantea. To those of us used to fairly diminutive coots, this magnificent bird is a real
eye-opener. 60cm long and weighing up to 2.5kg, the adult can scarcely fly. It rarely deigns to descend below
3,600 metres, and can be found in lakes and swamps up to 6,000 metres above sea level.
Alpacas grazing in the bofedales near Chivay.
The Colca Valley around Chivay has been a human-utilised landscape for thousands of years. Over the last thousand or so years it has been the scene of intensive agriculture, with terracing and irrigation for growing corn, potatoes, quinoa and beans, as well as grazing flocks of Llamas and Alpacas. While the Incas generally get the credit for Andean culture and technology, much of it actually predated them.

Pre-Inca terraces in the Colac Vally in front of Chivay (at the foot of the range in the middle distance);
Volcao Misanti can just be seen on the skyline to the right of it.
In the foreground is the gorge of the river still far from its downstream depth.
Black Metaltail Metallura phoebe on Opuntia Cactus.
Mostly it looks all-black, until light catches the startling throat iridescence.
This magnificent Andean hummingbird was in a garden on the outskirts of Chivay, as
was the subject of the next photo.

Black-throated Flowerpiercer Diglossa brunneiventris.This group of specialised tanagers, as the name and awl-shaped bill suggest, make a living by piercing
the base of flower tubes and stealing the nectar without achieving pollination.
Downstream of Chivay the valley becomes drier, with very different vegetation and wildlife. Bromeliads and cactus become dominants.
Airplants, Tillandsia sp., bromeliads, growing on the road cuttings in no soil at all.
Puya sp, another bromeliad, west of Chivay.
Many Puya species die after flowering, but it seems this is one of the lucky ones.
Cushion Plants Azorella sp. (family Apiaceae), west of Chivay.
These are hard to the touch and immensely hardy; mounds this big could be centuries old.
Curiously, the genus is also found in New Zealand and in Southern Ocean islands to its south.
Canyon Canastero Asthenes pudibunda. The resemblance, in appearance, habitat and behaviour, to
Australian grasswrens is striking, though it is entirely unrelated, being one of the ovenbirds (family Funariidae),
the ancient South American sub-oscine passerines.
Andean Flicker Colaptes rupicola, a large, vocal and almost entirely ground-dwelling woodpecker.
Which brings us to the canyon itself, or at least the section of it with lookouts and walking tracks high above the river (though only a modest 1,200 metres above it here at Cruz del Condor).
Lookout, shelter and walking tracks above Colca Canyon at Cruz del Condor.
 It is a very striking landscape.
Colca Canyon, above and below; while nowhere near the 3,400 metres of the deepest
part of the canyon, the river is 1.2km vertically below us.

Cactus predominates here, and I'm a big fan of cactus in its natural environment (ie not in rockeries or the Australian bush, but that's just me). I hope you don't find this a cactus surfeit; sadly my enthusiasm isn't matched by taxonomic knowledge so any identification assistance will be gladly received.

Puyas are here too, adding to what is a pretty exotic-seeming landscape to those such as I, entirely unfamiliar with it.
Puya sp. above Colca Canyon.
Not all the flowers belong to cactus or bromeliads.
Calceolaria sp. growing from a rock crevice above Colca Canyon.

Cantuta Cantua buxifolia Family Polemoniaceae, above and below.
This is a pretty appropriate place to encounter Peru's national flower!

And of course there are birds, even in the cactuses.
Black-winged Ground Dove Metriopelia melanoptera.
Slender-billed Miner Geositta tenuirostris.This is another of the ovenbirds; as suggested by their name, the miners nest in burrows.
Ash-breasted Sierra-finch Phrygilus plebejus.As with so many South American birds, the sierra-finches turn out to be tanagers.
Tabanid Fly, known as March flies in Australia, horse flies in some other places.
Fortunately (for me, not her) this beauty was unable to get that proboscis through my trouser leg.
However none of these beautiful beasts are what draw most people to Colca Canyon. This is about the only place in Peru where one still has a reasonable chance of seeing the magnificent and huge Andean Condor Vultur gryphus, which has largely gone from most of its formerly vast Andean range, except in Patagonia in the far south. They roost on ledges down in the canyon, but as the air heats up in the morning sun they ride the thermals up until, if we are lucky, they can be seen at eye level. And on that morning we were very lucky, with 17 appearing, many more than an average morning.
To see one condor is a rare privilege; to see them in groups like this is utterly thrilling.

Adult above, and immature below.

Adult females, photos above and below; they lack the male's red facial skin.

This is a wonderful wildlife spectacle, which we watched for a long time before the condors scattered and we walked off into the warming day to enjoy all the other treats that Colca has to offer. When you're in Peru - and I do hope it's on your agenda - please be sure not to miss this beautiful and very exciting valley.



Flabmeister said...

Well done on the Condors: I am very jealous! You and your readers might be interested in this nest cam of Californian Condors.


Ian Fraser said...

Thanks for the nest cam link Martin. Yes, condors are one of life's great thrills I reckon. Colca Canyon's a pretty safe bet for them, though you've got to get there early - some of the coaches arrived after the action was over. The only 100% certain site though is Torres del Paine NP. (And how do you put a link in a comment?)

Les Mitchell said...

Yes, wonderful phots of the condors in particular Ian. As you say, that would have been thrilling.