Monday, September 16, 2013

The bird of the trip!

As mentioned before, Jorge ( did his best to show me as many birds as possible in Argentina... and succeeded by taking me to different types of habitats.  That included dry chaco and a type of habitat completely new for me: an extensive salt flat known as Salinas Grandes.  The road took us north of Córdoba, first through farmlands that, unexpectedly for me, were rich in birds!
Several stops along the road produced many lifers for me.  Look at the picture above.  We saw huge flocks of cowbirds, but it was not until we stopped to check that these were of several species.  This flock had Shiny, Screaming and Bay-winged Cowbirds; although the picture only shows the last two species... they keep a strange relationship: the Screamings are brood parasite, almost exclusively, of the Bay-wingeds.  Another stop close to Villa Gutiérrez produced many species of finches, among more common species.
The Red-crested Finch is quite spectacular.  This individual showed up for some seconds, allowing only few shots.  Other species found in that spot were Common Diuca-Finches, Rufous-collared and Grassland Sparrows, Cinnamon Warbling-Finches, Saffron Finches and a Great Pampa-Finch (photo from the Sierras Grandes).
Eventually, we reached the dry chaco, and before entering the salt flat, we birded the shrubs along the road.  One special bird, an expected one, was a strange falconid common in that habitat: the Spot-winged Falconet.  The taxonomic relations of this monotypic species is unclear, and probably is more related to the Laughing Falcon.
This habitat was rich in birds too.  We found Greater Wagtail-Tyrants, Ringed Warbling-Finch, Crested Gallitos and Black-crested Finch.  For a common bird, these finches are simply beautiful!
We entered the salt flats through the town of Lucio V. Mansilla, finding a Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle in the middle of the place... however, there was no vegetation... only a chance for a great panoramic photo!
In this part of the salt flat, the edge was devoid of the vegetation we were looking for: bushes of the salt-tolerant Salicornia plants; so we headed south looking for them... entering again into the dry chaco and finding Checkered and White-fronted Woodpeckers, White-banded Mockingbirds and a Many-colored Chaco-Finch accompanying two Crested Gallitos.
Eventually, Jorge found a perfect place... full of scattered Salicornia bushes right in the edge of the salt flat; however, it was noon and very hot.  In a random stop, I started to search the surroundings through the binoculars.  After some false alarms, I saw in the distance a group of birds close to a bush behind the car.  A quick look by Jorge confirmed my suspicion.
The mythical Salinas Monjita!  This is one of those birds you read about but never think you'll see   some day.  Is not only a range-restricted endemic, but also a habitat-restricted one... only found in this type of vegetation in the border of the Salinas Grandes!  WOW!  They were far away, but eventually we got closer.
Jorge, photographing and videotaping the Salinas Monjitas
If you read trip reports for central Argentina, you'll see that some birders seeking for this Argentina's endemic have failed.  First we saw two birds, then another, and another.  We saw eight (8!) individuals in total.  Jorge explained to me that they congregate in flocks during the winter, so it is more difficult to find them since these flocks may wander great distances.  In the other hand, during the breeding season, the couples are scattered all over the suitable habitat, making it easier to find them.
We saw them making short flights to the vegetation and even running short distances in the salt (looking like a plover in that aspect).
The Salinas Monjita was first described in 1979 as a subspecies of the more widespread (but also endemic) Rusty-backed Monjita.  However, soon the differences between these two forms became apparent and now most authorities recognize it as a full species (detailed rationale here, check the field marks listed in the proposal with my photos).
For me, it was a MEGA lifer, and I still don't know how to thank Jorge for giving me the opportunity to see and photograph this bird.  Definitively THE BIRD OF THE TRIP!

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