About Martin Eayrs

San Martín de los Andes, Neuquén, Argentina This blog is an occasional dumping/sharing ground for random thoughts and ideas, mainly relating to birding, photography, travel, the English language and the teaching thereof and assorted verse and doggerel. I am a retired teacher/lecturer and now work as a language and education consultant with an interest in evaluation and testing, quality assessment and moderation. I divide my time between homes and families in San Martín de los Andes, Patagonia and Manchester, UK.

An Interview with Louis Alexander

Interviewed by Martin Eayrs for the Buenos Aires Herald, 1998

Louis (L.G.) Alexander has recently been in Argentina on a lecture trip and the Herald spoke to him at his hotel.

Louis Alexander interviewed by Martin Eayrs for the Buenos Aires Herald, 1998. Photo Pilar Bustelo.

Louis Alexander recognises that he has been somewhat out of the public eye since he wrote his last book in 1979, but he’s now back on the road involved in what he calls “profile raising”, (nine countries so far this year). He fears that many people may have been wondering what happened to him; whether he has died, retired or just disappeared at the height of his career – the truth is that he’s been working on a new book, the ‘Longman English Grammar’, originally scheduled to take two years but in fact requiring seven, and he has only recently been “let out”.

He sees his new book as plugging a necessary gap, as there has been no new EFL (English as a Foreign language) grammar since 1960. It is aimed at anyone, teacher or student, native-speaker or otherwise, who needs an EFL reference grammar; our language has so far, he says, been abominably served in this respect. Having finally finished this he now sees his main priority as producing accompanying exercises for the grammar which will be “different to anything on the market”, and which will be based on inductive learning techniques that will require the reader to work out the rules for himself rather than being spoon fed with them. These new exercises will be “self-standing”, and thus not necessarily linked to the grammar, but will cross-reference back to it for the “whole story”.

He’s visited Rosario, Cordoba and Buenos Aires on his lecture tour this time round, and observes that the general level of ELT (English Language Teaching) remains as high as on his last visit here in 1972, and that the enormous enthusiasm for learning English continues unabated. A lot of very young people come to his lectures – mainly students who are going to be teachers – and it is from these, he says, that we can tell that the level and enthusiasm are still high. (He admits to a certain satisfaction at finding that many of these have learned from his books).

Outside his professional interests here, however, he finds that Argentina is suffering a “general lack of self confidence”, a “pervasive gloom”, which he did not notice on his previous visit, and this disturbs him.

Asked about his first textbooks (‘First Things First’, ‘Practice and Progress’, ‘Developing Skills’, etc.) and their continuing usefulness today, he stresses that the principal reason for changing textbooks is boredom, more from the point of view of the teacher than the student, but considers that old courses, if they were good in the first place, don’t “die” as much as “fade away”, and is pleased to point out that his first book, ‘Sixty Steps to Precis’ (1962), is still in print. In fact he was particularly gratified when told by a teacher in Rosario that she still hadn’t found a better system for teaching composition than that used in his earliest books, and for that reason she still used them.

He feels that textbooks in general carry the stamp of the individual who produces them, and that this personal quality cannot be replaced by “mere analysis” in books produced by committees. Course books are today becoming glossier, and this implies enormous investment on the parts of the author (seven years for his latest book) and the publisher, who may put “all their shirts” on a flagship course. For this reason, as well as the lack of research facilities and resources in general, local materials cannot usually compete with imported publications, having as they do that “homemade look”.

The EFL market has been dominated recently by British-produced materials, and he feels that this is because North America has been over-involved in the enormous problems caused by immigrant populations within its own boundaries. This he feels may well be changing and North American publishers are now beginning to look beyond their own shores. He does note however that in the past British publishers have been more prepared to make concessions as a means of establishing a foothold than their North American counterparts; (“in 1956 we were going into Egypt when everyone else was coming out”).

No, he does not consider that the market for EFL material is saturated. Perhaps this may be true in the case of Primary and Secondary course books, but he feels there are still “a dozen gaps” waiting to be filled, such as for example the Grammar he has just finished, or perhaps an updated approach to the teaching of composition to satisfy the teacher in Rosario.

Asked whether structured readers like those he has written offer an advantage over ungraded, “authentic” material, he points out that learners quickly become discouraged unless they can read with ease and confidence, and that his readers have been novels, which do not lend themselves so readily to reading for gist (general meaning). In any case, he considers that “authentic” materials culled from the fields of, say, advertising, immediately become unauthentic when incorporated into an EFL package, and that, unfortunately, many teachers insist on analysing every nuance of such texts, thus often invalidating an exercise which in essence consists of getting the general idea only.

He regrets the high cost of English Language teaching materials in this country, and as a teacher sympathises with students who resort to photocopying books or parts of books they simply cannot afford to buy. He is, however, “chagrined” as an author, deeply involved as he is in the right to copyright, and he takes the view that if we go on eroding copyright we erode creativity. People may be forced out of business, he continues, if what they create is copied, and he suggests that even token payment may be better than none, as long as the principle of copyright is observed. (He does however concede that he would prefer his books to be photocopied than another author’s).

He has nothing but contempt for those “teachers” who reject course books in favour of something chosen at random on the way into work. He considers that what these people are actually doing is to create a “totally unedited, unfiltered textbook, without the benefit of any thinking, planning, organisation”. This only occurs in his opinion with a certain class of native-speaker teacher who is “too clever by half”. He makes this point with warmth and evident conviction.

And his spirit continues to rise as he talks about teaching methodology (or methodologies). He himself approves of no teacher or method which preaches one methodology at the expense of others, disapproving strongly of what he refers to as “linguistic evangelism”. He values an approach which is “open-minded and catholic in its view, and which recognises the enormous variety of methods”. His voice rises in time with his temper as he remonstrates: “many of these linguistic evangelists have never exposed themselves to the fiery furnace of the classroom to see whether their marvellous ideas will stand up for five minutes”.  A nerve has clearly been touched here.

One quickly gets the impression that he is a pragmatist – “no ideal method … we must look at circumstances and avoid blanket views … learning a language is very hard … different people have different ceilings, just as some people drive (cars) better than others”.

He applies the same practical point of view to the commercial aspects of his work – “Competition between publishers must be good”. A firm believer in market forces and the survival of the fittest, he sees it as not the fault of the publishers if the consumer is faced with a bewildering plethora of ELT material. It is up to the consumer to filter the material. In this respect he suggests the need for some independent consumer association, like the British Which magazine, which could provide an objective description and evaluation to the consumer; he finds that some very good material unfortunately has a very short “shelf life”.

He favours an international approach to English Language Teaching, considering that the cultural aspects are more suitable to specialised, advanced courses. The language that enables a Japanese tourist to converse with a shopkeeper in Buenos Aires should, he says, be divorced from any one culture, and he feels that in Argentina general English language teaching should on the one hand enable Argentines to communicate with visitors (regardless of where they are from), and on the other enable Argentines who may travel abroad to do the same. What he is very anxious to avoid is any charge of “linguistic imperialism” – we should at all times respect local methods and local learning traditions.

He was, finally, very patient with this interviewer, and he and his wife Julie were charming and most cooperative throughout a long interview in what has been a tight schedule.

His only complaint – he does wish that people here could try to be “a little more cheerful”.

=========================

The name of L.G. Alexander will be familiar to anyone who has been in any way connected with the teaching or learning of English during the last twenty-five years. Many readers of the Herald must have come into contact with one of his course books , which include ‘New Concept English’ (First ‘Things First’ , ‘Practice and Progress’, etc), ‘Look Listen and Learn’ , ‘Target’ , ‘Mainline’ , ‘Follow Me’, and most recently ‘Plain English’. His graded readers still continue to delight and his language practice books are used by literally millions of people all over the world.

Yet there is more to the man than just writing text books for classroom use. His expertise is based on lengthy teaching experience in Greece and Germany, after which he was included in the Council of Europe’s Modern Language Teaching Committee and he was in fact one of the authors of The Threshold Level and Waystage, publications which lay down guidelines for the coherent and consistent teaching of modern languages in Europe today and also provide the rationale for many modern “communicative” language courses. Currently he is adviser to the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate for the Cambridge Certificate in English for International Communication.

 

An interview with Randolph Quirk

23 July 1991, by Martin Eayrs for the Buenos Aires Herald

Professor Sir Randolph Quirk was in Buenos Aires last week as part of the increasing activity surrounding the British Council’s reinitiation of activities in Argentina. The Herald  spoke to him at his hotel.

ME       Perhaps I can start by combining two questions. Have you been to Argentina before, and what is the purpose of your present visit?

RQ      This is my first visit to Argentina and I’m extremely happy to be here. I am a member of the board of the British Council and I’ve been very keen to reopen in Argentina. We opened only in May of this year so I’m in on the ground floor, as it were. Another member of the board, the novelist Baroness James  (better known perhaps as P. D. James) was here some weeks ago and I wanted to see the British Council activity for myself. I knew Harold Fish [Buenos Aires representative of the British Council – ME] in Germany and this morning I went over and had a look at the building. I’m well pleased with what the Council is doing here and I’m very impressed by the warmth that Argentina is showing to the British Council.

ME       There are a great many ‘varieties’ of English in use in the world today, some of them differing considerably from the Standard English used in Britain and the United States. In some cases what passes for ‘English’ in some parts of the world is practically unintelligible to speakers of ‘English’ in others. Do you think this divergence might eventually lead to a splintering away, to the formation of separate languages?

RQ      I think we are talking about two different kinds of language variation here. There is the variation between British, American, Australian and South African English, and these are really like dialectal variations within one language  From that point of view the variation between one region or one nation’s English and another’s is no different from the relation between Iberian Spanish and other forms of Spanish in Mexico, Argentina, Chile, etc. Just as an Englishman can make a fair guess at identifying an Australian, a Scotsman, a Welshman or an American, some of us are a bit cleverer and can recognise not only an American but also a ‘New Englander’ or a ‘Southerner’. This is certainly true for Spanish too – in Spain a Spaniard can identify a Mexican or an Argentinian, for example, – those two stand out. But in addition to that kind of variation there is a fundamentally different kind of variation – exemplified by so called Indian English or Nigerian English, Bangla Desh English, etc. Although the use of English in India or Nigeria is different to the use of English in the Soviet Union or Germany it varies from native English for the same reason, because of the interference of whatever the mother language is. I regard these varieties as inherently unstable. You and I can usually tell if a foreigner speaking to us is a Swede, a Spaniard, etc. They’ve got not merely a foreign accent but a foreign accent we associate with a particular linguistic community. They’re inherently unstable because the better learned the language is, the more that accent disappears. So by a kind of irony the person who speaks Indian English most recognisably is the person who by common sense standards speaks it worst. And they’re inherently unstable from another more fundamental point of view. Most of the native varieties of English have not been institutionalised – only two have been, British and American English – but it would be perfectly possible to institutionalise Australian English and New Zealand English.

ME       Why has this not happened?

RQ      Why hasn’t Argentinian Spanish been institutionalised? When some people talk of ‘argentino’ in the same way as some people say ‘he’s speaking Australian’ this is not exactly a joke. Sometimes it’s a political assertion. In the media the differences between Iberian and Argentinian Spanish melt away except for some pronunciation features. Some lexical items have to be used because they describe cultural features that obtain here and not in the Iberian Peninsula. It’s interesting that although Argentina and Mexico have been established a very long time the folk wisdom – whether in government, in power in the church or the media or just the folk downstairs – there is, even if they don’t like to give it verbal expression, some kind of pride in speaking a world language. They don’t want to hive off. We are not stargazers and anything can happen. We know that a single language has in the past split up into different languages, but in the past the starting point was different. In the case of Romance languages developed from Latin, the countries of France, Romania, Portugal and Spain were not settled after the withdrawal of the Roman legions by a solid mass of standard Latin-speaking peoples. There were little bits and pieces of Latin impinging on the Celtic of France, etc. Nowadays we have a worldwide communications system which keeps together those languages which are together already and we can’t afford not to. My prediction is that English will not split off into separate languages. It shows no signs of doing so, and the last 100 years has seen a confluence rather than a centrifugal development in these languages. I’m far more interested in the fact that Spanish hasn’t split – it has had the diaspora far longer than English.

ME       Do you think this could be because Spanish has a Royal Academy whereas English doesn’t?

RQ      You could say Spanish has stuck together over 450 years of diaspora   because it has the Real Academia and English will split up because after 350 years of diaspora  there is no Academy. But Academies do not hold languages together. Nobody has ever measured the influence of Academies, but compared with the centripetal influence of government, the church and the media, neither the institutionalisational influence nor the stabilising influence of a Royal Academy is worth a fig in my view. It seems to me that the answer to your previous question is “Well, look at Spanish – if Spanish can stick together then so can English”. And because of the far more numerous roles that English has had imposed upon it the demands of keeping world-wide standards of English are much stronger that in the case of Spanish.

ME       You made a binary cut between native English and non-native English; that of India and Nigeria on the one hand and Germany and the Soviet Union on the other.

RQ      Yes. People in the British Council are used to making a distinction between ESL (English as a Second Language) and EFL (English as a Foreign Language). This is a distinction I have recently repudiated in my own work because I can no longer make the distinction with confidence. It seems to me that there’s an ethno-political bias in this very concept. It’s always been clear to me that every single ESL country that you can name is ex-Commonwealth. And, if there’s any EFL country on earth that is prototypical, then it’s Israel. There’s a lot of internal use of English but there’s no way I can tell an Israeli by his accent because each Israeli speaks English with the influence of his or her own background and Israeli Hebrew has not yet become so universal in Israel that it will become the native language and will start making an impact on others. But English is more important in Germany or Holland than in these other countries. If I were to stick my neck out I might say that I see English as playing a declining role in the ex-imperial countries. In India the Hindi belt is now such that they can afford to snap their fingers at the Tamil speaking minority who use English. It is true that Rajiv Gandhi was speaking English in a Tamil area on the day he was assassinated, but English plays a relatively minor role in India today and I believe it will eventually decline, as it will in Nigeria where it’s much more widespread than in India. The varieties of English that are worth taking a long and serious look at are the English of America and Britain, in that order.

ME       Indira Gandhi once complained that she could not understand the English spoken by certain members of her own Parliament. Would you say they were ‘speaking the same language’ or that the communication breakdown indicates that there were two ‘Englishes’ operating in this instance, one based on “Standard English” and one local variety?

RQ      I would say that the story of Indira and her MP was simply that she was well aware that her English was considerably better. We could have said precisely the same thing about Douglas Hurd going to an EC meeting in Brussels and complaining about one of the British Civil Servants not speaking French well enough. For Indira and her son, if English was a foreign language at all, it was a foreign language very well acquired. That’s a generation that’s going.

ME       In another sense, it has been suggested that there are in fact two kinds of ‘standard English’ – one ‘complete version’ spoken by educated native speakers who use it as their first language, and a second, stripped-down and hence impoverished version, spoken by highly fluent speakers of English as a second language, and used as a world lingua franca in commerce, aviation, diplomacy, etc.   Do you consider this a fair description, and if so, would you expect the two ‘versions’ to diverge, coalesce or maintain the same relation between them as at present?

RQ      The short answer to this is no. But yes, in so much as there are several stripped-down versions. There is the Standard English of course, and the remarkable thing is that if you take a book by Patrick White or Antonia Byatt, you can read many pages before you decide that this must be a British, Australian or American writer. This Standard English is worldwide and has a continuity which most of us find reassuring. About thirteen years ago I floated the idea of a system of English called ‘Nuclear English’ in which we would have one stripped down version of English which was well designed and had a core vocab of about 2000 words in which you could say anything you wanted to say provided you didn’t want to be too poetic or too subtle. In this Nuclear English you could communicate everything using a grammar system which avoided all the modal auxiliaries which give our students so much difficulty – for example replacing ‘you may be right’ with ‘it is possible you are right’. It would give up the tag questions, using instead an ‘isn’t that so’ construction as in so many other languages. It would not deviate from standard English but by choosing with great care you could have a language that was much easier to learn, that was recognisable and usable all over the world and which would cost the poorer countries in this world which are pouring so much money into English language acquisition a great deal less in terms of national resources. I was also worried about the danger of the institutionalisation of Indian English and Nigerian English and felt that if that came about there would be a spiralling downwards because, without that native base, what is accepted in 1974 as ‘good English’ is passed on to the next generation only superficially – we can never teach all that we know ourselves. This was just a vague idea, but a couple of years after that with the aid of Robert Maxwell we floated something called ‘Seaspeak’. We had a reasonably effective system for Air navigation and the people who had the greatest difficulty learning this were the natives because they have to constrain themselves downwards rather than acquire new habits as the foreign learner does. The shipping companies were losing enormous amounts of money through accidents and additionally the level of education of the people involved in running ships is generally lower than in aviation. So a different cut down version was a definite necessity which Seaspeak was designed to fulfil.

ME       How has English language teaching in the United Kingdom been affected by the development of an increasingly multiracial society? One would imagine that there might be a growing call for familiarity with EFL/ESL techniques within the British educational system.

RQ      I wouldn’t want to give this too much emphasis. It is a very small sector of the English school population, but it may be eight to ten per cent or higher in some inner cities. Although local authorities have differed in the enthusiasm and professionalism with which they have taken this up, most London or Bradford schools, to give two examples, do have especially trained teachers who are aware that some of their children come from non-English speaking backgrounds . It particularly affects people from Moslem homes where the mothers have very little opportunity to socialise and therefore the language that they hand on to their children is Urdu or something similar. But I still hope that this is a passing phase and that increasingly the mothers will become the girls who went to schools here. It has been worrying and it continues to be so, and it’s an issue that’s become politicised in certain areas where manipulation of ‘consciousness raising’ is prevalent in immigrant communities.

ME       You have in the past used the term ‘liberation linguistics’, presumably by analogy to ‘liberation theology’. Do you consider that language policies are inevitably subject to political and ideological considerations? And did you coin the phrase?

RQ      Yes, in fact I did coin the phrase. Just as the liberation theologians wanted to dance a naughty tango with the Church of Rome and have the best of both worlds by playing a double game, I know that some of the people I have dubbed ‘liberation linguists’ have, to quote Pope, only a very little learning and that they have used it very dangerously. Language policies are inevitably subject to political and ideological considerations. It is unfortunate that the latter aspects of this have become (in my view) overly dominant, to the detriment of education. The way in which my wife and I have tried to put it in our book “English in Use” is that it is the job of education to make people into fit citizens and that means the wider the horizon the better the citizenship. Anything which raises boundaries between party and party or language community and language community is something that education is fundamentally concerned with destroying.

ME       In a country like Argentina, where a great many people are actively involved in the teaching and learning of English as a Foreign language, do you consider that exposure to a single ‘standard’ (perhaps Standard British or Standard American) or to different ‘varieties’ (e.g. UK regional, would be the best strategy?

 RQ     In Argentina it is interesting how relatively little overt influence American English seems to be having, although some of the personnel in hotels are perhaps an exception. Despite being a long way from the UK or any UK based standard, the resistance to American English seems to still be quite strong. This afternoon I was at a seminar of 22 people where only one person spoke as if she had studied in the United States. My answer to this is that you can only really teach the English you know and fortunately the differences between British and American English, the two main standards, are, accent aside, sufficiently small that you don’t have to worry about it too much. In Argentina there is obviously a British standard and an American standard.

ME       There is currently a debate about the relative merits of professionally trained local EFL teachers and ‘imported’ native speaker teachers. Do you have any strong feelings with regard to one being more suitable than the other in different teaching situations?

RQ      I was talking about this at this afternoon’s seminar. I was really rather horrified to find that (in Argentina), unlike in Santiago and Valparaiso, there is very little native-English speaker input at university or teacher training level. The British system (although we are awful at learning languages) and the German Lektor system give this possibility. However if I had to choose between the two I would prefer the non-native teacher. The teacher with the same language background as the pupils doesn’t speak English as well but he has a much better grasp of pupil’s problems than the native-English teacher does and therefore can grade the learning. Native-speaker teachers have to be much more disciplined and much better trained than the non-native speaker in order to teach English as a foreign language . Ideally a group of half a dozen Argentinian non-native teachers ought to have a native Lektor that can take conversation classes, and so on.

_____________________________________________________________________________

Professor Sir Randolph Quirk  was born in 1920 in the Isle of Man. He has been a lecturer in English at University College, London,  Reader  and Professor  of English Language at Durham University, Quain Professor of English Language and Literature at UCL, Vice-Chancellor of the University of London and President of the British Academy. In 1959 he founded the Survey of English Usage, continuing as its Director until 1981. His publications include ‘An Old English Grammar’ (1955), ‘The Use of English’ (1962/68), ‘A Grammar of Contemporary English’ (1972), ‘The Linguist and the English Language’ (1974), ‘A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language’ (1985), ‘Words at Work: Lectures on Textual Structure’ (1986), ‘English in Use’ (1990) and  ‘A Student’s Grammar of the English Language’ (1990). He maintains an active interest in  Old English, Old Icelandic texts, the language of Dickens and Shakespeare, the teaching of English, English as an International Language and research and publications on English grammar. He is married  to Gabriele Stein, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Heidelburg.

Trip through Northern Argentina and Paraguay – Day 13

30 August 2017 – Ituzaingó –Posadas Back on the move

The plan for today was to drive slowly from Ituzaingó to Posadas, stopping/visiting on the way an area in Ituzaingo known as the Zanjón de Loreto, another place on the road (a sanctuary)  called Bahía de Carayá and to stop off at a Caiman Breeding Station.

Unknown macaw – possibly a jandaya parakeet (Aratinga jandaya) but if so, very far from home as these live in NE Brazil.

Breakfast (the last of Rubén’s attempts to fatten me up), and I was back on the road. I did get to the Zanjón de Loreto, where among other things found a ‘macaw’ or similar that I was quite unable to identify. But it was cold, windy and overcast, and not really a day for photography, although under better circumstances this must be a good place for birds.

The improbable Jabiru on his nest

Natalia had told me yesterday of a place with an accessible (i.e. not viewed with bins from five miles) Jabiru nest so I drove around a bit till I eventually found it, and then said goodbye to Ituzaingó, a great place for wild life.

A monk parakeet – seemingly common in much of Argentina

As the weather was so unpromising for photography, and as I have to give a presentation at a Conference tomorrow I decided to drive straight through to Posadas and do a bit more work on it. I checked into a more upmarket hotel with good wifi and enjoyed being back in civilisation for a while.

So, this blog will now close and reopen when I hit the road again in a couple of days.

Trip through Northern Argentina and Paraguay – Day 12

29 August 2017 – Ituzaingó –Cambyreta entry to Iberá National Park

Puzzled looking water buffalo with cleaning bird

Early breakfast and at 08.30 my guide for the day Natalia was waiting for me to take me to the Cambyretá entry to the Iberá National Park. Excellent guide, and a great day all round. We took a packed lunch and were a good seven hours on the marshes.

Family gathering of the ‘yacaré negro’

The road down to the Iberá Park was difficult, and I admired Natalia’s driving – she coped far better than I and Silver would have done with a combination of wet grass, rutted mud and some (few) parts vaguely consolidated. However, for wildlife it was excellent and I added four lifers (the enormous Jabiru; the Least Bittern (rarely seen, and even more rarely, as we saw it, flying); the Streamer-tailed tyrant (at some distance) and the recently re-introduced Green-winged Macaw. Sadly I only got photos of the first and last of these.

Green-winged Macaw, being re-introduced into the Iberá National Park at Cambyretá

The last of these, whose Spanish name is the ‘Guacamayo Rojo’, are part of a reintroduction programme and although recorded here 150 years ago have long since become extinct in Argentina. There are seven birds at present, of which several are now in free flying mode although have not yet chosen to leave their ‘home’.

The improbable Jabiru

Jabirus nest on treetops, frequently on palm trees

The Jabiru was a welcome find. Although migrants should be arriving now, some (like the ones I saw) live all year round in northern Argentina and reuse their nests each year, so have become permanent residents. They nest high, and generally away from roads and people, so are not as easy to find as other herons and storks.

Gauchos at work on the grasslands

The weather was good, and the recent rains have been good for wild life and farmers. All in all, a day to cherish.

Whistling heron

And tomorrow, slowly, to Posadas for the FAAPI Conference.

Trip through Northern Argentina and Paraguay – Day 11

28 August 2017 – Ituzaingó – A slow day …

Anó Chico, a new bird for me.

It rained heavily all night, and was still pouring when I got up for breakfast. Rubén, the owner of Cabañas Tío Lucas (where I am staying) took me on a wet drive along some tarmac roads to see the beaches on the river Paraná, and to a couple of birding spots: a heronry and a bit of woodland known as Zanjón Loreto (the second looked very promising if it ever dries out here). Then back to the cabaña, where I made some coffee and worked on my talk for the FAAPI Conference at the weekend.

Lesser yellow-headed vulture – common in these parts

This concentration was broken by a huge lunch cooked by Rubén, who cooks the main dishes while his wife makes the deserts.  By about 15.00 it had stopped raining, and I first tried to get to the Isla Apiré, in the river Paraná and a short distance away where there is said to be extensive wild life. As there may well be, but I had no way of finding out; the lancha was full and there was no other way to get there until too late in the afternoon to make it worthwhile.

Gray monjita

So, I got in the car and drove out of town till I found the Reserva Santa María, with walkways and an observation tower looking onto the a mixture of grassland and wetlands. The sun was out by then, and I did manage to get an hour’s birding in, on what has been an otherwise wasted day. Plenty of big birds, but it was very windy and I think most of the smaller ones had hunkered down for the day.

well camouflaged, a red-winged tinamou

Back to review the day’s photos and type up these notes, until Rubén arrived with another huge meal – I can’t go on like this. I do have a programme for tomorrow, visiting Cambyretá (back in the Esteros de Iberá), so an early night’s sleep is called for, with fingers crossed for a full day’s birding tomorrow.

Giant wood rail

Trip through Northern Argentina and Paraguay – Day 10

27 August 2017 – Mburucuyá – Ituzaingó – Rain, rain, go away …

My only usable photo in a day of torrential rain,but not a bad one: a male long-winged harrier …

Slept extremely well. Torrential rain most of the night, so the Park ranger was right and I’ll not be able to have a second chance at the Mburucuyá national Park, which is a shame but hey, it is what it is. Not even in Silver for a day or so till it dries out a bit.

Breakfasted on a coffee bag and a packet of cream crackers and set off for Ituzaingó, retracing my steps some 50 km to Saladas as given last night’s rain I want to stick to tarmac today. Intention was to drive slowly through the Western side of the Esteros and see what I can see.

First half of the day was dull and overcast – poor light for photos. The sun came out a few times for a minute or so, but it was very windy and all the birds seem to have hunkered down. Stopped for lunch in a small town; huge and wholly unidentifiable cuts of roast meat accompanied by boiled cassava, with bread and wine. Filling, and reasonably tasty, but cordon bleu it wasn’t.

Back on the road and the last 200 km were done in horrendous rain, quite frightening, and very slow – at one stage I actually stopped as I could see nothing. Thunder and lightning all around, and I saw a lightning fork hit a tree not a hundred metres from the car – I could see flames and smoke through the rain – quite alarming, and I get telling myself that carts have rubber wheels.

Finally got to my cabin in Ituzaingó to find no one there, and had to wait an hour in the car in the pouring rain until the site owners returned from mass. It’s all a bit informal up here, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

On account of the weather, no photos today to speak of, and fingers crossed for tomorrow, although as I turn in for the night the weather shown no sign on letting up.

Trip through Northern Argentina and Paraguay – Day 9

26 August 2017 – Mercedes – Mburucuyá – And the heavens opened …

Woken in the middle of the night by phone call from reception asking me to please register the woman in my room. Explain there is no woman in my room. A couple of minutes later a soft knocking at the door and a slinky, expensively dressed female is there smiling at me. I explain to her as I had to the receptionist that there must be some mistake, and closed the door on her. About ten minutes later the phone rings again, this being reception telling me what I already knew, that there must have been a mistake. Finally, I get to sleep; strange dreams we need not go into here.

Back to the birding.

Well, if this is a cow and the white birds are egrets, my money is on them being cattle egrets

Got up early and loaded the car, which was on the other side of the Plaza. As I walked back a large bird crapped on my head – not too worried, as this is said to bring good luck. We’ll see.  Stomach and then petrol tank filled, I set off for the Mburucuyá National Park, to the west of the Iberá Reserve.

Roadside hawk, unsurprisingly a frequent sight by the roadside

I set off to torrential rain, with lightning crashing frighteningly all around the car, but after an hour or so it began to clear as I made my way around the bottom and then the left of the Iberá wetlands. Another glorious road for birding, with wetlands on either side full of birds, and I did stop for a couple of easy shots, but I wanted to get on to Mburucuyá National Park.

Female snail kite: lots of these flying low across the hedgerows and ditches

Which I did, entering the park on a difficult road, mostly loose sand but heavily rutted where service vehicles had passed in wet weather. It was a tough and very slow 30 km as I was in my rented Chevy Corsa, and as I was arriving at the park it began to rain. I couldn’t turn round as it was too narrow and rutted so I had no choice to go to the end where a ranger told me to get out quick as the granddaddy of storms was about to break.

Crab eating fox, shot through windscreen. Sadly going in the wrong direction

I did see two crab-eating foxes (yes, really) and a female pampas deer in all the rush but didn’t manage to get photos as they all disappeared before I could get a lens on them except this fox trotting away from me which I shot through the windscreen. Another reason for returning.

A yellow-headed caracara (Milvago chimachima) – a lifer for me

Discretion being the better half of valour and all that I turned the car round and started back. Hightailing it was out of the question, and in about ten minutes the storm broke: an electrical storm, even more frightening than earlier in the morning. Same road, except now the loose sand had turned to slippery mud. For once I had a reserve plan as I knew the ranger would be returning in a few hours but using all my skills and savvy (I wish!) I slid and slithered the 30 km or so back to the safety of the gravel road (ripio). Never have I been happier to see gravel road!

At which point, as if to make a point, the rain stopped and the sun came out so I spent a couple of hours driving and walking around the town‘s different entry and exit roads. Plenty to see there birdwise, and the National Park (which looked great, what I saw of it) can wait till a second visit.

Comical looking guaira cuckoos – they seem to be very sociable birds

My accommodation for tonight is a cabaña with room for five so looks like I screwed up on the booking but it’s very comfortable to rattle around in, with some acceptable beer in the fridge. Food can be phoned in, which I did because I was tired and didn’t feel like going out again. Lovely river fish with boiled cassava and potato in a herby sauce – vary tasty, followed by some unidentifiable crystalised tropical fruit.

Tomorrow to Ituzaingó, where I re-enter the Iberá Reserve at Cambyretá. Fingers crossed for better weather.

Trip through Northern Argentina and Paraguay – Day 8

24 August 2017 – Colonia Carlos Pelligrini to Mercedes – second mission achieved

Always plenty to look at on the roadside

Left C. Pelligrini after breakfast, spending ten minutes snapping some of the birds on the Lodge’s feeders. Typically the less common ones I had seen on previous mornings when they put out crumbs didn’t turn up this morning, but you see what you see.

A young howler monkey. The black fur is the adult male, whi was too concealed for me to get a shot.

Stopped off on the way out of C. Pelligrini at the trail where I had seen Mummy howler monkey yesterday, hoping I might see the (black) Daddy monkey today. In fact I did – he was with two younger monkeys – but almost impossible to photograph as he was so deeply embedded in the treetops. I did manage however to pick out a partial shot of one of the young ones with directed flash – not ideal, but recognisably a monkey.

The crazy tail of the very appropriately named strange-tailed tyrant

I drove very slowly for the first thirty km or so, as I was looking for a bird called the strange-tailed tyrant. I had a photo from a couple of days ago, but I wanted one that showed the tail a little better. Anyway, I was lucky enough to find another – or who knows, the same one (?) – and got a better shot. This is a rather special bird and people come here just to see it, also quite hard to see so I was doubly lucky. Very odd flight pattern – I first saw it flying really low across the road with its long, flapping tail making it look more like a weasel or mink than a bird, and then flitting around at ground level until finally settling for a while on a fence post where I was able to take a few shots.

Unusual shot of a chimango …

Further along the road saw lots of caranchos (which I’m not very fond of) and another couple of larger  birds that looked like raptors, and turned out to be.

… and what turned out to be a Savannah Hawk

Drove on to Mercedes, taking a few more shots along the way and arrived back at the same hotel about 15.30 where I managed to get F on Skype (I had been without any phone or internet for four days). Today – or what’s left of it – is a rest day, and hopefully a chance to post a few days’ worth of blog; tomorrow an early start for the Mburucuyá National Park.

Trip through Northern Argentina and Paraguay – Day 7

24 August 2017 – at Colonia Carlos Pelligrini – all quiet on the wetlands

Peace of the wetlands – marsh deer and young black eagle on a floating island

Slept well, the rooster apparently having decided to wake up others today. Good breakfast and off for a personal birding tour arranged by my hosts. These tours are part of the deal and are very good value as is my whole stay at the Ñande Retá lodge.

Yellow Cardinal, much sought but little seen

The first part of the tour was in search of a particular bird that has long eluded me (and others): the Yellow Cardinal. I’m not exactly a lister, but I do get a satisfaction out of seeing and photographing these ‘difficult’ species. My guide, Darío, knew where one ought to be – on the smallholding of a farmer he knew – and got me permission to enter this private land where not only did we see male and female of the species, but a few other birds to boot. The visit was enhanced by a pair of turkeys that followed us like dogs, copulating every time we stopped to take photos. Strange world the turkeys seem to live in.

Must be a turkey thing

Mission Yellow Cardinal completed, we headed to the other end of the settlement to walk a couple of trails, one through forest and another through reed beds. Not many birds here at all, but we were rewarded by the acrobatics of a [female] howler monkey, the largest monkey species in the Americas. I was told there is a small group of five here in C. Pelligrini – an adult pair and three juveniles –  but we only saw the one.

Female adult howler monkey, in pensive mood

The reed bed was more productive for birds but no new species here this morning, and I stopped in at the Information Centre to watch a short video on the history of the Iberá Reserve – started in the 1980s, with tourism starting only a few years ago.

The smallest of the three kingfishers in the area …

… and the medium size one

Back to the lodge at dusk for another shower and what has become my daily schedule of reviewing the day’s photos and making these short notes as a memory of what I do and see each day. Hopefully it will be acknowledged and appreciated in later years when I look back.

A couple more memories of the day:

Juvenile black eagle

Female Marsh deer

Tomorrow back to Mercedes along Paradise road, where I saw so much wild life on the way in to Iberá, and to some shops (C. Pelligrini is somewhat limited in that respect). And, importantly, to get back online for a while, load up these last three days to the blog and attend to some accumulated correspondence.

 

 

Trip through Northern Argentina and Paraguay – Day 6

23 August 2017 – at Colonia Carlos Pelligrini – away from it all

Image of the day – capybara rolled over to let this bird (one of several ‘cleaners’) do a bit of debugging. Symbiosis, anyone?

Slept very well, until woken by a particularly noisy rooster outside my chalet window, which was a change at least and a different kind of bird. Good breakfast accompanied by a bit of a drama as a neighbor back in the UK Whatsapped me that there had been nocturnal disturbances back home in Manchester and as I couldn’t get hold of F I was a bit worried throughout the day but it was eventually resolved and everything seems ok now.

The Chajá is known as the Southern Screamer in English – here’s why, perhaps

Took a morning launch out on the esteros again this morning – less dramatic than last night’s but fun all the same. Same lots of wildlife again, and got very close to some toothy yacaré (caiman) and lots of ridiculous looking capybara. Saw Marsh Deer too, and many birds (several lifers).

How do you photograph a coiled Yellow Anaconda concealed by reeds and grass? This one may well sleep for the next few weeks, as he seems to have his belly full.

Hot and sunny on the water, and ready for a long lunch – excellent food again – and then out with a reserve guide to see birds along the trails. Very hot, and a bad time of day for birding anyway, but it was good walking and talking and I learned quite a lot about the local wild life. Also saw a smaller deer, the Gray Brocket deer, both male and female – fairly close up as they didn’t seem that bothered.

Male Brocket Deer – with token horns that don’t look up to much

Female Brocket Deer

Back to the hotel for tea, siesta and dinner, more or less in that order, and to catch up with the blog, not to mention processing a large number of photos taken today. I had planned an early night, but there were so many photos to review that it didn’t quite work out that way.