Cotopaxi National Park: January 18-19, 2009

Since returning from Suriname, I've been seriously ill, moving ghost-like between home and work with nary a bird in between. After a cycle of antibiotics and many nights of twelve-hour sleep, I finally felt inspired to enjoy the bounty of birds that Ecuador offers. Happily, this coincided with a sunny Sunday morning, and my instincts led me to Cotopaxi National Park, home of some of the country's best highland birding as well as the world's tallest active volcano.

The obvious birding destination within the park is Laguna Limpiopungo, a shallow, marshy lake fed by rainwater runoff from Ruminahui, a rocky extinct volcanic crater looming nearby. These waters are home to a variety of ducks and shorebirds, and the surrounding paramo habitat holds a wide swath of highland specialties, including the Ecuadorian Hillstar, Noble Snipe, and Streaked-Backed Canastero. The views on a clear morning provide a birding backdrop that is simply unparalleled.

In my weakened condition, I only half circum-ambulated the lake, spending over an hour near one inlet tracking a pair of Grass Wrens through the clumps of paramo grass and following a female Ecuadorian Hillstar up the ridge. From this vantage point, I also spent some time scanning the lake for unusual migrants as well as the secretive Ecuadorian Rail. While I locked onto to the Blue-Winged Teal and the Yellow-Billed Pintail, there was little in the way of surprises.

Staking out a stand of Chuquiragua, a spiny shrub with thistle-like orange flowers, I observed a pair of male Ecuadorian Hillstars battle it out for the rights to the territory. These gorgeous purple-headed hummingbirds live at elevations of 4000m and sink into a deep state of torpor during the long nights of freezing temperatures; they're also one of the few Ecuadorian endemic species and shouldn't be missed on any birding trip to Ecuador.

I considered leaving after scanning the barren plains for the Paramo Ground Tyrant and coming up empty, but as the weather was still holding I decided to head around towards the east side of Cotopaxi, where I had been once before on an adventurous biking excursion. The road winds around the volcano passing through a series of strange conical hills, one of which is adorned with some pre-Incan ruins. Further along towards Laguna Santo Domingo there are several plains of lava, which are slowly being broken down by a variety of mosses and lichens. Near this area, a juvenile Carunculated Caracara let me approach within a few meters while it was picking for grubs or insects in the short grassy ground cover.

Just before arriving at the lake, I was startled by a large raptor flying in front of the car's path. Following it carefully with my binoculars, I watched it land on a distant boulder, where it perched along with its smaller companion. Finally, I had encountered the scarce and local Aplomado Falcon, a gorgeous and majestic raptor of the highlands. For the next hour, I watched the birds through my scope as they hawked the Plumbeous Sierra-Finch and other small birds in the igneous rocky plain. I was so smitten with this majestic pair of birds that I hardly noticed as a huge Variable Hawk rose into the air soaring in front of the jagged glacier of Cotopaxi.

With poor weather spiraling around the volcano from the south, I decided to head for home via the north entrance to the park. Having made this drive many times before, I had little trouble navigating through the maze of dirt tracks that bifurcate the plain; however, while passing by Sincholagua, a neighboring 5000m extinct volcano, I encountered a wide expanse of mud and in little time had bottomed out my Toyota Landcruiser. Still elated by the Aplomado Falcons, I went to work clearing the tires and pounding stones underneath for traction. Hours later, though, I was still stranded and forced to walk many kilometers to the park entrance for help. After a violent hailstorm and another failed attempt at liberating the car, I found myself stuck in the park on a Sunday night.

The following morning broke with beautiful clear weather, all the better for me to get sunburned in as I trekked all over the paramo looking for a campesino with a powerful enough tractor to pull my car from the mud. Many hours and kilometers later, I was finally behind the wheel again, not having damaged the car any more than scattering mud all over the interior. I left the park being bombarded by territorial Andean Lapwings, but not before I had glimpsed the Black-Winged Ground-Dove and Paramo Ground-Tyrant skittering about the arid expanse. It was more than I had bargained for perhaps, but a successful birding excursion nonetheless.

Notable birds seen: Andean Teal, Blue-Winged Teal, Yellow-Billed Pintail, Variable Hawk, Carunculated Caracara, Aplomado Falcon, Andean Coot, Andean Lapwing, Andean Gull, Black-Winged Ground-Dove, White-Collared Swift, Ecuadorian Hillstar, Black-Tailed Trainbearer, Stout-Billed Cinclodes, Bar-Winged Cinclodes, Tawny Antpitta, Paramo Ground-Tyrant, Brown-Backed Chat-Tyrant, Brown-Bellied Swallow, Grass Wren, Great Thrush, Plain-Colored Seedeater, Plumbeous Sierra-Finch.

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