As a study in contrast, Aimee and I decided to head out to Cotopaxi National Park this morning before leaving tomorrow for Sacha Lodge located in the eastern lowlands on the lower Napo River. What better way to appreciate Ecuador's great diversity of bird species than seeing Tawny Antpittas at 4000m one morning and Thrush-Like Antpittas at 400m the next? What started as a warm-up run turned into a birding trip in its own right though, as we stumbled onto some excellent new habitat for us within the park.
I had seen La Cueva del Buho on an old map of the park once, but when I had asked the guard about it he was vague about where it was located and what owls were once seen there (I imagine the Great-Horned Owl). It turns out not to be much of a cave at all but a relatively deep gorge starting just at the base of Volcán Cotopaxi and heading northwest into the open plain. For several hours this morning we birded up this ravine searching for roosting owls in the steep cliffs while enjoying the high level of bird activity below in the protected paramo shrub habitat. Ecuadorian Hillstar, Black-Tailed Trainbearer, Many-Striped Canastero, Black-Billed Shrike-Tyrant, Brown-Backed Chat-Tyrant, Tawny Antpitta, and Andean Tit-Spinetail were all in abundance, among others.
At one point ignoring some noisy Plain-Tailed Seedeaters nearby, I turned back impulsively and looked up towards the sky out of the gorge: a low-flying male Andean Condor was soaring along, banking just slightly so we could make out the white on its upper wings as well as its clearly defined white collar. A few minutes later we saw the bird probably a thousand meters higher in the air as it glided back to the north towards Antisana Reserve flying directly above the impressive glacier of Cotopaxi. Aimee and I are practically becoming condor magnets, as this was the seventh occasion now that I had witnessed one in the highlands.
Less impressive, but a first for me, was hearing the Streak-Backed Canastero a few minutes later, which responded enthusiastically to playback by flying back and forth over the gorge. Eventually, I climbed up the walls to get a better look at it, when the bird finally flew down inside the ravine. While Aimee had great eye-level views from below, I photographed it from above catching from a distance the striking black streaking on its back. Strangely, the Many-Striped Canasteros in the area were responding to the Streak-Backed Canastero's call, which made for a nice comparison of these closely related but distinct birds.
Afterward, we drove to Laguna Limpiopungo which is a more typical birding site within the park and also a popular place for general tourists. Walking towards the back side of the lake, we watched as storm clouds gathered around Rumiñahui threatening rain; however, this was finally our time to track down the Noble Snipe, I had decided. With new signs demarcating the trail around the lake, I didn't want to set a bad example to the other tourists by marching through the swampy grass, so we waited patiently until the area cleared of people. By then it had started to hail violently driving everyone back to their cars, so I ventured forth into the marsh, observed now only by Aimee and some Andean Teal. It didn't take but a few minutes, and a few precarious steps toward the reeds, to flush the Noble Snipe, which rose into the air and circled the area dramatically before resettling in some nearby grass. Definitely unique from the Andean Snipe, this bird's upper wings were dark, almost black, and the short white tail was fanned and rufous-tipped in flight. Turning back I flushed several more snipe as Aimee watched from the shelter of some Chuquiragua shrubs, taking some photographs through the hail.
At that point, we had little choice but to walk all they way back to the car in the storm, soaking ourselves in an attempt to keep the optical equipment dry.
Notable birds seen: Blue-Winged Teal, Andean Ruddy Duck, Yellow-Billed Pintail, Andean Condor, American Kestrel, Carunculated Caracara, Greater Yellowlegs, Noble Snipe, Black-Winged Ground-Dove, Black-Tailed Trainbearer, Ecuadorian Hillstar, Andean Tit-Spinetail, Many-Striped Canastero, Streak-Backed Canastero, Stout-Billed Cinclodes, Tawny Antpitta, Black-Billed Shrike-Tyrant, Brown-Backed Chat-Tyrant, Cinerous Conebill, Black Flowerpiercer, Plain-Colored Seedeater.