Huascarán National Park, Peru: July 6-9, 2009

Second only to the Himalayas, the Cordillera Blanca is an awesome spectacle of glacier-spackled fan-shaped and pyramidal peaks. A hallowed destination for climbers, trekkers, and general nature enthusiasts, Huascarán National Park is also a worthy site for birders as it protects thousands of hectares of puna, paramo, and polylepis forest habitat, all of which abound with endemic bird species of the high Andes. Using the Lazy Dog Inn, located about 8km east of Huaráz, as a very comfortable base of operations, I spent the better part of four days birding arid montane scrub, polylepis forest, and puna grasslands, while Aimee fought off a cold and doggedly continued her research for the next LP Peru guide.

With many hours of birding experience in the highlands of Ecuador, I was immediately pleased to encounter a plethora of new bird species inhabiting the familiar-looking arid montane scrub surrounding the inn: Mountain Caracaras posed sentinel-like on boulders, Plain-Breasted Earthcreepers poked about in the dry earth, and endemic Black Metaltails darted around the flowering shrubs. Within a short time though, I was confronted with one of the toughest identification challenges in the Peruvian Andes, trying to distinguish between the twelve species of ground-tyrants. These terrestrial flycatchers are bewilderingly similar and many species are sympatric, making identification very difficult, especially without the use of audio. While, the Rufous-Naped Ground-Tyrant was relatively easy to pick out, I no doubt encountered several other species during my stay, including perhaps the White-Fronted and Plain-Capped Ground-Tyrants.

From the Lazy Dog Inn, there are two outstanding day hikes possible, both leading up into the cordillera over a thousand meters through immense canyons to different moraine lakes. I spent three full days on the Llaca hike, which first passes through a huge stand of polylepis forest and then puna grassland, and one day on the Cojup hike which is noticeably more degraded in terms of habitat but follows a delightful rushing river. Both hikes are pretty strenuous, and I never actually made it to either of the lakes, which are bordered by towering, glaciered peaks. Indeed, the cordillera provides an impressively wild backdrop to any birding excursion here, giving birders a powerful sense of there being much more to explore and learn beyond the modest site they're birding.

Lurking in the polylepis forests of the Cordillera Blanca are several outstanding endemic bird species, including the White-Cheeked Cotinga, Plain-Tailed Warbling-Finch, and Ancash Tapaculo. The closest forest, the stand on the Llaca hike, is almost two hour's strenuous walking away, though, unless you arrange for transport. As taxis aren't readily available from the inn, I spent many hours trudging back and forth, sweating profusely on the way up and getting blinded on the way down by the late afternoon sun; however, this gave me good opportunities to clean up on the scrub birds, including the colorful Peruvian Sierra-Finch, the endemic Rufous-Backed Inca-Finch, and the strongly dimorphic Andean Hillstar. I also had my best looks at the Stripe-Headed Antpitta here, which behaved much like the Tawny Antpitta further north as it moved about in the open between shrubs.

As any birder who has visited the high Andes knows, polylepis forest grows at or above tree line in small patches in natural recesses such as ravines or gorges. This genus of slow-growing trees and shrubs is characterized by its small leaves and papery red bark. Given that it is the only source of firewood near most high Andean indigenous communities, the polylepis habitat and its accompanying fauna are severely threatened, making it a very desirable habitat to visit for birders in South America. Several bird specialists have adapted to this unique habitat, including the fancy Giant Conebill and the miniscule Tit-Like Dacnis, both birds expert at foraging for insects in the various hiding places created by these unique trees. Indeed, the Giant Conebill, perhaps my favorite bird of the high Andes, is quite adept at peeling back the bark of the tree as it searches out its prey.

My primary target bird during the tree days that I birded this particular grove of polylepis was the White-Cheeked Cotinga, which I never had sight or sound of. Still, I ran across several other excellent birds, including on one occasion a flock of noisy Plain-Tailed Brush-Finches and on another a solitary Ancash Tapaculo near a shaded rivulet. Other Peruvian endemics species seen regularly in this forest included Rusty-Crowned Tit-Spinetail, Rufous-Eared Brush-Finch, and Striated Earthcreeper. The two polylepis specialists described above were rather common, most notably the Giant Conebill, which I saw frequently here and had only seen on one occasion in Ecuador. Fast-moving hummingbirds included the Giant Hummingbird, Blue-Mantled Thornbill, Black-Tailed Trainbearer, Andean Hillstar, Black Metaltail, and Shining Sunbeam, although a few individuals perched long enough for me to sneak a photograph or two.

One afternoon, I continued beyond the forest towards the lake, passing through open flowering fields and puna habitat. A soaring Variable Hawk, the dark morph of what was previously known as the Puna Hawk, alerted me to the presence of a flock of Andean Flickers foraging on the exposed slope above the trail; suddenly a dozen of these large, colorful woodpeckers where swooping past me into the forest on the other side of the gorge, making a terrible racket all the way. Eventually, I caught up with these charismatic terrestrial woodpeckers as they regrouped in a field of boulders, almost clownish with their bold white-striped mantle, bold yellow eyes, and thick gray moustache. The flicker is known only in extreme southeastern Ecuador in the remote Cordillera Las Lagunillas, an isolated habitat which steals away a handful of Peruvian near endemics, but can be found in Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina as well.

Other puna inhabitants that I encountered on the upper part of this hike and nowhere else included the White-Winged Cinclodes, White-Winged Diuca-Finch, and Thick-Billed Siskin. Also noteworthy was a bizarre-looking mammal, something like a cross between a rabbit and a squirrel, that moved cautiously about the rocky fields. The viscacha is a rodent in the chinchilla family and is supposedly quite common in the Cordillera Blanca, although I imagine people hunt it when they can. On this afternoon, I also learned another lesson of the high Andes that I should know well enough by now. Although the morning had been clear and sunny like previous mornings, the clouds had gathered by midday, and I was soaking wet before I arrived back at the inn, having neglected to bring along my rain jacket and umbrella. Never take an excursion without these items, no matter how short or how promising the weather.

On the day I made the Chulpi hike I saw little of note that was new, appreciating instead a different landscape and a new set of snow-covered ridges to admire. It was one of my goals this morning to make more sense of the tit-spinetail identification issue, there being several species of tit-spinetails in the cordillera, each composed of various races with different field markings. With great effort, I managed to figure out that I had been observing primarily the cajabambae race of the endemic Rusty-Crowned Tit-Spinetail, but that I had also noted the Andean Tit-Spinetail and the more obvious Tawny Tit-Spinetail in the polylepis forest.

As distinguishing between obscure furnariids isn't exactly my idea of a good time, I was relieved to encounter the dashing Torrent Duck along the rushing river adjacent to the trail. A dripping-wet male was posed above the rapids on a rock as I scrambled to set up my camera, but it was submerged before I was ready to fire away. These delightful, dimorphic ducks are one of South America's best birds, and I was thrilled to find them in the spectacular Cordillera Blanca, although at 4000m I was more than a little surprised to encounter them here. Although I relocated the same individual many meters down stream later in the afternoon, I never managed a good photograph as the duck is remarkably wary and spends a good deal of time underwater.

Visitors to the Cordillera Blanca typically take multi-day guided treks past the many famous peaks. I've heard great things from other travelers, but they've had their share of complaints as well: not enough food provided, crowded trails on the main circuits, and plenty of cow pies marring the landscape. Independent birders visiting the region might enjoy one of these guided treks, but I'm not sure I would trade my rewarding experience at the Lazy Dog Inn for anything. If you're interested in birding the cordillera and not ambitious enough to join a trekking group, I'd strongly recommend staying outside of Huaráz at one of the hostels closer to the mountains; otherwise, private day trips to the various lakes will run near a hundred dollars a day, and transport back and forth will take away from your time birding.

Notable birds seen: Torrent Duck, Mountain Caracara, American Kestrel, Variable Hawk, Andean Lapwing, Giant Hummingbird, Blue-Mantled Thornbill, Black-Tailed Trainbearer, Andean Hillstar, Black Metaltail, Shining Sunbeam, Andean Flicker, Many-Striped Canastero, Plain-Breasted Earthcreeper, Striated Earthcreeper, White-Winged Cinclodes, Rusty-Crowned Tit-Spinetail, Andean Tit-Spinetail, Tawny Tit-Spinetail, Bar-Winged Cinclodes, Ancash Tapaculo, Stripe-Headed Antpitta, White-Browed Chat-Tyrant, Rufous-Webbed Tyrant, Rufous-Naped Ground-Tyrant, Plain-Capped Ground-Tyrant, White-Fronted Ground-Tyrant, D'Orbigny's Chat-Tyrant, Black-Billed Shrike-Tyrant, White-Throated Tyrannulet, Black-Crested Warbler, Sedge Wren, Mountain Wren, Cinerous Conebill, Giant Conebill, Black-Throated Flowerpiercer, Tit-Like Dacnis, Rufous-Eared Brush-Finch, Plain-Tailed Warbling-Finch, Rufous-Backed Inca-Finch, Thick-Billed Siskin, Hooded Siskin, Plumbeous Sierra-Finch, Peruvian Sierra-Finch, Ash-Breasted Sierra-Finch, White-Winged Diuca-Finch, Greenish-Yellow Finch.

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