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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cotopaxi National Park

Cotopaxi is the highest active volcano in the world

I arose this morning to a partly sunny day and decided to head out to Cotopaxi National Park, about  35 km outside of Quito. It is the most visited park in Ecuador but due to its size, 83,000 acres, it is easy to get away from the more popular areas.

Baird's Sandpiper (Calidris bairdii)
To get to Cotopaxi is fairly easy. Go south on the PanAmerican highway out of Quito until you reach the toll both. (cost is $1 per vehicle) Continue south past volcano Rumiñahui. You will ascend to about 11,000 feet and then start down the other side. Before you reach the base of this mountain you will encounter a sign on the left indicating the road to Cotopaxi. Travel on this dirt road about 6 km (4 miles) until you reach the ranger station. The park does not open until 8:00 AM so if you wish to enter earlier you will either have to camp in the park or stay at one of the lodges. From this point you will have to travel about another 10 km (6 miles) to Lake Limpiopungo. (There is another entrance to the park but you must travel through rural areas and the way is not well marked. I would not recommend this way on your first visit)

At the lake you will be at 3,600 meters or 12,000 feet about sea level. When I arrived I was greeted by a flock of Baird’s Sandpiper, a transient during the months of July through November. There were also Andean Gull, Andean Coot, and Andean Teal on the lake.

Grass Wren (Cistothorus platensis)
There is a pathway that circumnavigates the lake and is an easy hike. Along the route I encountered both Stout-billed and Bar-winged Cinclodes foraging through the marsh grass. There are Noble Snipe that hide among these grasses but I did not see any on this trip.

As you travel around the lake there will be a steep grade to your left with heavy vegetation. This is the home to many species of birds and can be very productive if you walk slowly and keep your eyes and ears open. As I walked along the path a Variable Hawk soared past me and headed out towards Cotopaxi. There were many Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant throughout the area and they sat on the tops of bushes posing for photos. As usual there were a lot of Plumbeous Sierra-Finch along the path, not being particularly afraid of visitors.

I encountered several Grass Wren along the path and had an opportunity to watch them and photograph them for extended periods of time. They are a cute little bird flitting from bush to bush and singing a beautiful little song. The weather maintained for the morning and this made for a very relaxing day.

In all I spotted about 15 different paramo birds this morning. They were:

Andean Coot, Andean Gull, Andean Lapwing, Andean Teal, Andean Tit-Spinetail, Baird's Sandpiper, Bar-winged Cinclode, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, Brown-bellied Swallow, Ecuadorian Hillstar, Grass Wren, Plane-colored Seedeater, Plumbeous Sierra-Finch, Stout-billed Cinclode, Variable Hawk

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Milpe Bird Sanctuary

Red-headed Barbet (Eubucco bourcierii)

I had not visited Milpe Bird Sanctuary in about a month so I decided to make a trip down to see if there were any migrants passing through. MPS is one of the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation properties located just south of the town of Mindo.

I got up early so that I could get to the reserve at a decent hour. It is about a 2-hour drive from my house, or about 1 ½ hours from Quito. From the city you travel north past Mitad del Mundo, the monument and park marking the equator. You will pass Pululahua, a dormant volcano which I will report on in a later blog. After passing through the town of Calacalí you will stop at a tollbooth. ($.80 per car). The only major town you will pass through will be Nanegallita where you can pick up some snacks for your trip. Continue past the turnoff to the town of Mindo (Km 78) until you see the Km 91 marker. Watch closely on the right for a bus stop and a sign that indicates the road to Milpe Bird Sanctuary. Travel .7 km on this road until you reach the entrance to the reserve on your right.

Rufous Motmot (Baryphthengus martii)
I arrived at MPS around 6:30, sunrise in this part of the world. The gate to the reserve was closed but I was greeted by a small pup followed shortly by Luis Yanez, the manager of the sanctuary.  Luis and his family live in a small house on the property and he is always happy to receive visitors.

When you enter the reserve you will see several buildings housing the registration office, gift shop and restaurant. Behind the office there is an area set up as a feeding center for tanagers and in front of the restaurant there are several hummingbird feeders. They have just recently installed some special lighting to attract butterflies. Entrance to the park is $6, regardless of nationality.

Upon entering, Luis asked me if I would like him to put out some plantain to attract the tanagers. I nodded approval as I prepared my equipment for the day. Immediately you could hear the trees come alive with activity in anticipation of the morning feast. When I reached the feeding area there were already several birds attacking the breakfast snacks. In attendance were Blue-necked, Flame-faced, Blue-gray, Lemon-rumped, Golden, Palm, Silver-throated, and White-lined tanagers. In addition there were Thick-billed Euphonia, Black-winged Saltator, and both Black-cheeked and Golden-olive Woodpeckers. To add just a little extra splash of color a Red-headed Barbet joined the feast. Meanwhile a Rufous Motmot watched from a safe distance.

After spending some time watching the breakfast activity I decided to head out onto the Manakin Trail, one of many trails that navigate the reserve. The paths through the park are well maintained and could be ranked as easy to moderate. Some of them travel down to the river and can be a little strenuous on the return trip. A good pair of hiking boots would be recommended for the trip.

Pale-mandibled Araçari (Pteroglossus erythropygius)
There is a Club-winged Manakin lek at the reserve and today it was active. There were several males doing their song and dance in the trees; a very entertaining display for me and hopefully for the females. It was a pleasure to see them back as I had not observed this ritual since a trip I made in February. After watching for several minutes I continued along the path to see what else was happening.

Along the way I encountered a Pale-mandibled Araçari feeding on fruit about 7 meters above my head. He did not appear to mind my presence as I took some photos and moved around below him. He was enjoying a breakfast of bananas and berries from many trees that are present throughout the reserve.
Also along the path I spent some time watching a White-whiskered Hermit enjoying the nectar from the flower of a banana plant. His long decurved bill was easily penetrating the blossom to reach the treasure hidden inside.

A few hours later I again arrived at the entrance. Here I observed the hummingbird feeders for a while, seeing if there were any that I had not observed on my previous visits. Today it was mostly a combination of Green Thorntail, Green-crowned brilliant, Rufous-tailed hummingbirds and White-whiskered Hermits. There was, of course, a couple of Bananquits that are always anxious to share the booty with the hummers.

At about 12:30 PM the clouds were starting to roll in and I decided it was time to make my way back to Quito. It was a good day for birding and I was able to observe well over 30 species in my short visit. Here is a list of what I encountered on this short day-trip to Milpe Bird Sanctuary:

Bananaquit, Black-Cheeked Woodpecker, Black-Winged Saltador, Blackburnian_Warbler, Blue-Gray Tanager, Blue-Necked Tanager, Cinnamon Becard, Club-Winged Manakin, Common Tody-flycatcher, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Ecuadorian Thrush, Flame-Faced_Tanager, Golden Tanager, Golden-Olive Woodpecker, Golden-winged Manakin, Great Thrush, Green Honeycreeper, Green Thorntail, Green-Crowned Brilliant, Lemon-Rumped Tanager, Lemon-Rumped Tanager, Orange-Bellied Euphonia, Orange-billed Sparrow, Ornate Flycatcher, Pale-Mandibled Aracari, Palm Tanager, Red-headed Barbet, Rufous-Collared_Sparrow, Rufous-Tailed Hummingbird, Rufus Motmot, Silver-Throated Tanager, Squirrel Cuckoo, Thick-Billed Euphonia, Tropical Kingbird, White-Lined Tanager, White-Whiskered Hermit

Monday, September 13, 2010

Papallacta Pass Revisited

Volcano Antisana as viewed from Papallacta Pass
I looked out my window this morning and saw that the mountians were clear to the East so I decided to go back up to Papallacta Pass. We have been having some beautiful clear days this week which has made it great for birding at the higher elevations.

When I arrived at the pass there was no one at the entrance so I went on up towards the antennas. On the way up I met the ranger who told me that he had spotted some deer up near one of the lakes. Unfortunately they were gone when I arrived so I had a little disappointment, but not for long.

Stout-billed Cinclode (Cinclodes excelsior)
There was a lot of bird activity this morning, especially from the Stout-billed Cinclodes and the  Paramo Ground–Tyrants. They were everywhere. The Cinclodes were searching for food in holes that they had burrowed in the sides of the hill. They were popping in and out of these kitchens all the way up the mountain.

It was also a great morning for seeing raptors. I watched Black-chested Buzzard-eagles, Variable Hawks, Carunculated Caracara, and White-throated Hawks soar over the mountains. You could see the major snow-capped volcanoes in the background; Antisana, Cotopaxi and Ilanisas. It was a beautiful day.

Brown-bellied Swallow (Orochelidon murina)
The highlight of the morning was when four Noble Snipe took off from the lake and flew past me and over the hill. I couldn’t have asked for a better morning for birding.

In all I saw about 16 different species of birds in the couple hours I spent at the pass. They were:

Andean Tit-Spinetail, Bar-winged Cinclode, Black Flowerpiercer, Black-chested Buzzard-eagle, Blue-mantled Thornbill, Brown-bellied Swallow, Carunculated Caracara, Ecuadorian Hillstar, Great Thrush, Many-striped Canastero, Noble Snipe, Paramo Ground-tyrant, Plumbeous Sierra-Finch, Rufous-collared Sparrow, Stout-billed Cinclode, White-Throated Hawk,

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Yanacocha Reserve

Spectacled Whitestart (Myioborus melanocephalus)
Yesterday I made a trip up to Yanacocha Reserve, about an hour outside of Quito. (Lat: 0 06’ 42”, Lon: 78 35’ 05”, Alt: 3,500 m) If you are traveling on a budget you will have to spend a little extra cash to get there as transportation from the main road is a must. A bus can take you to the lower entrance, but from that point you have a 10 km hike to the Reserve.

From Quito you would go north on Ave. Mariscal Sucre until you see a sign that indicates the Ecoroute to Nono and Tandayapa. The name of this street is Machala. It is 8.5 km from Mariscal Sucre until you reach the road to Yanacocha. About half way you will run out of paved road but the way is well marked. About 300 yards before you get to the road to Yanacocha you will come across a couple of stop-lights that seem to be out of place as they are in the middle of no-where. The entrance road to Yanacocha is well marked.

It is 10 km from the road to Nono up to the reserve. However, take some time to bird this area as there are many species that are active along the way. Once you get to the ranger station you will have to pay a fee of $10 for foreigners, $3 for locals and $2 for children. If you get there early and there is no one there you can enter the reserve and pay on your return. There is only one way in and out.

Most people come to Yanacocha because it is one of the few spots in the world where you can see the rare Black-breasted Puffleg. They are most prevalent in April – August. However, there is such a diversity of birds in this area it is a great place to visit at any time.

Turquoise Jay (Cyanolyca turcosa)
When I arrived the sun was shining and I had the reserve to myself. I recommend getting there early as the clouds will start rolling in early afternoon and once they are covering the mountain it is difficult to see much of anything. The temperature was about 8 degrees C (46 F) but the sun kept me plenty warm.

Turquoise Jay were very active this morning and they were a beautiful sight as they played around in the trees. There were also a lot of Scarlet-bellied Mountain-tanager as well as Black, Glossy, and Masked Flowerpiercers. To add a little more color I came across a flock of Spectacled Whitestart, about 10 of them.

As you go down the main path you will come across some side trails that lead down the mountain. This morning I decided to take the Masked Trogon Trail. If you take one of these paths keep in mind that you are at 3,500 meters above sea level and whatever goes down these trails must come back up.

Along the path I encountered some more Turquoise Jays squawking their heads off. As I was taking pictures of a female Barred Fruit-eater a Buff-winged Starfrontlet decided to check me out. It flew down to within a few centimeters from the front of my lens and looked at it first. Then it came to within 30 cm of my face and just stared me in the eye, daring me to move. I stood perfectly still while he then went around the back of me to check me out further, coming back around to the front and looked at me again as to say “Don’t mess with me” and then he flew off. It was kind a fascinating and scary at the same time since hummingbirds can be very territorial and aggressive when some one gets too close.

After a little more time along this trail I decided to return to the main path and head back to the refuge where they have several hummingbird feeders. On the way I came to a large mixed flock of White-banded and Black-capped Tyrannulet. After spending a little time taking pictures I moved on and found that there was a lot of activity at the feeders. Ecuadorian Hillstar, Great Sapphirewing, Sapphire-vented Puffleg, and Sword-billed Hummingbird, just to mention a few, were busy trying to get their place in line.

Sapphire-vented Puffleg (Eriocnemis luciani)/Buff-winged Starfrontlet (Coeligena lutetiae)
After about a half hour at the feeders the clouds started rolling in and I decided it was time to head back to the ranger station. Along the way I stopped to watch an Andean Guan try to hide in the trees. They are a very skittish bird but they make so much noise trying to hide from you that it is funny.

I arrived back at the ranger station to see a Tawny Antpitta feeding on some seed nearby. All-in-all I spent about 4 hours at the reserve. It was a productive morning. Following is a list of the birds that I encountered:

Andean Guan, Barred Fruiteater, Black-capped Tyrannulet, Black-tailed Trainbearer, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, Ecuadorian Hillstar, Glossy Flowerpiercer, Golden-crowned Tanager, Great Sapphirewing , Masked Flowerpiercer, Mountain Velvetbreast, Purple-backed Thornbill, Rufous Wren, Sapphire-vented Puffleg, Scarlet-bellied Mountain-tanager, Spectacled Whitestart, Sword-billed Hummingbird, Tawny Antpitta, Turquoise Jay, White-banded Tyrannulet, Yellow-breasted Brush-finch

Friday, September 3, 2010

Papallacta Pass

This past week I paid a visit to Papallacta Pass. If traveling from Quito you would go east through Cumbaya, Tumbaco and Pifo, finally heading up into the mountain pass. The government has done a fairly good job of erecting signs indicating the way to this area. The drive will take about an hour. There are several busses that frequent this road and for the budget traveler you can get to the pass for less than five dollars, US.

When you get to the top of the mountain you will encounter a large Welcome sign (Bienvenidos). At this point you will see a small gravel road that goes off to the left. There is a fork in this road, the left fork going back down hill and the right fork heading up to the antennas and entrance to the Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve. About 300 meters from the main road on the right fork you will encounter a gate and a ranger station. If there should be someone at the station you might have to pay a small fee to enter the park.

When visiting this area you need to keep in mind that you will be in the cloud-forest and the chances of getting a clear day are not in your favor. The pass itself is at about 4,100 meter (13,600 ft) above sea level. You will need to dress for the weather and climate. Layer your clothing to keep warm and take rain poncho or rain jacket to protect you from the elements.

Tawny-Antpitta (Grallaria hypoleuca)
On the day that I visited the weather was particularly ugly. The temperature was about 3 degrees C. (36 F). There was a misty rain mixed with snow and sleet. This was the kind of day that only birders and fisherman could appreciate.

I decided to take the left fork first, an area that is generally missed by tourists. The road is fairly good and easily walked. There are a number of small ponds along the road that attract Andean Teal and Torrent Ducks. Here I encounter some Tawny Antpitta and Stout-billed Cinclode. A Variable Hawk passed overhead as well as an Andean Gull. The birds were quite active but the weather conditions prevented me from taking many photos. I saw several Rufus Wren along the road. (Lat. 0 19' 20", Lon: 78 12' 41")

Bar-winged Cinclode (Cinclodes fuscus)
I spent about an hour along this road and then decided to head up to the antennas. (Lat: 0 19' 16", Lon: 78 11' 16", Alt: 4350 m) The road there was a little rougher and the wind was much stronger. The snow actually came down pretty heavy at times. But this did not stop the birds from being active. Here I encountered some Andean Teal in a small pond but the clouds were too heavy to get any decent photos. Caught a glimpse of a Noble Snipe but he didn't stick around for long. As the clouds got heavier it was becoming too difficult to spot much of anything. I stayed for a few minutes and then started back down the hill. When I got back to the ranger station I had to get out of my car to open the gate and there was a Bar-winged Cinclode searching the grass next to my vehicle. I was able to get a few photos of him as he hopped off. He was not particularly afraid of me as he went about his business.

I did not spend a lot of time at the pass on this day but I plan on returning when it is a little clearer. I would like to explore the lower fork a little more as there were a lot of birds in this area. I can see the mountains from my bedroom window in Quito and I have been watching for a clear morning. The first one that I see I will head back up to the pass for a better look.


Yellow-breasted Antpitta (Grallaria flavotincta)
I have been living in Ecuador for the past 10 years and have had the opportunity to visit many areas where casual visitors seldom travel. Some of these areas have proven to be very productive for birding. In this blog I hope to visit these out-of-the-way areas, as well as some of the more well known birding locations, and record what other visitors might hope to encounter. I will include directions on how to reach these areas (with GPS coordinates), the fauna that one would expect to see and observations during my visit. I hope that this blog will prove to be a benefit to travelers to Ecuador as well as an encouragement to visit this beautiful country.