Monday, March 10, 2014

Birding Lake Llaviucu, Ecuador

Lake Llaviucu lies at the lowest edge of Cajas National Park––at a mere 10,000 feet!––and is ringed by a lovely, well-maintained trail, perfect for easy hiking. The trail traverses marshy grassland, mature montane cloud forest, and some secondary forest––and is the abode of spectacular mountain tanagers. Tapaculos and spinetails scold from the thickets. You can easily spend a leisurely morning exploring, although many hikers take only an hour or so to make the loop.

When we enter the park, the guard gives us a beautifully-illustrated handout of Cajas's most common birds. If only all the parks offered this! Most of the species we see are included, and it makes sorting through Ecuador's 1600+ species of birds considerably easier for do-it-yourselfers, who enjoy figuring out their own birds. The illustrations by Eduardo Jaime Arias really do give a good grasp of the various expected species. Cajas ranks as an Important Bird Area of international status.

The upper, marshy region of Lake Llaviucu in Cajas National Park 
(Photos by Narca)

A short distance from the upper parking area, the road leads to the lake itself: a gem of blue, serene, filling the valley. The ruins of an old brewery are along the near shore, and here the road intersects the trail that loops around the lake.

Red Angel Trumpet (Brugmansia sanguinea)

Stunning Red Angel Trumpet flowers proclaim the possibility of seeing a Sword-billed Hummingbird, a bird whose bill is longer than all the rest of its body!

We don't––this time––but do see Rainbow Starfrontlets, Tyrian Metaltails, Mountain Velvetbreasts, and lots of Sparkling Violet-ears. Hummingbirds of every size, color, and bill shape are one of Ecuador's premier glories.

Female Rainbow Starfrontlet

A little female Tyrian Metaltail (sorry not to be showing you the two males!)

We linger on the raised boardwalk, watching the hummers and flowerpiercers as they work the blooms around us, and listening to invisible Ecuadorian Rails at the lake's margin. Yellow-billed Pintails, Andean Teal, and Andean (Ruddy) Ducks join the Andean Coots in the open water. An Andean Gull nests at the lake's edge. These names seem to have a theme....

Deeper in the forest, we encounter a very fun foraging flock, featuring Turquoise Jays, Streaked Tuftedcheeks (rummaging in the bromeliads), Spectacled Whitestarts, Russet-crowned Warblers, Rufous-chested Tanagers, and––here's a name for you!––Superciliaried Hemispingus. (If, like us, you're wondering just what is a half-a-spingus, apparently the word comes from the Greek spingos, meaning finch. An eye-browed half-finch, perhaps?)

Turquoise Jays are a rich and unearthly shade of blue.

Rufous-collared Sparrow, a quintessential Andean bird, is common. This sparrow is closely related to our White- and Golden-crowned Sparrows. Some years ago, a study showed that Rufous-collared Sparrows retain the ability to respond to changing periods of daylight, like their migratory northern kin, even though much of their range lies within the tropics, where they aren't much exposed to that cue, and don't stage big migrations. Their genus evolved in the temperate north.

A handsome, confiding Rufous-collared Sparrow

The Great Thrush is another relative of a familiar species, our American Robin. It is likewise common, and indeed it is very great, being half again as big as our robins.

Female Great Thrush; the male sports a jaunty yellow eye-ring

In addition to birds, Brazilian Cottontails live along the lake margins. This rabbit has an enormous range, extending from eastern Mexico into northern Argentina, and through most of Brazil.

Brazilian Cottontail

After thoroughly savoring the alpine surrounds, we head farther south in the afternoon. This trip will eventually take us to the very border of Peru––to Podocarpus National Park, to the remote Cordillera del Condor, and to three of the fabled Jocotoco Reserves. I hope you enjoy the ride!

Finding Lake Llaviucu:
Beginning at the major roundabout in Cuenca where Avenida de las Americas meets the Gran Colombia (= Avenida Ordoñes Lazo beyond the traffic circle, to the west), go west out of Cuenca toward Cajas National Park and Guayaquil. After almost 13 km, you'll see an obscure (but signed) road on the left, plunging downhill from the highway. That's it! The road is narrow and cobbled, traversing two covered bridges over a stream, and passing dairy farms, before reaching the border of the national park after about a mile (1.6 km). Entry to Ecuador's national parks is now free, although you'll need to register at the gate, and hours of entry at the lake are limited from about 8 AM to 4 PM.

For reaching the higher elevations of Cajas National Park, just stay on the main highway to Guayaquil. This road is open 24 hours a day.

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