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Ecuador 2010: Cotopaxi

November 5, 2010

Ecuador has long been one of my favourite destinations, with its friendly people, spectacular scenery and simply mind-boggling natural diversity.  Since I’m used to birding in Canada, a huge country with about 600 bird species within its borders; it’s difficult for me to comprehend tiny Ecuador being home to over 1600 bird species.  And well over 100 of them are hummingbirds!  I’d travelled to Ecuador three times before, leading natural history tours and teaching a field ecology course, but I’d never been there just on holiday.  So when my wife Marg and I began thinking of places to get away this fall, Ecuador rose to the top of the list fairly quickly.

Cotopaxi is the highest active volcano on earth (5,897 m / 19,347 ft)

We decided to keep it simple—two weeks away and staying at only three places for the most part, so that we could get to know the regions better.  We had to stay in Quito, of course, coming and going, but it’s a nice city as cities go.  And we added a night near Cotopaxi, just because I like Cotopaxi and wanted to go there with Marg.  So the plans solidified—a couple of nights in the high Andes, six nights in the west-side subtropics  and five nights on the east side of the Andes.

Limpiopungo, a rich alpine lake at the foot of Cotopaxi

Our day in Quito was perhaps typical of the first days of many trips after 30 hours of flying and airports.  We strolled through Parque El Ejido a little groggily, perhaps a bit tipsy from the altitude (Quito is over 9000 feet elevation), but happy to see the Eared Doves, Great Thrushes (think of a very big, all-grey, American Robin) and Black-tailed Trainbearers.  The latter are a fine introduction to the amazing hummingbird diversity of Ecuador—tiny green bundles of energy trailing a ridiculously long tail.

Andean Lapwing

The following morning we were more energized, and after picking up our rental car we headed south to visit Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in the world. The high Andes of Ecuador are dominated by two parallel ranges of stunning, snow-capped volcanoes:  Cayembe, Pichincha, Rumiñahui, Illiniza, Antisana, Tungurahua and more.  But the two peaks that have long been tucked away in the romantic travel centre of my brain are Cotopaxi and Chimborazo, mainly because of an old poem that was in our family repertoire when I was a boy.  Something about “Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, took me by the hand…”. Chimborazo has another highest-peak honour—because it is the highest mountain near the equator, and because the earth has a slight bulge centred on the equator, Chimborazo can rightfully claim to be the highest point on the planet, or at least the farthest point from the centre of the earth.

Andean Gull

But I digress, we were going to Cotopaxi.  And running into trouble because of the confusing way Ecuadorian highways seem to lack important signs at critical points.  Such as the junction of two of the country’s major highways, where the entrance to the Pan-American highway slips by looking like a laneway to nowhere.  So we ended up taking the scenic route to Cotopaxi, but it was a sunny day and the snow-covered cone beckoned us as we poked along behind slow trucks through the farmland of the central valley.  A short while after rejoining the Pan-American Highway, we turned off to the east and entered Cotopaxi National Park.  The lower slopes of the volcano are forested in exotic pines, most of them Monterey pines.  There are no native pines south of Nicaragua in the Americas, but Monterey pines have been used to reforest huge areas of the mountains of tropical America, and indeed the tropics and subtropics around the world.  It is unfortunate that the tremendous diversity of these warmer climes has been substantially reduced by deforestation and subsequent replanting with a monoculture of foreign trees.  Their partners in crime in this situation are eucalyptus trees, which are also common throughout the highlands of Ecuador (and central America, and Africa, …).

Chuquiraga jussieui

 Clouds were beginning to slide across the blue sky, but we managed a few pictures of Cotopaxi’s summit before it was obscured.  I was happy at that, since after three visits this was the first time I’d seen its peak at close quarters.  We paid our park fee at the entrance and began to climb out of the pines into the true paramo, the treeless ecosystem of the high Andes.  Large clumps of grass were interspersed with shrubs, some with clusters of white daisy-like flowers, others with spike of bright orange blooms.  The latter were the chuquiraga, the favourite nectar source for the Ecuadorian Hillstar.  I really wanted to see a hillstar, not only because they are a beautiful bird, but because they are a quintessentially tropical bird living in a harsh, cool, and sometimes even snowy environment.  Canadian hummingbirds miss out on snow by migrating south to Mexico for the winter, but hillstars actually go into torpor (basically short-term hibernation) for days or even weeks when cold weather hits the Andes.

We parked the little car at Limpiopungo, a small marshy lake at the base of Cotopaxi at about 12,500’ elevation.  The colony of Andean Gulls were in the middle of the breeding season there, with many birds still on nests and some downy young swimming quickly into the cover of the reeds.  Andean Coots dove for food, while Andean Teal dabbled on the surface.  As we began to hike around the lake, a pair of agitated Andean Lapwings (are you sensing a pattern in the English names of these birds?) tried to draw us away, presumably from their young.  There were also a few familiar faces in the birds there—small flocks of Baird’s Sandpipers foraged at the water’s edge as well as on the barren paramo—these birds breed in the high Arctic tundra of Canada, then make the long flight south to winter in South America.  On the far side of the lake the trail crosses a creek, where we found a small flock of Plumbeous Sierra-Finches and a pair of Stout-billed Cinclodes.  When bird biologists first began giving English names to the thousands of birds native only to South America, they quickly ran out of ideas, and many forms unfamiliar to European eyes are simply called by their scientific genus names—like the cinclodes.  Cinclodes, by the way, means dipper-like, which I suppose these birds are to some extent—short-tailed, short-winged—but there the resemblance ends.


Stout-billed Cinclodes

I suddenly saw a small flash of white in the shrubs, and there was an Ecuadorian Hillstar at last!  And feeding on chuquiraga flowers no less.  Sedge Wrens and Virginia Rails called from the back end of the marsh.  Like a lot of species with disjunct distributions in North and South America, these southern forms are often split off as separate species—for example these two species are sometimes called the Grass Wren and the Ecuadorian Rail respectively.  It began to rain, then hail, so we hurried back to the car, and pointed it down hill.

Next chapter–the western slope of the Andes.

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