Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Cotopaxi National Park

Quito sits in the central Andean valley between two chains of volcanoes, named the 'Avenue of the Volcanoes' by 18th century explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Today we had the pleasure of taking a day trip through part of the avenue to Cotopaxi National Park, 50 km south of Quito.

Cotopaxi is the centrepiece of the National Park. At 5897 metres, it is not the highest mountain in the chain (Chimborazo, further south, is 6310 metres) but Cotopaxi is possibly the most spectacular - a classic example of a conic volcano, surrounded by a plateau of alpine meadows, themselves at a (literally) breath-taking 3800 metres.

The first stop for the day was in the outer suburbs of Quito overlooking the valley towards Pichincha Volcano, which stands ominously over the city, having last erupted in 1999.

Quito (stitched panorama)
Pentax K-3, Pentax 16-50mm f/2.8 @ 24mm, ISO 400, f/5.6 1/500

On reaching the National Park, we stopped at the museum and cafe long enough get an idea of the lay of the land and to sample the coca tea (whole coca leaves in hot water) and purchase some coca lollies, both alleged to help with altitude sickness, before taking a walk up one of the trails.

Walking trail, Cotopaxi National Park
Pentax K-3, Pentax 16-50mm f/2.8 @ 16mm, ISO 400, f/8 1/100 

Even though the trail was a gently rising set of steps, it was a challenging walk at this altitude without having spent much time to get acclimatised--our last two days had been spent at the lower altitudes of the Bellavista Cloud Forest. However the trail did provide some spectacular views of the alpine valley...

Walking trail, Cotopaxi National Park
Pentax K-3, Pentax 16-50mm f/2.8 @ 22mm, ISO 400, f/8 1/200

...and our first teasing glimpse of Cotopaxi.

Cotopaxi from walking trail, Cotopaxi National Park
Pentax K-3, Pentax 16-50mm f/2.8 @ 43mm, ISO 400, f/8 1/800

Our first bird for the walk was a Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, flying high overhead. I decided against carrying the longer lens and tripod on this walk so this was the best I could manage with the 70-200mm zoom.

Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, Cotopaxi National Park
Pentax K-3, Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200mm, ISO 400, f/5.6 1/8000

Fortunately, not all the birdlife was this far away. This little chap stopped and posed only a few metres up the trail from us and allowed me to get close enough for this shot with just the 70-200 zoom. Identification of the bird became an ongoing challenge despite seeing and photographing the same species at two other locations. It turns out that it it is not listed in the field guide we had with us! Once we got home, the online Handbook of the Birds of the World came to the rescue (this is a fantastic online resource - full access requires an annual subscription but I think it's well worth the few $$ spent to get access to a vast database of information and support its ongoing development - check it out at www.hbw.com) and I managed to find it by cross-referencing other bird lists from the same area.

Bar-winged Cinclodes, Cotopaxi National Park
Pentax K-3, Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 170mm, ISO 400, f/2.8 1/1000

Our next stop was on the high plateau at Pampa de Limpio, a vast alpine meadow, where there were several species of birds foraging including several species of 'shore birds'. Baird's Sandpipers were a long way off--too far away to photograph--but several Andean Lapwing were close to the road.

Andean Lapwing, Pampa de Limpio, Cotopaxi National Park
Pentax K-3, Sigma 300mm f/2.8 (x2 adapter), ISO 800, f/8 1/500

The most spectacular birds, though, were the Caracaras (large, ground feeding falcons) that were foraging for insects under cow pats and horse dung.

Carunculated Caracara, Pampa de Limpio, Cotopaxi National Park
Pentax K-3, Sigma 300mm f/2.8 (x2 adapter), ISO 800, f/11 1/400
Carunculated Caracara, Pampa de Limpio, Cotopaxi National Park
Pentax K-3, Sigma 300mm f/2.8 (x2 adapter), ISO 800, f/8 1/500

...and yes, there are wild horses on the high plateau. Apparently they have been released there to live wild and provide an added food source for the Andean Condor, whose natural food sources have become scarce.

Wild horses, Pampa de Limpio, Cotopaxi National Park
Pentax K-3, Sigma 300mm f/2.8 (x2 adapter), ISO 800, f/8 1/1000

Tambopaxi Lodge is the only commercial operation within the National Park. Sitting near the foot of Cotopaxi Volcano, it provides lodging facilities for walkers and mountain climbers as well as a fantastic cafe, where we stopped for lunch. It also provides great views of Cotopaxi and nearby Sincholagua and a few birds thrown in for good measure.

Cotopaxi Volcano from Tambopaxi, Cotopaxi National Park
Pentax K-3, Pentax 16-50mm f2.8 @ 36mm, ISO 400, f/8 1/200
Sincholagua Volcano from Tambopaxi, Cotopaxi National Park
Pentax K-3, Pentax 16-50mm f2.8 @ 39mm, ISO 400, f/8 1/200
Great Thrush, Tambopaxi, Cotopaxi National Park
Pentax K-3, Sigma 300mm f/2.8, ISO 400, f/4 1/400
Andean Gull, Tambopaxi, Cotopaxi National Park
Pentax K-3, Sigma 300mm f/2.8 (x2 adapter), ISO 400, f/5.6 1/400
Andean Teal, Tambopaxi, Cotopaxi National Park
Pentax K-3, Sigma 300mm f/2.8 (x2 adapter), ISO 400, f/5.6 1/1000

After lunch we were back to Pampa de Limpio to photograph the third volcano in the area, Rumiñawi, and check out Laguna de Limpio Pungo.

Rumiñawi with Andean Lupin in foreground, Pampa de Limpio, Cotopaxi National Park
Pentax K-3, Pentax 16-50mm f/2.8 @ 31mm, ISO 800, f/16 1/60
Rumiñawi, Laguna de Limpio Pungo, Cotopaxi National Park
Pentax K-3, Pentax 16-50mm f/2.8 @ 26mm, ISO 400, f/4 1/400
Laguna de Limpio Pungo, Cotopaxi National Park
Pentax K-3, Pentax 16-50mm f/2.8 @ 50mm, ISO 400, f/4 1/160

Best birds on the edge of the lake were this Ecuadorian Hillstar (it appeared on this branch about 30 metres from where I took the photograph above and stayed only long enough for me to change lenses and go click - no time to change the ISO to get a faster shutter speed so the shot is a little blurry but it's another hummingbird...)

Ecuadorian Hillstar, Laguna de Limpio Pungo, Cotopaxi National Park
Pentax K-3, Sigma 300mm f/2.8 (x2 adapter), ISO 400, f/2.8 1/125

and a pair of Plumbeous Sierra Finches, the male of which stayed (almost) still enough for one half decent shot - I had to bump the ISO up to 3200 to get a fast enough shutter speed to get this little guy as he was in non-stop motion hopping around among the grasses and wildflowers on the edge of the lake. The female was much more difficult to shoot as she spent the whole time hidden in a distant tree.

Plumbeous Sierra-Finch (male), Laguna de Limpio Pungo, Cotopaxi National Park
Pentax K-3, Sigma 300mm f/2.8 (x2 adapter), ISO 3200, f/6.4 1/5000

However, the wildlife highlight was not a bird. We spotted a pair of Tapeti (Forest Rabbit), one of which I managed to capture in this single shot (heavily cropped) before it was gone.

Tapeti, Laguna de Limpio Pungo, Cotopaxi National Park
Pentax K-3, Sigma 300mm f/2.8 (x2 adapter), ISO 3200, f/6.4 1/4000

The rain that had threatened all day finally started falling so we were back in the car and off to our overnight accommodation at Hacienda la Cienega, an 18th century Spanish Hacienda - a great way to top off a fantastic day.

Hacienda la Cienega, Lasso, Ecuador
Pentax K-3, Pentax 16-50mm f/2.8 @ 18mm, ISO 1600, f/2.8, 1/160
Jo, Hacienda la Cienega, Lasso, Ecuador
Pentax K-3, Pentax 16-50mm f/2.8 @ 50mm, ISO 1600, f/2.8, 1/60

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