Birding the Cordillera Blanca

Birding the Cordillera Blanca

Second only to the Himalayas in magnificence, 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, páramo, and polylepis forest habitat, all of which abound with specialized bird species of the high Andes, many of which are endemic to Peru. The friendly Lazy Dog Inn, located about 8km east of Huaráz, is a supremely comfortable base of operations for visiting birders, and both novices and experts will find plenty of delightful surprises and puzzling challenges in the surrounding arid montane scrub, polylepis forest, and puna grasslands.

Visitors to the Cordillera Blanca typically take multi-day guided treks past the many famous mountains, often climbing strenuously to dizzying heights. While these ambitious adventures typically draw rave reviews from travelers, they’ve received negative commentary as well, including limited food supplies, crowded trails on the main circuits, and plenty of cow pies marring the landscape. Birders looking to experience Huascarán National Park at a slower pace would do best staying outside of Huaráz and making half- or full-day excursions into the park. There are two outstanding day hikes from the Lazy Dog Inn, each climbing back into the cordillera and up in elevation over a thousand meters while passing through immense canyons to different glacial lakes. The Quebrada Llaca hike first takes hikers through arid scrub, then reaches an extensive stand of polylepis forest, and finally arrives at puna, or high-altitude grasslands. The Quebrada Chulpi hike is equally rewarding as it follows a crystalline stream inhabited by the charismatic Torrent Duck, passing many flowering shrubs and ancient polylepis trees, eventually reaching puna habitat as well.

Peru is famous among birders for its high number of country endemics, and visiting birders who are serious about boosting their life list should focus their attention on the polylepis forest at the start of the Quebrada Llaca, where endemic species such as the White-Cheeked Cotinga, Plain-Tailed Warbling-Finch, Striated Earthcreeper, Rusty-Crowned Tit-Spinetail, and Ancash Tapaculo can all be found. The fancy Giant Conebill and miniscule Tit-Like Dacnis, both high-altitude bird specialists of the high Andes, are relatively common here and particularly expert at foraging for insects among the small leaves and papery red bark of this unique genus of trees. Given that these slow-growing trees are the only source of firewood near most high Andean indigenous communities, this habitat and its accompanying avifauna are severely threatened, making it a high priority for both birders and nature enthusiasts to experience.

Despite its general proximity to the Lazy Dog Inn, this beautiful forest is still about two hour’s strenuous walking away, and it’s best to arrange for transport with the owners as bird activity is highest in the morning; however, the hike up to either quebrada passes through arid montane scrub that offers rewarding birding in its own right. In these barren, open spaces Mountain Caracaras pose sentinel-like on boulders, Plain-Breasted Earthcreepers poke about in the dry earth, and endemic Black Metaltails dart around the flowering shrubs. This habitat also poses one of the toughest identification challenges in the Peruvian Andes, as even expert birders will struggle 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 knowledge of the birds’ different calls. Novice birders would do better to focus on finding the colorful Peruvian Sierra-Finch, the endemic Rufous-Backed Inca-Finch, and the secretive Stripe-Headed Antpitta.

Birders who hike deep into either quebrada will eventually approach one of the cordillera’s emerald-colored glacial lakes. Here soaring Variable Hawks are occasionally spotted, which inevitably scatter noisy groups of large terrestrial woodpeckers called Andean Flickers into cover below. Other puna and polylepis forest edge inhabitants commonly found up here include the White-Winged Cinclodes, White-Winged Diuca-Finch, Rufous-Webbed Bush-Tyrant, and Thick-Billed Siskin. Indeed at these rarified heights, the Cordillera Blanca provides an impressively wild backdrop even to a casual birding excursion, giving visitors a powerful sense of there being much more to explore and learn about beyond the modest site they’re currently birding.

By: Derek Kverno.