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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Ecuador: The Amazon Lowlands 1

A Week at Sani Lodge

2017 Narrative

In Brief: No cars, buses, or vans. No horns honking, brakes screeching, or trucks rumbling. No cities, traffic lights, or even a stop sign. There is only the forest, and the road is the big river. Birding the Amazon lowlands along the Rio Napo in eastern Ecuador is marked with the stripe of adventure. The breathy croaks of Hoatzins cut the morning air, great caimans crossed the lagoon, and sly antbirds called from the forest gloom. We just got back from a week at Sani Lodge in heart of these big woods having seen our fair share of all of these things and touched that stripe of birding adventure.

In Detail: Staying in one place for a week certainly has its benefits. From comfortable base of Sani Lodge, we struck out every day on foot or canoe into the wilds. In fact, sometimes we didn’t really need to strike out at all. In the afternoons or in the rain, we parked ourselves in the shelter of the lodge near the bar and looked out over the lagoon and adjacent forest for whatever nature had to offer up for us. White-eared Jacamars whacking wasps on a branch right outside were a daily treat. A Tropical Screech-Owl (or a pair on one day) perched in a palm nearby. We also had extended and daily studies of some of the strangest and most unique birds there are, the perplexing Hoatzins that clambered and gawked about in their dinosaur throw-back way. Similarly, Black-capped Donacobiuses were never far off perched up in the grasses “singing” their raucous duets.

Though, the whole area is a birding wonderland – not just what we can see from the lodge. Our first morning was spent on the canopy tower, two-hundred steel steps into the crown of a great kapok tree. From here we get into the heart of it, where the sun and trees and rain all meet first and rainforest life is at its most obvious and accessible. Within a period of an hour and a half we saw a Harpy Eagle move across the forest canopy, then a Crested Eagle popped up on a treetop, checked things out, and disappeared back into the jungle. The two great neotropical jungle eagles from one spot! The frosty backs of Mealy Parrots passed below us, blasts of color in the form of Paradise and Opal-crowned Tanagers moved through the branches of our perch, and Plum-throated and Spangled Cotingas perched up like jewels on the horizon. Back in the dark forest below we saw Wire-tailed and Golden-headed Manakins, bright little birds teleporting between their favorite branches.

With only a paddle canoe ride we could access the lagoon and the “varzea” flooded forest channels out from the lodge. These forest edges were where we found colorful Green-and-rufous Kingfisher and Agami Heron, spectacular Cream-colored Woodpecker and Long-billed Woodcreeper, elegant Capped Heron, and Boat-billed Heron whose aesthetics are still up for debate.

We got back out to the big river, too. The Rio Napo islands are special places and birds occur there that don’t occur on the shores. Obscure little rare things like Bicolored Conebill and River Tyrannulet, drab Olive-spotted Hummingbirds, and quick little skulkers like White-bellied Spinetails are a few of the birds we found. The banks of the river also have a few birds. We saw a Ladder-tailed Nightjar on a day roost in the overhanging reeds. A parrot “clay lick” on the south bank attracts dozens of Mealy Parrots and Blue-headed Parrots, with a few Yellow-crowned Parrots and Dusky-headed Parakeets mixed in, scratching up the mineral-rich soil to neutralize the acids and toxins from their seed and fruit diet. We visited a second one of these licks and were treated to a pair of huge, and shockingly gaudy Scarlet Macaws having a drink at the mineral mud. More parrots and parakeets typically arrive at this mineral deposit, but this time they were displaced by a herd of noisy, smelly White-lipped Peccaries. Pigs over parrots, this time.

Then there were the deep woods. It’s tough birding in there, but it’s where some of the most sought-after rainforest species reside. In this deep world of shadows we had one of those great birding moments as we watched a Sapphire Quail-Dove strolling back and forth across the trail. A typically invisible denizen of the rainforest, it was a rare treat to be part of this beautiful bird’s day. Less striking, but also thrilling was a similar moment with a Rusty-belted Tapaculo moving sneakily along the ground, its white breast the only thing separating it from the color of the dark, wet leaves below. Camouflage of forest animals is well-known, and that fer-de-lance that we almost walked past (or stepped on) was a perfect example. We saw it, and when it finally got confirmation and knew we saw it, it got out of there fast! Probably for the best.

And, that was it. The week out in the jungle was over. We thanked our Sani hosts, got back on the boat, and after a few hours motoring up the river we were back into the hustle and bustle of modern life where there were cars and pollution and noise. It’s alright, all holidays come to an end, and we know it’s all still out there ready for us the next time.

Jon Feenstra

March 2017

Updated: n/a