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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Ecuador: The Amazon Lowlands 2

A Week at Sani Lodge / August

2016 Narrative

In Brief: Our inaugural tour to Sani Lodge was a great success—about 300 bird species in a week, based at a comfortable lodge right in the forest by a lagoon in Amazonia. The forest trails, sturdy canopy tower, and numerous quiet canoe rides provided memory after memory: from Amazonian Umbrellabirds the first morning by the cabins, to amazing views of three species of roosting potoos; from a jaguar by the cabins one night to the chaos of antbird and woodcreeper flocks moving through the understory and canopy; from hissing Hoatzins at the dock to looking down on Blue-and-yellow Macaws against a sea of green canopy; from a fly-by Orange-breasted Falcon to a confiding Sunbittern; and from the little-known Cocha Antshrike and ‘cute’ Chestnut-belted Gnateater to roosting Crested Owls and the whole sound and sight and smell experience of Amazonia.

In Detail:  All arrived safely, some a day early in time for a bit of birding in Puembo, which produced a nice selection of species, including Vermilion Flycatcher, Scrub Tanager, Golden-rumped Euphonia, Azara’s Spinetail, and two spectacular hummingbirds—Black-tailed Trainbearer and the incomparable Giant Hummingbird.

The luxury of a ‘lie-in’ and some relaxed birding was appreciated before our flight to Coca, gateway to the Amazon. On stepping from the plane we were met by hot and humid conditions, and by Carlos, our amazing birding guide for the week; after a short transfer we headed down the Napo ‘freeway’ under wide-open sky vistas bordered by walls of green. Birds on the main river were, as predicted, rather sparse (but included Swallow-tailed Kite and Black Caracara), which changed on reaching the Sani dock, where we were greeted by Swallow-winged Puffbirds and Scarlet-crowned Barbets. Transferring to smaller canoes for transit up to the lodge, we found a confiding Agami Heron, four species of kingfishers, and our first Black-capped Donacobius. After a welcome drink and orientation at the lodge we settled in to our cabins as dusk fell to the sound of brewing thunder and rain. A good dinner rounded out the day, accompanied by spectacular sheets of lightning that lit up the night.

Six full days gave us a chance to get a good feel for the avian richness around Sani, where we found about 300 bird species in our short visit. Overnight rain and thunder cleared shortly after dawn as we enjoyed our first morning of birding in western Amazonia, simply watching from the bar and taking a short walk in the forest. Birds included the incomparable Hoatzin, great looks at the bizarre Amazonian Umbrellabird, Sungrebe, Lineated Woodpecker, Capped Heron, White-eared Jacamar, and scope views of a male Wire-tailed Manakin and the understated Straight-billed Hermit, plus the beautiful jaguar-ear flower. After lunch and a siesta we took to the canoes for a paddle into nearby varzea forest, where with some work we found Cocha Antshrike, along with White-chinned Jacamar and Plumbeous and Silvered Antbirds.

Early breakfast ‘as usual,’ and off for our first morning at the canopy tower and a view into another facet of the rainforest. The morning featured a great selection of toucans, puffbirds, cotingas, parrots (including the spectacular Blue-and-yellow Macaws), colorful tanagers, flycatchers, swifts, and raptors, before we descended to the shady forest floor, where a mixed-species understory flock kept us busy for a while. Back at the lodge, a Sunbittern walking on the lawn surprised us, and we all enjoyed long looks at this unique bird—supposedly related to tropicbirds! Post-siesta afternoon birding was ‘quiet as usual,’ but with a few nice birds, including Cinnamon-throated Woodcreeper, Crimson-crested Woodpecker, and Citron-bellied Attila. But the day’s highlight was yet to come—a young Jaguar seen well by the cabins after dinner!

The next morning we headed to the other world of a river island in the Rio Napo, where with some work we found several island specialists, including Black-and-white Antbird, Castelnau’s Antshrike, Orange-headed Tanager, Fuscous Flycatcher, and Olive-spotted Hummingbird, along with stunning Oriole Blackbirds and a roosting Ladder-tailed Nightjar. Heading over to the Sani Isla community, Guillermo showed off his ‘local patch’ to great effect: we worked long and hard for views of White-lored Antpitta,  but then followed up with amazing views of roosting Long-tailed Potoos and Crested Owls! Lunch and shopping at the mall (well, the community center) were a nice break from the heat and humidity, which ‘burst’ as the temperature dropped, the wind picked up, and the heavens opened. Almost two hours of torrential rain emphasized that we were in the rainforest, but we enjoyed the break and also found a local rarity, Southern Martin, plus the boreal migrant Cliff Swallow and the recent colonist Southern Lapwing.

A morning of canoe and forest birding kept the birds coming, plus some deafening choruses of Red Howler Monkeys. Birds included a roosting Common Potoo (all three potoos seen in 24 hours!), a fierce little Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, the iconic Long-billed Woodcreeper, a snazzy little Chestnut-belted Gnateater, and sundry antbirds, including Spot-backed and Peruvian Warbling, plus the fancy Black-spotted Bare-eye. After lunch and siesta we birded around the cabins and found more good birds ‘as usual,’ including the little-known White-chested and White-chinned Swifts.

Another early start took us out to the Rio Napo and upstream to view hordes of ‘screaming green’—hundreds of parrots and parakeets assembling to ingest minerals at clay licks beside the river. Moving to the quiet of an early successional river island we found three species of spinetails in short order, along with a couple of seedeaters, and then headed to the south bank. The clear sunny weather worked against us on out forest hike in Yasuní National Park, but at least the trail was mostly uphill, and then, after a brief heavy shower at lunchtime, it was downhill in slippery mud… Highlights included excellent views of Yellow-billed Jacamar, White-chested Puffbird, and Bicolored Antbird, along with a nice tanager flock below eye level! We headed back to the lodge after lunch, stopping to encounter Black-banded Crake en route, and relax at the dock at sunset to watch Boat-billed Herons fly by as an impressive southern starscape materialized in the night sky.

Our last full day started early, canoeing up a creek in search of the elusive Zigzag Heron. Sadly we found no herons, but a pair of spectacular Spectacled Owls was a good consolation, plus the experience of being alone in a small Amazonian creek as the forest awoke. On to the tower, where our second morning in the canopy emphasized the unpredictable, day-to-day variation of rain-forest birding. Today we found Orange-breasted Falcon and Ornate Hawk-Eagle, along with Lanceolated Monklet, Lafresnaye’s Piculet, Great Potoo, the stunning Scale-breasted Woodpecker, and even an adult Agami Heron in the flooded forest below (!), but several species present last time were absent. After lunch and a siesta we birded around the cabins, followed by an evening canoe ride in the lagoon, where Little Cuckoo and Least Bittern showed well—a very relaxing and enjoyable way to end our week, as a Sunbittern flew in front of our canoe in the Amazonian sunset. 

But wait, it wasn’t over yet. Our last morning of birding around the cabins and along the canal and boardwalk to the Napo produced still more new species—including the stunning Magpie Tanager, an adult Bicolored Hawk, a nest-building Black-tailed Flycatcher, and the handsome Gray Elaenia, plus great scope views of a pair of Cream-colored Woodpeckers and of a juvenile Pygmy Kingfisher. Our transit back to Coca was extremely efficient (!), and we bid farewell to Carlos, boarded the plane, and were soon back in the very different (and dry!) world of Quito, ready for flights homeward or travel on to new locations. Was it really only a week, or simply a lifetime that passed too quickly? Many thanks to all for making it a wonderful trip, and looking forward to the next time!

 Steve Howell

August 2016

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