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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Ecuador: The Amazon Lowlands 1

A Week at Sani Lodge

2018 Narrative

In Brief: There are places in the world where humans can travel and feel powerless among the magnificent forces of nature. The Amazon rainforest is such a place. It stands with perhaps the great oceans and the sand sea of the Sahara desert as not just a place untamed, but untamable. Our week staying at Sani lodge, essentially as guests of the indigenous Sani Kichwa community, had us out there, nearly as remote as one can get before one needs to start thinking about survival instead of just seeing great birds. And see great birds, we did! From our comfortable base with cold beer and great food we went out into the surrounding jungle and saw four species of macaw, six species of toucan, sixteen species of antbird, and five species of monkey. (And one species of Hoatzin, go figure.) Other highlights included bright male Wire-tailed Manakins seemingly teleporting around the dark jungle understory, and a day roost of a Crested Owl peering at us from the foliage. It was a memorable week in a truly amazing place.

In Detail: Getting to Sani Lodge is a big part of the whole Amazon experience. First, it involves a flight from the crisp, cool highlands to the hot, humid lowlands, dropping 2500 meters of elevation in 30 minutes. Then it’s a two and a half hour boat ride down the big Rio Napo passing signs of oil infrastructure, locals in dug-out canoes, and lots of forest. Then we dock on the riverbank, walk a boardwalk, and get paddled in a small canoe down a shady river and across a lake to the lodge. That was all before we even did any official birding.  When we got settled in, though, we did get out a little, walking through the primeval forest behind the lodge. In the dark understory we saw the brightly contrasting Wire-tailed Manakins, and the less contrasting, but still pretty cool Dot-backed Antbird. This was just the beginning.

For the next six full days we spent birding the Amazon with no cars or buses, just our canoe and our feet. We spent two mornings in the canopy tower approximately 35 meters up in the crown of a great kapok tree. After having some frustrating encounters with canopy birds while walking the forest floor, being up in there was perfect. We looked down on Blue-and-yellow Macaws flying by. A King Vulture sat regally in a treetop at eye level. During a second visit to the tower we saw three of them circling around. Flocks of canopy species moved by us or through the branches of our perch: Opal-rumped and Opal-crowned Tanagers, Spangled and Plum-throated Cotingas, and both Cinnamon and Citron-bellied Atilla. It was wonderful to be stationed in such a spot in the rainforest and simply allow the birds to come to us.

We also did some paddling around the lagoon off the front porch of the lodge. Gawky Hoatzins shuffled around its edges. Minute American Pygmy Kingfishers were perched quietly in the shadows while Great and Lesser Kiskadees yelled at everything. These were the regulars, though, and we paddled by them every day. We did a night-paddle one evening, going out in the daylight and coming back to the lodge in the dark. We saw the outrageous Cream-colored Woodpecker, a few Sunbitterns, and helped rescue an Orange-crowned Manakin nest from a snake. Coming back in the dark we looked unsuccessfully for the elusive Zigzag Heron, but it was an experience even if birds weren’t involved. The night was full of noise, Common Pauraques were about, but frogs were the loudest, and Hoatzins shambled about in the trees hanging over the channel. The lagoon was lined with small glowing invertebrates that made a weird and eerie runway for us through the dark water.

Our time across the river in the forest of Yasuni National Park was for the antbirds. We had nice looks at Spot-backed Antbird and Silvered Antbird. Other good deep forest things included Yellow-billed Jacamar, Whiskered Flycatcher, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, and a surprisingly cooperative Rufous-tailed Antwren. We also got on Blue-backed Manakin, Blue-crowned Manakin, and a White-bearded Manakin. On two different forest walks we saw Great Tinamou as they exploded off of the ground near the trail and went noisily careening off through the jungle. It was a little work, and just plain good luck, when we had extended looks at the super-shy Sapphire Quail-Dove as it sat quietly and peered out at us from its hidden (not hidden enough) perch.

As a demonstration of the biodiversity and high specialization of Amazon species, we visited a few islands in the Rio Napo. There are species that occur on these shifting islands that do not occur on the mainland: spinetails and antbirds, flycatchers, and even a hummingbird. We struck out with a few of the skulkiest of them, but got great looks at bright Oriole Blackbirds, not so bright Olive-spotted Hummingbird, a pair of cranky Castelnau’s Antshrikes, and less great looks at a pair of Fuscous Flycatchers. Birding out on grassy sandbars was quite a contrast to our typical jaunts into the dark forest.

We spent a morning visiting the parrot “clay licks” where several species come to eat minerals from the soil to neutralize toxins in their fruit and seed diet. Since, parrots are normally noisy things that fly over and are often poorly seen, it was a real privilege to find them perched and cooperative.  And if one parrot can make a lot of noise, lots of parrots make quite a cacophony. Noisy flocks of Mealy, Yellow-crowned, and Blue-headed Parrots were with some Dusky-headed Parakeets at a riverbank clay lick. Then we walked into the forest to see a mineral pool where hundreds of Cobalt-winged Parakeets were accompanied by a few Orange-cheeked Parrots and a couple of gigantic Scarlet Macaws. It was quite a sight and a sound.

Just hanging out around the lodge and nearby forest was pretty good by itself. Our forest wanders from the lodge had us seeing Black-tailed Trogons, the impressive-sounding, but plain gray, Screaming Piha, and a herd of noisy, smelly White-lipped Peccaries. The “lodge flock” (often conveniently visible from the bar area) contained a consistent load of Yellow-rumped Caciques, both Crested and Russet-backed Oropendolas, Scarlet-crowned Barbets, Black-fronted Nunbirds, and occasionally a Green-backed Trogon. Out by the lagoon there were always some Hoatzins and Black-capped Donacobiuses about and it was a good place to scan around for stuff: fly-by macaws, a stately Capped Heron, or a flock of a couple hundred Greater Anis. On one afternoon we had nice looks at the weird-looking Long-billed Woodcreeper as it perched in waterside trees.

An added part of birding Sani Lodge is that we’re part of the indigenous community here. The lodge is entirely run by the local people, we’ve got an indigenous guide, Carlos, who leads the way through the jungle, and the community preserves their forest for eco-tourism instead of hunting, logging, or oil. Some of the community is pretty well hooked up in the birding thing, too. We often saw great birds right around people’s houses along the Rio Napo. Our Point-tailed Palmcreeper experience was in a small palm grove on the edge of someone’s small yuca patch. One another day, word of our activities had traveled around the community and we were taken to day roosts of Crested Owl, Tropical Screech-Owl, and Great Potoo on the property of a local guy and bird supporter.

When it was time to leave, the lure of cool weather and less humidity was too much to resist. It was an incredible week, though, with good times and great birds in one of the planet’s most wonderful places.

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