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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Ecuador: The Amazon Lowlands 2

A Week at Sani Lodge / August

2018 Narrative

In Brief: Our ‘summer’ tour (really ‘winter’ just south of the equator) to Sani Lodge was a great success as usual—a fabulous diversity of birds and other wildlife, 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 tranquil pre-dawn canoe paddles to mornings filled with life at the canopy tower; from the elegance of a secretive Agami Heron to the gaudiness of a displaying Golden-collared Toucanet; from a secretive Rusty-belted Tapaculo to wide-open roosting Crested Owls; and from the little-known Cocha Antshrike to the undeniably ‘cute’ Pygmy Marmoset and the whole sound and sight and smell experience of Amazonia.

All arrived safely, some a day or two early, and in time for a bit of birding in Puembo, which produced a nice selection of species including Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Vermilion Flycatcher, Scrub Tanager, Golden-rumped Euphonia, and the spectacular Black-tailed Trainbearer.

In Detail: 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 (but not rainy!) conditions, and after a short transfer we boarded our canoe and 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 handsome White-banded and White-winged Swallows. On reaching the Sani dock we walked a short boardwalk for a paddling canoe ride through várzea forest and saw our first monkeys—a couple of (not so) Common Wooly Monkeys and a pair of roosting screech-owls. After a welcome drink, snacks, and orientation at the lodge we enjoyed our new ‘yard birds’ including Capped Heron, Masked Crimson Tanager, a trio of Black-fronted Nunbirds, and even a male Spangled Cotinga! Not bad for a travel day. A good dinner rounded out the day, followed by a good sleep to the sounds of the forest.

Six full days gave us a chance to sample the avian richness around Sani, where we found about 250 bird species in our short visit. Overnight rain continued into mid-morning, so we enjoyed our first birding in western Amazonia by simply watching from the bar and taking a short walk in the forest. Birds included the incomparable Hoatzin, great looks at the erectile Amazonian Umbrellabird, a stunning male Scarlet-crowned Barbet, point-blank Green-backed (née White-tailed) Trogon, the bizarre Bare-necked Fruitcrow, an elusive White-breasted Wood-Wren and female Silvered Antbird, and even scope views of Dot-backed Antbird. After lunch and a siesta we took to the canoes for a paddle through nearby várzea forest and the boardwalk back to the Napo, where the highlight was non-avian—the adorable little Pygmy Marmoset, along with plenty of birds such as White-chinned Jacamar, Magpie Tanager, Swallow-winged Puffbirds, and Crimson-crested Woodpecker, plus our first Squirrel Monkeys.

Early breakfast ‘as usual,’ and off for our first morning at the canopy tower and a view into another facet of the rainforest. A tranquil dawn canoe ride through the glassy lake was notable, before making the short hike to the impressive tower. Our morning featured a great selection of toucans (including a mind-blowing male Golden-collared Toucanet), puffbirds, cotingas, parrots (including brilliant Scarlet Macaws), colorful tanagers that wouldn’t quit, flycatchers, swifts, and raptors, before we descended to the cooler forest floor and great looks at snappy male Wire-tailed and Golden-hooded Manakins. Back at the lodge, a male Black-faced Dacnis and female Green Honeycreeper entered the dining hall to interrupt lunch—we couldn’t get away from colorful birds. Rain fell during siesta, so we simply birded from the bar and around the grounds, which was a good opportunity to become familiar with some of the commoner species (great looks at Social and Boat-billed Flycatchers, and both kiskadees) as well as enjoy a male Plum-throated Cotinga right outside the bar!

The next morning we headed to the other world of river islands, starting with good looks at Plumbeous Antbird along the boardwalk. In the very different, wide-open island ecosystem we found several habitat specialists, including Orange-headed Tanager, Castelnau’s Antshrike, Fuscous Flycatcher, and Olive-spotted Hummingbird, along with stunning Oriole Blackbirds and an austral migrant Dark-billed Cuckoo. Heading over to the ‘mainland’ produced a steady procession of new species, including Hook-billed and Slender-billed Kites, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, Variegated Flycatcher, and Orange-backed Troupial, plus an amazing Great Potoo and visible Thrush-like Wrens. At the Sani Isla community we partook of a typical indigenous lunch, along with shopping opportunities for crafts at the woman’s cooperative. It was also a good time to sit out the baking sun before another forest walk, which produced a roosting pair of the simply stunning Crested Owl—wow! Our transit back to the lodge in time for a relaxing late afternoon was punctuated by an obliging and very handsome male Least Bittern. Clear skies continued and the celestial cornucopia featured intensely brilliant Venus and red Mars, plus the Southern Cross.

Our early morning canoe commute featured amazing views of sunlit Chestnut-fronted Macaws and Orange-winged Amazons before we entered the forest and the shady world of antbirds. Hot sunny weather kept birds quiet and we had to work for what we saw, although the hike itself through beautiful terra firme forest was a treat in itself, and the sentinel Spix’s Night Monkey was a bonus. Avian highlights included 14 species of antbirds (with Warbling and Scale-backed the fanciest), plus a superb Rusty-belted Tapaculo, elusive Point-tailed Palmcreeper (finally seen by all!), and very obliging Great Tinamou that posed for photos! After lunch and siesta we took a peaceful canoe ride under tropical cloudscape skies that sprinkled a little rain to cool things off, with varied birds including a beautiful Laughing Falcon, followed by a fiery sunset that reflected a glow from the forest and was juxtaposed with a vibrant rainbow. A good dinner and sleep to the sound of light rain rounded off ‘just another day in western Amazonia!’

Another early start took us out to the Rio Napo, via a roosting Sunbittern beside the creek, and then upstream to view hordes of ‘screaming green’—hundreds of parrots and parakeets assembling to ingest minerals at a clay lick beside the river. After the parrot spectacle we headed to the south bank in Yasuní National Park for a hike through hilly terra firme forest (it may have been muddy but at least it was steep!). The ‘beautiful weather’ kept forest activity low, but we still found a selection of antbirds (including a handsome male Black-faced Antbird), a singing Screaming Piha, and perched Scarlet Macaws, plus a nest of bullet ants… We then crossed back to the north side, via a pair of Southern Lapwings, and enjoyed a leisurely lunch and fresh coffee at the community center, where we waited out the quiet part of the day. Stops on our way back to the lodge produced Brown Jacamars, good views of Casqued Cacique (née oropendola), a foraging pair of Cocha Antsrikes, and a stunning 11th hour Agami Heron, an ‘avian unicorn’ for some in the group. 

Our last full day we enjoyed another morning at the tower, where our second visit to the canopy world emphasized the unpredictable, day-to-day variation of rain-forest birding. Today we found the amazing Long-billed Woodcreeper, the enigmatic Wing-barred Piprites, a tiny male Lafresnaye’s Piculet, and the ‘usual’ suite of parrots, toucans, flycatchers, and tanagers. Our canoe commute to the lodge produced more good birds, including White-eared Jacamar, Orange-crowned Manakin and a brief Green-and-rufous Kingfisher as we headed back under baking blue skies. Today was an anniversary party for the Sani Isla community (54 years), and the skeleton crew at lunch departed soon after so that we had the lodge to ourselves for a peaceful siesta, followed by optional last afternoon birding. After lunch and a siesta we birded around the cabins and into the adjacent forest, which continued to add new bird species—from a much appreciated Scale-breasted Woodpecker to the scarce Fulvous Antshrike and a frog-eating Amazonian Motmot. A last tranquil sunset at the bar was followed by a good last dinner and well-earned sleep.           

After a week of remarkably ‘good’ weather, just to remind us we really were in the rainforest it started to rain the last night and into the morning, so we finally got to use umbrellas and ponchos for the transit back to the Rio Napo before our ‘freeway commute’ back to Coca. The last new bird of the trip was perhaps the rarest—a Great Blue Heron near Coca—and then it was time to board the plane and return to the very different (and dry!) world of Quito, ready for flights homeward or for 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!

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