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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Ecuador: The Amazon Lowlands 1

A Week at Sani Lodge

2024 Narrative

There are few places in the world that, when mentioned, inspire such pause as the Amazon rainforest. It is remote, mysterious, and perhaps a little scary, but this tour was a way to get past that stuff and get into this crucible of biodiversity to experience it in comfort and see the birds that, when mentioned, inspire pause in themselves. With six full days of rainforest birding we visited the canopy, the lagoons, the islands in the river, and, of course, the deep forest. Some of our highlights included the bizarre Hoatzins, the mythical Harpy Eagle, iconic Blue-and-yellow and Scarlet Macaws and seven species of toucans, the enigmatic Zigzag Heron, glowing Wire-tailed Manakins, subtle Lunulated Antbird, and classic Screaming Piha. These, and many more, were all without a car (once we got in there), and from a comfortable home base hosted by the indigenous Sani people. It was a memorable week indeed.

Birding the remote jungle first requires getting to the remote jungle. There’s a flight, then a long boat ride, some hiking, canoeing, and then “poof” there’s a posh lodge aside a tranquil lagoon. We got there just fine, sat out a little of the hottest part of the afternoon, and then did a canoe paddle around the lagoon. Without leaving the porch, the Hoatzins were out, bizarre creatures that crash about through the leaves, make weird noises, and generally look like alien-bird-dinosaurs. Also on the edge of the lagoon were bright Masked Crimson Tanagers flying around. We canoed into the flooded forest a little thanks to heavy rain in the Andes and high water in the jungle. The wet, viney darkness was perfect for some of its specialties including the dainty Dot-backed Antbird, the somber Rufous-tailed Flatbill, and the outrageous Cream-colored Woodpecker. We finished our first afternoon with a sunset over the lagoon as we rolled back into the lodge for dinner.

Though it’s all forest all around us, the type of forest and our position in the forest determines the birds we see. The canopy has different species than the understory, and the wetter, varzea, forest has different species than the drier, terra firma, forest. To see the canopy, we can scope it from the ground in neck-twisting fashion, or we can use the canopy tower! Two-hundred and one steps later we’re up in the treetops with the canopy birds. After a night of heavy rain, the bigger birds were up in the sun drying off and we had some of South America’s most celebrated raptors including the big daddy himself, Harpy Eagle. We watched it, far, but in a scope for nearly an hour as it preened, stretched, and ruffled its feathers. There was also an Ornate Hawk-Eagle and a Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle out there catching some sun. There were monkeys, too, but being very quiet… Elsewhere in the canopy, we saw some Many-banded Aracari’s, White-throated and Channel-billed Toucans, and loads of Mealy Parrots. Four species of macaw flew by, as well, making it a full morning of iconic rainforest birds.

We also needed to get into the understory, the humid darkness in which the skulkers of the rainforest call their home. To do that, with help from our native guides, we get out there and walk the trails that lead off into the woods. Some of the birds in there are pretty wild-looking, like Wire-tailed Manakins. We saw two males and a female of them chasing each other around. Some are rather in the middle like Chestnut Woodpecker, well named, though it doesn’t mention the snazzy crest. And, some are better heard than seen. Antbirds come to mind, but we were entranced by a Lawrence’s Thrush as it worked through its repertoire of perfectly mimicked jungle bird sounds. A cacophony of parrots, mostly Mealy Parrots, in the canopy while we were trying to work on the understory birds was charming, but seriously? Can you guys keep it down?

The following morning started hot right off the lodge porch. In the darkness of breakfast, we spotlighted a Common Potoo on a stick calling and, well, moving, something that we don’t see as they’re usually found sleeping in the daytime. Then while getting ready to leave we saw a duo of Sand-colored Nighthawks flying around the lagoon. It was a surprise, but they are also gorgeous birds, white and brown wing flashes as they coursed back and forth and eventually settled on a branch where they spent the rest of the day. Then it became daytime and the remainder of our morning was entirely in the dark forest. Birding was a lot of work, winkling out shy understory birds, but, that’s the game, and those birds aren’t going to be anywhere else. Perhaps our best find was a Black-tailed Leaftosser, a bird rarely seen by anyone but was seen well by all of us. Our afternoon was in a canoe in the flooded woods where we encountered a nice flock with the endemic Cocha Antshrike, White-chinned Jacamar, a few species of woodcreepers, and probably a bunch of stuff that just got by us while we worked on the things in the foreground. It was a dizzying flurry.

With subtle variations in habitat or even variations within a single habitat, changing the bird life, it’s no wonder that the islands in the Rio Napo are yet another special place. Indeed, an entirely different avifauna lives in the various successional levels of forest on these small islands. The following day we wandered around on a few of them, some choked with tall cane, others more low and brushy. A Burrowing Owl was pretty cool out there, flushed from the grass and onto a big pile of driftwood. We also saw Gray-breasted Crake, and two spinetails, White-bellied and Parker’s. Big, bright Oriole Blackbirds flew overhead. This day was a hot one. The kind of steamy, humid day one imagines the Amazon must feel like, and the afternoon was well spent being not in the sun. The later afternoon, though, we returned to the forest. The birds were still relaxing and it was mostly quiet, but a Screaming Piha, the loudest bird in the woods was making up for the other birds by letting out its spectacular call. We were even able to track it down in the canopy and watch it scream. A big, amazing sound from a drab, gray little thing.

Soundscapes played big into the next day, as well: our day of parrots. We visited two very impressive parrot shows. The first was a big, dead tree in someone’s backyard that had dozens of macaws crawling all over it, chewing on the dead wood. It was hard to say exactly what they were up to, but they were really into it (and so were we). There were about 20 Blue-and-yellow Macaws, and lesser numbers of the lesser macaws, Chestnut-fronted and Red-bellied. The next parrot spot is a well-visited spring in the jungle at which hundreds of screaming Cobalt-winged Parakeets come to drink. They do their thing and in the midst of them Scarlet Macaws land and begin drinking, scattering the small parakeets. There were also a few Orange-cheeked Parrots in the mix, less affected by the big macaws. We made some other stops, too, and found goodies like Rufous-headed Woodpecker, Orange-eyed Flatbill, Crane Hawk, and Lettered and Chestnut-eared Aracaris. It was fun to have a day of big showy birds to contrast with our days of digging out subtly-colored forest skulkers (but those are great, too).

With dry weather and clear skies, heat continued to build and made birding pretty much a morning and evening endeavor. We began the next morning with a return trip to the tower. In the bright sun, it got pretty quiet pretty quickly, but we had a few newies like Blue-throated Piping-Guan and Double-toothed and Gray-headed Kites. We tried our luck in the forest a little and came up with a couple of Purplish Jacamars and a dapper male Golden-headed Manakin. Rather than spend more time thrashing around in the heat, we hid in the shade of the lodge for the afternoon then ventured out in the late afternoon for night stuff. The big one was Zigzag Heron (actually a little one, for a heron) that turned out to be quite an adventure sloshing through flooded forest to get to a spot to see it. A canoe ride back to the lodge in the dark and some cold beverages later was a fine way to end the day.

Our final full day was our day to explore Yasuni National Park on the south side of the Rio Napo. The “upland” terra firma forest there offers us some different species than the lowland varzea forest around the lodge. That said, it was a bit of a slippery, muddy walk to get from the Rio Napo to the higher ground. But, once inside, we were treated to scarce species like Lunulated Antbird, more colorful species like Golden-collared Toucanet, and a new oropendola, Olive Oropendola. By the end of our hike and after lunch it was pretty hot, so we retreated to the lodge, but stopped by some exposed mud in the Rio Napo for Collared Plover, a species we had been scanning for during every river visit and finally popped up at the eleventh hour.

Having such an opportunity to be birding in such a remote wilderness, does, alas, mean that at some point we have to leave, and leaving a remote wilderness is a process. The inverse of our way in involved a canoe ride in the dark, a long motorboat ride back up a Rio Napo that had dropped more than 2 meters in the past few days, so steering around logs and getting hung up on sandbars. We made it to Coca, caught our flight back to Puembo, and were there in time for lunch. After opening up our luggage to let out the jungle humidity, and who knows what crawly things, and after a nap, we took a walk around the neighborhood for a last look at some tropical, dry country birds, before we had sushi for dinner and summed up our week of good times.

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