Ecuador: Amazonia at Napo Wildlife Center Jan 06—15, 2006

Posted by David Wolf


David Wolf

David Wolf is a senior member of the VENT staff and one of our most experienced tour leaders. After birding the U.S. and Mexico for over a decade, an interest in the wildli...

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To visit the Napo Wildlife Center is to enter another realm, one totally different from our own. Here we left the veneer of "civilization" behind at the bustling frontier town of Coca, and entered the world of the Amazonian rainforest. As we canoed the final segment of our journey to the lodge, we spotted our first birds, gawked at the luxuriant vegetation, and realized that we had left all artificial noise behind. Our explorations had begun, and for the next week we would immerse ourselves in tracking down the special sights of this pristine area, with the help of the alert eyes and ears of our native guides. This great forest is their home and they are eager to show it off, to reveal things to us that we would never find on our own.

One of the greatest avian sights at the Napo Wildlife Center is the spectacle of hundreds of psittacids coming daily to eat clay from banks along the Napo River. Here we watched breathlessly from a blind as dozens of noisy Yellow-crowned, Mealy, and Blue-headed parrots, and Dusky-headed Parakeets descended to the ground right in front of us. Later we hiked to a smaller lick inside the humid forest, where a cacophonous mob of Cobalt-winged Parakeets had gathered. It took a while, but they finally flew down to the mineral lick, and amidst them we spotted colorful Orange-cheeked Parrots and several rare Scarlet-shouldered Parrotlets, while a Scarlet Macaw perched silently overhead. Does it get better than this?

The comical Hoatzin was clearly the favorite bird of our group, and we quickly became familiar with them. Though common over a wide area, this unique species is endlessly fascinating. Found only in South America, it is the only member of its family, and is so odd that taxonomists can't even agree on its closest relatives. They feed on leaves, mostly obtained at night, and have an extra "stomach" for digesting this mass, a strange diet indeed for a sizable bird. As we passed by in canoes, they hissed and flapped, and perhaps retreated a little, but rarely did they go very far. Their nests are crude bowls of twigs placed over the water (we checked on one almost daily), and the chicks have spurs at the bend of the wing for climbing back into the bushes if spooked from the nest. Archaeopteryx anyone?

Every excursion into the forest was like working on a complex jigsaw puzzle, every sighting one small piece of a grand picture. Birding from the tower, a very secure marvel of engineering, gave us a new perspective on the canopy as we spotted and even shared "our" tree with aracaris, fruitcrows, puffbirds, cotingas, and dacnis, often at close range. Below us, in the shady midstory, we tracked down trogons and Golden-collared Toucanets, woodcreepers and jacamars, and many more. Far below, in the dark and shady understory, antbirds were present along the trails, the delicate Banded Antbird that paraded around in front of us undoubtedly the best. Overhead we watched monkeys, including the lovely and very localized Golden-mantled Tamarin, while Giant Otters were regular visitors to the lake in front of the lodge.

Perhaps our single greatest highlight was a canoe trip one especially magical evening, when we went questing for the near-mythical Zigzag Heron. As always, our local guides knew right where to go; as dusk fell, one began calling on cue, a booming hoot from the swampy tangles. With patience it wasn't long before we were all admiring this odd little heron in the spotlight, studying every detail of its plumage. With a million stars overhead, larval "glow worms" lighting our way, and a full moon about to rise, we silently paddled back to the lodge, listening to frog voices en route, and reflecting on this marvelous realm that we had entered for a brief time.