Ecuador: Amazonia at Napo Wildlife Center Jan 05—14, 2007

Posted by David Wolf

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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 the 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.

Of the many birds here, the comical Hoatzin quickly became a group favorite. 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 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?

One of the greatest avian sights at the Napo Wildlife Center is the spectacle of hundreds of psittacids coming daily to eat clay from "saladeros" along the Napo River. After watching the larger species restlessly gathering along the riverbanks, we hiked to a blind just inside the forest and watched breathlessly as a cacophonous mob of the smaller species descended to the ground right in front of us. The common Cobalt-winged Parakeets dominated, but amidst them were dozens of the exquisite and rarely-seen Scarlet-shouldered Parrotlets and several colorful Orange-cheeked Parrots, while eventually several Scarlet Macaws perched just above us. Does it get better than this?

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 aracaris, fruitcrows, puffbirds, cotingas, and dacnis. Below us, in the shady midstory, we tracked down trogons and Golden-collared Toucanets, woodcreepers and jacamars, and much more. Far below, in the dark understory, antbirds and other skulkers were present along the trails. Leisurely canoe trips along the lakeshore and creeks produced two Zigzag Heron nests, the sitting birds incredibly well-camouflaged, plus sparkling kingfishers, the incredible Long-billed Woodcreeper, and stunning Blue-and-yellow Macaws. Overhead we watched monkeys, including the lovely and very localized golden-mantled tamarin, and the rarely-seen monk saki. A stop on an open river island was highlighted by a normally elusive Gray-breasted Crake right at our feet?a rare look at an incredibly delicate and beautiful bird. All of this and much more is part of this marvelous realm that we were privileged to enter for a wonderful week that passed all too quickly.