Ecuador: Amazonia at Napo Wildlife Center Jan 10—19, 2008

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 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.

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. Best of all, after several rainy mornings the raptors sat up for us. One group had a stunning Crested Eagle, another watched a hunting Black Hawk-Eagle, and collectively we had looks at Slender-billed, Hook-billed, Gray-headed, and Double-toothed kites, Black-faced Hawk, and even a very distant Harpy Eagle! In the shady subcanopy we tracked down trogons and Golden-collared Toucanets, woodcreepers and jacamars, and 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 a Zigzag Heron on a nest and another sitting on an open bank, plus sparkling kingfishers, the incredible Long-billed Woodcreeper, and stunning Blue-and-yellow Macaws. Overhead we watched monkeys, including the lovely golden-mantled tamarin and the rarely-seen monk saki. Our luck really held when a family of giant otters appeared in the lake one afternoon!

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, 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 sights at the Napo Wildlife Center is the spectacle of hundreds of parrots coming to eat clay from "saladeros" along the Napo River. After watching the larger species restlessly gathering and then descending, we hiked to a blind just inside the forest and waited until a mob of small Cobalt-winged Parakeets came down right in front of us. Amidst them were a few of the exquisite and rarely-seen Scarlet-shouldered Parrotlets and several colorful Orange-cheeked Parrots, while a Scarlet Macaw remained well-hidden in the trees above us. All of this and much more is part of this marvelous realm that we were lucky to enter for one wonderful week that passed all too quickly.