Ecuador: Amazonia at Napo Wildlife Center Jul 09—17, 2008
Posted by Paul Greenfield
The Napo Wildlife Center (NWC) experience is truly diverse, as well as unpredictable. As we breezed downstream on the powerful current of the Rio Napo, I sensed that something was different; we weren't weaving back and forth as is customary on this two to two-and-a-half-hour journey, magically following deeper channels cut beneath the sandy-brown silt-laden waters. The water levels had risen visibly high due to the heavy rains that were falling along the eastern slopes of the Andes farther to the west, and there was almost no presence of sand-bars and newly formed river islands as we beelined it towards our destination. Little could I have imagined just how that would affect the Añangu drainage where the NWC is situated, until we actually began paddling upstream along what would normally have been a narrow blackwater stream towards the lodge. But not this time; the swollen waters of the Napo had pushed back towards Añangucocha and filled the stream, spilling over its edges, some two meters in height. We were able to glide through newly created detours on what were normally forest trails, which shortened our entrance time considerably. From this first surprising afternoon onward we would experience the constant drop in water levels and daily increase in the presence of certain bird species that had slipped back deep into the forest due to this flooding—we were eye-witnesses to what makes this seasonally flooded varzea forest what it is.
But this initial perception was only a small part of this first incursion into the world of the NWC. We were, of course, in search of wildlife, and we quickly found some. Even before making our transfer from our motorized canoe (which transported us from civilization) to our paddle canoe (which would be our principal mode of transport away from the main river) at the Napo landing area, we were finding birds. We were greeted by some 18–20 species, including a confiding band of Violaceous Jays, a luminescent Orange-backed Troupial, a small family group of White-eared Jacamars, another family of Scarlet-crowned Barbets, a troop of Chestnut-eared Araçaris, and three soaring King Vultures! As we then paddled upstream, mesmerized by the dense vegetation and engulfed in a concert of new sounds, we came upon a Great Jacamar, White-fronted Nunbird, Slender-billed Kite, two Great Potoos posed in their customary stump-like disguises, a sleepy Pauraque hidden away on its day roost, crazy-looking clumsy Hoatzins, and pairs of scolding Black-capped Donacobius—by this time we had eased from within this enclosed and mysterious Añanguyacu and out into the broad cocha, or lake, that would be our home for the following week. As the sun fell and our eyes were drawn to the whole Napo Wildlife Center vista that lay before us, I could hear the wows and sighs that have become so customary, almost like clockwork; even I let out an involuntary exclamation, as though I had never witnessed this spectacular sight before.
Early the following morning we were out at dawn, paddling across the still black waters of Añangucocha to then make our way on foot to the forest canopy tower, perched high (12 stories up a steel-encased stairwell) in an emergent Ceiba tree. From this incredible vantage point we scanned the forest canopy over and over again…"Scarlet Macaw!" Sixto, our local guide, carefully aimed one of our spotting scopes at a perched pair, preening away as the early morning mist cleared. A small troop of red howler monkeys was spotted shortly afterwards. As the morning warmed up (yes, it was cool in the equatorial tropical rainforest this morning), a spectacular Spangled Cotinga flaunted its fluorescent turquoise plumage, followed by an equally resplendent Plum-throated Cotinga—the two eventually sat so close together that we scoped them both in the same field of view for a most convenient comparison. A tiny nest, propped up on a branch of "our" tree, held an incubating female Festive Coquette, and in a flowering tree below we watched an active crowd of Purple Honeycreepers…and then a pair of scarce Short-billed Honeycreepers. And so it went—araçaris here, oropendolas there, a Yellow-browed Tody-Flycatcher, a pair of Yellow-bellied Dacnis, and then Sixto summoned me to the telescope once again. Way out in a distant tree his keen eyes had perceived a curious looking "spot"; after some focusing, checking, and refocusing, the verdict was in—yes, it was a Harpy Eagle (the "Hulk" of the Amazon rainforest)! We were so lucky, but it was so far away.
We continued finding and admiring more and more species. A pair of calling White-throated Toucans jerked their bodies around with every yelp, and then another large shape became evident, perched on a thick branch of another distant tree. The trusty telescope was summoned yet again and, sure enough, a closer Harpy Eagle sat preening. We all took turns watching—its broad bi-parted crest swung about as it arranged its feathers—for close to an hour! The huge forest predator finally took flight, only to land on a treetop not far away, where it sat some more.
Not all of our field trips were as easy as this first morning; after all, this is the upper Amazon Basin, where there's just no way of knowing what will happen. While birding the Tiputini Trail we encountered floodwaters and were forced to abandon our original plan. We took an alternative side trail and eventually came upon a fairly large army ant swarm with definitely the best looks I have ever had of a Lunulated Antbird, singing his heart out in plain view. Our visit to the two saladeros (or clay licks) to watch what is billed as a great parrot show, was not very successful (although we managed to secure excellent looks at pairs of Spot-winged Antbirds and Yellow-billed Nunbirds), but we were able to repeat the visit a few days later in hopes of having better luck.
On that second visit, the situation did improve and we were able to witness this fascinating phenomenon at the Rio Napo saladero. As we hiked our way into the forest saladero along the newly-paved walkway being constructed through the forest, it was clear from the general silence that the psittacids were not close by. Would this be another "dud" like our first visit? As we came upon the constructed blind and could clearly view the whole scene, a large shape protruded…a Brazilian tapir stood firmly in the clearing! This large male lifted its head and slowly walked off, stage left—unbelievable! A few members of our group who had just arrived missed the action, and those of us who witnessed it began describing our fortunate sighting. A few minutes passed and from the left, the magnificent creature slowly came forward again, walked across the clearing, and calmly exited stage right. Everyone was thrilled! As we excitedly discussed what had just happened and compared photographs taken, the tapir returned yet again—this time positioning himself fully center stage in the small clearing—and began to drink the water that seeped from the small cave that was formed at the base of the steep embankment in front of us. He calmly quenched himself for some 45 minutes before quietly disappearing back into the forest. The parakeets followed.
This was definitely the result of the far-sighted, responsible care being taken by the Añangu community that has created this marvelous project through a series of wise decisions made over a decade ago, when its 43 families foresaw a more viable future for themselves and their children in conscientiously protecting the spectacular biodiversity that surrounded them. They opted to forgo traditional hunting and fishing practices to allow wildlife to live without the pressure and fear that is seen almost everywhere throughout the Amazon Basin. The results are becoming more and more evident. This, for example, was a first for the area, and even though we were apparently "deep" in the jungle, word spread quickly—the lodge and the community were buzzing with the news.
The increased and continued sightings of a healthy number of primates throughout the area is another constant reminder of what has been happening here; we saw six species of monkeys on this trip, including a curious group of monk sakis and repeated sightings of adorable golden-mantled tamarins (that came right in to the lodge grounds to feed in nearby Inga trees and on some bananas placed out by the dining hall), along with the regular troops of common squirrel monkeys and white-fronted capuchins that were seen crashing about on several occasions throughout the area.
Our birding was varied and challenging, including intense episodes and exciting moments for all. On our last afternoon, after having been only partially successful in locating a calling Zigzag Heron two nights earlier, it seemed that for most of our group the species would get away unseen. As Laurel was paddled back towards the lodge earlier than the rest of us, her trusty boatman spotted an active nest of this rare heron (boy, are these guys good!). Upon our return to "camp" we quickly organized a makeshift expedition to relocate the Zigzag, with some pretty vague directions as to its location. Incredibly, and clearly not sure where the nest was actually situated, our boatman spotted (without binoculars!) a truly hermetically disguised Zigzag at its nest. It took us a little while, maneuvering our canoe back and forth, until we all had it. Not bad for a last minute find!