Ecuador: Amazonia at Napo Wildlife Center Jan 14—23, 2009

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 familiar behind and entered the world of the Amazonian rainforest. Our introduction began at the community landing, with the first noisy oropendolas and caciques, and soon we were silently canoeing along, gawking at the luxuriant vegetation and listening to a cacophony of strange sounds. We spotted our first monkeys, a troop of comical squirrel monkeys rummaging through the trees, and birds like the Great Potoo at its day roost and a Blue-throated Piping-Guan in the canopy. Our explorations had begun, and for the next week we would immerse ourselves in tracking down the special sights of the area, with the alert eyes and ears of our native guide, Jorge Rivadeneira. Seemingly so uniform at first, the forest proved to be endlessly varied. During our week here we explored different habitats and watched as water levels in the varzea forest changed almost daily. Each excursion produced special sightings, small pieces of a very complex puzzle, and by the time we left we had begun to understand a bit about this unique environment.

On our first day we hiked into the upland terra firme forest, a tangled mass of vegetation that never floods. A stunning male Black-necked Red-Cotinga hiding in the subcanopy and lovely male White-crowned and Blue-crowned manakins were fabulous, but the family group of woolly monkeys was perhaps the greatest highlight, the thick-limbed male keeping close watch on us while a female and youngster fed nearby. This big monkey has been hunted to extirpation over large areas and its presence here is indicative of the degree of protection this forest has received from the local community.

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 other inhabitants of this sunny realm. Below, in the shady subcanopy, we tracked down trogons, Purplish Jacamar, Brown Nunlet, and woodcreepers, while staying alert to the skulkers present along the trails. Tops among them were the delicate Banded Antbird that came right up to us and a Rusty-belted Tapaculo calmly perched on a mossy log, but the best was a Great Tinamou that flushed from its nest in a tree buttress, revealing four porcelain-blue eggs. On later walks past this site we carefully snuck past so that we would not disturb the incubating adult, so well-camouflaged we could barely discern it.

Leisurely canoe trips along the lakeshore and creeks produced a  Zigzag Heron on a nest, plus sparkling kingfishers, four species of lovely Celeus woodpeckers, the incredible Long-billed Woodcreeper, and stunning Blue-and yellow Macaws. During a lunch stop at the landing we located a fierce-eyed Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl with its prey—a chicken (well, chick) from the local brood! 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. 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, but rarely did they go 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 large and noisy amazons and Blue-headed Parrots gathering and then descending to the bank, we hiked to a blind inside the nearby forest. Here we found a mob of the small Cobalt-winged Parakeets already present, amidst them a sprinkling of brilliant Orange-cheeked Parrots and exquisite Scarlet-shouldered Parrotlets. Nearby, in a shady nook in the heavy forest, a pair of roosting Crested Owls casually watched us as we thrilled to close-up views in the scope.

The Napo Wildlife Center is also a major sanctuary for wildlife other than birds. Never to be forgotten was the huge black caiman gliding silently past us, looking truly primeval. This was the monkey trip of all times, with a remarkable eight species seen by the group, including multiple looks at the rare monk saki, colorful (and range-restricted) golden-mantled tamarins, and a darling pygmy marmoset feeding at its sap wells. The surprises continued right up to our departure, when two gorgeous Agami Herons were spotted along the creek, and then, near the landing, a female Amazonian Umbrellabird feeding on cecropia catkins. What a sendoff!