Ecuador: Amazonia at Napo Wildlife Center Jan 08—17, 2015

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 so totally different from our own that it is easy to feel “lost.” Here we left the familiar behind and entered the world of the Amazonian rainforest.  For our local guide Jorge Rivanideira, however, this forest is home and he knows it intimately. As soon as we arrived he began to put his knowledge and formidable skills to work for us, and for the next week we went from one exciting bird or animal to the next. Each excursion produced memorable sightings, small pieces of a very complex puzzle, and by the time we left we had begun to understand this unique environment a bit more.

Scarlet Macaw

Scarlet Macaw— Photo: David Wolf

We began our explorations based in quiet Anyangu village at the Yasuni Eco-Lodge, a project of the women of the community. Our first day was a full one, visiting an amazing variety of habitats along and near the great Napo River, beginning with a short hike across a sandbar to view a distant Amazonian Umbrellabird sitting up in an emergent tree. From there it was off to the famous clay licks along the river banks where dozens of rowdy Mealy, Yellow-crowned, and Blue-headed parrots and Dusky-headed Parakeets came down to eat the mineral-impregnated dirt, an incredible cacophony of sound and color. Since it was a cloudy and relatively cool morning we then opted to land on a river island, replete with its own ecology of colonizing plants and birds rarely found on the “mainland.” Rounding up a tiny Gray-breasted Crake was a challenge, but eventually we circled it and all had point-blank looks as it froze motionless amidst the tufts of grass. Birds like this may not be rare, but they are rarely seen, and to have it right at our feet was stunning. In the late morning we made our first walk into the true rainforest, an especially lush area along a quiet stream leading to a small forest interior cave. As we approached the cave (and photo blind) it was clear from the deafening noise that hundreds of parakeets were present in the trees above the mineral lick, but above the high-pitched chattering we also heard the raucous squawks of shy Scarlet Macaws. It took time and patience, but eventually the birds came down to drink the salty mud— hundreds of Cobalt-winged Parakeets and a smattering of gorgeous Orange-cheeked Parrots and Scarlet-shouldered Parrotlets. Finally the macaws descended, giving us great photo ops when at least 5 birds landed just in front of us and stayed at the mud for some time, their colors blazing! This amazing day wasn’t over yet though, as a late afternoon stroll through the community yielded our first sighting of the cute Golden-mantled Tamarins, a primate of     very restricted range and the logo animal of the area, and then a White-lored Antpitta singing full force from just a few feet away as we stood motionless in the tall cane!

A light drizzle at dawn the next day delayed our departure a bit, but it soon stopped and we found ourselves climbing up their new tower on the crest of the first low ridge above the Napo. As we ascended this sturdy and stable structure, we just went higher and higher until we were astounded to find ourselves well above the forest canopy, with magnificent vistas of the vast forest stretching in all directions from the Napo inland across the huge Yasuni National Park. As we adjusted our senses a parade of birds began, and for most of the morning we found ourselves racing back and forth on the platform and up and down a few flights of stairs. Colorful Gilded and Lemon-throated barbets and a male Black-tailed Trogon came right into “our” tree at close range, parrots raced by below us, and five members of the toucan family were spotted. Best of all was a pair of rarely-seen Purple-throated Cotingas, an enigmatic bird of the high canopy. In his many years of guiding here Jorge had never seen this species so closely or well! The show continued even as we descended the tower, when a gorgeous Great Jacamar popped out and sat in the open, just as a mixed-flock with White-fronted Nunbirds, Amazonian Trogons, woodcreepers, and two species of becards passed through.

Purple-throated Cotinga

Purple-throated Cotinga— Photo: David Wolf

From here we made our first trip up Anyangu Creek to the Napo Wildlife Center, gazing in awe as we passed through the dark and mysterious swamp forest, with its masses of tangled roots and epiphyte-laden trees. At times it was absolutely still as we drifted along in silence, but then suddenly something special would appear like magic, like the Agami Heron slipping away up the bank or a sleepy Boat-billed Heron at its day roost, or the brilliant blue flash of a passing Morpho butterfly. A pair of Black-banded Owls roosting high up in a vine-tangled tree was a rare surprise, but best of all was a well-concealed Zigzag Heron frozen motionless on a nest overhanging the creek, spotted by our quiet but very adept paddler. Most of what little is known about this near-mythical bird has been learned in this region, but this was the first nest that the local guides had found this season.

A visit to the Napo Wildlife Center tower the next morning again took us into the realm of the canopy, where much of the activity of the forest happens. Toucans and oropendolas were much in evidence, a White-necked Puffbird came right into our tree a few feet away, and we spotted our first Red Howler Monkeys. Unfortunately, an extremely distant Harpy Eagle never came closer to us—but just knowing that this indicator species is present here was thrilling. Mid-afternoon brought a very impressive storm that blew in from across the lake, but it passed through quickly, as tropical storms often do, and a late afternoon canoe cruise on the tranquil lagoon was a perfect ending to the day.

On Day 4 we went for quality rather than quantity, as we hiked well back into the very tall high-ground (terra firme) forest. Even though this is the richest environment on earth for species diversity, it is not an easy habitat to work. Layers of vegetation seem to reach endlessly to the sky, while so little light penetrates the understory that it is always dark and dense. Often the forest seems very quiet, while at other times mysterious voices are heard  but cannot be spotted. All of this combines to make every sighting that much more special. Our first great bird here appeared with the briefest flicker of movement, when a stunning Purplish Jacamar zipped out from the midstory and returned to a perch with its insect prey. For the next 10 minutes we enjoyed watching this performance over and over, amazed at the bird’s agility. Then we played games with a softly-calling Black-throated Trogon which eventually landed in full view, just as a small lek of Screaming Pihas began sounding off. This is one of the most amazing sounds of the forest, incredibly loud and distinctive, but made by a very plain gray thrush-like bird that was—typically—quite hard to spot. Soon thereafter a thundering stampede somewhere in the forest froze us in our tracks. White-lipped Peccaries! Jorge motioned us to follow him off the trail in pursuit, but alas, all we saw of them were a few gray rumps disappearing in the understory. It was then that we turned our attention to the monkeys crashing through the tall trees above us and realized that it was a sizable troop of Woolly Monkeys, the largest New World primate. Fortunately they calmed down and we were able to watch them for almost 30 minutes, truly a rare treat as this is one of the most heavily-hunted mammals in the Amazonian forests, locally extirpated in many areas, as are the peccaries. Our major quest for the morning lay further ahead, however, and we pushed along to an open grove of shady trees nestled at the base of a low ridge. Within seconds of arriving here Jorge had spotted our goal, a male Black-necked Red Cotinga. We all got one quick look in the scope before it left, a look that would have been enough, but…we waited patiently, the bird returned, and it then sat still for the next 45 minutes! This bird is so beautiful and so scarce that I firmly stated that I was not leaving until it left, and it started to seem like we might be there all day, except that a large herd of peccaries were again heard nearby. This time Jorge was able to push them towards us so that we caught glimpses as they moved away up-slope, in the process flushing the cotinga.

Giant Otters

Giant Otters— Photo: David Wolf

Another special creature that Napo is known for had so far been missing in action for us, so the next day we birded our way down the creek in the canoes, finally encountering the family group of Giant Otters. They popped up right beside our canoe, hissing and grunting and disturbed by our close presence, and then scrambled up a muddy bank. Apparently they didn’t want to be there, so they descended back down the bank, plopped into the creek, and then proceeded to swim alongside of us for a long time, several of them momentarily pulling up onto a log for full views. This is yet another of the locally-extirpated glamour mammals of South America, and their presence here is indicative of just how well the Anyangu community is protecting their forests and wildlife. Here along the creek we also encountered a rowdy troop of Capuchin monkeys, several of the youngsters coming down to inspect us closely; watched Silvered, Dot-backed, and Plumbeous antbirds foraging next to our canoe; encountered uncommon Monk Saki monkeys; and held our breath when a gorgeous adult Agami Heron in full breeding-plumage stalked into view.

On our final morning afield we again visited the Napo tower, this time completing our list of all of the cotingas of the region with the sighting of a male Plum-colored. Even better was the male Spangled Cotinga that landed right beside us in our tree, while we were looking down on close Gilded Barbets and Many-banded Aracaris. A mixed-flock of the small birds of the canopy circled us several times, acquainting us with Pygmy Antwren, euphonias, dacnis, tanagers, and several obscure little flycatchers, while our return walk through the forest took us to an active lek of brilliant male Golden-headed Manakins displaying in the midstory. Here Jorge’s incredible eyes spotted a Citron-bellied Attila perched motionless high overhead, a rare good sighting of this range-restricted species. On our final canoe cruise late that afternoon we said goodbye to old friends like the Hoatzins and Donacobius…and all too soon our week in this amazing place came to an end, though the memories will linger forever. Our special thanks go to Jorge and all of the members of the Anyangu community who have protected their forest and wildlife so well and made this visit possible.