Ecuador: Amazonia at Napo Wildlife Center Jan 08—17, 2017
Posted by Paul Greenfield
This January’s amazing week-long Amazonia at Napo Wildlife Center tour offered the ultimate Amazon experience, complete with mystical sunrises and dramatic sunsets; taking in the myriad of sounds that emanated from the magical rainforest as our canoe slid in silence along shady blackwater streams; firsthand encounters with the most complex and diverse wildlife on earth in total immersion within this ecosystem, along jungle trails (even bushwacking off-trail) to seek out the exotic and the secretive; climbing (also taking one elevator!) atop three different canopy towers to view this world from above; exploring fascinating river island habitats on foot; and witnessing the congregation of hundreds and hundreds of parrots and parakeets along with a group of macaws as they indulged in the unique saladero (clay-lick) phenomenon from the comfort of our motor canoe and a forest blind. Literally, right out of the gate, we identified a pair of Cattle Tyrants (few Ecuadorian records of this relatively recent arrival) as we exited Francisco de Orellana Airport. Now with our excellent local birding guide, Jorge Rivadeneira, we set out on our brief first afternoon outing around the Añangu village and community trail which produced, among many trip firsts, an exceptional look at a beautiful Black-spotted Bare-eye—and our first three owls, two of them in just a few quick minutes, right by our cabins!
Our adventure continued the following morning from Yasuní Kichwa Ecolodge with six displaying Amazonian Umbrellabirds perched up in a tall Mimosa tree along the shores of the Río Napo; a deafening cacophony of screeches and yodels focused our attention on hordes of Yellow-crowned and Mealy amazons swarming around the river edge salt-lick and surrounding trees—what a show! We continued on to a river island where we disembarked to search for several specialty species; among them we encountered Ladder-tailed Nightjar; Olive-spotted Hummingbird; Lesser Hornero; Dark-breasted, White-bellied, and Parker’s spinetails; Black-and-white Antbird; River Tyrannulet; Fuscous Flycatcher; Spotted Tody-Flycatcher; Orange-headed Tanager; and Oriole Blackbird. We moved on to the forest interior where we sat at a well-constructed shelter/blind that opened onto another saladero to be eventually delighted by three Scarlet Macaws that flew to the ground to drink the medicinal waters that collected there—wow! We also came across a beautiful Collared Puffbird and four Crested Owls; one got flushed and the others on their day roost! We returned to the lodge for lunch and then headed for our paddle canoe at the Napo Wildlife Center landing site, where we met up with our “rudder-man,” soon referred to as Ojo-de-águila (eagle-eye) Vladimir. The Napo had risen tremendously the day before we arrived, and as the waters receded (actually continuing their eastward flow towards the mighty Amazon River), the counter-current along Añanguyacu—the normally lazy blackwater stream—was impressively strong, making our paddle-driven trip quite the task. But what a thrill, gliding through such a lush and varied environment, stopping to call up and get to see a number of great birds like Spix’s Guan, a Zigzag Heron sitting bittern-like on its nest at point-blank range (almost too close to focus!), Boat-billed Heron, our first Hoatzins, Silvered and Dot-backed antbirds, Long-billed Woodcreeper, Rufous-tailed Flatbill, and the animated Black-capped Donacobius. Then, finally coming out onto the broad lake—Añangucocha—with such spectacular views of the impressive Napo Wildlife Center, as the sun was setting, conjured up mental images from some Hollywood fantasy adventure flick, but this was real and created by a humble Amerindian community; just amazing!
From the comfort of this excellent lodge, our outings varied from forest and stream birding to scanning the canopy atop three impressive towers, from which we admired three species of wonderful Celeus woodpeckers (Ringed, Cream-colored, and Scaly-breasted); five oropendola species (including Green, Olive, and Casqued); and nice studies of Great Jacamar, Yellow-browed Tody-Flycatcher, and a mixed-species tanager flock that generously graced “our” tree. The Napo River Trail gave us stellar looks at a beautiful male Wire-tailed Manakin, a roosting Great Tinamou, and a Black-banded Owl among other treats. Our day along the Tiputini Trail, where we explored rich terra firme forest, with a good dose of off-the-beaten-track bushwacking, presented us with a herd of White-lipped Peccary during our lunch break (some 20–30 of the perhaps “multi-hundred” that passed through in organized single file); we spotted Jaguar tracks too! Woolly Monkeys—several bunches of this rather scarce and endangered primate that suffers so harshly from hunting pressure over much of its world range—here are returning in safety due to the longstanding no-hunting ethics imposed by the Añangu Kichwa community at NWC. We worked our way through tangled undergrowth to obtain fine views of the classy and quite scarce Black-neck Red-Cotinga! We secured great looks at Dwarf Tyrant-, Blue-backed, White-crowned, Striped, Blue-crowned, and Golden-headed manakins at their respective leks; these tiny forest “firecrackers” (well, maybe not the tiny and plain Dwarf Tyrant-Manakin) are always a real treat.
We returned to the Río Napo one day to revisit the forest saladero and climb a super tall tower set just a short walk in from the river’s shores, which offered impressive panoramic vistas of the rolling terra firme forest and the river far below. Now, at the lick, up to six Scarlet Macaws descended to the ground in a stunning display and eventually, after displaying a good dose of patience, we finally witnessed the cautious descent and invasion of hundreds of Cobalt-winged Parakeets and a lovely handful of Orange-cheeked Parrots that we had heard so much about… and boy was that noisy! A Rusty-belted Tapaculo gave us a run-for-our-money and finally showed itself nicely right from the saladero shelter. On the other hand, the canopy tower also demanded some patience as we scanned about for a while before getting any action—but it did come, and we really enjoyed nice eye level views of a Swallow-tailed Kite, two Plumbeous Kites as they soared around us, perched Crane Hawk, and Double-toothed Kite. A Channel-billed Toucan and a couple of Black-headed Parrots graced our scope, and somewhere around the time that Lettered, Many-banded, and Ivory-billed araçaris showed up, a mixed foraging flock appeared and worked its way through the canopy offering its bounty, with Lemon-throated Barbets; Paradise, Opal-rumped, Opal-crowned, Green-and-gold, and Flame-crested tanagers; Blue and Black-faced dacnises; and Purple and Green honeycreepers among the attendees.
The experiences kept piling up, the birds too numerous and varied to do justice in this brief report; it would be unfair to leave out the many primate encounters we enjoyed which included Golden-mantled Tamarin; Dusky (or Red) Titi; Common Squirrel; Night and Red Howler monkeys; and we also heard White-fronted Capuchin and White-bellied Spider-Monkey (but could not quite get to see them); as well as a young Green Anaconda and so much more. The experience would not have reached its level of excellence if it were not for Jorge and Vladimir and their skills, knowledge of the forest, species territories, and sharp eyes. Imagine this: On more than one occasion Vladimir, who was busy paddling and steering our canoe, somehow was able to spot—in the dark, without a flashlight—first a sleeping hummingbird (yup, I said a hummingbird!), and then a Zigzag Heron, both perched motionless and absolutely inconspicuously among leaves and branches! This was just a small part of the magic that is Napo Wildlife Center…it must be experienced to be believed.