Sacha Lodge, Day 5: April 10, 2009

Our final full day at Sacha Lodge was to be a rich one, as we spent the morning on the Canopy Walk, midday on the trails through terra firme forest, and the afternoon and evening in the varzeá forest. It would also be a day of unrivaled photographic opportunities, and on several occasions I would understand exactly how Murray Cooper, creator of the extraordinary Plumas: Birds in Ecuador, captured some of his incredible photographs, albeit with much better equipment than my Nikon D-80.

On our predawn walk to the Canopy Walk, we passed through several Collared Puffbird territories, but the bird wasn't calling at this time of year, Oscar reported, although that didn't stop us from trying a few times. I definitely suffered a bit in missing this spectacular bird, and Oscar was sympathetic as he admitted it was his favorite bird in all of the Oriente. We did locate the Black-Throated Trogon though, before we climbed up into the first of the three metal towers that constitute the famous Canopy Walk.

The weather was still a bit foggy after the previous night of rain, but Ivan, who was in the lead, quickly spotted the Black Hawk-Eagle perched on a bare branch a few meters away. Clearly visible were the bird's black thighs with white barring, and its short but bushy crest looked impressive as the bird looked back at us frozen on the walk. It dove off into the forest silently, but we would hear it calling later in the morning and eventually spot it again in better light although at a much greater distance.

Moving along to the third tower, where we would be stationed all morning due to the presence of other groups of tourists, we set up the scope and started scanning the treetops for other raptors as well as mixed flocks. As the fog lifted the action became fast and furious with Oscar and Ivan pointing out birds left and right and Aimee and I trying to keep up while still appreciating each bird before moving on to the next. Other raptors looking to dry out in the morning sun included the White and Slate-Colored Hawks, and we would also spot the Golden-Collared Toucanet, Black-Headed Parrot, and Cream-Colored Woodpecker from a distance in the scope.

Just a short distance away though, a dense tree must have been fruiting, as throughout the morning it would be visited by a variety of cotingas, flycatchers, and tanagers. The Spangled and Plum-Throated Cotingas were most notable as their brilliant blue plumage contrasted strikingly with the canopy painted in myriad shades of green. The Opal-Crowned and Opal-Rumped Tanagers were almost equally visible, as their dark blue plumage became almost iridescent in the growing light. In a tree filled with Eastern Kingbirds, I noticed a decidedly different-looking bird that I struggled to identify until pointing it out to Ivan who quickly shouted to Oscar that there was a Purple-Throated Cotinga nearby. Stupidly, I hadn't studied this bird before the trip thinking that all cotingas were easily recognized and that we wouldn't see but the most common of them, but there it was with its stark white belly and deep purple throat, the male Purple-Throated Cotinga.

Activity continued as several mixed flocks passed by the walk at close range. A group of Opal-Crowned and Opal-Rumped Tanagers consorted with Orange-Bellied and Rufous-Bellied Euphonias at a flowering bromeliad, while a Orange-Fronted Plushcrown poked about in the recesses of some bare branches. Then another flock with the Flame-Crested, Masked, and Green-and-Gold Tanagers moved past on the opposite side of the walk; the Chesnut-Winged Hookbill was also in attendance though considerably less conspicuous than its brightly-colored companions. The morning was also productive for tyrant flycatchers as we spotted the noisy White-Lored Tyrannulet, Dusky-Capped and Sulphury Flycatchers, and Black-Tailed Tityra moving about the canopy.

Descending to the forest floor, we continued our search for the Striated Antthrush, which had now lasted four days. After a dogged pursuit through a number of different territories we finally had outrageous views of this secretive bird, as it called loudly while walking back and forth over a fallen log, its white and brown scalloping clearly visible and in splendid contrast with the green understory. Sadly, the Wire-Tailed Manakin lek was again inactive, and we would miss out on this delightful little bird for the trip, but we had nice view of the Plain-Throated Antwren, Ruddy Quail-Dove, and Amazonian Barred Woodcreeper before arriving back at the lodge for lunch.

We reconvened mid afternoon for a final excursion, this one by canoe through varzeá forest on the Orquidea and Anaconda Creeks. Sliding through the Orquidea we saw the Orange-Crested Manakin sitting out in plain view only meters away, its orange crest clearly visible as it preened its feathers. I was too stunned to take photographs and might have had to change lenses anyway as the bird was sitting so close. Next, the White-Chinned Jacamar responded quickly to playback, offering much better views than previously, and again the Silvered Antbird moved quietly about. Suddenly the sibilant sounds of the forest were overwhelmed as a large troop of White-Fronted Capuchin Monkeys moved overhead causing a terrible commotion as they sprang from tree to tree. They were followed by a group of enterprising Gray-Headed Tanagers that were catching insects flushed by the monkeys; this delightful varzeá specialists was one of my targets for the trip. On the way out, we encountered the Rufous-Tailed Flatbill again and passed under a perched Green-and-Rufous Kingfisher.

Paddling across Pilchicocha with time running out on the day and the trip, we made our way inside the varzeá on Anaconda Creek. Blasting out the call of the Zigzag Heron, our final target bird, on his iPod, Oscar pushed us deeper into the forest as the light grew dimmer. Once thought to be very rare, the Zigzag is still an elusive bird, being nocturnal, very small, and a denizen of heavy cover. We were all thrilled to hear it finally respond to playback with its strange grunting call, but the bird refused to move from its perch way back in the forest. After a half an hour of experimenting with playback, during which we had surprise views of the White-Chinned Jacamar, White-Bearded Manakin, and Lawrence's Thrush, the heron suddenly flew out from the cover and perched on an open branch just a few meters away.

With its short tail flipping back and forth, the Zigzag Heron seemed agitated but unaware of our presence as it peered around in the darkness for the bird that was making whatever call Oscar had just been playing. I was stunned to see the bird at all, much less out in the open like this, and I had to be prodded by Oscar to take some photographs before it darted upstream. We laughed nervously for a few minutes about our incredible luck while Oscar noted gravely that that was the best look we'd ever get at the heron in our entire lives. A minute later though, we passed directly underneath the heron, this time perched on a trunk leaning over the creek, coming within a meter's distance before it darted back inside the forest. "Never again," Oscar muttered and shook his head meaningfully. Not even a graceful Limpkin flying overhead could break the spell as we returned to the lodge in darkness.

Notable birds seen: Zigzag Heron, Slender-Billed Kite, White Hawk, Slate-Colored Hawk, Black Hawk-Eagle, Limpkin, Ruddy Quail-Dove, Chestnut-Fronted Macaw, Red-Bellied Macaw, Black-Headed Parrot, Blue-Headed Parrot, Black-Throated Trogon, Green-and-Rufous Kingfisher, Blue-Crowned Motmot, White-Chinned Jacamar, Gilded Barbet, Many-Banded Aracari, Golden-Collared Toucanet, Cream-Colored Woodpecker, Red-Stained Woodpecker, Amazonian Barred Woodcreeper, Straight-Billed Woodcreeper, Buff-Throated Woodcreeper, Orange-Fronted Plushcrown, Plain-Throated Antwren, Silvered Antbird, Striated Antthrush, White-Bearded Manakin, Orange-Crested Manakin, Plum-Throated Cotinga, Purple-Throated Cotinga, White-Lored Tyrannulet, Cinnamon Atilla, Sulphury Flycatcher, Lawrence's Thrush, White-Vented Euphonia, Opal-Rumped Tanager, Flame-Crested Tanager, Gray-Headed Tanager, Crested Oropendola, Casqued Oropendola.

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