Visiting the eastern lowlands in Ecuador, or the Oriente, takes a significant investment of time, money, and patience. This would be my first formal visit to a jungle lodge in several years, and I wanted Aimee and me to have the best possible experience, birding a variety of habitats with expert assistance while enjoying relatively comfortable accommodations. After researching Sacha, La Selva, Sani, Yuturi, Kapawi, and Tapir Lodges, as well as Napo Wildlife Center, I felt that Sacha Lodge offered the best overall package and committed to a 6 day/5 night stay, which really amounts to four full days of birding. Like Sani, La Selva, and Yuturi Lodges, Sacha Lodge is located on the lower Napo River several hours downriver from Coca, a fast-growing town that serves as a hub for oil extraction in the Napo region.
Oscar Tepuy, likely the best native birding guide in eastern Ecuador, and Ivan Andi, one of Sacha Lodge's best young and aspiring native guides, led the two of us through a wide variety of different excursions, taking great care to search for specialties and making sure that both of us had good looks at as many birds as possible. With expert understanding of individual birds and their territories, and careful use of playback, laser pointer, and scope, Oscar and Ivan made an incredibly effective team, tracking down and showing us a number of very difficult birds, including the Rufous-Headed Woodpecker, Black-Banded Crake, Ash-Throated Gnateater, Thrush-Like Antpitta, Yellow-Browed Antbird, and Zigzag Heron. (I also spotted a few tough birds myself, including the Purple-Throated Cotinga and Chestnut-Capped Puffbird.)
With ample time in both terra firme and várzea forest, as well as visits to riparian and river island habitat, we covered the six major habitats of the eastern lowlands catching sight and sound of approximately 250 different bird species in total. This combination of access to different habitats and quality of the guides must surely make Sacha Lodge the best birding option in the Oriente. I have included a map of the lodge's property here and will briefly outline in the following paragraphs how birders are exposed to all six of the major bird habitats of the eastern lowlands on a visit to the lodge.
The majority of our time was spent in terra firme forest, which is the predominant habitat in the Oriente and boasts a huge variety of bird species ranging from the forest floor to the canopy. On the lodge property there are a number of interconnected trails winding through different bird territories; these are usually explored on the way back and forth from the Canopy Walk or the Kapok Tower. There are also excellent trails through terra firme forest on the south side of the Napo River, which are explored on full-day visits to Providencia and Yasuni National Park.
We also spent a lot of time in várzea forest, whether on elevated walkways or by canoe. The lengthy walk to the lodge itself from the Napo River passes through such seasonally flooded forest, and we also saw várzea specialists on canoe rides through both the Orquidea and Anaconda Creeks. This habitat is undoubtedly the most difficult to access, and Sacha Lodge has adroitly created opportunities for birders to spend considerable time exploring it.
Riparian woodland and forest is often explored by boat on excursions up and down the Napo, but the beginning of the walk to the lodge also passes through this habitat. We happened to spend a full rainy morning at La Finca, which is where the motorized canoes drop passengers off after the journey from Coca, birding this habitat probably a litte more than we would have liked. We also made several stops in this habitat on our two excursions from the lodge, visiting various stakeouts for different birds.
Although we didn't have the chance to walk around through river island scrub, we trolled along the sides of several islands birding by motorized canoe. This weedy and unimpressive habitat is actually home to a unique avifauna, supporting several species that are found nowhere else in the world. In a different season when the Napo River is lower, birders have the opportunity to explore these islands on foot.
The lodge is located on the edge of an oxbow lake called Pilchicocha, so birders have ample opportunity to bird this habitat whether at the beginning or end of another excursion or during their down time after lunch, for example. It would have been nice to have access to a canoe to explore the lake individually, which is possible at Sani Lodge, but there wasn't much time for this anyway.
Finally, there are numerous stands of Moriche Palm along El Anden, which is the name for the area through which the elevated entrance walkway passes, and the palm also grows in patches along the Anaconda and Orquidea Creeks. Birders will certainly have the chance to witness the few specialists to this habitat during the various excursions, but it was never a big priority for us on our trip.
To ensure sufficient time in all six of these habitats, I would recommend a trip at least as long as ours (6 days/5 nights), considering that poor weather will likely disrupt one or more excursions. If you're a hardcore birder, I would strongly encourage you to obtain the services of a private birding guide, which allows you to design and modify your own itinerary without having to compromise with the needs or desires of other birders which may be less serious or skilled than you. Finally, I would avoid having too many expectations about the trip while still doing as much research and study beforehand as possible. (I obsessed too much about finding an ant swarm with attending antbirds when I could have done a better job studying calls of more common birds.) You'll undoubtedly see some rare and beautiful birds, just not always the ones you expect.