Sani Lodge, Day 2: August 11, 2009

On the morning of our first day, we motored out to the Napo River island to sweep up the specialists. As every well-researched birder is aware, these large neotropical rivers make for exceptionally dynamic environments: new sediment deposits from Andean runoff quickly turns into sandbars and then islands, which soon become overgrown by grasses pioneer plants that eventually provide enough cover for cecropia trees, all finally being replaced by more diverse vegetation that requires greater shade and nutrients. Of course, a whole range of bird species have adapted to these transitional, initially scrubby habitats, making up a substantial chunk of the eastern lowlands bird list.

Domingo has the island wired and knew exactly where to find some of the more difficult birds, including the Castlelnau's Antshrike and all four spinetail species: Dark-Breasted, Plain-Crowned, Parker's, and White-Bellied Spinetails. But before diving into the densely vegetated island, we spent some time patrolling the open sandy areas, picking up the Least Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Collared Plover, Mottle-Backed Elaenia, Mouse-Colored Tyrannulet, and Chestnut-Bellied Seedeater. We also stumbled upon a Ladder-Tailed Nightjar, which made a rather big production of flushing out of our way, giving us great looks at its bold white wing patches before it found another roost.

Stalking through the tall cane grass, we realized quickly how challenging it would be for everyone in our party to see each bird for themselves. It took several minutes for everyone to locate the Olive-Spotted Hummingbird and Little Woodpecker moving rapidly about over our heads, and only Domingo and I had a brief look at a male Castlenau's Antshrike before it darted away. Fortunately, no one cared as much as I did about seeing each and every island specialist, so I shadowed Domingo closely, spotting the Orange-Headed Tanager, Spotted Tody-Flycatcher, and Lesser Hornero without having a chance to point them out to my father. These subtle birds aren't exactly what visiting birders have in mind when they visit the eastern lowlands; fortunately, we also ran into the showy Oriole Blackbird, Chestnut-Eared Aracari, and Orange-Backed Troupial in this unimpressive habitat.

I also earned my place at the front of the line because I was the only one present with audio equipment. Reeling in the Castlelnau's Antshrike, Parker's Spinetail, and Black-and-White Antbird, all for incredibly good looks, secured my place at Domingo's side (it didn't hurt that I was the only one who spoke Spanish either). Just as we were building some momentum, though, it started to rain, and we passed the next few hours standing miserably on the beach in our ponchos. You don't want to flee excellent habitat when it rains, especially considering that shelter is often so far away, but there's not much birding to be done in these situations. Ultimately, the rain drove us back to the docking compound on the shore of the Napo, where we looked around fruitlessly for the Amazonian Umbrellabird before the unseasonably wet weather finally cleared up.

Our next excursion would be up a trail along the nothern shore of the Napo, through good riparian habitat to a stakeout for the White-Lored Antpitta, which I had missed at Sacha. Within a short stretch of 100m we spotted the Crimson-Crested Woodpecker, Orange-Backed Troupial, White-Shouldered Antbird, and Rufous-Headed Woodpecker, the latter being stellar enough for us to abandon a calling Black-Spotted Bare-Eye nearby. After this amazing run, we then irked an aggressive White-Lored Antpitta out of impossibly deep cover, where everyone had terrific looks of the bird calling forcefully from the cane grass. Domingo explained that he's been visiting this site for several years and that the individual bird never fails to respond to playback by approaching the source. With lunch already being served back at the lodge, Domingo promised me we would give the island another go on one of the following afternoons, where I still lacked three spinetails, the Barred Antshrike, and a variety of flycatchers, including the tricky Fuscous Flycatcher, which only he had seen early that morning.

I never like to stop birding on an expensive trip such as this, and so I spent the normally quiet hour after lunch stomping around with my scope in search of more birds. Aside from the common Black-Fronted Nunbird and Violaceous Jay, I didn't see much and probably would have benefited more from a short nap. Regardless, we were soon back in the dugout and on our way to the Rufous Potoo Trail, passing both the Common and Great Potoos on our way. At this point in the trip my father was starting to annoy me by pointing out every Russet-Backed Oropendola and Pale-Vented Pigeon he saw, thinking they were of course some great and special bird and butchering their names when we pointed out otherwise. On the other hand, I had to give him a lot of credit for his remarkable stamina and enthusiasm; it's not like we had spent the morning in one of the canopy towers surrounded by gorgeous tanagers, cotingas, and toucans.

Before you see the Rufous Potoo you'll no doubt be bombarded by images of it, as the lodge promotes the rare bird on its website, postcards, and t-shirts. Seeing the bird in person, though, made me appreciate just how special it is, even among potoos, those well-camouflaged but brazen nocturnal birds. Staring through the scope at the Rufous Potoo, watching it sway almost imperceptibly, I finally realized why it was so unique. Adapted to look like a brown cluster of dead leaves, the bird roosts on horizontal lianas in the understory, its feathers flecked delicately with white in imitation of decaying organic matter. Even more remarkably, the potoo rocks gently on its perch when it detects a threat in its immediate environment, mimicking the subtle movements of leaves blowing in the wind. Before we moved on, Domingo explained the circumstances in which he first discovered the bird and pointed out its different perches in the vicinity.

While the Rufous Potoo definitely made the entire excursion worthwhile, there was still time to search out more birds along the trail through terra firme forest. Although the bird activity was pretty low, we surprised a giant Two-Toed Sloth slowly climbing a tree directly above the trail, marveling at its size and deliberate movements. Next, we wore out a Ruddy Spinetail as we used playback over and over in attempts to get my father a good look. As Domingo was without his laser pointer, he would have to settle for only seeing the bird with his naked eye, still being new to the routine of finding birds in his binoculars. We also gained a difficult perspective on the Wing-Barred Piprites, which looked down on us from high above without giving us a glimpse of its wings. After a Brownish Twistwing proved unresponsive to playback we returned to the dugout, stopping in the near darkness to spotlight a group of roosting Marbled Wood-Quail, their red ocular patches clearly visible, and somewhat angry looking given the circumstances.

Relieved to be out in the open again after the shadowy confines of terra fime forest, we enjoyed a final few birds from the dugout before calling it a day. The lake is busy with birdlife even at night as Parauques and night-herons could be seen and heard while we searched for a Black Caiman along the shore. We finally stumbled across a giant individual getting within a few meters before it thrashed away into the marsh. The experience nicely capped off my father's first day in the Amazon, as he liked to call it.

Notable birds seen: Black-Crowned Night-Heron, Marbled Wood-Quail, Least Sandpiper, Black Skimmer, Rufous Potoo, Pauraque, Ladder-Tailed Nightjar, Rufous-Breasted Hermit, Straight-Billed Hermit, Black-Throated Hermit, Olive-Spotted Hummingbird, Chestnut-Eared Aracari, Chestnut Woodpecker, Rufous-Headed Woodpecker, Little Woodpecker, Crimson-Crested Woodpecker, Lesser Hornero, Ruddy Spinetail, Parker's Spinetail, Castlelnau's Antshrike, Black-and-White Antbird, White-Shouldered Antbird, White-Lored Antpitta, Mottle-Backed Elaenia, Spotted Tody-Flycatcher, Wing-Barred Piprites, Orange-Headed Tanager, Grayish Saltator, Chestnut-Belied Seedeater, Crested Oropendola, Orange-Backed Troupial, Oriole Blackbird.

No comments:

Fatbirder's Top 500 Birding Websites