Sacha Lodge: June 28-July 2, 2010

My final birding trip in Ecuador, at least for the time being, was to the eastern lowlands, where I have spent comparatively little time birding during my six years living in the country, as it's easily the most expensive and difficult region to bird. For the independent birder, the options in the eastern lowlands are few, as sites are remote and require several types of transport, including plane and boat, to reach. Plus, birding in Amazonia is as challenging as it gets, with approximately 600 species present and almost all bird detection and identification done by ear. Sure, you could learn the birds here by yourself, but it would take many months and plentiful access to a variety of unique habitats, including varzea forest and river islands, not to mention terra firma forest canopy, one of the more inaccessible bird habitats in the world. The shortcut is to select from a range of jungle lodges located along the lower Napo River, the finest of which certainly must be Sacha Lodge. These lodges provide expert bird guides and diverse itineraries designed so that visiting birders can experience many of the different ecosystems of far western Amazonia.

Coordinating with both Sacha and Sani Lodges, I set up a week-long itinerary with two of the best guides in the region focusing on terra firma forest on the southern side of the Napo, where I hoped to expand my country list and track down a few rare species. My targets for the trip were mostly spectacular and little-seen birds, such as the Harpy Eagle, Agami Heron, Rufous-Vented Ground-Cuckoo, Ochre-Striped Antpitta, and Black-Necked Red-Cotinga, all species that would be on any visiting birder's lists. But there were a few other classic eastern lowlands birds that I hadn't seen yet, including the Collared Puffbird, Long-Billed Woodcreeper, Black-Spotted Bare-Eye, and Striped Manakin. I figured a week should be enough time to sweep up these glaring omissions on my country list and give me a final chance to find a megabird or two. And if the trip ever felt extravagant, I would simply rationalize it as my last hurrah, a well-deserved reward for years of hard work driving myself to remote locations in Ecuador and slowly learning birds on my own.

Several weeks in advance I forwarded my desired bird list to Oscar Tapuy, who I had worked with on my previous visit to Sacha Lodge and who is the most renowned and experienced native guide in the eastern lowlands. We discussed our plan for the next four days during the two-hour boat ride from Coca to the lodge, deciding that we would spend two and a half days on the south side of the Napo in search of antswarms and obligate antswarm followers as well as terra firma forest birds that are more territorial. We would also spend some time walking the trails behind the lodge itself as well as pass one morning on the canopy walkway. Making short visits to varzea forest and river island habitat would round out my program, which I hoped wouldn't be adversely affected by weather. (While Ecuador's weather cycles are diverse and complex, the eastern lowlands can be quite wet still in June and July, only really drying out in August.)

Considering all the time that I spent in protected forest on the south side of the Napo River during the week, I've decided to describe my experiences there in a separate post about Yasuni National Park. I'll use the following paragraphs to relay my experiences on the north side of the Napo, within the 2000 hectare grounds of the lodge itself. Access to the lodge from the Napo involves a twenty-minute walk along a boardwalk that passes through varzea forest. Although this path, called El Anden, is heavily trafficked by arriving and departing guests as well as by workers bringing in food and supplies, during the early morning and late evening hours it is excellent for birding, offering more mobility than a canoe ride through the several varzea canals branching off from Pilchicocha, the oxbow lake that the lodge borders. Considering the number of trips we made off the lodge property, Oscar and I passed through El Anden many times, the highlight of which was one afternoon when we got clear but quick looks at both Gray-Necked Wood-Rail and Cinereous Tinamou, coaxing out a Hauxwell's Thrush, a scarce austral migrant, as well. Several times along this path we also encountered fast-moving groups of Black-Spotted Bare-Eyes, perhaps the most spectacular antbird in the Ecuadorian Amazon, but failed to see them clearly as they stayed lowed to the ground and didn't respond to playback. Before dawn on one morning we heard the rare Buckley's Forest-Falcon calling in the distance, although it wasn't responsive to playback either.

With Jaime, one of the lodge's native guides, paddling us around in a narrow canoe, we made several late-afternoon excursions into La Orquidea, a narrow canal that passes through dense and tangled varzea forest. This is certainly the least strenuous and most magical birding experience I've ever had as birders float silently through flooded forest, acutely aware of every sudden sound and motion around them. On both occasions, we trolled for Long-Billed and Striped Woodcreepers, hoping to surprise a feeding Agami Heron along the way. Finally, a pair of Long-Billed Woodcreepers responded to playback, coming in close and putting on quite a show as they flipped their strangely-shaped heads about and responded with their powerful and haunting calls. While we never encountered an Agami Heron in this fashion, we did surprise a juvenile one morning in pre-dawn darkness at the beginning of the Anaconda canal, where Oscar has frequently found them. The bird jumped up onto a fallen palm trunk, frozen in the spotlight for a moment, while I assessed its rapier-like bill and dark-colored plumage. Although it didn't present quite the same image as in the field guide, it was good enough to tick.

Our morning on the canopy walkway, which is one of its kind in Ecuador, was graced with good weather but short on birds. In fact, we spent less than two hours scanning the treetops before Oscar pronounced that we would be better spending our time walking the trails down below. Generously, he first played a recording of the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl for a few minutes, attracting a swarm of colorful tanagers and allies in the crown of a nearby tree. I clicked away happily on my camera as Gold-and-Green and Masked Tanagers, Purple and Green Honeycreepers, Black-Faced and Blue Dacnis, and Orange-Bellied and Rufous-Bellied Euphonias searched about for the intruder to mob. The commotion even attracted a Zimmer's Flatbill, which was a first for me. The only other noteworthy sighting for me was finding a Dwarf Tyrant-Manakin perched on a treetop, although I would have been content spending the rest of the morning observing familiar birds, considering how unique and privileged is the viewpoint from the walkway.

Unfortunately, the hours we spent walking the trails behind the lodge were decidedly unfruitful, as activity was very low. Only the most common birds were calling, and even then only occasionally, and there were hardly any mixed understory flocks. Oscar was repeatedly dejected as he came away empty after trolling for my target birds, commenting on how quiet and calm the forest was and how it must be the unseasonably wet weather that was reducing bird activity. Granted I was a little frustrated too, if only to have to suffer through listening to the same recording of a Collard Puffbird every five minutes (we never did find one). Thankfully, there were a few surprises to be found along these trails, including this magnificent Lined Forest-Falcon that we flushed from the understory but perched again in some cover nearby. Other notable birds seen or heard here were White-Chested Puffbird, Black-Spotted Bare-Eye, and Black-Banded Owl, the latter heard only.

Ultimately, my visit to the eastern lowlands coincided with a period of low bird activity, but Oscar is probably the best guide to work with in such situations, as he has a wealth of stakeouts to try for skulkers and territorial birds, and he is relentless in his use of playback to draw out shy or quiet birds. Although we didn't have too much to show for three consecutive fourteen-hour days of birding, our final morning on the southern side of the Napo River, to be covered in the next post, made it all worthwhile. From there I would head to Sani Lodge for another two full days of birding terra firma forest, finally concluding my six years of birding Ecuador.

Notable birds seen: Cinereous Tinamou, Cocoi Heron, Agami Heron, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Greater Yellow-Headed Vulture, Slender-Billed Kite, Double-Toothed Kite, Black Caracara, Lined Forest-Falcon, Laughing Falcon, Spix's Guan, Gray-Necked Wood-Rail, Red-Bellied Macaw, Hoatzin, Pauraque, Short-Tailed Swift, Lesser Swallow-Tailed Swift, White-Necked Jacobin, Gould's Jewelfront, Long-Billed Starthroat, White-Chested Puffbird, Swallow-Winged Puffbird, Scarlet-Crowned Barbet, Chestnut-Eared Aracari, Ivory-Billed Aracari, Golden-Collared Toucanet, Cream-Colored Woodpecker, Long-Billed Woodcreeper, Cinnamon-Throated Woodcreeper, Short-Billed Leaftosser, Black-Tailed Leaftosser, Black-Spotted Bare-Eye, Wire-Tailed Manakin, Dwarf Tyrant-Manakin, Spangled Cotinga, Plum-Throated Cotinga, Amazonian Umbrellabird, Bare-Necked Fruitcrow, Zimmer's Flatbill, Olive-Faced Flatbill, Musician Wren, Rufous-Bellied Euphonia, Opal-Crowned Tanager, Paradise Tanager, Green-and-Gold Tanager, Masked Tanager, Red-Capped Cardinal, Slate-Colored Grosbeak.

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