Sani Lodge: June 2-5, 2010

To be honest, after five days of strenuous birding with Oscar Tapuy at Sacha Lodge, as well as having just completed one of the best mornings of birding I've ever had in Ecuador, I was ready to return to Quito. Still, I had made arrangements to stay three more days down river at Sani Lodge, and I wondered if perhaps my luck was turning on this trip. Another day in Amazonia is another chance to see a Harpy Eagle, I also figured, and I certainly wasn't going to see much of interest back in the capital city. When the covered canoe picked me up from the Sacha boat house, though, and I saw Domingo's welcoming smile, I felt rejuvenated as if I had just arrived in the eastern lowlands. Domingo is a freelance bird guide who works primarily for Sani Lodge, and although he doesn't carry a Leica scope or even an iPod, I've seen better birds with him than with any guide I've worked with, as he prefers to discover birds in the forest instead of attracting them. The oxbow lake at Sani is of the most beautiful and timeless landscapes, too, and would make the perfect place for my final reflections on living, and birding, in Ecuador.

Before heading out that afternoon, Domingo and I shaped the itinerary for the next couple of days, discussing the birds I was looking for and his recent observations in the area. Remarkably, he told me about a trail on the south side of the Napo that led to a Black-Necked Red-Cotinga lek, passing through good territories for the Point-Tailed Palm-Creeper and Wing-Banded Antbird, where he had also seen the Rufous-Vented Ground-Cuckoo and Amazonian Royal Flycatcher on several occasions. This sounded too good to be true but definitely worth a morning's visit. Then, we discussed the canopy tower, where he had seen a Harpy Eagle three months ago, perched in a tree only fifty meters away. While Harpy and Crested Eagles are sometimes surprised on the forest floor as they're eating prey that's too heavy to carry back up to the canopy, towers and walkways give birders the best chance to see these extremely rare raptors, unless there is a known nest in the area. Domingo said there was also a territory for the Varzea Mourner nearby, and we could paddle through varzea and bird the Coto Trail in the afternoon. In the meantime, we could search for the Collared Puffbird and Black Bushbird in several spots behind the lodge, as well as visit another river island for Barred Antshrike and Plain-Crowned Spinetail and search for owls, such as the Black-Banded Owl, after dinner. Even if I only saw a few of the birds we mentioned, it would be an amazing stay.

As it turns out, Domingo had never seen the cotingas displaying at the site himself, as his cousin had told him about the lek, having passed it many times on his way to hunt and fish in the forest south of the Napo River. We tried to get there as early as we could, but it still took us several hours as we had to first travel from the lodge to the river, then cross the river to his cousin's property, and finally hike an hour along the trail. Sadly, there was no sign of the cotinga, which is one of Ecuador's most spectacular birds from what I've read and heard. Happily, a pair of Wing-Banded Antbirds responded immediately to playback, offering good but quick looks at one of the more difficult antbirds in the country. In addition, a pair of Ochre-Striped Antpittas were calling along the trail throughout the morning, undoubtedly running through the forest with no chance of being seen. We made a half-hearted attempt to chase one down and succeeded in trapping it in an impossible dense patch of ground cover without managing the slightest glimpse of the bird. Several displaying male Blue-Backed Manakins was a noteworthy observation, but the bird of the morning was almost certainly a male Gould's Jewelfront bathing in the dew-coated moss covering the bark of a small tree. Domingo and I watched flabbergasted as this glorious hummingbird preened just a few meters in front of us, its brilliant plumage changing color with each movement. We missed the other megabirds sometimes found along the trail, but I told Domingo that if the lek is a sure thing, then birders will definitely visit Sani more often, as the only other lek I've heard of in Ecuador is a significant trek from the pricey Napo Wildlife Center.

To round out the morning, we returned to his father's property on the north side of the Napo to check for a pair of roosting Spectacled Owls that my dad and I had missed in August of last year. As we walked by his father's home, we heard a group of Black-Spotted Bare-Eyes calling and gave chase as they moved quickly deeper into the forest. Although we didn't get good looks at any of the birds, we did find a huge swarm of army ants and decided to return to the site more cautiously after searching for the owls, which were finally where they were supposed to be. Roosting owls, especially the flighty Spectacled Owl, are never a given observation but generally a worthwhile one for attempting, even if it makes for a long hike, you'll definitely see some good birds on the way. When we returned to the swarm, Domingo spotted the antbirds again, and this time we watched one perch for a good twenty seconds before dashing away. The Black-Spotted Bare-Eye is ornately patterned and strangely graced with a red eye patch instead of the more typical blue one; I can say that it's definitely worth chasing for days until you finally get good looks at one. The sun was blazing in the sky when we pulled up at the river island, which was devoid of activity except for a pair of dandy Lesser Wagtails and the ubiquitous White-Bellied Spinetail. We must have disturbed a dozen roosting Ladder-Tailed Nightjars, too, before giving up our search for the Barred Antshrike and returning to the lodge for lunch.

After coming up empty on yet another attempt for the Collared Puffbird, we hit a site along the entrance canal to the lodge for the Long-Tailed Potoo. Domingo assured me that he had a failsafe stakeout for the bird, which would respond to playback at dusk by perching out in the open above the canal. Of course, we missed it, but we did see three Amazonian Umbrellabirds in the late afternoon, returning back over the Napo River for the night with a group of Russet-Backed Oropendolas. On the following morning, our visit to the tower got off to a good start with a sighting of a scarce austral migrant, Swainson's Flycatcher, in the canopy of the same tree as the tower. Pied Puffbird, Yellow-Browed Tody-Flycatcher, and Black-Bellied Thorntail were other good observations, but then it started to rain, continuing for the next three hours as we waited it out in our ponchos in the company of a pair of Eastern Sirystes that were feeding on mosquitoes, it appeared. Finally, the weather cleared and we descended to the canoe, paddling towards the Coto Trail for my final afternoon birding in Ecuador.

When it rains in the morning and then clears up at midday, there is often a noticeable boost in bird activity in the afternoon, and I kept my fingers crossed as we got started, soon after encountering a group of trogons at the dock, including Amazonian Violaceous, Amazonian White-Tailed, and Black-Tailed Trogons. Our luck held, as over the next few hours we found the Gray-Winged Trumpeter, Undulated Antshrike, Brownish Twistwing, Chestnut-Winged Foliage-Gleaner, Blue-Black Grosbeak, White-Chested Puffbird, Lanceolated Monklet, Black-Faced Antthrush, Black-Tailed Flycatcher, and Rufous-Breasted Piculet. The monklet in particular was a terrific sighting as we approached it slowly to within two meters as it perched motionlessly while waiting for its prey; this was likely the same bird that my dad and I observed in August along the same trail and in the very same spot. The low-hanging sun seemed to penetrate through the forest more than usual as we returned to the canoe late in the afternoon, having missed some great birds like Salvin's Curassow but having seen many others, as well as a troop of Common Wooly Monkeys.

Domingo paddled us back to the lodge slowly but methodically, a journey that took over an hour in the fading light. I sat back in my chair as outraged Hoatzins flew back and forth over the narrow canals while pairs of Black-Capped Donacobius flicked their tails in annoyance at our passing. A group of Rufescent Tiger-Herons flushed up as we paddled by, and a near-adult Agami Heron did the same a few meters later as we drifted by almost at arm's length, certainly too close for my telephoto lens to capture. Once we reached Challuacocha, the famed oxbow lake that the lodge borders, the sun had already set, and a group of Capped Herons were roosting already in a cecropia tree along the shore. Aimee and I had visited Sani Lodge six years ago on our first trip to the eastern lowlands, well before I had any serious interest in birds, and I found it remarkable how much further I could peer through the forest than before. Back then, the dark lake under the setting sun was all I could see, a fabulous curtain behind which great knowledge and truth and especially mystery must lie. Since then, I had seen and learned so much about birds and the forest beyond, and the many sudden evening sounds and subtle flickers of movement had eventually become familiar. Still, I found it strange how the mysterious unseen and unheard beckons even more strongly now.

Notable birds seen: Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Agami Heron, Capped Heron, Cocoi Heron, Snail Kite, Double-Toothed Kite, Yellow-Headed Caracara, Speckled Chachalaca, Common Piping-Guan, Marbled Wood-Quail, Sungrebe, Limpkin, Gray-Winged Trumpeter, Wattled Jacana, Yellow-Billed Tern, Black Skimmer, Ruddy Quail-Dove, Black-Headed Parrot, Hoatzin, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Spectacled Owl, Ladder-Tailed Nightjar, Short-Tailed Swift, Neotropical Palm-Swift, Straight-Billed Hermit, White-Necked Jacobin, Black-Bellied Thorntail, Gould's Jewelfront, Golden-Tailed Sapphire, Black-Tailed Trogon, Amazonian Violaceous Trogon, Ringed Kingfisher, Amazon Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, Green-and-Rufous Kingfisher, White-Chinned Jacamar, Pied Puffbird, White-Chested Puffbird, Lanceolated Monklet, Black-Fronted Nunbird, Yellow-Billed Nunbird, Swallow-Winged Puffbird, Chestnut-Eared Aracari, Channel-Billed Toucan, White-Throated Toucan, Rufous-Breasted Piculet, Chestnut Woodpecker, White-Bellied Spinetail, Chestnut-Winged Hookbill, Chestnut-Winged Foliage-Gleaner, Black-Tailed Leaftosser, Spot-Winged Antshrike, Banded Antbird, Silvered Antbird, Black-Spotted Bare-Eye, Wing-Banded Antbird, Black-Faced Antthrush, Ash-Throated Gnateater, Slender-Footed Tyrannulet, Lesser Wagtail-Tyrant, Yellow-Browed Tody-Flycatcher, Brownish Twistwing, Gray-Crowned Flatbill, Black-Tailed Flycatcher, Swainson's Flycatcher, Cinnamon Attila, Eastern Sirystes, White-Browed Purpletuft, Plum-Throated Cotinga, Amazonian Umbrellabird, Wire-Tailed Manakin, Blue-Crowned Manakin, Blue-Backed Manakin, Black-Capped Donacobius, White-Breasted Wood-Wren, Rufous-Bellied Euphonia, White-Lored Euphonia, Opal-Rumped Tanager, Opal-Crowned Tanager, Masked-Crimson Tanager, Slate-Colored Grosbeak, Red-Capped Cardinal, Blue-Black Grosbeak, Lesser Seed-Finch.


john horse said...

Was just perusing some blogs and came across your birding blog.

Boy, are those some pretty pictures. Thanks for providing a little beauty in my otherwise mundane life.

eileeninmd said...

I have been blog hopping and enjoy reading and see the cool birds from exotic places. Ecuador sounds like an awesome place for birding. I loved all your birds and photos.

Fatbirder's Top 500 Birding Websites