Very very good birding! Cheers man, getting close now.
September 22nd ECUADOR!
Yesterday we had crossed the border into Ecuador and drove north towards Tapichalaca Reserve, which is part of the Jocotoco Foundation. We had spent the night in a small village downhill from the reserve and today we spent the whole morning birding the elfin forest along the road above Tapichalaca (Jocotoco) Lodge.
The Jocotoco Foundation has bought most of the land in this area so that the remaining forest is protected, a fantastic initiative. The flagship species of this reserve is the amazing and recently described Jocotoco Antpitta and it was this bird that became the emblem of the foundation. Tonight we would stay at the Jocotoco Lodge and tomorrow we will look for this iconic species along the adequately named Jocotoco trail.
By slowly roadside birding downhill from the treeline to about 2500 meters we saw some great birds like Golden-crowned Tanager, Mouse-coloured Thistletail, Neblina Metaltail and Little Sunangel, among others.
In the afternoon we drove down to do some birding around the lower cloud forest near the town of Valadolid. In this relatively unexplored area we found the elusive Spectacled Prickletail.
September 23rd THE JOCOTOCO ANTPITTA
Today was THE day, the day that we would come face to face with the mythical Jocotoco Antpitta. This bird was described as recently as 1997 and back then this discovery generated much publicity in the international birding scene. It also became apparent that the bird was inexplicably rare and that its habitat was quickly vanishing. That’s when the Jocotoco Foundation stepped in. They bought a large track of elfin forest in the core range of the species and in doing so the future of the Antpitta is secured for now. Still it is urgently needed to protect the elfin forest that this bird calls its home.
Luckily the Antpitta can’t be missed at Tapichalaca since a pair is being fed on the Jocotoco trail. Nevertheless, we were feeling the tension as we slowly approached the territory across the trail. Suddenly Camilla made some weird squeak while hysterically pointing ahead on the trail and there – like a statue – stood the Antpitta. What a beast of a bird! To our amazement the bird – and its partner – started calling next to the trail in plain sight as if they were persuading us to hurry up with their breakfast, ridiculous! At the feeding site the local guide put out some worms and moments later we were marvelling at two Jocotoco Antpittas feeding away completely in the open! Wow, what an experience…
Yes, we also saw some other good birds this morning, like Chestnut-crowned Gnateater and White-browed Spinetail. After saying goodbye to Tapichalaca we drove in the direction of our next location, Buenaventure ‘Umbrellabird’ Lodge.
Jocotoco Antpitta Grallaria ridgelyi (Arjan Dwarshuis)
September 24rd UMBRELLABIRDS
After spending the night in the small town of Olmedo we arrived at Buenaventura reserve around 8 AM. It was cloudy and misty which meant that bird activity was still booming. While having breakfast near a small stream along the roadside we saw already a lot of new birds, best was a pair of Esmeraldas Antbirds – later the only sighting during our entire stay here.
After breakfast we started with some serious birding, looking for the many rare bird species that can be found in this area which forms a transition between wet Tumbes and pacific slope cloud forest. Some of our best finds this morning included the vulnerable Pacific Royal Flycatcher, a pair of the endangered Grey-backed Hawk and a pair of endangered Slaty Becards.
In the afternoon we checked in at Buenaventura Lodge, a fantastic place in the heart of the reserve, which is managed – like Tapichalaca – by the Jocotoco Foundation. It was hard to bring ourselves to first have a look at the rooms since there were literally hundreds of hummingbirds at the lodge’s feeders.
In the afternoon we set off on the Umbrellabird Trail to visit the lek of one of the most impressive birds in the neotropics, the Long-wattled Umbrellabird. This huge black bird with umbrella-like crest and bizarre long feathered wattle, has become increasingly rare over the course of the last decades due to habitat destruction and hunting. Luckily it is still very reliable at Buenaventura.
After about 15 minutes of walking downhill we arrived at ‘the’ spot, but we weren’t sure whether we were at the right spot. Suddenly Camilla made that same squeaky sound that I remembered well from yesterday morning when she saw the Antpitta, but this time she could only stutter and franticly point at a huge black bird that sat silently right above our heads; a male Umbrellabird!!
For the next hour we watched one of the most amazing displays in the avian world. The bird sits motionless like a statue for what seems an eternity, but at a certain point it leans forward, fans out its crest and its wattle while it puts its head in its neck and then delivers a deep foghorn like ‘OOOOOOEEEEEEEE’. Simply amazing.
Beer tasted good that night at the Umbrella lodge, especially since we were kept company by a very showy Black-and-white Owl feeding on moths that were attracted to the lodge’s lights, and a cheeky Kinkajou stealing bananas that were put out for the tanagers.
Long-wattled Umbrellabird Cephalopterus penduliger (Arjan Dwarshuis)
September 25th FRUSTRATING EL OROS
This morning we went to the higher part of Buenaventura to look for two endangered and highly localized specialties, the El Oro Tapaculo and El Oro Parakeet. For both these threatened species Buenaventura holds the largest know population.
As we drove up it became clear that we had a difficult assignment since it was a bright sunny day, not the best conditions for finding either species. From November onwards the Parakeet is easy since it breeds in specially constructed nest boxes, which are well known with the local guides. This time of the year however, they are unpredictable and thin on the ground.
We started with the Tapaculo, which was luckily singing upon arrival. Seeing the bird however proved incredibly difficult and despite getting very close, it remained hidden in the thick understory.
We spent four long hours waiting for the parakeets to land in one of the surrounding treetops, but we didn’t get lucky. Finally we heard a group of El Oro Parakeets calling while they flew overhead, but it was impossible to get a view against the bright blue sky. The second time this happened I could just see five parakeets disappear over a distant ridge… I will have to come back for better looks at this rare bird.
While driving back to the lodge for lunch Juve picked up a very welcome family of Rufous-headed Chacalacas along the road. Later this turned out to be our only sighting of this threatened species.
September 26th SAYING GOODBYE TO TANAGER TOURS
Today was our last day with Tanager Tours, the single birding organization with whom I’ve seen - and probably will see – the most new birds this year. This mammoth one month tour through almost every corner of Peru and south-western Ecuador was unbelievably successful and surpassed all of my expectations. Besides the fact that Miguel managed to show me almost every endemic and specialty that we tried for, he and Juve ran this tour smooth as a whistle – and that’s very impressive in the often unorganized country of Peru. Camilla and I felt save and in the best hands possible at all time during this trip and for any birder planning to visit the most diverse birding area in the world, I can only highly recommend to do this with Tanager Tours.
My personal top 10 this trip:
1. Long-wattled Umbrellabird
2. Wattled Curassow
3. Golden-backed Mountain-tanager
4. Jocotoco Antpitta
5. Long-whiskered Owlet
6. Pale-billed Antpitta
7. Long-tailed Potoo
8. White-bellied Cinclodes
9. Royal Cinclodes
10. White-winged Guan
(11) Andean Cock-of-the-rock (displaying of course)!
And today we finished with eight more additions to the list, three of these were very cool ones: White-tipped Sicklebill, Brownish Twistwing (actually twisting its wings!) and the endangered Grey-cheeked Parakeet!
Tanager Tours, Miguel, Juve and Wim, we will miss you!
September 27th TO SANI LODGE
Last night Camilla and I had arrived in Quito, where we spent our final evening together this year. She will continue to the US to stay with her brother for a month and I will continue hardcore birding till the 1st of January 2017!
After enjoying a relaxing morning at our B&B in suburban Quito it was time to say goodbye and head for the Quito Airport. From here I flew one hour to the Amazonian town of Coca from where the boat leaves to Sani Lodge. At the airport I was picked up by the very helpful Sani staff and my guide for the next four days, Olger Licuy, one of the best guides in Ecuador and definitely the best in this part of the Amazon. Together we will try to track down as many of my remaining Amazonian possibilities as possible.
The boat ride across the Napo River to the Sani community dock takes about two hours and on the way you come across all human activities that threaten this incredibly complex and fragile ecosystem. Mining, drilling for oil, transportation of hardwood etc. etc. When we finally arrived at the Sani community the ‘normal’ tourists went to the lodge and Olger and I started birding the productive mix of secondary forest, varzea and swamps that surround the village. In fact the first target we saw – Black-banded Crake – was right in someone’s backyard. Other highlights that afternoon were Chestut-capped Puffbird and my first glimpses of White-lored Antpitta.
From the community we walked for a kilometre across a wooden boardwalk through beautiful varzea to a small dock. From here we went by wooden peddel canoe to the lodge – motorized boats are forbidden within the community conservancy. The approach to the lodge across a beautiful oxbow lake makes you wonder wether you’ve arrived in heaven, simply perfect tranquillity rarely encountered anywhere in the world. I’ve arrived at Sani, the finest birding lodge in the Amazon!
A little context to Sani Lodge:
Sani is a community of about 70 families living on the north bank of the Napo River opposite Yasuni National Park. As a community they started the Sani Lodge, a beautiful ecolodge run by and for the community. All money earned from tourism goes to the community and all the staff members and guides are from the Sani community. The forest around the lodge – which is beautifully situated at the edge of a black water oxbow lake – is exceptionally pristine and some of the rarest Amazonian birds are found with relative ease in the vicinity of the lodge. In addition to all this the Sani are known to have about the sharpest eyes of all native Amazonian communities and subsequently the guides are top notch. I spent my four days in company of the best of the best, Olger Licuy.
September 28th RARE ANTBIRDS ALONG THE NAPO
We set out at 3:00 (!) AM this morning since Olger wanted to be in Yasuni NP on the other side of the Napo River before daybreak, so that we could try for Nocturnal Curassow. It was a fantastic experience to be on a wooden peddle canoe with just the sounds of the rainforest around us.
We arrived at the other side of the river at 4:00 AM, quickly had our packed breakfast and coffee and headed into the jungle on a small winding trail. We heard three different Crested Owls, a Black-banded Owl and two Long-tailed Potoos, but the hoped for Curassow did not call unfortunately. As it slowly got light diurnal birds started to give their dawn chorus and among these were Collared Puffbird and White-rumped Sirystes, but best was a Rusty-belted Tapaculo that gave exceptional views as it sang from a log on the forest floor.
From then on it got a little bit quiet until a short shower, after which birdlife exploded again with rarities such as Brown Nunlet and Sooty Antbird. As we continued along the trail we were suddenly amidst a huge army ant swarm and judging by the calls coming from the understory there were army ant followers with them. The next half an hour was very special. I saw five mega cool antbirds hopping around between the ants trying to catch insects that were fleeting from the thousands of ants. We saw White-cheeked Antbird, Lunulated Antbird, White-plumed Antbird, a smashing Reddish-winged Bare-eye and a Hairy-crested Antbird as the icing on the cake.
The way back to the boat was equally exciting with some nice understory flocks that contained Yasuni- and Ornate Antwren. Probably the bird of the day was an extremely obligating Banded Antbird that crept across the forest floor giving its piercing high song, incredible!
We had lunch at the Sani Community where in addition to delicious freshly caught fish wrapped in banana leaves I ate grubs for the first time in my life. Huge beetle larvae that were slow-cooked on a wood fire. They were delicious, strangely reminiscent of the Dutch snack ‘kibbeling’ (fried fish).
In the afternoon we birded the swamps and varzea forest around the community which proved exceptionally good with 3 major highlights, Black Bushbird, Black-bellied Thorntail and a male Fulvous Antshrike! What an incredible first day at Sani Lodge!
Sani Lodge (Arjan Dwarshuis)
Rusty-belted Tapaculo Liosceles thoracicus (Arjan Dwarshuis)
September 29th BIG BIRDS
Another early start today, this time we left Sani Lodge at 4:00 AM to look for the rare Rufous Potoo. Again conditions seemed perfect, but like the Curassow this bird wouldn’t call.
Immediately after first light we headed for the canopy tower. En route we saw the amazing Agami Heron from the canoe, one of those classic Sani specialties. The Sani canopy tower is one of the best in the world and is situated 40 meters high in the crown of the largest rainforest tree I’ve ever seen. The view over the forest canopy is absolutely breath-taking and especially the sunrise was an experience I will not soon forget. We saw some good birds in the hour we spent up here. Best were Ivory-billed Aracari, White-necked Puffbird and already my 3rd Harpy Eagle this year. Like every time you see a Harpy your breath stops for a couple of seconds when this huge raptor flies by.
Until lunchtime we birded the trail system behind the lodge where we found the most renowned Sani specialty, the range restricted Cocha Antshrike. Other highlights on the trail were Collared Puffbird, a very showy Great Tinamou, a Long-tailed Potoo and both Purplish- and White-chinned Jacamar.
After lunch we set out to the Napo River again to look for Amazonian Umbrellabird and after just 15 minutes of boating a female Umbrellabird flew across the river and landed in a secropia tree on a small river island. Fantastic, my second Umbrellabird species in just a week’s time!
White-necked Puffbird Notharchus hyperrhynchus (Arjan Dwarshuis)
September 30th WING-BANDED ANTBIRD!!!
Olger asked me last night over diner at Sani Lodge, which bird do you really want to see most? I answered the ultra-rare Wing-banded Antbird. 'But I haven't seen that bird in 5 years'! Olger replied. 'Well I just lay it out for you to play it out my friend!
And so it began... At 3:00 (!) AM (again) I found myself on a wooden peddle canoe with Olger and a young trail guide armed with a machete for the dirty work. In the background a Nocturnal Curassow was booming while we set out into the night. It was still in the twilights when we arrived on the other side of the Napo River at the edge of Yasuni NP. I followed Olger and the young trail guide as he hacked his way through thick riparian vegetation. Meanwhile we were getting hammered by an angry swarm of horseflies the size of bumblebees. Then we arrived at the 'trail'. For an hour we made our way knee-deep through a swamp with fallen logs. I knew that after so much hardship a great prize was surely waiting for me on the other side of this swamp...
When we made it to the terra firma we could finally cover some ground and half an hour later Olger froze. 'I hear an Ochre-striped Antpitta'! One of the most elusive of all antpitta's that is. For an hour we chased the beast through thick undergrowth, but I couldn't get a view. Finally Olger decided to try to 'push' the bird in my direction from the other side. Olger was circling the bird and I was waiting silently on both knees in the mud while being covered in a humming cloud of thousands of bloodsucking mosquitos. Suddenly there was a movement in the undergrowth! I aimed my binoculars suspecting to see the Antpitta, but there in plain view set a WING-BANDED ANTBIRD!!! For 10 full seconds the mosquitos seemed to have vanished while I watched this stunning bird with open mouth. Then another movement 5 meters to the right as the Antpitta hopped into view! A glorious Biggest Year moment indeed.
On the way back we saw two other very nice birds, the Orange-crested Manakin and a showy Chestnut-headed Crake.
Later in the day we walked a long heavy undulating trail to a lek of Black-necked Red-cotinga, but despite my high hopes none were calling. I did see four new birds, best were Olivaceous Flatbill and a Biocoloured Conebill on a river island.
October 1st LEAVING SANI
With pain in my heart I had to say goodbye today to beautiful Sani Lodge. What an amazing place this is. Luckily we had two more hours on the trail and amazingly Olger managed drag out 3 more new birds for me, namely Cinnamon-rumped Foliage-gleaner, Scaly-breasted Woodpecker and the rare Orange-eyed Flycatcher. And I almost forgot, we also got a flock of 6 Grey-winged Trumpeters.
Here’s my list from Sani, I can hardly believe I saw this in a fourth night J All thanks to Olger Licuy, one of the finest guides I’ve ever worked with. This is THE guy you need for the Ecuadorian Amazon, but apparently he is fantastic in the whole of Ecuador so please don’t hesitate to book him!
· Wing-banded Antbird
· Harpy Eagle
· Banded Antbird
· Black Bushbird
· Cocha Antshrike
· Reddish-winged Bare-eye
· White-chinned Woodcreeper
· Lunulated Antbird
· Rusty-belted Tapaculo
· Agami Heron
· Collared Puffbird
· Yasuni Antwren
· Grey-winged Trumpeter
· Orange-crested Manakin
· Ochre-striped Antpitta
· White-lored Antpitta
· Chestnut-headed Crake
· Black-banded Crake
· Purplish Jacamar
· White-cheeked Antbird
· Brown Nunlet
· Fulvous Antshrike
· White-necked Puffbird
· Long-tailed Potoo
· Nocturnal Curassow (heard only)
· Amazonian Umbrellabird
· Black-bellied Thorntail
· Ecuadorian Cacique
· Bicoloured Conebill
· Orange-eyed Flatbill
· Hairy-crested Antbird
· The second documented record of Little Ground-tyrant for Ecuador
Pfeeeeeeeeeew….. Time for a beer