Antisana & Sacha Lodge, Ecuador
September 22-31, 2009
~ Martin Selzer

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21-July-2009 – Today Lynn Jackson and I traveled from Philadelphia to Quito, Ecuador. The official Field Guides trip runs from the 22nd to the 31st with the first and last days being dedicated to travel. We decided to arrive a day early in case of lost luggage and go birding in a different habitat from where we would be visiting at Sacha. Additionally we wanted to visit an area that we had not birded previously in 2006 on the Montane Ecuador tour. We contacted Andean Birding and chose their Antisana Tour. This adventure would take us into the paramo grassland habitat within the Antisana Ecological Reserve. This is an area outside of Quito that neither of us had ever visited. We had a late morning flight with a stop over in Miami that would get us to Quito in the early evening. I picked Lynn up at 7:30 and after sitting in a little morning rush hour traffic we were at Pacifico Ford’s Airport Valet Parking by 8:15 and on our way to Terminal A. The Airport wasn’t very busy and we breezed through security and were sitting at the gate by 8:50, leaving us over 2 hours before our scheduled take-off.

Now we both knew we’d be sitting and waiting somewhere this morning and decided it would be better to be sitting at the gate than in traffic or standing in the security lines if they got backed up. After all, travel days are all about hurrying up and waiting somewhere. At the end of the day you want to arrive at your destination along with your luggage with as little hassle as possible. Our flight was scheduled for 11:05 and I think we pulled away from the gate on time and were airborne by 11:30. We landed in Miami at 14:10 only a couple of minutes late by my watch and crossed over from Terminal D to E and had a 45 minute wait until boarding for our flight to Quito began at 15:15. Now we had our first delay for the silliest of reasons. The ovens in the 1st class galley weren’t operating properly and it took about 45 minutes to sort out how the crew was going to feed the 1st class passengers before we could pull away from the gate and take off. Somehow, the importance of this dilemma was lost on those of us back in the regular cabin and I thought of Elaine in Seinfeld episode suffering in coach while Jerry was eating a hot fudge sundae in the 1st class cabin. Anyway we landed in Quito at 19:00 (local time, which is equivalent to Central time US) and made our way to Immigration. It was slow, very slow, at least 75-90 minutes before we made it through the line. We had been on a full 757 and there had to have been another plane because it took so long to get through immigration and find our ride to the Sheraton. Fortunately we had both stayed there before and knew it was only 10-15 minutes away without traffic from the airport. It was 21:00 when we checked into the hotel and within an hour it was lights out, looking forward to our day birding at Antisana. Overnight at the Sheraton Quito.

22-July-2009 - Located 1½ hours east of Quito on the eastern Cordillera with spectacular landscapes, the Antisana Volcano Ecological Reserve area provides opportunities to see many high altitude and local specialties, which are absent or difficult at other sites within Ecuador, many of which are at their northern limit. Antisana is an Important Bird Area and is part of The Nature Conservancy's Condor Bioreserve. We met Charlie in the lobby of the hotel in Quito at 6:00. Around 7:00 we passed through the town of Pintag. After passing through a small mining operation just outside of town we began to do some roadside birding in areas of high elevation cloud-forest. We found tree line species such as Shining Sunbeam, Tufted Tit-tyrant, Red-crested Cotinga, Plain-colored Seedeater, Cinereous Conebill, Grass Wren, Rufous-naped Brush-finch, Spectacled Whitestart, Brown backed Chat-Tyrant, Black Flowerpiecer and Tyrian Metaltail. We had a Giant Hummingbird practically buzz us at eyelevel as we stood along the roadside. This was a vast improvement from the hillcrest sightings we had 3 years ago. We also began to have our first sightings of Variable Hawks, Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles and Carunculated Caracaras. Around 8:45 while scanning the soaring birds of prey we spotted one of our more significant target birds for the day when a juvenile Andean Condor came soaring up the valley. The reserve has one of the largest populations of condors in Ecuador. So far we had had a pretty good hour and 45 minutes of birding.

Beyond and above, the páramo proper yielded Bar-winged and Stout-billed Cinclodes, Páramo Pipit and Plumbeous Sierra-Finch. Here we also saw Ecuadorian (Chimborazo) Hillstar feeding on the orange thistle-shrubs and Many-striped Canasteros and Andean Tit-Spinetails. Tawny Antpittas were calling although were couldn’t find any from their perches. We kept driving higher up on the plateau and we found Andean Lapwings (50-100) and Páramo Ground-Tyrant but we had no luck yet with the other local specialty, the Black-faced Ibis. This isolated population is at the northern extreme of the species range and is considered endangered in Ecuador. We scanned for this bird at the “traditional spots” that Charlie finds them to no avail. Black-winged Ground-Doves were common along the road. We were able to pull out a pair of Streak-backed Canasteros along with Many-striped Canasteros for side-by-side comparison. Carunculated Caracaras were everywhere walking and scratching in the fields. We did manage to find an Aplomado Falcon (subspecies pichinchae) as it landed on a lower rock face. It was a beautiful although windy day.

We arrived at Lake Mica for our lunch around 12:30 and did a quick survey of the shoreline for Andean Coots, Andean Teals, Andean Ruddy Ducks, and Yellow-billed Pintails. At our lunch stop on the far shore we found a pair of Silvery Grebe and a distant Andean Gull but not before seeing a South American Fox or Culpeo Fox (Pseudolopex culpaeus). The South American Fox is a very large fox which is a very robust and large canid that is larger than most coyotes I’ve seen. Compared to the sleek almost scrawny foxes I’m used to seeing in the States it was huge.

c. 2009 Martin Selzer

After lunch we retraced our route back to Quito making some stops along the way in the forested areas in hope of some new species. Fortunately did manage to find a pair of Black-faced Ibis in the paramo. Although they were not very close to the road, they were distinctive in the scope. We also had two adult Andean Condors to round out the day. Our day birding Antisana ended at 15:15. We returned to Quito at 16:15. We had about 45 species seen well and easily another 5-10 heard that we weren’t able to or didn’t try to coax into view. Charlie did a very good job and I wouldn’t hesitate to go out birding with him again. Dinner was at the hotel in Cooks Restaurant at 19:00. Overnight at the Sheraton Quito.

23-July-2009 – Today we met the Field Guides group and traveled to Sacha Lodge our home for the next 7 days.

We had breakfast at the Sheraton at 6:30 so we could be down in the lobby ready to go to the airport at 8:00. We were met at the airport by Julio, one of the Sacha guides, Julio had our tickets and boarding passes. He also assisted with getting us checked in and had an information packet for us to complete. This would help Sacha attend to our needs including any dietary restrictions/needs once we arrived at the lodge and schedule our activities if we had not already had our itinerary completed by Field Guides. The journey to Sacha Lodge begins in Quito, with a 25-minute flight that takes you over the Andes Mountains into the Amazon Region. The flight destination is normally the river port town of Puerto Francisco de Orellana, locally known as Coca, where you meet your local guide and are taken to a private dock. Unfortunately, the airport in Coca was undergoing maintenance so we were flown to Lago Agrio and taken on a two hour bus ride to Coca.

Our flight started boarding procedures at 9:00. Since we had to be bused to the plane it would take over 30 minutes to get the plane loaded. We were airborne by 9:45 and landed in Lago Agrio by 10:15. Thirty minutes later our group, another couple and the group of college kids and their instructors from Eastern Illinois University were rolling down the highway to Coca. Along the way we had lots of Black Vultures, Tropical Kingbirds, 2 Pearl Kites and Yellow-rumped Caciques. The Coca airport maintenance should be completed any day now so we should be flying back to Quito out of Coca and not have to endure another 2 hour bus ride. In Coca, we paused for lunch and to use the rest rooms at Sacha’s facility in town before boarding our covered motorized canoe for a 2-hour, 50-mile (80-kilometer) trip down the Rio Napo the largest river in Ecuadorian Amazonia. During the ride it is possible to spot birds such as herons, kingfishers, spoonbills and ospreys as you travel steadily away from civilization.

Around 13:10 we began our boat trip to Sacha. En route we had Black Caracara, Greater Yellow-headed Vulture, White-winged Swallow, and White-banded Swallow and then we had one of those amazing birding moments. Our guide Oscar T, had the boat pilot slow down as he found (or knew of) a Great Potoo roosting in a snag high up along the river bank. Well we made sure the college kids even looked at the potoo. They were here as part of a geography/cultural study program and heading to the Galapagos next. Lynn and I had stumbled across them at the gate in the airport in Miami. Anyway we then motored on avoiding sandbars and flotsam-jetsam in the river and arrived at La Finca (site of the canoe landing along the Napo) at 15:00. Our luggage had been bundled in waterproof bags and was attended to by the Sacha staff and would be waiting for us in the main lodge when we got there.

Upon arrival at Sacha Lodge's 5000-acre (2000-hectare) private reserve, we took our first walk along a raised boardwalk (henceforth referred by its name: the Anden Trail) through dense flooded palm forest. The path leads to Pilchicocha Lake, a blackwater lake where you'd least expect to find any sign of people, but dugout canoes transport you across to the main lodge and cabins. We were going to let everyone else walk Anden and cross Pilchicocha and bird around the landing.

c. 2009 Martin Selzer

There were Orange-fronted Plushcrowns building a nest, Russet-backed Oropendela, Black-fronted Nunbirds, Black-banded Woodcreeper, Violaceous Jays, Scarlet-crowned Barbets, Piratic Flycatchers, Black-tailed Tityra and a Violaceous Trogon.

Around 16:00 in started to rain so we took shelter in the building at the landing before it started to pour. While standing out of the rain, Oscar found a male Plum-throated Cotinga as the rain came down. About 45 minutes later the rain had eased up enough that we had to make the choice to walk the trail before it got too dark. So we made our first walk along Anden trail and our first canoe crossing of Pilchicocha Lake. We arrived at the main lodge at 18:00, received a briefing of the basic routine at Sacha.

Meals at the lodge are all buffets: breakfast depends on your day’s activity and you’ll be told the time the night before by your guide; lunch is at 13:00 or a box lunch will be provided if your activity will have you away from the lodge; dinner is at 19:30. Sundays and Wednesdays are barbecue nights down at the lakeside facility. Also, for those people who wanted to get a pair of calf-high rubber boots, they should come down to the canoe landing at 19:00. Night at Sacha Lodge.

Our daily routine will be to start early each morning to take advantage of the precious first hours of maximum activity. Each day will be slightly different depending where we will be headed and coordinated to avoid the other groups at Sacha. We will have some time for resting during the heat of midday when bird activity is slower. Much of our birding will be on foot on forest trails. Sacha has rubber boots for guest to use throughout their stay, so that saved on packing and carrying them to Ecuador for me.

The boots were spotless when we got them and you could see them being cleaned and dried as groups left during our stay. The recommendation to bring your own insoles was a great idea. For the last morning, you are allowed to use the boots in case you don’t want to walk Anden if it is still muddy. I had taken the insoles out and I felt the difference on that easy walk. A week without insoles would have killed my feet. As it was I had no problems. We also birded the lake margins, areas of flooded forest, and the river from canoes handled by the staff members who served as our local guides.

c. 2009 Martin Selzer

Some birding hikes began with a canoe ride as a few trails are only reachable by boat. This was one of the real highlights of the trip for me. Birding hikes will mostly be conducted in the morning hours with a return for lunch, but twice the guides arranged for a carry-along lunch to enable us to cover some of the more distant trails. For us this occurred the day we visited the parrot mineral licks and the day we did the south side of the Napo. The day of the south side visit, lunch was delivered by the Sacha staff and it was still hot from the kitchen along with cold beer and drinks. We had three visits arranged to the canopy platforms so that we can take full advantage of this fantastic resource. We did the steel walkway one morning and the Kapok tree tower twice. These towers were another highlight although the activity wasn’t as great as it could have been it was great to be looking eye-to-eye or down on birds for a change in the tropics.

The Habitats we will visit and the birds we can expect there:

I re-read Steve Hilty’s Birds of Tropical America before making this trip. I’ve now made enough trips to the tropics that it made much more sense to me and I could appreciate the communities he discussed and his commentaries about them having at least witnessed most of them to a small degree. I had hoped to re-read John Kircher’s A Neotropical Companion pre-trip as well but did not find the time. I suspect that when I do sit down to read it again I will have a similar experience. This was especially true upon seeing the islands in the Napo at their various stages of development.

River-created Forest Habitats— The River has generated a mosaic of different habitats that lend richness and species diversity to Amazonia. Permanent swamp forest, often dominated by Mauritia palms, is found in low-lying areas of poor drainage, such as those in the broad meander plain of the Napo. Sacha is particularly rich in swamp forest. It is here that such specialties as Slender-billed Kite, Striped and Straight-billed woodcreepers, Sulphury Flycatcher, and Moriche Oriole are found, as well as various aquatic species, such as Green-and-rufous Kingfisher and Rufescent Tiger-Heron. The margins of oxbow lakes contribute their own specialties—Blue-crowned Trogon, Hauxwell’s Thrush, and Cinnamon Attila inhabit the lake-margin forests while Greater Anis, Lesser Kiskadees, Black-capped Donacobius, and Hoatzins may be found out in vegetation over the water edge itself. Seasonally flooded varzea or transition forest is found adjacent to streams and on somewhat higher ground that has poor drainage. With its tall trees, it looks much like terra firme forest but has a lower, less diverse tree-species component that favors those plants which can tolerate being inundated for weeks, or even months, at a time. The bird diversity of varzea forest is centered in its canopy, as the understory is sometimes underwater for long periods. Many fruit-eating species favor varzea, including a variety of parrots and macaws and Bare-necked Fruitcrow. In the darker understory along the edges of flooded forest, we’ll seek such specialties as Dot-backed (Varzea), Spot-backed, Silvered, Plumbeous, and White-shouldered antbirds, Orange-crested Manakin, Rufous-tailed Flatbill, and Agami Heron. Perhaps the jewel in Sacha’s crown is its magnificent wooden canopy platform, which gives nearly 360 degrees of visibility into and out over that biological frontier that we are just beginning to understand—the rainforest canopy. With the top limbs still forty feet overhead, the platform gives a window to a world that has only been open to us in the last few years. Thanks to the tower, it is quite common to look down on these creatures at close range.

A number of sturdy (but often slippery) boardwalks provide access to varzea and swamp forest, and the guides are expert at maneuvering the dugout canoes on the cochas and other waterways. As the extremely high diversity of Amazonian birds is dependent on the large number of microhabitats available within the structural complexity of the forests, this access becomes all-important in the success of an attempt to sample this wealth of birds.

Amazonian River Islands— With seasonal flooding, Amazonian river islands are forever changing. Some are entirely washed away while sand deposits elsewhere form incipient new islands. Sacha is located along a section of the Napo that has a fair number of established river islands, such that as conditions change, some island is always accessible. We’ll hope to visit an island that allows us to locate quite a good sample of birds that have evolved on these islands—indeed, some have never been found anywhere else, not even where these islands are close to similar habitats on the nearby riverbanks. Heavy rains on the precipitous eastern slopes of the Andes insure that rivers originating there carry heavy sediment loads. This material is deposited as sandbars and islands where the terrain flattens out for the long relatively slow flow to the Atlantic, more than 2000 miles away. The greatly varying levels of river flow insure that vegetation along a river’s banks and on islands are in a constant state of succession. The islands erode at the upstream end, and sediment is deposited at the downstream end. Thus, the old growth (woodland that can resemble mainland varzea) is at the head and the youngest (bare sand and low grass growth) at the foot of each island. The greatest number of island-specialty species is found in the earlier successional stages and includes Ladder-tailed Nightjar, Olive-spotted Hummingbird, Lesser Hornero, Parker’s, White-bellied, and Plain-crowned spinetails, Black-and-white Antbird, River Tyrannulet, Lesser Wagtail-Tyrant, Orange-headed Tanager, and Oriole Blackbird. Where cane, willows, and Tessaria give way to cecropias and taller growth, some additional species occur that favor this older growth: Castelnau’s Antshrike, White-eared Jacamar, Scarlet-crowned Barbet, Spot-breasted and Rufous-headed woodpeckers and Spotted Tody-Flycatcher. Pied Lapwings, Collared Plovers, and Yellow-billed Terns are sometimes seen along the sandbars.

Terra Firme Forest— South of the Napo, most of the land area above the old river terrace is covered with primary terra firme forest. This upland rainforest lies above the levels of the highest floods and is the single richest habitat in the world—for birds as well as for many of the other organisms found in it. By way of example, the highest diversity of trees in North America is found in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where an expanse of about half a million acres and an altitudinal gradient of more than 5000 feet contributes to a total of around 170 species of trees. Working in the Amazonian rainforests of northeastern Peru (not far from Sacha), botanist Al Gentry found the highest tree diversity in the world—an astounding 603 species per hectare (two-and-one-quarter acres)! Other Amazonian rainforest sites in Peru and Ecuador, where a great deal of field work has been focused over the past decade or so, have shown bird species diversities of more than 500 species per site. Given its access to both varzea and terra firme forest, there is every reason to think the diversity of the Sacha area will prove to be similar. We’ll bird terra firme forest in pockets near Sacha and along trails across the Napo in Yasuní National Park. Terra firme specialties that are most often found on the south bank of the Napo include Sapphire Quail-Dove, Scarlet-shouldered Parrotlet and Orange-cheeked Parrot (they both come to an interior forest mineral lick along a trail on the south bank), Yellow-billed Jacamar, Brown Nunlet, Rio Suno Antwren, Banded, Yellow-browed, and White-plumed antbirds (with army ants), Ochre-striped Antpitta (tough), Ash-throated Gnateater (rare), White-crested Spadebill, and Western Striped Manakin. These species are more easily found when based in a lodge within terra firme forest, but we’ll see a sampling of them on our day across the river.

24-July-2009 - Breakfast was at 5:30 and we then met at the trail head near cabin 11 to head to the metal towers and elevated canopy walkway. Because Dave and Oscar wanted us to get to the towers as close to sunrise a possible and also because the forest was relatively quiet we pretty much walked straight to the first tower without stopping to bird. We arrived at the canopy walkway in a little over 30 minutes. We had our first rain shower while still on the first tower and that one was not too severe. A second stronger and longer shower hit while we were at the middle tower. We just rode it out and hoped that there was no thunder because we were about as far from the ground as one could be on the walkway at that point. I was just glad Dave is 6’5”.

Birds that morning included a Double-toothed Kite perched on one of the support wires that we were able to watch it for the first 20 minutes we were on the platforms. We had the best views of King Vulture and Squirrel Cuckoo of the trip from this tower. We had the only looks at the following species from these towers: Purplish Jacamar, Ivory-billed Aracari, Many-banded Aracari, Red-stained Woodpecker, Dugand’s Antwren, White-lored Tyrannulet, Black-capped Becard, and Flame-crested Tanager. When we finally came down the third tower at 11:45 one of the days highlights occurred when we found an Emerald Boa, sleeping on one of the towers cross beams. Walking back to the lodge we had a Chestnut-belted Gnateater. By the time we had walked back to the lodge area we could hear the lunch horn being blown as we reached the boot washing station but there is so worrying about them running out of food at a meal. So we washed the mud off our boots and since we were right by most of our cabins dropped off our gear before heading off to lunch.

We re-grouped at 15:30 for some canoe birding along the shores of Pilchicocha and then a walk along Anden. It was raining as we reached the canoe launch area but the showers quickly passed and we were off. There were some Cupidio butterflies in the marsh by the canoe launch area. Lynn and I had seen this genus in the reservoir in Belem, Brazil but not in such quantity as here. Highlights of the canoe trip were numerous Hoatzins (an under appreciated species), a Common Potoo not 4 feet from us, Red-capped Cardinal, Snail and Slender-billed Kites, Little Cuckoo and Black-capped Donacobius.

Along Anden the highlight before darkness set in was a Collared Puffbird. Thanks to Oscar knowing the area so well, we slogged through a very wet trail side trail to see a pair of Crested Owls and then while on the trail while headed back to the canoe, we had a Tawny-bellied Screech-owl. Crossing Pilchicocha in the dark we heard Common Paraque. We were back at the lodge by 19:15 and had time to get to our rooms and quickly clean up for dinner. Every group has its own table at each meal so you don’t have to worry about seating. Dinner is a soup, a vegetable and potato, several entrees (chicken, beef or pork and fish), choice of several salads, rolls, and three desserts options. Looking back as I type this I don’t remember any repeats in our 7 nights at Sacha. Night at Sacha Lodge.

25-July-2009 -

Breakfast was at 5:30 so we could get an early start for some canoe birding along the Orquidea Creek to the Kapok Tree Tower. We would then hike back to the lodge for lunch. On the way to the lodge from our cabin, we spotted Hoatzin in the trees above the lodge. This would explain why Dave said the crow’s nest lookout of the main lodge was such a good place to see them. If you didn’t scare them away as you climbed the steps to the top of the crow’s nest, you would have been eye-to-eye with them.

the cabanas at Sacha Lodge
c. 2009 Martin Selzer

The breakfast buffet was the usual choice of cereal, fruit, cheese, pancakes, scrambled eggs, eggs made to order, sausage/bacon/ham, fresh baked rolls, toast and assorted fresh squeezed juices and coffee and tea. Adjusting to this life was certainly tough in the rain forest. Sufficiently fortified we headed to the canoe launch and headed out across Lake Pilchicocha with Oscar at the helm and Secondo paddling in the stern as would be their usual positions.

They would be our guides throughout our stay. Oscar is a free-lance naturalist who often gets hired by birding groups when they visit Sacha and is an expert birder. Secondo is a Native Guide on Sacha’s staff. All groups get both a naturalist and native guide. Leaving the dock we had Speckled Chachalaca, Smooth-billed Ani, Greater Ani and Lesser Kiskadee. Although it was initially quiet when we entered the creek we soon started to pick up some birds. They probably didn’t have as early as wake-up call as we did. First we found Silvered Antbird, then Dot-backed Antbird, then White-shouldered Antbird followed by Plumbeous Antibird and Orange-crested Manakin (a rather unimpressive manakin if there ever was one) Next we had a real flurry of activity with White-tailed Trogon, Amazonian Scrub-Flycatcher, and Euler’s Flycatcher.

We arrived at the landing at the end of the channel around 8:00 and made the 5 minute walk to the Kapok Tree tower. We stayed atop the tower for the next 2 hours. As it was a sunny day (looking back that was a rarity) it was surprisingly productive. We were greeted by multiple Paradise and Masked Tanagers and a single Opal-rumped Tanager at the top platform. Shortly after we reached the top, a group of swifts began patrolling the skies above. They were mostly White-collared but a few White-chinned and Fork-tailed Palm Swifts were mixed in too. There may have been some other Cypseloides sp in the mix but looking through the branches of the tree made it tough to pick them up (for me).

Several Yellow-tufted Woodpeckers then paid us a visit along with some Gilded Barbets and a Crested Oropendola. A few distant raptors were seen soaring and perched and assorted other birds were noted in the nearby treetops including White-browed Purpletufts and Purple-throated Cotinga. Finally at 10:00 we headed down the town and started the walk back to the lodge. Although it wasn’t a long walk distance-wise, we’d be birding our way back and that could take time.

On the walk back we ended up concentrating on two birds: Striated Antthrush and Rusty-belted Tapaculo. First we spent 45+ minutes working at least two Striated Anthrush into view with varying degrees of success. Now as tapaculos, the Rusty-belted is large and rather colorful. However, it obviously read the tapaculo handbook on behavior because it kept to the shadows and also took about 45 minutes for us to coax it into view. Talk about two examples of tropical forest birding at their best/worst. We also had a female Scale-backed Antbird just before getting back to the cabins. What we did manage to do when this was all said and done was drain the battery on Dave’s iPod. Good thing we were taking a break after lunch so “batteries” could be recharged.

We got back to the cabin area around 12:40, washed the mud off our boats, had time to drop our stuff off in our rooms and met back at our table for lunch. This afternoon we were going to do some more canoe birding along the Anaconda Creek after lunch. We reconvened at the canoe launched at 15:30 and set off. Near the mouth of the creek was a juvenile Rufescent Tiger-Heron, a Hoatzin on a nest, Cinnamon Attila, Chestnut Woodpecker, Lesser Kiskadee and a troop of Red Howler Monkeys. We also found a White-chinned Jacamar which was a target for this particular trip.

We were going along when Oscar quietly goes “trouble, problemo” and we all see a large tree across the channel. We paddled up to it and Secondo climbs over all of us and takes his trusty machete and starts hacking away at the tree. Now, he had all good intentions but the tree was a good 12 inches in diameter, he was attacking relatively healthy wood and his machete was well used. His machete was fine for vines and small branches but no match for this TREE. After five minutes of constant chopping he had made excellent progress but the tree was going to win this day. So we backed our way up in the creek until we reached a point where the guides could turn us around and we made our way to the Anden Trail. We birded there for 30 minutes until it started to rain and we called it a day and made it back to the lodge by 18:30. We met in the bar at 19:15 to do our checklist before the dinner horn blew at 19:30. Night at Sacha Lodge.

26-July-2009 - Today was an early breakfast at 5:00 so we could head across Pilchicocha early and then make our way to the Napo so we could head downriver to two parrot mineral licks within Yasuni National Parque under the management of the Napo Wildlife Center. Within western Amazonia the parrots have a unique behavior of visiting clay mineral licks. To people’s knowledge this does not occur anywhere else in Amazonia, it is thought that that clay either provides a supplement to the birds diet or neutralizes a toxin that occurs in the fruits. Something in the soil must be different in western Amazonia because the vegetation appears to be otherwise the same. The two mineral licks we would be visiting are rather different. One is quite close to the river, not more than a 5 minute walk and typically attracts a good number of Amazona and Aratinga species. The second mineral lick is a good walk but fortunately, the path is now a concrete pathway (all the work done by hand labor) and we’d be bringing a boxed lunch with us. This 2nd lick is known for the spectacle of Cobalt-winged Parakeet by the 100s and Scarlet-shouldered Parrolets.

It was about 5:45 as we left the canoe launch and heard the usually dueling Common Paraques as we crossed the lake. The Anden Trail was again rather quiet although we did have a good look at a Chestnut-eared Toucanet and just about any toucanet is a good toucanet! Every time we would walk Anden would prove to be different as would every time we would arrive at the Napo to board a motorized canoe. We ended up leaving the dock on the Napo at 6:45 and would make a few stops at some river islands en route to the 1st mineral lick. It always was nice to be on the water be it the Napo or one of the blackwater creeks. The sandbars and islands of the Napo held Black and Yellow-headed Caracaras, Oriole Blackbirds (really beautiful birds), Ladder-tailed Nightjars, Collared Plovers, Black Skimmers and Yellow-billed and Large-billed Terns. We arrived at the landing for the first mineral lick at 8:15 and noted some Blue-headed and Yellow-crowned Parrots in the trees along the river but otherwise not much activity. This wasn’t a good sign. As the mineral lick is really not more than a few 100 feet in from the river this was a bad omen. We waited about 30 minutes before packing it in and heading back up river to the 2nd landing point. As we made our way we noted a Drab Water-Tyrant foraging above the “drab water” of the Napo River. I can happily say that it isn’t my pun and I will protect the author. We then had a pair of Blue and Yellow Macaws and a tree full of Dusky-headed Parakeets. No bad puns about there about dusky-headedness. Believe me I would share if there was one.

When we landed, at the trail head for the 2nd mineral lick a few of us saw a Great Antshrike and there was also a Plain-throated Antwren and a Black-tailed Trogon. Secondo grabbed the crate with our lunches and headed off to the blind as we birded the trail. When we saw him next he then grabbed his machete and backpack and joined us. He made at least 2 trips up and back the trail and we had barely made it ½ way there. Now you could argue we were going at birders pace (which is in part true) or just argue that he does it for his living and leave it at that. Anyway, we then had the vareaza sub-species of the Spot-backed Antbird. The day before while canoeing to the Kapok Tower we had the river-forest subspecies. Now all we need is some young eager ornithologist working on his/her PhD to write a paper and we all get a 2nd species. At 10:10 we arrived at the blind and pulled up a plastic stool and waited. Besides us there were groups from the Napo Wildlife Center and other lodges along the river. There must have been 25+ people there to watch the event. You could hear the birds in the tree tops so it was a matter of time before they would appear. About 20 minutes later activity started and in small groups of 3-4 the Cobalt-wings started to move slowly down the trees on the hillside in a stepwise fashion. It took about 45 minutes for them to work their way to the bottom. At least once in a blue/green rush they left but they came right back down to eat and drink. It seemed once they had worked their way down, they were more comfortable and less fearful. Within the mass of Cobalt-wings was a handful of the Scarlet-shouldered Parrolets. You watched for this flash of “RED” in an otherwise sea of blue and green. Then you would look for their eye-ring and black face markings and wings markings. It was a phenomenal sight. Once the birds flew off for good around 11:30 we had our lunch and then around noon birded our way back to the river.

We did well on the walk back with a Brown Nunlet, Blue-crowned and Golden-headed Manakins and White-eared Jacamars...In case I haven’t mentioned this yet, I really like jacamars. They are usually colorful birds with personality about themselves. At 14:30 we were back in the canoe heading for home and just as the pilot was about to really start the engines, Oscar noted a Brown Anaconda along the creek bank. It was about 6 feet long so we investigated it. This of course led to a discussion of the great cinematic feature “Anaconda”. Several of us admitted to having seen it. I contend the only redeeming quality of Anaconda is that J Lo is in it. Others more familiar with the movie felt that John Voight getting eaten by a 25 foot long giant anaconda was the real highlight. Either way we agree it was a good trashy movie. We also discussed that noteworthy movie “Lake Placid” and decided we all needed to make it a double feature when we got home. We were back at the dock at La Finca at 15:15 and the lodge proper by 17:00. It was a long and most excellent day. We met in the common room at 18:30 to do the checklist before dinner as we would be meeting again early for breakfast tomorrow to bird along the south side of the Napo. Being Sunday it was barbecue night so after completing the checklist we headed down to the Lake House to enjoy the festivities. Sunday and Wednesday are barbecue nights. These are also the nights before groups typically head home so they like to send people off with something special. This allows the staff to tell everyone at onetime the plans for the next morning’s departure and to acknowledge the complete staff and the wonderful job they all do as a group. It was very nice. Night at Sacha Lodge.
27-July-2009 - Today breakfast was again at 5:00 so we could leave as close to 5:30 as possible so we could go across the Napo and bird a trail on the south side. For forest birds, the river is a large enough barrier that there are birds found on the south side that we won’t find around the lodge. We finally pushed off across Pilchicocha around 5:45 as no sooner had Dave finished telling us a story about a couple on a Pantanal tour who both forgot their bins one morning when he realized he needed to fill his water bottle. Mitchell and Gus decided to not join us as this would be a second long day in a row. Secondo and Oscar whisked us across the lake. There was a nice mixed flock of birds when we emerged from the trail at La Finca. It consisted of Swallow, Magpie and Palm Tanagers; Russett-backed and Crested Oropendolas; Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, Black-fronted Nunbird, House Wren; Variegated and Piratic Flycatchers, and the ubiquitous Tropical Kingbird. There were also female Plum-throated Cotinga and White-winged Becard.

After about 30 minutes of birding here we boarded a smaller motorized canoe (only one outboard engine) and headed across the Napo to a creek and region known as Provincea. Along the channel that we birded we had Green Kingfisher, Green Ibis, Black-fronted Nunbird, Yellow-headed Caracara, Long-billed Starthroat, Orange-backed Troupial, and Grayish Saltator. Overhead we had Short-tailed Swifts and Dave gave a little lesson in their ID since their secondaries are longer and their tail is short (no duh) giving them a compact wedge-winged look in flight. Although the mouth of this channel was more or less exactly opposite the Sacha landing, it took us about an hour to make our way “up the creek” to the trail head landing. As we eased to a stop, a Green Oropendola flew overhead. It was 8:00 when we were on dry land.

It was typical tropical forest birding in that you walked the trail until you heard/saw birds and then you worked them till people saw them or the birds retreated into the forest. This was a very muddy trail. The first species we came on was a Southern Nightingale Wren (or Scaly-breasted Wren as it is often called). The subspecies here isn’t very scaly-breasted and this bird took sometime to be coaxed into view. Then we started hitting and missing with various “antbirds” and other species as we came upon them. A couple of antshrikes that we came upon played really hard to get. In fact, I don’t even remember what ones we didn’t manage to see but “sometimes you just have to throw some birds back into the forest”. We made up for those misses with both male and female Sooty Antwren and Gray Antwren and Western Striped Manakin. Then we had good luck with Gray Antbird and fantastic luck with Black-bellied Cuckoo. Chestnut-winged Hookbill stayed in the canopy as did a pair of Pink-throated Becards. Next we came across Bicolored and White-plumed Antbirds calling in some rather dense understory vegetation. We unsuccessfully chased them along the path for quite awhile. We saw lots of movement and flitting about but we never got a clear look at either species. It was then time to start walking back to the small thatched hut where our lunch would be delivered (yes, times continued to be rough here in Amazonia). On the way back we had a very cooperative Long-winged Antwren, Banded Antbird and Rufous-Capped Antthrush. Not a bad morning’s birding. It was 12:30 and it had started to rain again when we made it back to the hut so we sat down and waited for lunch. Lunch was brought straight from Sacha’s kitchen and consisted of a “still warm” chicken leg quarter, veggies, potato, sandwich, fruit, and a package of cookies. Since we were so close to Sacha and the river, our canoe pilot and Secondo carried in an Igloo cooler with cold beer and soda and water. The only polite thing to do was to take a drink from the cooler to lighten their load back to the canoe. After lunch we had a Blue-black Grosbeak and a spectacular Wire-tailed Manakin (manakins are pretty cool too).

About 13:50 we were back in the canoe with plans to stop at an island in the river before getting back to La Finca. At 14:20 we jumped off the canoe onto an island that Oscar knew had Castelnau’s Antshrike. They are island specialists and the island has to be of a certain age with the proper vegetation. As I said much earlier, Hilty’s book made much more sense to me this reader than it did initially. Anyway, it took awhile but we eventually found a pair of the antshrikes, got rained on again and then headed back to Sacha. We first went by a spot Oscar (he really is an amazing guide) knew for Brown Jacamar and sure enough there they were. At the Sacha landing, we had the usual assortment of swallows and Swallowings. At was 15:15 and after a pit stop we were back along Anden and yes we got caught in another rainstorm. Fortunately, it stopped before we had to cross Pilchicocha. A bit before 17:00 we were back in our rooms. We meet again in the common room at 18:30 to go over the checklist before dinner. Night at Sacha Lodge.

28-July-2009 - It rained on and off all night including some serious downpours and we could only hope that it really had stopped as we walked down to breakfast at 5:30. Today we would be returning to the Kapok tree tower for the morning. Rather than canoe there we would be walking to maximize our time on the tower. As luck would have it, it started to rain as we were getting ready to leave at 6:15. It was a pretty steady rain for the 30 minutes or so it took to get to the tower. I never needed to open my umbrella and the trees probably sheltered us from the worst of it but we were now about to climb up in a tower that would put us above the canopy directly into the rain. It wasn’t until about 7:45 that the rain actually let up but we had been up in the top of the Kapok tower waiting nonetheless. We stayed in the tower for about 4 hours and had a trickle of bird activity all morning. Although we never had huge numbers of individuals or species, we eventually had some nice looks at lots of birds and that doesn’t include all the distant raptors that Dave and Oscar kept finding in the skies over “Colombia, Peru and Brazil”. Highlights (better views or new birds for the trip) included: Green Ibis, Ruddy Pigeon, White-necked Puffbird, Golden-collared Toucanet, 5 species of woodcreepers (Plain-brown, Oliveceous, Amazonian-Barred, Straight-billed and Buff-throated), 3 species of euphonia (White-lored, Orange-bellied and Rufous-bellied), Yellow-bellied Dacnis and Green Honeycreeper. We also got to watch the three-toed sloth in action. It was moving about and actively feeding in the branches of the cecropia tree. That is at least as actively as a sloth does things. There also were many of the usual suspects around such as Yellow-rumped Caciques, Russet-backed Oropendola, Violaceous Jays, White-browed Purpletufts and Crowned Slaty-Flycatchers. Around noon we headed down and worked our way back along the path to the lodge and lunch.

The buffet for lunch set up is like the one at dinner with the choices of multiple entries, salads and desserts. Besides having multiple staff members clearing dishes and filling water pitchers, the bar is open for soft drinks and beer if you desired. I guess a fussy eater could find fault with the cuisine but no one in our group seemed to have trouble filling their plates. This afternoon we would return to the Anaconda Creek as no doubt the downed tree was removed the day after our first visit. This canoe trip is one of the regular adventures for visitors at the lodge so there was no doubt the way was cleared the next day.

We met back together at 15:30 and boarded a canoe and headed back to Anaconda Creek. The Rufescent Tiger-heron and nesting Hoatzin were where we had left them. We came across more Chestnut Woodpeckers which again just froze in place; counting on their dark brown coloration to keep them hidden from a predator as long as they kept perfectly still. They are truly elegant woodpeckers as are most members of the Celeus genus. Once we were back in the creek we came across a mixed flock of birds. If working a mixed flock of birds in the tropical forest canopy is a challenge from a trail, it is a real challenge from a canoe! Fortunately, this flock responded to a pygmy-owl call and came back to the trees over the canoe after flying off so we had two tries at it. The flock consisted of Masked, Masked-crimson, Silver-beaked, Gray-headed and Green and Gold Tanagers, a Purple Honeycreeper and a LaFresnaye’s Piculet. We then almost had a pair of Coraya Wren but we just couldn’t coax them into view and we couldn’t maneuver to see as we were in a canoe. Like the Bicolored and White-plumed Antbirds of the previous day, we saw lots of movement and heard lots of song but never really could see the birds. Moving further along the creek we found a White-bearded Manakin and then a Rufous-tailed Flatbill. Next when came to a good stand of Mauritia palms and this was the spot that Oscar said was the place for Point-tailed Palmcreeper. Why this clump of palms and not others, I don’t know but we were “playing on his home court” so why argue. A few blasts of the iPOD and we had a response. Some folks got better looks than I did before it flew off but that happens sometimes in the tropics. As a consolation, we had a very cooperative Moustached (short-billed) Antwren. I’m partial to antwrens and antbirds and really have taken to this tropical birding-thing a lot! It is very different than a walk in the woods around home. Although it takes time to get used to it; I enjoy it very much. We had a few more Yellow-tufted and Chestnut Woodpeckers before turning around and heading back to the lodge. On the way we tried for Zigzag Heron. NOW that would have been a real prize but we didn’t have any luck. The day ended with a Bat Falcon feeding in the twilight on what else, a bat, and Tropical Screech Owl and Paraque calling along the banks of Pilchichocha. Although we did end up seeing good birds on this trip, it seemed that everyone had a case of the fidgets at some point from sitting too long on the canoe’s hard seats. It was dark as we got back to the canoe landing area and we were all glad to stand and stretch our legs when we landed. Night at Sacha Lodge.

29-July-2009 - Today was our last full day at Sacha and we would be birding some of the islands in the Rio Napo. Breakfast was early again at 5:00 so we could get beat the heat of the day in case it was going to be sunny. It’s not like you can get a local weather report on the evening news or that it would be anymore accurate than any weather report anywhere in the world. We made the crossing of Pilchicocha and trek over Anden and were at the Napo by 6:30. The first island Oscar wanted to take us to was about 20 minutes downriver. En route we saw Yellow-billed Terns, Oriole Blackbirds, Yellow-headed Caracaras and White-winged Swallows. Oscar spied an Amazonian Umbrellabird in the canopy that we were able to get a fleeting view of before it disappeared deeper into the forest.

We landed on the island a little after 7:00 and immediately began to find a nice collection of those “island specialists” that are mentioned above and in Steve Hilty’s book. In fact it was some of the best birding of the trip and even though Dave kept saying it wasn’t as good as he has sometimes had on these islands although it seemed pretty good to us. We quickly were finding Caqueta Seedeaters, White-throated Kingbirds (with Tropical Kingbirds nearby for comparison) and then we quickly found three spinetail species: Parker’s, White-bellied, and Dark-breasted. In case you are wondering, I like spinetails but Lynn really likes spinetails. Next on the hit parade were a Lesser Hornero and Chestnut-bellied Seedeaters plus Yellow-browed Sparrow and Striated Heron. There were constant flights of parrots overhead with Orange-winged being the most common species.

c.2009 Martin Selzer

We walked across a shallow channel that may or may not have meant we were on another island to look for Plain-capped Spinetail, Fuscous Flycatcher and Gray-breasted Crake. We promptly struck out and returned to where we had been birding and had fantastic luck with the crake. We had 2 or 3 calling all around us and one little guy (they are tiny) walked passed us right at our feet. This became one of my three favorite birds of the trip. As we were leaving the crake spot, the guides heard Rufuos-headed Woodpeckers. Not only are these an island specialist but these are another member of the Celeus genus. Well this is one handsome bird and we had a pair of them. We must have been in their territory because they responded to the iPOD and they quickly became my favorite bird of the trip.

Well it was getting close to 9:30 and we were going to go back to the Castelnau’s Antshrike island again so it was time to go but not before we did find a Fuscous Flycatcher. Now Dave mentioned that this is another case where this subspecies needs an eager young ornithologist to do his/her PhD work so we can all get another species as the one’s on these Amazonian River Islands are different from the ones found on terra firme. All these differences are ever so slight or non-existent visually but apparently quite significantly in the calls/songs and since that’s how they form pairs to mate, you have the basis for speciation.

At the Castelnau’s Antshrike island we added White-tipped Dove (an island resident in this part of the world) and Spotted Tody-flycatcher to the trip list. Here again Plain-capped Spinetail did not want to show itself. So we headed back to La Finca and walked Anden for the next to the last time. We did find White-winged Becard and Collared Trogon. Near the Pilchicocha canoe launch we had a flock of birds that included Opal-rumped Tanager, Pygmy Antwren, and Purple Honeycreeper. It was noon when we were back at the lodge so we had plenty of time before lunch.

This afternoon we would walk the Lianachica Trail which is one of the trails that leads to the Canopy walkway. We met at cabin 11 at 15:30 and set off. One of the first birds we saw on this walk was an electric Wire-tailed Manakin. We then had fantastic views of Black-faced Antbird and Peruvian Warbling Antbird. The Warbling Antbird was recently split into 6 species and it is anyone’s guess if this is the final status of this bird’s taxonomy. I know that I’ve now seen two different Warbling Antbirds and accept that species come and go at the taxonomists decisions. We also saw Spix’s and Plain-brown Woodcreepers. The two last birds we saw (or almost saw) as it was getting dark were a completely silhouetted Short-billed Leaftosser and Dusky-throated Antshrike. We had been trying to lure Short-billed and Black-tail Leaftossers into view the entire walk. Dave and Oscar heard them calling all along the trail but they would not respond to either recorded calls or even their own calls played back. Too back as I’ve only seen one other species of leaftosser before and that was years ago in Trinidad. We were back at the lodge at 16:30 and it was barbecue night again! Night at Sacha Lodge.

30-July-2009 - Today we would be leaving Sacha so we would be leaving our checked luggage on the porches of our cabins for the staff to pick-up, bundle and transport down to La Finca and Coca. We’d see them again when we checked in at the airport in Coca, the runway maintenance was complete and we’d be flying back to Quito from there. Breakfast was at 5:30 so we could head across Pilchicocha ahead of anyone else leaving and be able to bird along Anden one last time. By the time we finished eating and had been paddled across one last time it was 6:30. The forest was quiet although I got my best look a White-fronted Capuchin monkey and there were of course Common Squirrel monkeys to watch. We did have Plumbeous Antbird and Yellow-tufted Woodpecker before making it to La Finca. The usual Violaceous Jays, Smooth-billed Ani and flycatchers were at the boat landing and we did manage to end our visit with a bang, a Lemon-throated Barbet, giving us a sweep of the expected barbets for the trip. Around 8:00 we began to load up the canoe along we about 6-8 other guests. En route Dave noticed some Turkey Vultures, a Laughing Falcon and a Swallow-tailed Kite to add to our list. We were at the Sacha Lodge facility in Coca to enjoy our bag lunch before we headed off to the airport which we arrived at just before noon. We took off for Quito at 12:30 and were checked back into the Sheraton in Quito at 14:30. We had time to relax, check e-mail if we wanted before meeting for a final group dinner at Cooks at 18:00. At some point we met some participants of the Field Guides Montane Ecuador tour that was starting the next day and going to dinner we ran into Mitch Lysinger who was leading that tour. It was nice to have a couple minutes to say hello to him. Night in Quito at the Sheraton Quito.

31-July-2009 – Today we travel home. As I mentioned on the 21st, travel days are all about hurrying up and waiting and today was a perfect example. Our original, yes original flight out of Quito was scheduled for 6:30 so we had to catch the 4:00 Airport shuttle from the hotel. Arriving in the lobby a bit before 4, as I poured myself a cup of coffee I could see on the airport information screen that our flight we already delayed 2 hours. Now, I’ve traveled enough to know there isn’t much one can do about these things except calmly deal with the ticket agent and rebook the best you can. Rather mature and “Zen-like” you’re thinking. My, Martin’s really showing depth of character we didn’t know he had. THANK YOU, besides some small truth to all that, the plain and simple reality of the situation was we only had 90 minutes to make our connecting flight in Miami so the minute I saw that we were two hours delayed I knew American Airlines had us so there was no need to get upset and the only approach was complete acceptance of whatever lay ahead. Better to be delayed like that on the way home with a duffle bag of dirty clothes than on the day you are beginning a trip. So we still headed to the airport and a very nice ticket agent booked us on a 20:50 flight out of Miami. At least we were seated in an emergency exit row so we had lots of leg room. We then paid our exit tax ($40.80 if you fly out of Quito), made it through immigration, got breakfast and waited for the flight to leave.

As funny as it sounds, our new flight took off on time. Now once we landed in Miami, we had no reason to rush as it was about 14:15 and we weren’t boarding our next flight for 6 hours. Therefore, we let everyone else get off the plane, we didn’t rush to Immigration, we didn’t rush to get our luggage or drop it off at the American Airlines transfer point and we walked around the terminal for 15 minutes before we headed to the Top of the Terminal Restaurant on the 7th Floor of the hotel in the Miami International Airport. I hadn’t done this before but Lynn and Dave Stejskal have. The restaurant is very accommodating to travelers in our predicament and quite willing to let you have a table and languish over a meal. Lynn and I ordered lunch and sat with a view from 15:00 to 18:30 when we headed back to the terminal to go through security and head to our gate. About an hour before had to leave we noticed Ian had found his way to the restaurant. He had heard us all talking about this one day during a meal at Sacha. His flight out of Quito had also been delayed and he was also spending quality time in Miami. If you only have a short period of time at the airport it might not be worth the time to leave the secure zone and get re-screened but since we had to go through security again having come from an international flight and had 6+ hours to kill it was very nice and quiet and we were able to get a decent meal. Again, our rescheduled flight left on time at 20:50 and arrived about 15 minutes early at 23:15. Our luggage came right up. Pacifico came and got us relatively quickly and I was home a little before 1:00 on August 1st, 21 hours after I had gotten up to catch my early morning flight home from Quito. It’s been a long time since I pulled an all nighter.

It was a great trip, thanks to everyone for helping make it a great success! Our visit to Antisana was a great day of birding in the paramo and a highly recommended adventure to anyone visiting the Quito area. Sacha Lodge is a wonderful place that certainly lived up to everything I had heard about it. I would encourage anyone who hasn’t been there to get there. It has moved to the top of my list of places to return to. I don’t know if I’ll actually get there again because there are so many place I haven’t been to yet that I want to get to a first time but given the opportunity, I’m packing my bags in a heart beat to travel back down the Rio Napo.