After travelling slowly down the Eastern Andes it was time to make our way to the Napo Wildlife Centre in the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest. It was the most amazing place situated on the side of a lagoon in the middle of the jungle. The facilities are owned by the Kichwa indigenous people, but are managed by nature and tourism professionals. All the profits are re-invested into community projects such as renewable energy, education and health care for the Kichwa Añangu people. It is situated in the Yasuni National Park which boasts an area of 2.5 million acres and just over 600 bird species!
To get there from Wild Sumaco Lodge we travelled by car for one and a half hours to Coca, the 70,000 population capital of this Amazonian region. Here we took a high powered canoe down the Napo River for two hours; a fascinating journey on a huge river that was up to 1km wide in much of the 70km we travelled. The river is 1,075km long, drains an area of 40,000 square miles and is a tributary of the Amazon.
After two hours we finally arrived at a small riverside dock in the jungle where we transferred onto a tiny canoe for four people with Jessica, me and two other people paddling. This final part of the journey took two hours along this tributary, surrounded by dense jungle, until we reached a beautiful lagoon with the eco-lodge on the water’s edge.
We were more than happy with our spacious lodge that had a huge bed, a living area and bathroom. On the rear terrace was a Jacuzzi and the front terrace had table and chairs overlooking the stunning lagoon in front of us. The service by the staff was impeccable so we were more than happy.
Our first excursion by canoe was around the lagoon and the highlights weren’t birds, but reptiles and mammals. The big surprise was seeing a stationary 6-metre-long Anaconda curled up on a grass bank. It was sleeping off the effort of digesting its latest victim! As it began to wake up and move around, we made a strategic withdrawal. It did look pretty scary!
As we paddled across the lagoon, we kept on seeing what appeared to be the odd floating log that turned out to be large Caimans! We could now understand the warning about swimming in the lagoon! Our final surprise was watching a family of Giant Otters calmly swimming past us in the direction of one of several small creeks. It was a beautiful and peaceful start to our Napo Lodge experience.
As we chilled on our front terrace we were suitably entertained by White Winged Swallows (Tachycineta Albiventris) continuously flying past our lodge. They are delicate and pretty birds and occasionally one would perch on a post nearby to have a rest. The kids were continually harassing them for food. I’m sure they were quite cheesed off at times, as the youngsters certainly looked old enough to look after themselves, but you know what teenagers are like!
This was the calm before the storm! We were allocated our own personal guide for our stay; a hyperactive, energetic and knowledgeable bird guide. We started normally at 4.30am, or 5.30am if he was feeling kind! We were also out in the jungle after dark, which was certainly not normal and were absolutely shattered after four days of manic birding and quite surprised, as I always thought it was a peaceful and relaxing hobby! It has been a disconcerting habit of tour firms allocating us hyperactive guides instead of the laid back ones! In fairness, he was an excellent guide and found us plenty of exotic and interesting birds. However, as we made frequent night time detours off-piste into the jungle, (usually because he had heard some bird faintly calling some 70 or 80 metres away up in the canopy), it put us on guard. We blindly followed him, as the alternative was standing by ourselves on a dark path in the middle of the jungle without any clue over our whereabouts. We were always relieved and grateful to finally arrive back at the lodge and were normally late for our evening meal. Unsurprisingly, he was very well known by his fellow guides in the Amazon and even those further afield. We only had to mention his name to receive knowing looks from other birders.
One of the fascinating birds which we commonly saw was a Hoatzin (Opisthocomus Hoatzin). A strange name for a very strange prehistoric-looking large bird. We always saw them in pairs or family groups. Our guide was very dismissive about what he called the ‘stinky birds’. Evidently, they have four stomachs like cows and do have a strange odour accompanying them. However, we are rather fond of them, because of their strange looks and their constant visibility. They normally sit on branches at eye level. It was more fun watching them than continuously searching the canopy for little active birds that required a great deal of patience and a very sore neck to see them properly.
As we slowly paddled along a small creek, we spotted a fairly large darkish bird of prey perched up on a tree about 20 metres in front of us. Surprisingly, it stayed where it was and allowed us time to study it better. It was a Snail Kite (Rosthramus Sociabilis), a bird not uncommon in these parts and a welcome distraction. Evidently, these birds feed almost entirely on a species of snail, the Apple Snail, but will also hunt small crustaceans and mammals. The highly specialised Snail Kite flies on broad wings over tropical wetlands as it hunts large freshwater snails. They are handsome grey and black raptors which have a delicate and strongly curved bill that fits inside the snail shells to pull out the juicy prey. Unlike most other raptors, Snail Kites nest in colonies and roost communally, sometimes among other water birds such as Herons and Anhingas. They are common in Central and South America, but anything we saw was special for us as we were first time visitors to the Amazon.
When we were sitting on our front terrace, (we did occasionally have some free time!), we were entertained by several different birds that were happy to share our company. One of the frequent visitors was quite a pretty bird called a Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus Melancholicus), which is a large Flycatcher. Their behaviour is typical of Flycatchers the world over as they like to perch in the open and foray from their perch to catch passing flies or flying insects.
We also had quite an interesting excursion to a birding tower that could take you up to the canopy of the jungle 70-80 metres high. Jessica enjoyed it tremendously; both the views and the natural history. Meanwhile I stayed with my feet firmly planted on the ground! Unfortunately I suffer from vertigo and this tower was at least 75 metres too high for me! Thankfully, Jessica took her camera with her and kindly donated her photo of a Yellow-Tufted Woodpecker (Melanerpes Cruentatus). Unusually, this Woodpecker is particularly partial to feeding on papaya and bananas, besides various invertebrates.
Whilst Jessica was enjoying her aerial perch and the views this afforded her, I was walking the jungle trails looking for mammals and birds of course. It was fairly quiet, but we eventually came across a troupe of highly entertaining and very noisy Howler Monkeys; a small reward for staying on Terra Firma.
Having escaped climbing the tower, we got back for dinner in the lodge just after sunset. Our guide rewarded us by telling us we had to be ready for a 4.30am departure the next morning. We were going to visit a couple of clay licks by the Napo River. Evidently, many of the Amazonian Parrots lack essential nutrients in their diet. This is harmful to them and would probably lead to their deaths. To counteract this lack of nutrients, they visit clay licks each day to eat the moist clay, which contains the nutrients they lack. They can travel up to 40kms each day to visit a clay lick. We arrived early in the morning and sat very quietly for one hour and twenty minutes until the first arrivals. There seemed to be a size hierarchy, as the first to arrive are the large Scarlet Macaws (Are Macao), followed by the smaller Orange-Cheeked Parrots (Pyrilia Barrabandi) and finally the even smaller Dusky-Headed Parakeets (Aratinga Wedellii). I have to admit that we witnessed one of nature’s true spectaculars with the number of birds and the amazing kaleidoscope of colours arrayed before us.
Our final avian treat (?) was a night time walk in the pitch black jungle to find a Crested Owl (Lophostix Crostata). After much clambering over trees and bushes, we obtained our reward as a juvenile Crested Owl kindly posed for us on a nearby tree. After achieving our quest we were very relieved to get back to the lights of the lodge and our evening meal. Jungles are scary at night!
After leaving the Amazon and before going to the Galapagos Islands, we went to a very nice hotel in the Northern Andes called La Hacienda de la Zuleta. It is the family home of two ex-Ecuadorian Presidents. This was for a bit of R & R. However, we did visit an Andean Condor (Vultur Gryphus) breeding facility in the extensive grounds. There are only 150 birds left in the country and this was a captive breeding centre, which hoped to eventually release birds back into the wild. It can take 15 or 16 years together before a pair will breed, so it is a long-term project. Whilst we were there a wild juvenile male Condor landed on the roof of the large aviary that held three captive birds. They have a wingspan of 3 metres, so this bird was a pretty impressive sight! We were very lucky to see it! (My wingspan is 1.75 metres!).
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