Ten weeks before our departure for Ecuador, Cindy was in the hospital having her right knee replaced. She had the left knee replaced in 2019 and worked hard on her rehab and had a remarkable recovery – driving within a few weeks and at full use not long afterwards. We planned the Ecuador trip before the second surgery and agreed that unless things went awry, 10 weeks should be enough time for her to fully participate – with one probable exception – the Towers at Sacha Lodge. In the recovery weeks before the trip her only even partially difficult issues were climbing down stairs. That coupled with her not being too crazy about heights suggested that she may well sit out the trip up (and down) the 95 foot Canopy Tower and the even taller Kapok Tower. Our first full day at Sacha included the Canopy Tower. She was feeling great and was really enjoying the rainforest and the birds, and so, motivated by the chance to view many of them close up and also to test her own fortitude, she was game to go. The agreement was that if there were any issues she could change her mind.
The Canopy Tower at Sacha is incredible. It is actually a narrow walkway 94 feet high and maybe 4 feet wide between three towers spanning 940 feet. There is a viewing platform at each of the three towers with 360 degree views. Much of the activity in the rainforest is in the canopies of the trees and these platforms provide viewing opportunities that would be impossible without the towers. It was a relatively short hike on good trails to get to the tower. Cindy was still game when we got there being both a little anxious about the imposing climb ahead but also excited by the challenge.
The towers were sturdy and the steps regularly spaced and easy to climb, but there were a lot of them. If we had been at the high elevations visited in the first part of the trip, it would have been a very tough climb, but we are both in pretty good shape and with a few pauses we made it pretty easily. It helped that it was not a real hot or humid day. Cindy’s concerns about height were not a problem at all as the dense trees and vegetation below makes it seem like it is not so high off the ground – at least mostly. For the first hour we had the tower platform completely to ourselves. Oscar had climbed with his spotting scope and it was often put to great use as many of the birds were still pretty distant. The birds would come in singly or in groups and a few were fairly close in adjacent canopy tops. There would be periods of great activity and then nothing. The view though was always outstanding especially of distant giant Kapok trees silhouetted against a sometimes foggy sky.
I did not keep track of when each species came and went or the sequencing of their visits. It felt like we were in a blind watching nature unfold in front of us as birds big and small flew in, flew by or were seen perched out in the rainforest. Without commenting on them, these are many of the birds we saw from one or another of the three tower platforms.
Only a few of the photos above were at close range. Almost all were taken with my zoom lens fully extended to 500 mm and all were cropped and magnified in processing. These three photos of a female Purple Honeycreeper give a good sense of what we were seeing compared to the post finishing photos – remembering that even the smallest one with the red arrow pointing it out is still magnified about 10X by the zoom lens.
A number of species flew by in the distance without a chance to get a good photo. These included King Vulture, Swallow Tailed Kite, Green Ibis, Red Bellied, Blue and Yellow and Chestnut Fronted Macaws, Dusky Headed and Cobalt Winged Parakeets, Mealy, Orange Winged and Blue Headed Parrots, and Black Hawk Eagle. I also missed several shots of perching birds which were either buried in foliage or too briefly in view. The photos I really wanted were of Purple Throated Cotinga, Purplish Jacamar, White Throated Toucan and Masked Crimson Tanager. I got an ID quality only photo of the first and none of the other 3. I include a few photos by others from Ebird to give a better sense of what all was seen.
This photo is proof that Cindy made it onto the tower and since she is here with me today, that is proof that she made it down. There was a little residual soreness in her knee the next day but not enough to in any way affect her in our other walks and in climbing another tower. I was exceptionally proud of her.
Since we saw a lot birds on the walks to and back from the Tower (stay tuned) and I did not keep specific notes, I am not certain of this number but believe we saw about 55 species from the Tower in the 2 plus hours that we were there. We also had very distant views of Red Howler Monkeys – a terrible photo is included only as proof it was seen.
On the way back to the Lodge after the towers, we were able to add some new birds and a few photos. Sadly again, many photos were missed in the dense foliage and with rapidly moving birds. A bird that was heard and not seen was a Cinerous Tinamou, its piercing shrill whistled call hard to miss. Two Antbird species were first identified by their calls, then seen briefly before they disappeared in dense foliage: Peruvian Warbling Antbird and Spot Winged Antbird. In the dense foliage there was a major dilemma – try to see the bird with binoculars and then follow up trying to get a photo or forego the binocular view and try for a photo – essentially birding by camera. The trouble was that even getting a single view was often difficult and getting that view by camera was even harder than with the bins. The Peruvian Warbling Antbird perched in the open for a second and had I tried with the camera first, I probably would have gotten a photo, but as I switched from bins to camera it was gone – no photo – but a lifer tick in any event.
I had better luck with two tyrannulets. The to me the inaptly named Yellow Crowned Tyrannulet remained in the open for quite a while, even hanging upside down at one point, something I had not seen before with flycatchers. The White Lored Tyrannulet was more a lucky shot as it flew off immediately after its brief pose for my photo. I had seen it before in Peru but the Yellow Crowned was a Lifer. I was not able to get photos of several other flycatchers: Yellow Margined Flycatcher, Double Banded Pygmy Tyrant or Rufous Tailed Flatbill. I was almost certain I had gotten a photo of a Cinnamon Attila, but I have not been able to find the photo. It’s possible it was inadvertently deleted as in the first times through the thousands of photos, I tried to delete bad photos (as in really bad). Maybe it was a poor shot and fell victim to the initial editing.
It is not often that I describe getting a photo as fun, but such was the case with the Wire Tailed Manakin, a little beauty. It played hide and seek for several minutes. I would finally think I had it in my camera’s sights and it would then get fully or partially hidden in the foliage. Finally I synchronized my movements with the bird’s and got an ok photo of its striking profile. I had seen a distant one briefly the previous day and figured there would never be a photo, so getting this one was very satisfying … and fun even if it takes several photos to see the cool details including the wire tail!
We saw and/or heard 4 species of woodcreeper on our hike: Plain Brown, Cinnamon Throated, Striped and Buff Throated. The latter two were lifers and the Cinnamon Throated was new for Ecuador. I have posted a photo of the Plain Brown previously and did not get a picture of the Buff Throated.
Wrens were really problematic as we heard Scaly Breasted, Thrushlike and Musician Wrens but got only fleeting glances of any of them. There were two more photos – a Straight Billed Hermit – seen but not photographed the previous day and another photo of one of the two Crested Owls seen the day before and had returned to their favored day roost today in a little better light.
No way around it, it was an AWESOME morning. We had seen or heard more than 75 species. Forty-two species were new for Ecuador, but only 20 were Lifers, as we had seen many before and I had seen others in other trips to South America. There would be another excursion after lunch
Lunch was a little of this and a little of that – well actually “little” is not the right word as portions were much larger than we should have taken from the buffet offerings, but will power was low and the quality was high. We justified our portions by remembering our hikes and tower climbing, but calorie intake was much higher than calories burned. Afterwards we returned to our cabin for an hour of rest and then met Oscar at the canoe launch around 3:00 and headed off across the lake and ducked into a small channel in absolute solitude. One of the first birds we saw was one of the most spectacular birds of the region, the Hoatzin, which looks like a throw back to prehistoric times. We had had distant looks at some on the boat trip to Sacha but this was the first really good look – and many more would follow. Crossing the lake and entering the channel, we also added both Greater and Lesser Kiskadees, Social and Boat Billed Flycatchers, White Winged and White Banded Swallows, Gray Breasted Martin and Black Capped Donacobius plus Short Tailed Swifts. Flyovers included three Caracara species: Black, Red-Throated and Yellow Headed Caracaras.
This turned out to be more of a very pleasant relaxed trip through the flooded rainforest than a birding trip as it was very very quiet. There were a few small groups of Squirrel Monkeys overhead including one that missed its branch and fell into the water not far from our boat. He was drenched and I could also swear he had an embarrassed look on his face as he quickly clambered back up the tree to join his group.
We did see an owl but unfortunately it was only an Owl Butterfly – pretty big and with a certain owlish look.
As we were coming out of our little channel we caught site of what may be Cindy’s favorite bird of the trip – a Zigzag Heron sitting on its nest – frozen and stiff with its bill pointed skyward. We got very close without disturbing it and took lots of photos. Note the mosquito on its eye.
We had added maybe another dozen species on the trip bringing the total for the day to 90 with a total of 298 species for our trip list and my World Life List up to 2880 – with 136 added so far.