This would be our last day in the Amazon and we would be going to the second and tallest tower at Sacha Lodge, the Kapok Tower which is an astounding 135 feet high. Bolstered by her ascent of the Canopy Walkway Towers, Cindy was undaunted by the challenge. First there was a brief canoe ride across the lake and down yet another of the many channels feeding it. The calls of the Hoatzin have variously described as grunts, groans, squawks, farts and more. The bird itself has been called the Reptile Bird, Skunk Bird and Stinkbird. It is very often just described as an amazingly cool striking and prehistoric looking bird. They definitely stand out and we had several up close as we entered the channel.
The channels are quintessential Amazon with dense forest of unimaginable diversity. They are full of birds but they are not so easy to see let alone photograph. We again were hoping for river otters but again were otterless. I have never included a video in a blog and find that I do not have a way to do so here under my subscription. Sad as there really is no way to appreciate what it is like to glide smoothly through one of the water channels in the Amazon. You just cannot appreciate the plant diversity – probably hundreds of species all competing for sunlight and nutrients.
It is also not possible to appreciate the Kapok Tower without seeing it – best in person from the bottom, from the top and on the climb all the way up. And since it is in the midst of dense vegetation in the forest adjacent to and intersecting with a giant Kapok Tree that is hundreds of years old and 200 feet high, it is impossible to get the full perspective of the tower. These photos may provide some idea (except for the physical climbing part).
Of course the whole idea for going up the tower was to see birds in the canopy of the many trees. We had both fewer species and fewer better looks at birds from the Kapok Tower than we had from the Canopy Walkway. Oscar said it was just one of those days as there just were not many mixed flocks that came in especially to the Kapok tree itself. As had been the case at the other tower, many species were seen only in flight usually too far distant for photos. These included both Blue and Yellow and Red Bellied Macaws, and Cobalt Winged and Dusky Headed Parakeets. I was able to get a very distant picture of a White Eyed Parakeet.
We had much better luck with both Chestnut Eared and Many Banded Aracaris which were close enough – and still enough for photos – especially as they perched right on the tower itself. Truly striking birds which scream “tropical”.
We had seen Masked Tityra earlier on this trip and I had seen them elsewhere. At first I thought I had another on a tree maybe 50 yards away but was happy to find that it was a lifer Black Tailed Tityra. A little further away we had a White Browed Purpletuft – difficult to photograph against the gray sky. And even further away was a Double Toothed Kite. Not the greatest photos of any of them, but I was happy to get any at all as they were all lifers,
Much closer was a gorgeous Rufous Bellied Euphonia, a species I had seen 17 years earlier at Rio Cristallino in Brazil. I did not understand how “rufous” got into the name then and still do not. And then much further again was a lifer Slate Colored Hawk, its bright yellow eyes and red bill aids in identifying the otherwise just dark form. The picture of the latter is pretty poor so I have included the greatly magnified “final” photo and the original one showing the distance and at least partially explaining why an ID only photo was the best I could do.
I just kept hoping that some birds would fly in closer but had to settle for whatever was seen anywhere and that included a Lafresnaye’s Piculet that somehow Oscar picked out and was perched just long enough to get another ID quality only photos – of another lifer. A bit closer although not much were a Crowned Slaty Flycatcher and an equally oddly named White Rumped Sirystes another flycatcher type. Again both were life birds.
A species I was very sorry to see but briefly, hear and never photograph was the Violaceous Jay. I had missed photos of a jay species in Mexico and earlier of the Beautiful Jay in the Western Andes, Now Violaceous Jay would be added to the missed jay photo list. Similarly I missed a photo of a Plumbeous Pigeon but did get one of a Ruddy Pigeon.
I an happy to say that my erroneous preconception that Antbirds and their kin were only found near the ground was definitely proved wrong up in the canopy as we had three Antbirds and an Antshrike all pretty close and cooperative enough to get pictures of two of the Antbirds and the Antshrike.
Once again there were a number of flycatchers – too often seen but not photographed – just too small or too distant or too buried or too brief or a combination of any of those problems. A flycatcher that had been seen before and now finally photographed, albeit not very well, was another Rufous Tailed Flatbill.
We spent several hours at the tower and then descended without issue, did the short walk back to the canoe and then returned to the Lodge in time for lunch. Counting birds seen on the walks, from the canoe and out the tower, we had 48 species but only17 were new for Ecuador of which 9 were lifers – getting me past 2900 but feeling like a long way from 3000. And that way seemed even longer after some news we got when we returned to the Lodge.
Just before our arrival in Ecuador there had been growing unrest and protests throughout the country mostly by indigenous protestors. Although the main part of the protest seemed to be about gasoline prices, there were other matters including demands to drop food prices, extend debt repayment deadlines for small farmers and block mining and oil developments. Underlying it all was a politician trying to unseat the new president. Roads were blocked and we had some of our plans threatened the first few days of our visit. Things had seemingly quieted down but were now heating up again. One significant impact was that instead of being picked up in Coca by our Jorge team, we would fly back to Quito, meet them there and hopefully continue our visit in reverse in the Eastern Andes. This would knock a few hours out of our next day as a minimum, but more importantly we had to think about cutting our trip short and try to fly out of Ecuador early as there was a possibility that the country could fall into martial law and access to the airport could be a problem. It was a very stressful situation.
We were scheduled to go out on another afternoon of birding with Oscar after a rest following lunch. Under the circumstances, we decided to skip that excursion and think through the situation in depth in the quiet of our cabin. As with all the places we stayed, there was decent Wi-Fi reception in our cabin and we were able to keep in touch with current news and most importantly with our tour company who were great keeping in communication with us giving us options and their assessments. The manager at Sacha was also involved as a liaison with Neblina Forest and making sure our arrangements were in place for the flight back to Quito and keeping us advised and comfortable.
So the bottom line was that our plans were changing. We mutually agreed that we should be ok flying to Quito and continuing in reverse while carefully monitoring developments and being ready to change plans again and even to fly out early if necessary. It probably cost us a few species that afternoon and certainly did the next morning, but it in no way took away from a wonderful visit at Sacha. All told in our 3 days plus there we had 168 species and had added 142 species to our Ecuador list and I had added 62 life birds. Each of these totals were below expectations and well below hopes. I had expected at least 80 lifers and close to 200 species. But I had not expected such wonderful people, great food and beauty everywhere. The following is my last photo from Sacha Lodge – a great way to remember it.