I spent six days at Sani Lodge ( www.sanilodge.com), birding with Domingo, one of the local guides. As I have seen a lot of Ecuador's Amazonian birds before, we concentrated on those species that are not easy to find, especially at the other lodges closer to Coca, but we still saw 222 species, including four Napo endemics. Sani is a relatively new lodge, but it has a lot to offer, with great birding around the lake, very friendly staff, good forest trails, lots of primates, and a canopy tower so you can see treetop birds at eye level. Highlights of my visit were morning flights of hundreds of parrots over the lake, a singing male Cocha Antshrike, good views of Ochre-striped and White-lored Antpittas, an excellent island with many of the riverine specialities, a very obliging Ringed Woodpecker, and a roosting Rufous Potoo (see photos in my gallery www.surfbirds.com/albums/showgallery.php?ppuser=211&cat=500).
Arriving in the afternoon, we set off for the canopy tower across the lake from the lodge. As we arrived at the top of the tower we could hear Dugand's Antwren singing in the tree and got great views of it in the branches just above our heads. In the next couple of hours, up till dusk, we had fly-pasts from Blue-and-yellow Macaws and Bare-necked Fruitcrow, Scale-breasted Woodpecker creeping along the branches, Black-bellied Thorntail on its nest, and Moriche Oriole singing from the neighbouring trees. Returning to the cabins as the sun was setting we could see the Hoatzins clambering noisily in the vegetation, and once darkness fell the Common Potoos and Pauraques began singing.
The following morning we were back up the tower again. Around us were four species of toucan (Ivory-billed and Many-banded Araçaris, White-throated and Channel-billed Toucans), five cotingas (Spangled and Plum-throated Cotingas, Amazonian Umbrellabird, and Purple-throated and Bare-necked Fruitcrows), and six parrots (Blue-and-yellow Macaw, Red-bellied Macaw, Chestnut-fronted Macaw, Cobalt-winged Parakeet, Orange-winged Amazon, and Mealy Amazon): a great start to the day. Walking back through the forest Domingo pointed out a Great Potoo on a branch with its chick, and around the lodge itself a male Blue-crowned Trogon was showing off by the lake. From outside my cabin I watched the stunning Masked Crimson Tanagers and rather more subtle Silver-beaked Tanagers, while Hoatzins and Black-capped Donacobius perched in the giant aroids. After lunch, a canoe trip on the lake got us some nice waterbirds: Sungrebes, a couple of Limpkins, Wattled Jacanas, Least Bittern and Large-billed Tern.
We set off early for one of the islands in the River Napo, hoping for some of the special birds that are found only in this habitat. Parker's and White-bellied Spinetails, Black-and-white Antbird, Olive-spotted Hummingbird, and Ladder-tailed Nightjar were all found without too much difficulty, and we heard Castelnau's Antshrike. Back on shore, Rusty-fronted Tody-Flycatcher and Chestnut-capped Puffbird were good finds in the riverside scrub, but best bird was the singing White-lored Antpitta watched through a gap in the heliconias. Heading back along a trail through the forest, we found an ant swarm attended by Black-spotted Bare-eye, Spot-winged Antbird, and Plain-winged Antshrike.
Back down towards the river in the afternoon, but this time only halfway along the stream to another forest trail. Before we got there we stopped for a Cinnamon Attila, Plumbeous Antbird, and Black-tailed Trogon, but these soon became forgotten when we rounded a bend and heard a Cocha Antshrike singing from the river bank. Landing the canoe in the mud we carefully stepped out and walked a few metres into the vegetation from where we could see the jet-black male calling from a perch above us. This rare species was one of the unexpected highlights of the trip. It was rediscovered in 1991 after more than fifty years without a sighting by any ornithologist, and it is still known only from the Ecuadorian River Napo. Along the trail we found Grey-headed Tanager and the spectacular Cream-coloured Woodpecker.
Along the River Napo in a motor boat to visit the parrot licks upstream from the lodge. Yellow-headed and Black Caracaras were loafing on sandbanks along the way, and at the first lick we saw Dusky-headed Parakeet, Blue-headed Parrot, Yellow-crowned Amazon, and Mealy Amazon. The birds at the second lick were still up in the trees and had not yet descended, so we spent some time along one of the forest trails while we waited. This got us Ruddy Quail-Dove, Great Jacamar, White-chested Puffbird, Red-stained Woodpecker, Black-faced and Spot-backed Antbirds, and a superb Grey-winged Trumpeter. Once the parrots descended, we had the spectacle of 600 or so Cobalt-winged Parakeets flying in and out of a small cave entrance where they took the salts. Every now and again they were joined by an Orange-cheeked Parrot, a truly dazzling bird in flight.
Back at the lodge in the afternoon, another visit to the tower proved lucky when a Ringed Woodpecker came in to one of the surrounding trees.
A morning on the trails looking for antbirds was very successful, with ten species found, including the beautiful Ornate Antwren, and a very obliging Rusty-belted Tapaculo. Other birds in the understory included White-necked Thrush, Wire-tailed Manakin, Ruddy Spinetail, Lanceolated Monklet, and Black-throated Hermit. A White Hawk caused a commotion when it landed in the side of a small clearing, a Lafresnaye's Piculet tapped away at small branches, our second and third Sunbitterns lurked by the streamsides, and Black-headed Parrots made weird whistling noises from the treetops.
In the evening we spotlit Pauraques on their perches around the lake whilst Black Caimans watched us with eyes that shone red in the torch beam.
Despite being thousands of miles from the Atlantic, the Napo is so wide here that it acts as a barrier to some birds. So this morning we set off across the other side to look for some different species. Three Capped Herons were waiting for us, and once inside the forest we crossed an area of moriche palms near to where Orange-crested Manakins were calling. A Black-faced Antthrush obligingly walked past us while we watching a Scale-backed Antbird, and at a small stream we found an Amazonian Royal-Flycatcher. A Slate-coloured Hawk and a juvenile Ornate Hawk-Eagle were good raptors, but highlight of the day was an Ochre-striped Antpitta seen calling from low down in some vegetation.
We returned to the lodge, passing four species of kingfisher on the way, to the usual Hoatzins, flycatchers, and tanagers around the lake. As a last highlight, Domingo found the Rufous Potoo on its day roost and we got superb views as it rested on a low vine, hoping we couldn't see it.
The full bird list follows.
Bird species seen (restricted-range species in bold):
Great White Egret
Greater Yellow-headed Vulture
Amazonian White-tailed Trogon
American Pygmy Kingfisher
Crowned Slaty Flycatcher
Southern Rough-winged Swallow
Masked Crimson Tanager
Dusky Titi Monkey
Southern Two-toed Sloth
Red Howler Monkey
Monk Saki Monkey