Friday, February 10, 2012

Ecuador - Day 1

4 hours to Houston, 4.5 hours sitting in Houston, 6 hours to Quito, 1 noisy hotel stay, and 1 short plane ride was all it took for us to reach Coca, Ecuador; the gateway to the Ecuadorian Amazon. We were still 4 hours away from the Napo Wildlife Center which would be our home for the next week. The first 2 hours are via a motorized canoe so there wasn't much to see cruising down the shallow but really wide Napo River. But, it was interesting to watch the driver zig-zag down the river reading the currents to be sure not to hit a shallow area. The second 2 hours were via a paddle canoe and were absolutely magical...

The magical leg of the journey started after leaving the Napo River and transferring to our paddle canoe. At a small transfer station we met our guides and climbed into our canoe. At the time, we had no idea how much time we would be in this canoe. Thank goodness there was a pad for our tushes.

We set off quietly down the narrow curvy Anangu river. The jungle serenaded us with sounds from all directions but we couldn't see what was making them due to the dense jungle foliage that lined the river.

Rio Napo Meeting the Anangu Creek

It wasn't long before we had our first mammal sighting. Hanging around in a tree over the river was this Brown-throated Three-toed sloth. Fifteen minutes in the canoe and already a new mammal. Awesome!

Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth

We got excellent views of this sloth which was exhibiting odd behavior. It was eating the bark off of the tree which is something that the guides hadn't seen before.

Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth

I had some issues getting sharp photos of the sloth and I quickly realized that taking hand-held pictures in the dark rainforest from a moving canoe was going to be quite challenging. Luckily for you I won't post the hundreds of blurry shots I took this trip.

Not long after the sloth we had another great encounter. This is a Rufescent Tiger Heron that let us get really close:

Rufescent Tiger Heron

And we soon found out why. It was doing a mating dance to impress a female heron about 10 yards away. It would straighten its neck out and then expand some flaps on its neck. It didn't seem very sexy to me, but the female didn't fly away so that must have been a good sign. Maybe I need to try that neck thing in the future.

Rufescent Tiger Heron Courting Mate

We decided to add video to our arsenal of toys to chronicle our trip and this heron gave us a good opportunity to try it out. We still have lots of practicing to do but overall we are happy with the videos from the trip. Heron mating dance video.

For the next hour or so we cruised the river slowly and quietly. We saw lots of creatures including large spiders, kingfishers, kites, three kinds of heron, a Great Potoo sleeping high in a tree, a ten foot caiman floating in the darkest bend of the river, and our first snake - a tree boa. We also saw the first of many Hoatzins which is now one of my favorite birds. This prehistoric looking bird is like no other on earth. And its nickname of "Stinky Turkey" made it even more endearing to us.


But, the real highlights were still ahead. Our guides had spotted a troop of Common Squirrel Monkeys hopping through the trees along the river. They were making quite a ruckus jumping through the trees. At one point they ran full speed across a log to get to the other side of the river.

Common Squirrel Monkey

The commotion caused by the squirrel monkeys had an added benefit. Apparently, it awoke something sleeping in a nearby tree hole. Something that was on our list of the top animals that we wanted to see.

Night Monkeys

This is a nocturnal monkey called the Night Monkey. The locals refer to this monkey as the "Noisy" Night Monkey because it apparently makes loud owl sounds all night. It is very rare to see them out in the daylight even if they were only peeking out at us.

Night Monkey

We had one last bird sighting, a Greater Ani, before the river widened and we could see the lodge across the river.

Greater Ani

It was a welcome sight. After sitting for so long, neither one of us could feel our butts anymore.

Napo Wildlife Center

Once the canoe docked, and after many loud groans, we stood up and staggered down the pier towards our refreshing welcome drinks. After a quick orientation, we were shown to our cabin which was marvelous.

Our Cabana

With only about an hour of daylight left, we scouted the area around our cabin for creatures and found lots of birds. In fact, a tree of nesting Yellow-rumped Casiques was right outside our cabin and would provide great sounds for us the entire trip since they can imitate other birds.

Black-throated Mango feeding:
Black-throated Mango Feeding Juvenile

Yellow-rumped Casique:
Yellow-rumped Cacique

Nesting Tree:
Yellow-rumped Cacique Nesting Tree

View from our cabin:
View from our Cabana

After a nice dinner we headed out to search for night creatures. Unfortunately, all of the hiking trails are reachable only by canoe so we didn't have a large area to search. Our total tally that night was one cricket. Not a great night walk. But, it was a great first day.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Ecuador - Day 2

Don't expect to sleep in when you visit Napo.  They have early wake-up calls (ours was at 5AM) and early breakfasts (6AM).  That's to take advantage of the prime wildlife viewing times.  We were in our canoe and heading out by 6:30AM.

Typically, Napo combines guests into groups of eight.  This is so they can ensure that each group doesn't do the same activity at the same time.  There is always an early morning activity until lunch and a late afternoon activity until dinner.  We knew about the grouping of guests in advance and were worried about a large group impacting our ability to see wildlife, take pictures, and have some flexibility with our schedules.  So, we hired a private guide which ended up being the best decision of the trip.

Our private English speaking guide was Delfin and our local Spanish speaking guide Melaton.  The four of us pretty much spent the entire week together including most meals.  On the morning of day 2, the four of us were off to Napo's 130 foot high canopy tower.  On the way, we cruised down one of the small rivers that empties into the lake and enjoyed the bird life which is really remarkable.  They have 600 species of birds in this part of the Amazon.

Female Snail Kite (Yes, they pretty much only eat snails...the snails here are BIG!):
 Female Snail Kite

Capped Heron:
 Capped Heron

Striated Heron: Striated Heron

After the short canoe trip, we hiked a bit until we reached the tower.  It was a loooooong way up!

Canopy Tower

After sitting on my butt for most of the last two days, I was itching for a little exercise.  Well,  after 115 steps I came to regret scratching that itch.  Especially because after 115 steps we were only HALFWAY up! Once we reached the top we were able to see quite a few birds through the scope but none came close enough for pictures.

After about an hour our guides demeanor changed a bit.  From 130 feet in the air, they could tell that a pack of White-lipped Peccaries was wandering about below.  Before they even asked, we were taking off down the stairs.  At the bottom, they had us drop all our gear because we were going off trail.

Melaton led the way with machete in hand and he was moving fast.  As experienced rainforest hikers we know to always watch where you step and to not grab the plants since either one could have "uncomfortable" consequences.  Well, those rules were quickly broken as we ducked under vines and leapt over fallen trees just to keep up.  After a while the guides motioned to slow down and crouch.  We could hear the grunts of the peccaries now and through the brush we could make out at least a dozen dark objects.  As we crept closer, the alarm call went up and the peccaries bolted.  But, not before we got some pretty good looks and one picture of peccary hind legs.  Despite the lack of photos, it was a great experience and there was absolutely no way we would have known these peccaries were around if not for our guides.

On the hike back to the canoe, we had very brief looks at Red Howler Monkeys and Golden-Mantled Tamarins.  Both are gorgeous primates that we hoped would come within camera view before the trip ended.  We also saw both Tapir and Tayra tracks.   Right where the trail ended and we hopped aboard the canoe a Southern Two-toed Sloth was high up in a tree.  Its location made pictures impossible unfortunately.  While the monkeys and sloth didn't cooperate for pictures, some other critters did.

Walking Stick:
Walking Stick

Millipede: Millipede (4 Inches Long)

 Amazon Poison Dart Frog (Don't lick it):
Amazonian Poison Dart Frog

After lunch we spent some time on the lodge grounds which were alive with activity.

Red-capped Cardinal:
Red-Capped Cardinal

Yellow-spotted Amazon River Turtle with a hitch-hiker that choose a sloooow mode of Yellow-headed Amazon River Turtle

Pollination in Action:
 Flower Pollination

The afternoon's trip was a paddle up another of the lake's tributaries.  It was extremely relaxing and provided some good wildlife viewing including a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl that our guide called in with his voice.  After a week with Delfin we realized that there was virtually no rainforest creature that he couldn't imitate.  He was amazing.

Black Caiman:
Black Caiman

South American Lance Head (A great encounter from the safety of the canoe):
South American Lance Head

More Hoatzins:
Hoatzin Pair

After dinner we tried our luck with another night hike and this time we actually had some luck.


And this frog that seems to have no common name.  Its Latin name is Leptodactylus lineatus.
Frog (Leptodactylus lineatus)

The highlight of the day was certainly the whole peccary tracking experience.  It was hard not to talk about that as we lay in bed listening to the night sounds of the rainforest.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Ecuador - Day 3

Today's wake up was at 4:30AM since we needed to be fed and out by 6AM.  The plan was to visit Napo's two parrot clay licks.  The first clay lick sees activity around 7:30AM and the 2nd typically sees activity around 11AM.

So, we piled into the canoe sharply at 6:15AM (because we were late) and the paddlers pretty much went double time all the way down the main creek back to the transfer station where we would move into a powered canoe for the rest of the journey.

Even though we didn't have much time to look for wildlife on this paddle we did manage to see our first Limpkin along with some Common Squirrel Monkeys and this North American Pygmy Kingfisher.

American Pygmy Kingfisher

Once in the powered canoe it was only about 5 minutes down the Napo River to where the first clay lick was located.  This clay lick is called a "dry" clay lick because the parrots actually eat the clay to get minerals to help offset the toxins in the seeds they typically eat.  So, this lick is not active in the rain since that makes everything too wet for the birds.  Luckily, the morning was clear for us and we could see from a few hundred yards away that the clay lick was extremely active.

Rio Napo

Mealy Amazon Parrots

Three kinds of parrots frequent this clay lick.  They are the Blue-headed Parrot, Dusky-headed Parakeet, and the Mealy Amazon Parrot.  All of them can be seen in this photo.  The parakeets are in the center and are smaller and greener.  The Blue-headed parrots are off to the right and the Mealy Amazon Parrots make up the rest:
Clay Lick Feeding Frenzy

The sound from this lick was pretty amazing and we enjoyed the hour or so that we spent floating nearby.  As we were leaving, the guide took us down river a bit to see an area where Ladder-backed Nightjars roost in the daytime.  We did see one.  But, even better I spotted a Southern River Otter along the shoreline.  Another new mammal for us:
Southern River Otter

Since guests typically have over an hour to kill between the clay lick visits,  Napo provides an option to go to the local community center to learn about the culture of the Kichwa people and buy some souvenirs from them.  However, thanks to some advanced research, we knew that this area was also the only place to try to find Pygmy Marmosets.  And finding the smallest primate in the Americas was just about top of our must do list.  So, instead of becoming cultured we instead had our guides head off in search of Pygmy Marmosets.   This is a common M.O. for us which probably explains why we aren't very cultured people.  Despite searching for over an hour though, we came up empty.

So, we headed off to the 2nd clay lick which is reached by a 1/2 hour hike just off the Napo River.  Along this hike we had a few interesting encounters:

White-fronted Nunbird:
White-fronted Nunbird

This is a Conga Ant.  Also known as a "bullet" ant.  Some people call it a "bullet" ant because when you get stung by them it feels like you were shot by a bullet.  Some regard its sting as the most painful non-lethal sting in the animal kingdom.  Check out how painful on wikipedia. We weren't about to  find out for ourselves so we stayed clear of this 3/4 inch ant every time we saw one during the trip:
Conga (Bullet) Ant

Striking unknown, and likely poisonous, caterpillar:

The second clay lick is a "wet" clay lick where the birds actually come down to drink the water which is full of minerals from the clay.  Because this area is in the forest with dense foliage, the birds are very wary and can take hours to come down from the tops of the trees.  We lucked out since we waited only about 1/2 hour for the birds to come down in mass.

Wings of Color

There are four types of parrots that frequent this clay lick including The Cobalt-winged Parakeet, the Orange-checked Parrot, the Scarlet-shouldered Parotlet, and the Scarlet Macaw.  The Macaws never made it all the way down but the other 3 birds did.  At the tail end of our stay, the birds shot out of the lick in all directions including right over our heads.  After a bit of searching we saw the cause of their hasty departure:

Bi-colored Hawk:
Bi-colored Hawk

It is hard to do justice with the sights and sounds of the parrots at these clay licks via photography.  So, this seemed like a great opportunity to shoot some video and we were lucky enough to capture the great flyout at the end.  Here are clips of both parrot clay licks.

On the way back to Napo we had another new mammal.  The Northern Amazon Red Squirrel:
Northern Amazonian Red Squirrel

Before transferring back to the paddle canoe we stopped again to look for Pygmy Marmosets.  The guides knew that this was a priority for us.  This time we had better luck.  The looks were broken up by branches here and leaves there and getting pictures meant contorting in weird positions just to find a relatively clear line of sight.   But, the neck and back aches were worth it.  These little primates are about 6 inches tall not including tail and they are extra cute!

First look - "Playing Coy":
Pygmy Marmoset

Second look - "Checking us Out":
Pygmy Marmoset

Third look - "The Grooming":
Pygmy Marmoset Pair Grooming

Final look - "Adorable":
Pygmy Marmoset Pair

 This was such a huge highlight for us.  As far as we were concerned the trip was pretty much made by this one encounter.  Everything else that we would see would be gravy.

On the canoe trip back to the lodge we had a few more photo ops worth sharing:

Walking Stick:
Walking Stick

Tree Boa:
Amazon Tree Boa

Black-capped Donacobius:
Black-capped Donacobius

Back at the lodge the sun was on its way down so we only had time to climb up to the three story tower at the lodge to look around.  The view from up here is really nice:
View From Napo Wildlife Center Tower

The travel and long days caught up with us so we retired early and gave up any thoughts of a night walk.  But, the day was full enough for us.  Seeing those Pygmy Marmosets will be a long lasting memory.