3-6 February 2016.
We made plans to visit Shiripuno Lodge in Western Amazonia. Shiripuno is one of the best sites for remote and intact rainforest where there is little hunting pressure; hence you can still find a lot of mammals, Curassows, and Tinamous. Unfortunately, a week before our scheduled visit, one of the uncontacted tribes that still inhabits the forests killed a boatman from the huaroni tribe on the river. The attack led officials to close Yasuni National Park to tourism and we were denied entrance. That sort of left us stuck in Coca, which is honestly a shithole; a grungy oil town with no good food and not much good accessible habitat nearby. Fortune found us, however. Pablo Hualingo who was to be our guide at Shiripuno and who has been guiding in the Ecuadorian Amazon for nearly 20 years just started his own ecotourism project near Limoncocha in some excellent primary forest. Pablo invited us to come spend a couple days birding his reserve and checking out the new cabañas. We hatched a plan to visit Sacha Kawsay as well as to hire a boat for a day take us to the Napo river islands to look for the river island specialists that are only found along the major rivers, without having to pay the $300+ per person per night that the lodges along the Rio Napo charge.
Pablo’s new reserve and cabañas are called Sacha Kawsay, and based upon our brief visit, I think this site could become fairly popular, both with independent birders and as a brief stop for birding tours. There are a couple of really fantastic, reliable birds here that are either very hard elsewhere or for which there exists no other reliable site. The top attractions, thus far, at Sacha Kawsay are: Zigzag Heron, which can readily and reliably be found in the evening 5 minutes from the cabins; Ecuadorian Cacique, which passes in front of the cabins quite reliably each morning between 6:30 and 7:00; Thrushlike Antpitta, which they’ve just started feeding and appears to be quite reliable already; Wire-tailed Manakin, for which they’ve set up photographers’ blinds with fruit that the Manakin prefers, making for reliable sightings of perched birds; White-lored Antpitta, which is quite common, not super hard to see, and which they are working on feeding; and Black-banded Crake, which is staked out in a location where it is actually quite easy to see the bird.
On top of this, some nice birds that are found here include White-chinned Jacamar (particularly common), Black-spotted Bare-Eye (also quite common), Brown Nunlet, Striated Antthrush, Purplish Jacamar, White-rumped Sirystes, Riparian Antbird, Elegant and Long-billed Woodcreepers, Solitary Black Cacique, Lemon-throated Barbet, Slender-billed Kite, White-shouldered and Spot-winged Antshrike, Gray-winged Trumpeter, Plum-throated Cotinga, Scarlet and Blue-and-yellow Macaws, Collared Puffbird, Chestnut-belted Gnateater, Green-and-Rufous and American Pygmy Kingfisher, Red-throated Caracara, along with several of the more common Amazonian birds. There is also a good show of Dusky-headed and Cobalt-winged Parakeets, various Tanagers, and a slew of Oropendolas and Caciques more or less all day long in the main clearing. In addition to the staked out birds and the Antpitta feeding station and in addition to the fact that you can see a lot of the same birds that are at the Rio Napo lodges, Sacha Kawsay has just about the best nocturnal birding I think we’ve ever encountered. There are a LOT of owls and potoos here. Counting by species is impressive, but the number of individual birds and the non-stop nocturnal chorus was just plain AWESOME! The most common species and the ones heard fairly non-stop in all directions were Crested Owl and Tawny-bellied Screech-Owl. We heard at least 5 individuals of each species each night. One evening I think we heard at least 10 Crested Owls in total. You can hear Crested Owl calling several times per minute, all night long, every night, from just about anywhere, including your bed! Spectacled Owl and Black-banded Owl are also fairly common and readily found a short distance back towards the parking area from the cabins along the main trail. We heard Common Potoo and Great Potoo every night; the Great Potoo called from just across the creek from the main clearing every morning in the pre-dawn. Not surprisingly, Common Pauraque is, well, common. Additionally, Tropical Screech-Owl, Mottled Owl, and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl were heard each night or morning. Rufescent Tiger-Heron and Zigzag Heron can be heard from the clearing each evening at dusk. One night we heard Nocturnal Curassow call at about 11PM. It only called a few times distantly so we did not go pursue it. Unfortunately we did not hear it again, but it is worth keeping your ears open for this one. A few more nocturnal species might be expected to occur, so it’s worth keeping ears open for Long-tailed Potoo and Ocellated Poorwill as well!
With Pablo’s help, we also hired a boat from Pompeya for a day and visited four different early successional river islands located downriver on the Napo River. The Amazon and its largest tributaries have innumerable islands; the older islands feature mature forest and are like boring versions of the mainland forest, but the younger islands that are covered in thickets of low grass, cane, tessaria (sort of a tropical willow), and young cecropia, and other pioneer trees have a whole host of specialized species that really make these early successional islands endemism central. Species diversity is pretty low but if you haven’t birded these river islands before, but it’s easy to turn up 10-15 new species in one day! We first visited an island near Pompeya where we found Ladder-tailed Nightjar, Lesser Hornero, White-bellied Spinetail, and Parker’s Spinetail before getting rained out. We motored downriver to Sani Isla (located near Sani Lodge and just downriver from Napo Wildlife Center) and let the rain pass. On Sani Isla we found Castelnau’s Antshrike, Spotted Tody-Flycatcher, Gray-breasted Crake, Orange-headed Tanager, White-bellied Spinetail and Parker’s Spinetail. We visited two other islands with younger growth upriver from here where we found Black-and-white Antbird, Lesser Hornero, River Tyrannulet, Lesser Wagtail-Tyrant, a lot more Gray-breasted Crakes, more Orange-headed Tanagers, and Caqueta Seedeater. There are a few other nice, if common/widespread birds that are frequent on these islands, such as Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Oriole Blackbird, and Fuscous Flycatcher.
You are fairly guaranteed a good show of riverine species as well; we saw Roseate Spoonbill, Pied Lapwing (Plover), Drab Water-Tyrant, White-banded and White-winged Swallow, Greater Yellowlegs, Blue-winged Teal, and a number of Osprey. There is a clay lick that is visible from the river that hosts Mealy, Yellow-crowned and Blue-headed Parrots, and we had many flyover Red-bellied and Chestnut-fronted Macaws, a pair of Blue-and-yellow Macaws, and a lot of other common parakeets and parrots. Overall, it is a very birdy outing and a great and relatively inexpensive way to connect with the majority of the Western Amazonian river island specialists. We missed Olive-spotted Hummingbird as low water levels left the best island for that species quite inaccessible. We didn’t have luck with Plain-crowned Spinetail or Riverside Tyrant but we’re not complaining, it was a fantastic day! Pack a lunch and bug spray, bring your rubber boots, and have a great time!
For independent birders and folks who speak a bit of Spanish, I think a 3 night visit, including a trip on the Rio Napo, would be pretty perfect. That gives you an afternoon, a full day, and a morning birding for the staked out birds and specialties to ensure you don’t miss any of them, three nights owling if you like, and a full day on the Rio Napo. You could add an additional day if you wanted to bird Limoncocha as well, where you are fairly guaranteed to see Horned Screamer and Azure Gallinule, and have a good chance at Brown Jacamar and some other aquatic and varzea type species. Another option is to add a second Rio Napo river trip and visit the trails in Yasuni National Park. We did not hike the trails but perhaps we should have as there are a different suite of birds here; notably a hike to a second clay lick gets you a good chance at Scarlet-shouldered Parrotlet and there is a chance for some great species like Brown-backed (Yasuni) Antwren or Sapphire Quail-Dove, though of course you cannot expect to see these species in one day’s effort ANYWHERE! All in all, this is a great way to bird this area and see most of the specialties apart from the very costly lodges at a far, far lower price.
For those who are already headed to one of the Rio Napo lodges, Sacha Kawsay is still a great one night or quick day trip to tick of some specialties not encountered at the Napo River lodges. The Ecuadorian Cacique, Zigzag Heron, Black-banded Crake, Thrushlike Antpitta, and Wire-tailed Manakin are nearly guaranteed. You might not see every one of them on a one day visit but you have a good chance. White-lored Antpitta might be possible in a short visit and you will almost certainly see White-chinned Jacamar, Solitary Black Cacique, and a couple other nice birds along the way! In our first afternoon and first morning we saw all of the above specialties except the Ecuadorian Cacique and the Wire-tailed Manakin as we didn’t get to the blinds at the right time of day but saw it readily the next day.
Sacha Kawsay is located in a fairly large stretch of forest that remains on the northeast side of Limoncocha (and which is connected to the larger and less disturbed forests further east) and is accessible by paved road. From the parking area it is a 30 minute hike into the cabañas along a nice trail through primary forest.
Once at the cabañas there are a handful more trails and an adventurous creek crossing, but soon there will be a bridge and the trails are improving daily (literally, this is a brand new site and project). The cabins are rustic but have restrooms, cold showers, and mosquito nets. They have the kitchen built and can prepare simple meals for you. There is electricity in the evenings via a generator to charge electronics if needed. Sacha Kawsay can be found on Facebook or you can contact Pablo Hualingo at email@example.com or 099 779 5428. It is best to speak Spanish or get help from someone who does if you want to make arrangements.