16-21 February 2016.
With our mixed luck getting access to good Amazonian sites, we were trying find good sites for rare birds, so we opted to give Gareno Lodge a try. Gareno Lodge (near Tena, Ecuador) is famous for day-roosting Rufous Potoo and for quite good hilly terra firme birding. Indeed, the Rufous Potoo is still easily found during the day, no more than 10 minutes from the cabins. Upon arriving, Sandro took us straight to the spot and there it was; too easy! While it was undeniably awesome to have such great looks at such a rare bird, and while it was wonderful to see it without being out late at night or getting up ungodly early, but I have to admit that I felt a little cheated because I didn’t get to hear it call, which for me, makes Potoos so cool. However, we were redeemed a night or two later when we heard it calling after all! As well, on way to the Rufous Potoo stakeout we also came across a pair of roosting Crested Owls! You gotta love the brows!
Several footpaths lead into the forest from the lodge and along the road. Birding along the paths is generally excellent! We had some really nice birds at Gareno including Rio Suno Antwren, Yasuni Antwren, Rusty-belted Tapaculo, Fiery Topaz, Dugand’s Antwren, Chestnut-shouldered Antwren, Speckled Spinetail, Sapphire Quail-Dove, Pavonine Quetzal, Gray Elaenia, Black-faced Hawk, and Black-bellied Cuckoo.
We had quite the off-trail adventure trying to get a look at the Sapphire Quail-Dove. We heard and tried to see this one at Rio Bigal – but unfortunately we never managed to actually see it. Sandro promised that he knew a territory. When we got deep into the forest near a very steep and muddy drainage, the sound of the Sapphire Quail-Dove reached our ears. Within moments, Sandro was gone, bushwacking down the steep ravine. I timidly followed hoping I wouldn’t cross paths with the infamous bullet ant; an ant that is bigger than any other ant you’ve ever seen. Why is it called a bullet ant you ask? Well because when you get bit it feels like you’ve been shot and the pain can last for 24 hours; umm no thank you. Rule number one in the rainforest is: do not touch anything because a bullet ant could be lurking around the backside of a branch. So as we set off, half sliding down a steep ravine, I scanned every branch and leaf as best I could before I passed beside it. We chased the dove for a solid hour as its ventriloquil call seemed to always come else. Finally we knew more or less where the dove was, but it seemed to be sitting tight. Sandro decided he would do an end-run around to the other side of the ravine and try to flush it towards us. After about ½ hour the dove went silent and none of us saw it or heard it. Just as we were about to punt and call it a day, we heard it calling again. Another 15 minutes of head scratching ensued before we determined that it was calling from above us, up the steep muddy slope we had come sliding down. A short bit of scrambling up the ravine and we finally all managed decent looks at the Sapphire Quail-Dove and no one got bit by the giant bullet ant!
Probably the best trail for overall birding is the trail on the north side of the road just before arriving at the lodge. It follows a ridge, generally, with good views and good habitat. The trail is a bit more open than the others and the birding was really good with a lot of flocks. Unfortunately, most were seriously neck-breaking canopy flocks. We craned and craned our necks trying to see what features we could from the tanagers, tyrannulets and microscopic antwrens high in the canopy. I’ve looked at a lot of bird bums in my day, but trying to distinguish antwrens based on undertail views from 40 m below is challenging to say the least! I took solace in the fact that the birds were singing, the only way I was going to positively ID Dugand’s Antwren and Chestnut-shouldered Antwren. We eventually had decent and definitive looks at the Chestnut-shouldered Antwren, but the best we managed with Dugand’s was to hear it several times and see a lot of “maybes” far overhead!
Deep into the same trail we also heard then saw the silhouettes of two Harpy Eagles fly low through the canopy. We didn’t get a good look at them, only the massive shadows, but the voice was spot on and Sandro was certain that they were Harpy Eagles as well – he ought to know, he has seen Harpy Eagle over 400 times in this forest! Harpy Eagles used to nest at Gareno but the previously active nest was abandoned a few years ago, so maybe this is a sign of a new nesting site nearby.
While we were at Gareno, each morning the alarm went off at the somewhat miserable hour of 3:30 am. Bleary eyed, we would peek out of the van to listen for the Nocturnal Curassow, one of our main nocturnal Amazonian targets, only to hear the sound of the rain. The last morning the skies were clear and we could hear a Nocturnal Curassow calling distantly, so we headed out, but after an hour or so of wandering around on the trail system it became clear that the Curassow was too far off to be chased. We tried a bit for Ocellated Poorwill with no luck, so gave up and headed back for breakfast.
Though there is a lot of hunting pressure in the area, hence monkeys, tinamous and guans are thin on the ground (and Curassows completely absent) but the birding around Gareno is still very good. On top of that a number of rare terra firme birds that are much harder to find along the Rio Napo can be found at Gareno. On the other hand, however, the cabins are in complete disrepair. The plumbing barely works and the cabins are falling apart and filthy. We elected to sleep in the van but getting water to work in the cabin for showers and bathrooms was a daily challenge. Sandro (the owner) has decided to stop investing in Gareno lodge and instead is hoping to build his own cabins near the area and take birders to the same trails for birding. Sandro told us that he has acquired land and will be starting construction shortly and is hoping to be ready to take guests in the fall of 2016. If you are in the area and want to go birding at Gareno check with Sandro to see if the new cabins are ready as the current lodge may be fit only for the most adventurous.
Where to Find Birds in Ecuador describes a site outside of Archidona, Ecuador called El Para where Striated Antbird and some other tantalizing species can be found. However, the original owners, of the Orchid’s Paradise Hotel in Archidona, sold the land and it is now run privately. Access to the land can still be granted if you either email firstname.lastname@example.org or, better, call the site manager, Anibal, on his Ecuadorian cell phone 0992076389. We went the email route to try to gain access but communication was very slow and we never heard back from them in time to visit the reserve. Others who have visited El Para recently have done so by coordinating with Anibal. However, we have also been told that parts of the reserve have been cleared and they were not able to find the Striated Antbird or some of the other bamboo specialists (Bamboo Foliage-Gleaner, Dusky-tailed Flatbill), a huge shame as this is the only well-known and reliable site in Ecuador for the Antbird or Flatbill. Both can be found in Peru and Brazil, luckily, but they are nowhere common.