24 September 2017

Into the Heart of Darkness (Ecuador): 16th Sept. 2017

So, there I was, minding my own business, and planning an unspectacular weekend of going to gym, watching Premier League football (US=Soccer), and catching up on my eBird data for Borneo from this year’s tour. Not birding, but nothing to blog about; then I got THE call…

One of Tropical Birding’s clients was stranded in the Amazon without his luggage, which had come in a day late (thanks to American Airlines), and needed to be taken to him. The flight with his luggage arrived at midnight, and the drive to the Amazon was a 5-hour undertaking. A key element in all of this equation, was that the person was there at that time, for one very specific, and crucial objective, to photograph the pair of nesting Harpy Eagles. And so, after some extremely rapid preparation and reorganisation of the weekend, (e.g. loading Eastern Ecuador bird recordings on to I-Pods that were still holding bird calls from my most recent tour in Indonesia, of no use whatsoever to where I was heading, desperately charging batteries, knowing I was heading to a remote corner of Amazonian where electricity is virtually nil etc.), there I was meeting a driver and some luggage in the dark of night in Quito, and then heading even deeper into a darker night still in the Amazon, where streetlights gave way to stars, and population of people thinned to almost nothing but a few scattered shacks in the darkness.

We arrived, to find we had narrowly missed fellow Tropical Birding guide Jose Illanes and his luggage-less tour participant heading off for the Harpy Eagle nest for the day. The local manager of the lodge, (Pedro Aguinda) – Gareno Lodge – made matters only more perturbing, when he casually informed me that it was imperative that if I wanted to see an adult Harpy that we head off for the nest as soon as possible, as the adult at that time tended to head out for most of the day by 9am. It was now 7am and I had a gruelling 6km (3.7 miles) walk ahead of me, or to put it another way, a minimum 2-hour trek. Now, if you have visited some of the Napo Lodges in Ecuador (e.g. Sacha, Sani, Napo Wildlife Center), you probably have an image of an Amazon jungle that is wonderfully flat, if muddy and slippery, to walk among. That image does not apply to Gareno. Hilly is a much more appropriate word, making this much more of a trudge than a casual walk or light hike. To make matters worse still, a short way into the walk the rainforest lived up to its name, and brought its rain, lots and lots of it. However, I finally connected with Jose and Gerold, bundled up against the inclement weather, during this, the alleged dry season for the area, while the forest around us remained dark, like dawn had not yet fully shed its skin. Finally, we made it up to the top of the slick and slippery hill, which overlooked the nest of this giant forest eagle, (that vies with the Asian Philippine Monkey-eating Eagle and Steller’s Sea-Eagles for title of world’s largest).

Whilst I caught my breath, following the final exhausting climb to the viewpoint, Jose was just ahead and confirmed the adult was standing alongside the cream-coloured chick at the nest. However, by the time Gerold and I had returned to “birdable state” (i.e. caught our breath back), the adult had departed, leaving the soggy and forlorn chick behind. We spent a good deal of the day there photographing this still impressive bird, starting to look in size similar to an adult at this time, and waiting impatiently for a more strikingly patterned adult to silently reappear from the depths of the surrounding forest. However, after a 9am-2:30pm vigil, and still soaked through from the both the morning’s foul weather and demanding slog through the humid jungle, we decided to return to the lodge, and return to the quest the following day instead. It had been an enchanting time with the young Harpy Eagle, (that even shared the tree with a couple of inquisitive Bare-nacked Fruitcrows at one point) but we yearned for an adult to satisfy our greedy desires. As we strolled our way back through a dripping jungle, (but at least now not raining), we picked up a few classic Amazonian species, including cracking looks at both Golden-headed and Blue-backed Manakins, and the always appealing Yellow-browed Antbird, which is much more abundant here than some of the more familiar Amazonian lodges in the country. Cinereous Mourner was also another piece of good work by Jose, but got less plaudits than the others, its overall drabness letting down its status of scarcity.

Once back at the lodge, we got news from hawk-eyed Pedro that neither the usual Crested Owl or “reliable” roosting Rufous Potoos were reliable anymore, and were absent from their usual sleeping abodes. A plan was hatched to try to see the potoo by night, usually a much more challenging feat to achieve. However, the late afternoon brought us one of the highlights of the entire day (even with a Harpy involved, yes!); when a pair of dueling male Fiery Topaz hummingbirds were watched from the lodge cabins at length, as they danced and swirled in the shadows, gleaming iridescent crimson and jade in doing so. Gerold could not have put it better, and so I will quote him “This MUST be one of the best birds in the World”, and after seeing them like this, I am in no position to disagree: exquisite, simply stunning, and my best looks ever. There are simply not enough superlatives in the English language for this species in the right light conditions.  Photos, however, were prevented by the dark conditions of the regular perches of these rare forest hummingbirds.

You would think this was enough for one day, but the night held more, and so into the Heart of Darkness we went once more. By the evening, I was on my last legs, having had a sleepless night getting into the Amazon through the night, combined with the arduous hike, I was truly spent. But, birds have a way of injecting energy into me that comes out of little else, (rather like following a full and substantial meal, there is always a sliver left in you for an irresistible desert to squeeze inside). We could tell that Rufous Potoo was niggling Pedro, as he prided himself on finding this for every single birding group that visits Gareno during the daytime, which he, (until then) held a 100% record with. We set off just prior to full darkness, and entered the forest interior once more after darkness had fallen, with Pedro displaying that particular focus that comes with birding your own special patch of birding land. Soon after the potoo call was played a distant reply came back to us, but it gave no inclination of coming in any closer, and remained frustratingly down slope from us, and the incline was considerable. Pedro, with his trademark cowboy boots (apparently dating back to a past fashion decades ago in the Amazon), stepped downhill like it was nothing, and soon after announced he had the bird! We slipped, slided, and cursed our way down to him, and stared right into the eyes of a Rufous Potoo standing sentry on a dead snag in the forest understorey, which remained there until we left some time later.
Supper was calling, and soon we ate and headed for retirement, after a long, exciting, yet punishing day. However, the night chorus held a bird’s voice within it that peaked my interest: Nocturnal Curassow, one of the Amazon’s true wraiths. Its deep sounds can be readily heard at certain chosen locales only, although even there catching sight of this species has always been something of a contest, comparable to birding Olympics. However, I had one important weapon on my side, Jose Illanes, an Amazonian with a legendary ability to see something out of nothing, by night or day, (and perhaps even blindfolded!) The bird did indeed, prove a considerable battle to find, drawing us well inside the forest, with no trail in sight, and onto yet another precipitous slope, and that is where Jose found a window into the canopy of the trees, and spotted the rufous form of a Nocturnal Curassow sitting quietly above us. A magical end to a day that only the Amazon can provide, and in the company of some truly great Amazonians!

(I apologize for the extremely poor quality of the photo of the curassow, but merely seeing this bird was incredible, and I needed to post the photo to make myself believe that I actually did see one!)

More to come from the Amazon soon. Our Adventure did not end there, far from it…

eBird lists: 
eBird List 1 Gareno Lodge Ecuador 16 Sept 2017
eBird List 2 Gareno Lodge Ecuador 16 Sept 2017

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