I have just recently returned from nearly two weeks in Ecuador.  I was a participant in a faculty seminar in environmental science, sponsored by IES Abroad.  We were based in Quito but had time for excursions to the Ecuadorian Amazon and to the Galápagos Islands.  In today’s column, I will describe some of the Amazonian highlights.

The Tibutini Biodiversity Station (hereafter, TBS) was our destination for our Amazonian excursion.  The station, maintained by the University of San Francisco at Quito, is located along the Tibutini River, a tributary of the Amazon.  The Amazon is the largest river in the world and drains more water than the next ten rivers combined.  The Amazonian watershed encompasses 40% of the area of South America.  Amazonia is well known for its biodiversity.   But the TBS and the adjacent Yasuni National Park are exceptionally diverse.  One can argue that this region is the most diverse habitat on earth.  The area is at the center of a small zone where amphibian, bird, mammal, and plant diversity all reach their maximum levels within the Western Hemisphere.

To say that the TBS is remote is no exaggeration.  To get there, we flew south from Quito to Coca, a small town on the Napo River.  A couple of White-fronted Toucans gave us great looks in trees along the river.  White-winged Swallows, a close relative of our Tree Swallows, hawked insects over the water.

We continued our journey by boarding a large motor-powered canoe for two hours down the Napo River to a landing at a parcel of land, currently leased by a petroleum company.  After passing through the security check, we waited for a bus for the next leg of our journey.  Birding at the landing, we found Smooth-billed Anis, Purple Martins (soon to depart for North America, no doubt), a Roadside Hawk, a Palm Tanager, a Blue-gray Tanager and a pair of Chestnut-bellied Seedeaters.

The open-air bus carried us for two hours to the Tibutini River where we boarded another canoe for another two-hour trip to the landing at TBS.  As we docked, a Drab Water-tyrant, a flycatcher, hawked for insects along the riverbank.  Climbing the stairs to the dining hall, we had a nice look at an aptly named Sicklebill, a large hummingbird with a strongly curved bill, perfect for extracting nectar from the Heliconia plants growing near the dining hall.

TBS maintains a canopy walk and a canopy tower to facilitate the study of plants and animals high in the canopy of the dense forest.  On our first full day, we split into two groups, spending half the day on the canopy walk and half on the

tower.  I did the canopy walk in the morning.  It was wonderful to be 120 feet high and

Canopy Walk, Tibutini Biodiversity Station (click to embiggen)
Canopy Walk, Tibutini Biodiversity Station (click to embiggen)

above the canopy.  Scarlet Macaws, Blue-and-Yellow Macaws and Mealy Parrots flew above the trees.  I was surprised at the diversity and abundance of butterflies in the canopy.

In the afternoon, we climbed the tower alongside a huge ceiba or kapok tree, walking across to a solid platform 130 feet high.  Unfortunately, it rained most of the afternoon so soaring birds

Canopy Tower, Tibutini Biodiversity Station
Canopy Tower, Tibutini Biodiversity Station

were scarce.  We did get nice looks at Violaceous Jays, Dusky-capped Flycatchers, a Brown-throated Cotinga and a pair of striking Black-tailed Tityras.  On the hike back to the station, we had Rufous Motmot and Slate-colored Hawk.

The following morning was clear.  With high expectations, we boarded the canoe early for a float trip down the Tibutini River.   This trip was a wonderful way to see birds.  Highlights were Yellow-headed Vulture, Double-toothed Kite, Great Black Hawk, Bicolored Hawk, Black Caracara, Bat Falcon, Cobalt-winged Parakeet, Dusky-headed Parakeet, Tiny Cuckoo, White-breasted Nunbird, White-eared Jacamar, Ringed Kingfisher, Black-tailed Trogon, Purple Fruit-crow, Red-capped Cardinal, and Yellow-rumped Cacique.  White-banded Swallows, with steel-blue bodies and a conspicuous white band across the breast, were abundant.  Several were always in view, capturing insects above the river.

In the afternoon, we visited an oxbow lake in search of Hoatzins.  These birds are distant relatives of cuckoos and are the avian equivalent of cows.  The esophagus of a Hoatzin is modified as a fermentation chamber where symbiotic bacteria break down the leaves that the Hoatzin eats.  We took turns in a dugout canoe, paddling to the dense shrubs the Hoatzin prefers adjacent to the shore.  All of us had nice looks at these bizarre birds.  We also saw a pair of Greater Anis.  Locals refer to these birds as cooker birds because their group choruses sound like a pot of boiling water.

Before departing the next morning, we admired a pair of roosting Crested Owls.

[originally published on April 18, 2010]