A birdwatching trip to Ecuador in October 2001 - Andes to Amazon! The humming bird here is the Andean Emerald. On the left is a view of  Volcanes Illiniza (5,266m) and on the right is Gorzacocha, an oxbow lake off the Rio Napo, in the Amazon basin. All photos (C) Ruth Traynor.

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Home -> Diary -> Amazon basin -> Garzacocha

Sunset over Garzacocha. Photo: Ruth TraynorAmazon Basin Diary
13 - 16 October 2001
8. Garzacocha ('Heron Lake')

If you stay at La Selva, you will have to cross Garzacocha at least twice; once to get to the Lodge, and once to return to the Rio Napo. But you will probably be on the lake many more times, and each time is a new experience! To make the journey from the boardwalk landing stage to the Lodge takes 15 - 20 minutes, depending on the vigour of the canoe paddlers!

Hoatzin. Photo: Ruth TraynorWherever, and whenever you go on Garzacocha, you will always see and hear the bizarre Hoatzin - the Quichua name means "stinky turkey". Because their flesh tastes so foul, they have no natural predators, and as a consequence, they are very approachable, simply looking around, looking dazed and confused. Their breathless 'heavy breathing' call sounds like an obscene phone call (not that I've ever heard one!), and we could even hear them from our cabana. I tried to find out if anyone had done a count of the Garzacocha Hoatzin, but I got no reliable information. I reckon there must be at least 50 birds around the lake. Mostly you see them perched in low branches over the lakeside; occasionally we saw them on dead logs in the lake. Their flight is short and clumsy, crashing into branches much like the English Common Pheasant.

There were a pair of resident Ospreys around the lake - breeding, we were told - and we saw them frequently. Once we saw one carrying a fish, torpedo-like, in its talons. But check carefully for perched raptors, because some of them are Greater Yellow-headed Vultures, American Black Vultures or Black or Red-throated Caracaras.

Nightjars can be seen from the lake and we had excellent views of Sand-coloured Nighthawks. José pointed out six of them on a nearby branch. I was looking about 10 metres away on a dead branch; it took me a while to see them on the correct branch just 2 metres away! Then they flew, giving good views of their prominent white wing bars. We saw them flying over the water on subsequent occasions, sometimes as many as 20 in the air, showing a prominent white wing bar. The only other member of this family that we saw on Garzacocha was a Paruque, seen as a gleaming pair of yellow eyes, picked out in the beam of a torch after dark - the same evening that we saw Zigzag Heron

And after dark is the time to see a speciality of Garzacocha - Zigzag Heron. This is the most reliable site in the whole of the Amazon basin to see this elusive heron. On a late afternoon trip around Garzacocha, José spent some time with a powerful torch trying to find these birds (about 6 pm-ish). His efforts were rewarded by excellent torchlight views (at 6.10 pm) of two Zigzag Herons perched in low branches not far from the boardwalk landing stage. Not an impressive bird to see - like a dark, streaky Striated Heron - but a very good 'tick'. We also heard their distinctive 'hhoow-oo' call (as the field guide describes it). Other herons that we saw or heard from Garzacocha included Rufescent Tiger-heron (brief and poor view) and Black-crowned Night-heron (heard only the short 'bark').

Kingfishers on the lake were sparse, and we had only a brief view of Green-and-rufous Kingfisher. Swifts and swallows were also few in variety. The swifts we saw were Short-tailed Swift (seen nearly every day, and easy to ID). The only hirundines we saw over Garzacocha were White-winged Swallows, which we saw every day.

But there were plenty of passerines we saw from Garzacocha. The open views from the lake meant that we could see canopy-loving birds that are harder to see when you are walking the trails. One spectacular bird was the unique Cream-coloured Woodpecker; it was a distant view, but the bird was on a dead tree and we could clearly see the red head mark (that made it a male). That view reminds me of a word of caution - when you are birding from a small paddle canoe, make ALL your movements small and cautious, or you risk tipping yourself and your fellow passengers into the water! Just moving your head through 90 degrees is enough to cause a serious rocking of the boat!

The Garzacocha bird that José made us work the hardest for was a Cocha Antshrike. He'd clearly staked out this bird, not far from the Lodge. He beached the canoe and we stayed there for about half an hour. He picked up the bird almost immediately, and spent the rest of the time trying to get us onto it. At one point, I got so fed up that I said "Yes, José, I've seen the bird, low on the ground". Bad mistake. He said, "No, you haven't seen it; it's about 3 metres above the ground". I never tried to bluff José again! Eventually, he did manage to get us to see the bird (after he'd clambered onto land, and almost flushed the bird). Our brief view was a black bird with a longish hanging-down tail. The field guide's description of habitat, vocalisation and likely sighting areas is spot on. Phew! A hard bird, but I guess it was worth it.

Close to this area we had a good view of a Speckled Chacalaca; the white speckling down its front was well seen.

Much easier than the Cocha Antshrike was the brilliant Red-capped Cardinal. We saw 4 of these birds on one Garzacocha trip and a single on another day. They perched low down on branches over the water, and we had views on both perched and flying birds.

Some birds from Garzacocha we only heard. Most notable was the Long-billed Woodcreeper, whose long, single descending note I have previously noted. But there were also the calls of the Cinnamon Attila (I noted it as a 'pi-peeah' descending note; the field guide describes it as 'whoor, wheer, wheeér-whet'; take your pick!) and the long, single note (sometimes high, sometimes low) of the Cinereous Tinamou. As with all bird calls, unless you are familiar with them, you have little chance of identifying the bird. We had a copy of the tape "Birds of La Selva", and we listened to it many times before our visit. But it's difficult to remember bird calls in this way, and we would have been completely lost without the trained ears of José.

Other non-water birds we saw from Garzacocha included:

  • Black-capped Donacobius - good views, which allowed us to see the yellow cheek and eye ring, fine barring on the edge of the breast and the white wing spot. In a family of its own, and a nice bird to see. We saw two birds from Garzacocha, and five from Mandicocha.
  • Greater Ani - fairly common around the lake. And we saw them from the Lodge balcony as well.
  • Kiskadees - both Great and Lesser. Still struggled to separate the two. We knew Greater from Trinidad and Tobago. The field guide suggests that there is no difficulty in separating the two. We were not so experienced!
  • Point-tailed Palmcreeper - two birds seen high in a palm tree, giving clear views of their rufous tails. Heard their high trilling call.
  • Violaceous Jay - we heard them frequently from the lake, and had a silhouetted view of one bird. No definitive sightings, but positive IDs - thanks to José!
  • Many-banded Aracara - 4 flying, and perched. Huge bill, which seemed as long as its body.
  • Red-bellied Macaw - our only sighting of this species. 2 flying and calling.
  • White-chinned Jacomar - heard only. Good views later from Mandicocha.
  • White-throated (Cuvier's) Toucan - 2 in flight. Better views from the Canopy Tower.
  • Ruddy Pigeon - 2 flying. Heard them frequently during our stay at La Selva. I always find it strange hearing pigeons in tropical rain forests!
  • Blue-crowned Motmot - poor view of underside of bird at top of tree. Had many, better views of this species in Trinidad and Tobago.
  • Tawny-bellied Screech-owl. My notebook says we saw one, but I can only remember the repeated low notes.
  • White-tailed Trogan - (female) - perched high in tree. My notes say 'yellow and dark (blue)'.
  • Violaceous Trogan - heard only.
  • Eastern Sirbytes ; another flycatcher bird that made no impression on me at all!

Squirrel Monkey. Photo: Ruth TraynorOn one of our Garzacocha trips, we had excellent views of a small troupe of Squirrel Monkeys crashing through the lakeside trees. The only other monkey species we saw during our visit was the orange-furred Dusky Titi Monkey, which we saw on the trail from the Canopy Tower, not far from the Lodge.

One day, when going around the lake, we came across a few Amazon Yellow-spotted Turtles. These are often common by the shore near the Lodge, but had temporarily been driven away by some canoe repair work. One evening, we saw a Fishing Bat flying low over the water.

One final note about Garzacocha: we were told that it holds both the Red and the White species of Pirana. We were also told that it is perfectly safe to swim in the lake. Not wanting to pass up on a 'travellers tale' that we had "swum with Piranas", we had a delightful dip in Garzacocha one afternoon. The landing stage has a ladder into the water, which made a perfect swimming platform, and the water, although murky, was invitingly warm. Since Piranas are basically fruit-eating fish, and only turn to meat (mainly other fish) when water levels are low, there was no danger in Garzacocha. Neither did the nocturnal Speckled Cayman cause us any concern; we saw the gleaming eyes of one in torchlight, but never found one in the daytime.

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