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 -> Terra Firma Forest

Wire-tailed Manakin. Photo: Ruth TraynorAmazon Basin Diary
13 - 16 October 2001
10. Terra Firma Forest

The forest on the side of the Rio Napo opposite to La Selva Lodge (the south side) is 'Terra Firma' - land which does not get seasonally flooded by the Napo. The ground is higher here, possibly the result of river bluffs - I'm not sure on this point. This was really hard birding country, and José was in his element!

We had two long days partially in this habitat. On Sunday 14th October, we left the Lodge at 6 am and did not return until about 4 pm. Two days later, we had an 8-hour trip. True, we spent some time getting to the south bank, but we spent a lot of time on Terra Firma. The trails are much smaller than around the Lodge. Indeed, there were times when I wondered if we were still on a trail. Here, a guide is necessary just for finding your way around, let alone for finding and identifying the birds! In places, the trail is muddy (especially after rain) and steep, but there was nothing excessively difficult.


Terra Firma is prime Antbird country - and this is challenging birding. However, because these families are usually dark coloured, and spend a lot of time in low light conditions, they mainly have loud and distinctive calls to identify each other by. So it is often quite easy to hear an Antbird and, if you are reasonably familiar with the calls (which we are not) to identify it. But actually seeing the bird can take a lot of hard work and patience. On our first visit, for example, we were within about 3 metres of a clear calling Black-faced Antthrush, and failed to see it. Two days later we finally got a view of this small, dark-coloured (looked black in the dim light) bird, moving around the forest floor with its tail cocked.

We were luckier with the similarly-named Black-faced Antbird, and had close views of the black patch on its grey head. Here's some of the other Antbirds that we saw well:

  • Cinereous Antshrike - male and female, perched on a low branch
  • Mouse-coloured Antshrike - male. Noted sharp beak, pale-grey underparts, and darker upper parts. High on a branch.
  • Dusky-throated Antshrike - male and female. Noisy, squeaky call. Noted the stout bill characteristic of this family. Male appeared to have very dark red legs, although this is not described in the field guide; may have been a trick of the light.
  • Scale-backed Antbird - clear views of the fine white streaking on the back.
  • Plain-winged Antshrike - male. All grey, with wings slightly darker, silvery beak, short tail hung down.
  • Spot-winged Antbird - seen well, and spots on wings clearly seen. Why this name? - most Antbirds have spots on their wings! A chattering call.

And those, according to my field notes, were the only Antbirds that we saw well! We heard clearly many others, and had 'flit' views of some of them. Notable amongst the calling birds were Warbling Antbird (heard the descending, rasping call many times, and only had a very brief view of this streaky-looking bird), Great Antbird (a staccato chirrup), White-plumed Antbird (a flit view) and Great Antshrike (tree-top view of a moving bird - very different from the close views that we've had at the Asa Wright Lodge in Trinidad).

And those were the only Antbirds with which we made contact! I think that the 'macho' thing about Antbird birding is that it can arouse the hunter instinct in you - hearing the call, then creeping as noiselessly as possible towards the sound, trying to spot the bird. I got quite adept at moving pretty quietly over a leaf-and-twig-covered trail. I guess that's why I got more out of Antbird spotting than Ruth; she got rather bored after the first five minutes or so of an 'Antbird hunt'!

Other Terra Firma birds

There was plenty of other birding interest in the Terra Firma forest, and we had some fantastic views of other species. Some of them, such as Tanagers, were canopy birds, others were forest floor birds.

We only once came across a good Tanager flock, and spent some fifteen neck-aching minutes scanning them. We picked out:

  • Green-and-gold Tanager
  • Green Honey-creeper
  • Bay-headed Tanager (I felt pleased to have found and ID'd this one, which we had previously seen in Trinidad).
  • Opal-rumped Tanager - noted the reddish underparts. Since we were below it, couldn't see the opal colour on the rump.
  • Fulvous-crested Tanager

Long-tailed Potoo with chick. Photo: Ruth TraynorThere were some other great highlights:

  • Wire-tailed Manakin - we'd seen some excellent TV sequences of this bird, so it was great seeing it live, which we did on several occasions. One view in particular was so typical, with its 'surprised-looking', inquisitive eye. The filaments on the tail were clear to see on each occasion, but we couldn't tell each time whether we were looking at a male or a female (depends on the length of the filaments).
  • Long-tailed Potoo - we saw birds on both of our visits, the first view being of a huge brown bird, roosting in a tree, with its long tail hanging down, and the white spot in its upper wing clearly visible. However, the second view, two days later, was really special. About 7 metres above us was a bird in the typical Potoo roosting stance, looking like an extension of the tree. However, between the bird and the tree was a yellowish, fuzzy head - a chick, held between its parent and the trunk of the tree. Magic!
  • Black-tailed Leaftosser - w saw a female, hopping around the leaf litter. Not a spectacular view on its own. But, just behind us, in a branch no more than a metre above the ground, was a delicate nest with three nestling Black-tailed Leaftosser chicks snuggled down. They were virtually featherless, so I guess they were not more than a few days old. They looked so exposed and vulnerable. A short while later, we had a tropical rainstorm, which lasted about 1½ hours. The chicks would have been completely exposed, but I guess that the mother would have returned to the nest to shelter them. The field guide said nothing about nesting habits. But I suppose we would have had to buy the companion volume "Status, Distribution & Taxonomy" to get this level of detail!
  • Cinereous Mourner - not notable for its view, although we saw it well (brown - don't believe the field guide - , spots on wing, long tail with slight fork), its call was so distinctive - a long, plaintive, descending note, which gives the bird its "mourner" name.
  • White-fronted Nunbird - excellent views, seeing its red beak and white cheeks.
  • White-chested Puffbird - a classic view with all the field guide features well seen. The bird sat motionless and allowed us to pass it from a distance of 4 metres and view it from another, closer angle. It was only about 1.5 metres above the forest floor, on a low branch. The 'spiky' plumage, shown in the field guide, was very distinctive.
  • Lafresnaye's Piculet - what a tiny woodpecker! We saw it perched with what looked like a rather dark back and a heavy beak.
  • Golden-headed Manakin - just one view, but seen well.
  • Blue-crowned Manakin - ditto. Seen perched, and blue crown well seen. Was this the same bird we saw in Tobago? No - just checked the records - it was the Blue-backed Manakin! Another lifer! So many here :-)
  • Rusty-belted Tapaculo - didn't make a great impression on me, but my field notes record: "small dark bird in undergrowth, dark on top, paler underneath". Not a great field description! Call was a series of low notes.
  • Scarlet-crowned Barbet - a lovely family! This bird gave us a striking view with its yellow throat and red crown. Call was a repeated, loud, short "purrr".
  • Black-tailed Trogon - another great family! This bird gave us great views, not very high up.
  • Black-throated Trogon - female. Again, good views of the bird sitting very still, about 5 metres up, on a bare branch.
  • White-chested Puffbird - excellent, typical views of this charismatic bird. We first saw it, sitting very still, low down through a dark undergrowth tunnel. The trail went past closer to it, and the bird never moved, allowing us to see the spiky head and throat feathering, and the white band across its chest.
  • Channel-billed Toucan - our previous views, in Trinidad, had always been distant 'scoped views, so it was very pleasing to see one much closer.
  • Purplish Jacamar - this was a tribute to José's incredible eyesight. We all heard the bird clearly enough, and left the trail to follow its call. José actually spotted it with his naked eye, about 15 metres up, partially obscured by a branch, giving an under-view only. It took us several minutes, following the line of his laser pointer, to see the bird's long beak projecting beyond the branch!
  • Screaming Piha - the call of this flycatcher is described in the field guide as "one of the best known and most powerful voices of any bird occurring in the Amazon basin, but nonetheless it is often a frustrating bird to see, even when one is calling right in front of you." It was certainly our experience, because towards the end of our 2nd day on Terra Firma, we came across at least two birds calling, very close, and it took us a good 10 minutes to get a glimpse of this grey, long-tailed bird. We later identified the call near to the Lodge.

The Antbirds may be the speciality of this habitat, but, for me, the views of the other passerines were more interesting.

It was in the Terra Firma forest that we saw the only snake of the trip (apart from a Chonta which one of the guides had captured and showed in a sack at the Lodge). We had sheltered under a dense tree from our only tropical downpour for about an hour. Ruth had put her black rucksack (with a long, trailing black strap) on the ground. She looked down once and saw a 1-metre long black snake getting very friendly with the strap! We backed away, and called José over. He ID'd it as a harmless South American Sipo.

On the same day, we saw a large bat flying low through the trees, but could not identify it. The only other mammal we saw in Terra Firma was an Amazon (Tree?) Squirrel with a light brown tail.

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