This was the trip from hell, right from the beginning. I made resees to fly to Quito on Sunday, the 29th of June. But when I tried to check in on the American Airlines web site, my efforts were rejected. It showed a passport with the wrong number, notwithstanding I had taken this flight route many times before. I tried multiple times, each time with the same result. I was really frustrated and was ranting to Chris about the situation. Her response was to ask me if I had 90 days left on my passport. She advised that some countries will not let one enter unless there are those 90 days. I checked and found that I had 87 days and Ecuador required 90.
I tried everything I knew to solve this dilemma, including calling the Ecuadorian Embassy in Washington (no one answered), the US Embassy in Quito, which advertised the number was 24/7 active (no one answered), and the former US Ambassador to Ecuador, Heather Hodges. She was not home. I finally concluded that I was not going to Ecuador on Sunday. On Monday I changed my resees, got new passport photos made, and took them down into DC to a company that expedites passport renewals. I also notified Rudy, my guide, of course. On Tuesday I was back in DC to pick up my new passport. It cost me $500 for this service.
On Wednesday the 3rd, I finally took off for Quito. But wait, not quite so fast. When we got down to the Miami area (Miami is the intermediate stop one has to make), we started circling and then the pilot got on the intercom and advised that there were violet thunderstorms in Miami and we would have to land in Fort Myers. We sat there for nearly an hour, refueled and then off we went for Miami. As we were approaching the airport, I figured I had missed my flight to Quito, but then I concluded that if we could not fly in, it was unlikely that other flights could have departed. We landed and I asked the gate attendant where the Quito gate was located. Right across the hall, she advised! Lucky me. I boarded and very soon we took off. I was feeling rather smug at my luck when it occurred to me that my luggage might not make the flight.
At Quito, I went to the carousel and waited…and waited…and waited. No luggage. It must have taken nearly an hour for all the luggage to be put out. There was no baggage office for American, so I went to a desk at “Lost and Found” and finally, with a good deal of language difficulty, was told that my luggage would likely be on the next flight, due in at 11:30. I left the luggage area, which is behind security and went looking for Rudy. Could not find him. Had him paged. Nothing. I waited more. Finally went outside and found him. He had been circling around the airport for over an hour in his car.
We tried to check in to a small nearby motel he knew, but it was full. They recommended a flop house nearby. We got a room there and lay down for 45 minutes or so before returning to the airport. If Rudy had not been with me, he with fluency in Spanish, I do not know what I would have done since the luggage carousels are behind security. He talked us past the guard and the luggage for the “next flight” was just coming in. We waited again, and waited. Finally it became evident that the luggage was finished. I went back to the Lost and Found and there, sitting on the floor were my two pieces of luggage. Who had removed them from the carousel, when and why, I never determined.
Day 1 – We returned to the hostel and crashed. It was about 1 AM. But sleep was difficult as there seemed to be dogs barking the entire night. At about 6 we got up and just decided to head out. Rudy looked out the window and it turned out that right behind the hostel were the dog kennels for the military or police. There were something like 35 big dogs back there. When it got quite in the night, one would start to bark and then they would all chime in. Not the best way to get a good nights sleep!
We packed up and headed out, with our destination the Wild Sumaco Lodge on the East Slope. But first we had to go over the Andes at Papallacta Pass. Rudy knew a good restaurant on the way up, so stopped there for breakfast. I noted 13 dogs hanging around outside and commented to Rudy. He asked the owner and she advised that they were strays and none belonged to her. They just hung around because people threw them scraps after eating. When I was finished with breakfast, I went to “Los Banos” which was in a small building outside. I was walking back the short distance to the restaurant when one of the strays ran over and bit that crap out of my leg. I never saw it coming; it was unprovoked. And so quick it was over as soon as it began. Almost immediately a guy from the restaurant ran out with a can of disinfectant. Lifted up my jeans leg and sprayed the wound. It became obvious that (1) he had seen the bite happen and (2) it was not the first time time this or another dog had bitten someone. I must say that I was a little concerned that the bite might be infected, but the thought of rabies never entered my mind.
We drove on over to Wild Sumaco, where I had about five target birds, including the Orche-bellied Antpitta, the Nightingale Thrush and a couple of very colorful fruiteaters. The lodge had an impressive bird list, so I was pretty optimistic. I don’t remember whether it was this first morning or the second when two American owners — Jim and Bonnie Olson — arrived and we introduced ourselves. It turned out that Jim is a retired medical service corps Navy captain and then worked for the CDC. His last ten years was spent studying rabies, so he was the perfect person to talk with about my dog bite. Jim advised that there was very little dog rabies in Ecuador, so I was probably safe. He thought that I ought to get the anti-rabies shots, but said he understood that I would not like going into a city, finding a hospital and going through the regime. Turned out, I considered the odds and did nothing.
There were many hummingbirds right around the lodge, some flyover parrots, and Black Tamarin Monkeys coming to bananas put out for them. But not much else. There were at least six species of hummers: Black-breasted Brilliant, Gould’s Jewelfront, Napo Saberwing, Many Spotted, Golden-tailed Sapphire, and Rufous-vented Whitetip. I photographed all.
Day 2 – We were up well before dawn and drove to a trailhead and walked down the trail in the dark. We reached a spot where Spotted Nightingale Thrush and White-necked Thrush came for some food. I don’t remember what it was, but suspect worms. As it just began to get a little light, we could see birds at the feeder spot. They were extremely skittish. I got a couple of fuzzy images of the White-necked, but none of the high interest Nightingale. After standing there for a number of minutes with no success, we moved on. Soon we were at the spot where the Ochre-bellied Antpitta came out for his food. And so he did. The guide put the food out and the antpitta came right out in the open. I was able to make many good photographs, so was very pleased. We then made our way back to the lodge. Along the way, we saw some distant, non-photographable birds, but nothing of note.
We spent the rest of the day around the lodge where I photographed a Lined Antshrike and Squirrel Cuckoo and the Black Tamarin Monkeys. Rudy also found a Lazuline Sabrewing, a quite rare hummer in Ecuador and I made some nice photos of him also. That night we made a few forays for night birds, but nothing showed up.
Day 3 – After breakfast we headed out to Yanayacu Research Station where Rudy had worked a few years before. Here we found a few common species, but I was able to make some nice photos of the Inca Jay, a bird I wanted to upgrade in my collection. We went out for owls at night, but were unsuccessful. We set up an ultra light and white cloth to attract the night insects.
Day 4. In the morning, there were all sorts of moths and beetles on the white cloth. I spent several hours moving them from the cloth to more attractive spots to photograph. That afternoon we headed out to the Antisana area to watch the Andean Condors come in to roost on a cliff side. We had hoped to photograph from a ranch that was a lot closer to the cliff than the road, but it was shut. We retreated to a spot on the road where there were a couple of hummingbird feeders. Here we found the Giant Hummingbird, Black-tailed Trainbearer and the Shining Sunbeam.
Soon it was time for the Condors to start in. We went to a good place to park and watched the show. Slowly condors started arriving, gliding like giant kites, making huge sweeping turns and finally alighting on the cliff face. I made dozens of photos, but they were sadly just too far to make book worthy images. At one point a rainbow showed that made a nice contrast to the long distance shooting I was doing with my 600mm lens. That night we drove into Quito and spend the night in Rudy’s condo.
Day 5. Up and out early, we drove to Yanacocha, a Jocotoco Foundation property on the edge of Pinchinca massive. There are several really good birds at this location, including the Black-breasted Puffleg. Unfortunately we never saw this hummer or any other rare bird. We walked to the end of the gravel road and then up a trail to several sugar water feeders. Up here we were probably at over 10,000 feet elevation. I was able to make a nice photo of the Great Saphhirewing, a large hummer that was a target for this part of the trip. I was also trying to photograph the Rufous-naped Brush Finch, so staked out one of the large flat feeders. About every 20 or 25 minutes the bird would come to this feeder, but just would not pose on a nearby branch for a good photo. It would just rush in and rush out. It was very frustrating and I gave up after about two hours. We walked back down the trail and drove to Mindo where we spent the night.
Day 6. I was organizing my gear this day and went into my briefcase, only to discover that an envelope with $600 was missing. I am unable to figure out when and how it was stolen, but gone it was. I think — actually guess – that a maid at this lodge made off with the money.
Mid-morning we drove over to Angel Paz’s farm where I wanted to photograph the Toucan Barbet, a very colorful bird that I had photographed before, but never with the result that I was comfortable putting in the book. Angel’s assistants put up banana feeders and soon the birds came in, including a Blue-winged Mountain Tanager. Soon Angel called from across a small parking lot and said that the barbet was over there. I rushed over and indeed the bird was nicely posed and I made my desired photo. After this, we drove into Quito and Rudy let me off at a motel near the airport. I walked to a nearby restaurant for dinner, well “restaurant” may be exaggerating a bit, but the food was fine and plentiful. After dinner, I began to feel a little shaky. I got an attack of Correa’s Revenge. I was horrified to find that I had not brought either my immodium or Cipro that I normally carry.
Day 7. I was not feeling too well the next morning either, but ate a little breakfast at the motel and then took their van over to the airport. There I checked in, and took a no-event trip down over the Andes to Coca. Coca is a wild west town that has grown like topsy catering to the oil companies and their employees. It is not the San Francisco of the Napo Region! As I was waiting for the boat to take us down the Napo, I began to feel really rotten and had to use a restroom right at the boat depot. It was filthy, horrible, but that didn’t interrupt my need. We soon assembled all the folks who were going to the Napo Wildlife Center, and the lodge guide gave us a briefing on the trip down- river. I had to tell her that I was feeling really badly and she might have to stop the boat. Unfortunately, about half way down, I had to call for a halt and jumped out onto a barren sand island and well, relieved myself. It was very embarrassing.
Before we ever got to the lodge, the guide stopped the boat and off loaded me to see a doctor. This was a native village and I was treated extremely well, although I could barely walk. Soon I was shown into a room with a non-English speaking doctor. He gave me what turned out to be Cipro, but would not give me immodium as I requested. He told me that this would not treat the disease, which I knew, but it would have given me relief. I tried to pay the people there, but they assured me that all medical bills were covered by the government.
Soon a boat arrived at the landing on the river to transport me to the lodge. The lodge is located up a rather fast moving stream that empties into the Napo from a large lake. The lodge is located on the edge of the lake. I have no recollection of this trip. We arrived at the NWC lodge and I was shown my room. I felt so weak that I just collapsed on my bed. At some point into the evening some employees came in and undressed me. I was barely aware of what was happening. It was as bad as I have felt in a very long time. It was a completely lost day.
Day 8 -10 I was introduced to my guide, Jose and the local manager, Javier. Jose spoke some English, but not very much. Javier was fluent. The birds I most wanted to photograph here were the Pygmy Kingfisher and the Sungrebe. They are both exceptionally difficult to photograph during the day. The former just flies away when he spies you and the latter sinks and swims away under water! They are not active at night, so that is a different situation by far. Jose took me out in a canoe and knew right where both species spent the night perched. I was able to get the photos I wanted!
I wanted to get a better photo of the Red-capped Cardinal, a very skittish bird at other locations along the Napo. Not here. A family group was very tolerant of us in a canoe as they foraged right near the front of the lodge. Later, one was bathing right at the end of the little pier!
Something that did not work was the tower. Jose took me there and we were up at the top for four hours. Not a single bird came within shooting distance! We did see an interesting sloth and a nice anole, but not a single bird. It was very disappointing. On the way back, Jose found a couple of big lizards that added some spice to the trip.
Another big target for this lodge was the Giant Otter. I had never seen one before despite three trips along the Napo. On the second day one appeared in the center of the lake and I got a poor long distance shot. On the last afternoon, I was fooling around shooting butterflies when someone yelled that the otter family was fishing right next to shore by the pier. I ran back to my room and got my 80-400 lens and returned to shoot a couple of record shots, but out of nowhere, Jose appeared, got the boat and I embarked. He was able to follow the otters as they moved along the shoreline for at least a quarter mile, while I made shots as they surfaced. Some were with a fish in the mouth. One was quite close and very nice.
Day 11 – In the morning we took a small canoe out the exit stream to the Napo where we boarded the large canoe like boat, with a covered top and up the Napo to Coca. It took about four hours. from then it was a car ride to the airport, checking in with some help from a NWC employee who assisted with checking in luggage that exceeded the usual weight limit. Then the short flight back over the Andes to Quito, a taxi ride to the same motel and the rest of the afternoon resting. I ate dinner at the same little place as a few days before, but feeling much better this night. The next morning, I boarded the lodge van back over the airport and took a plane to Lima, Peru, before heading back up north and home.
It was an interesting trip, but certainly fraught with a few difficulties and disappointments. I did capture about eight images that made the final book, however.