BIRDING WITH A CAMERA (BwC) TOUR
Wildlife photography in the Amazon is as tough as it gets. There are animals everywhere but seeing them and getting close enough for a photo in poor light conditions make it frustrating and rewarding. We had hesitated offering a trip until we went to Sani Lodge, and that totally changed our minds.The staff and guides are dedicated to making things more productive for nature photographers, and are setting up feeders and blinds to make the most of the photo opportunities, as well as constantly looking for new stakeouts. This extension to the Ecuador Photo Tour can also be done at any time as a custom tour, and longer and shorted packages are possible.
Day 1: Quito to Sani Lodge. After a short flight to the lowland city of Coca, staff from Sani Lodge will meet us and take us to a dock, where we’ll board a large, covered motorized canoe for the 2.5 hour journey down the Napo River. There won’t be much in the way of photo opportunities during this trip, so just sit back in relax. Upon arrival at Sani’s dock, you’ll have a chance to unpack your camera and get ready. Here in the virgin Amazon rainforest, you never know when something amazing will pop into view and it pays to be prepared! The path to Sani goes along a boardwalk through seasonally flooded várzea forest to another dock at the edge of the Challuayacu River, a small channel that winds through beautiful swamp forest to an oxbow lake. Five species of kingfishers occur along here along with herons and other water-loving species. Shy species like Cocha Antshrike can sometimes be lured into view, and while the dark rainforest makes the photography challenging, with persistence, the right gear, and a little luck, great shots are still possible. We’ll have lunch at Sani, and spend the afternoon either on the lake or river, or spend time at the feeders depending on activity. We’ll have four nights total based in Sani Lodge.
Days 2-4: Full days based out of Sani Lodge. The day to day activities here are highly subject to change based on current conditions. Local guides are keeping up with the current hotspots, and their knowledge will be vital in deciding where best to spend our days at Sani Lodge. Here are some of the most likely areas we will visit during our time at Sani Lodge:
Feeders and fruiting trees around the lodge. The Sani clearing can be a great place to photography numerous colorful species coming to either fruiting trees or the new feeders. White-chinned Jacamar, Scarlet-crowned Barbet, various toucans and aracaris, Orange-crested Manakin, Gray-fronted Dove, Masked Crimson and Silver-beaked Tanagers, Purple Honeycreeper, Golden-bellied Euphonia, are some of the possibilities. This is a great area to spend time in during the heat of the day, which can be slow in other locations.
Oxbow lake and Challuayacu River. Using canoes or a floating platform/blind suitable for tripods, we’ll work the edge of the oxbow lake, which is great for getting photos of Hoatzin, Black-capped Donacobius, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Capped Heron, Pale-vented Pigeon, White-winged Swallow, Lesser Kiskadee, and more. There is usually plenty of light to work with and the photography is easier than in the forest. The previously-mentioned Challuayacu River is darker but offers the chance for perched hummingbirds, manakins, various antbirds, and even monkeys and sloths.
Canopy tower. Sani’s canopy tower is built into enormous kapok tree, and the platform is the largest we’ve ever seen, allowing for lots of space to set up a tripod or to move around for the perfect angle. Activity can vary, but if a mixed flock comes through, this can be one of the best places in Sani to get great shots, and there is plenty of light. Some birds we have photographed there include Many-banded Aracari, Paradise and Opal-crowned Tanagers, Great Jacamar, Yellow-billed and White-fronted Nunbirds, Gilded and Lemon-throated Barbets, Cinnamon-throated and Buff-throated Woodcreepers, Black-tailed and Green-backed Trogons, Black-tailed Tityra, Cinnamon Attila, though many more are possible.
Forest blinds. Antpitta feeding has arrived in the Amazon! Sani has had great success putting out worms for a White-lored Antpitta, which is normally an amazingly tough bird to even see. They are also going to test a blind that uses lights to attract moths, and if it works, it will be a great opportunity to get antbirds and other shy understory species. They have also put a salt lick in the forest in an area frequented by a Brazilian Tapir, and if that works they will build another blind just for it.
Yasuní parrot licks. Not far from Sani Lodge are the famous clay licks that on dry days bring in hundreds and hundreds of parrots. Both have blinds and are well worth visiting. Flash is not allowed here, so a very fast lens and a tripod are recommended. The first clay lick is active early, and is great for Yellow-crowned, Mealy, and Blue-headed Parrots, and Dusky-headed Parakeet. Another lick is about a 20 minute walk into the forest and offers a chance at some rare species like Orange-cheeked Parrot, Scarlet-shouldered Parrotlet, and Scarlet Macaw among the hordes of Cobalt-winged Parakeets.
Napo River islands. River islands hold a totally different set of birds, and the scrub and young forest makes the lighting easier than inside the rainforest. It can be good to spend a few hours looking for the specialties including Oriole Blackbird, Black-and-white Antbird, Castlenau’s Antshrike, and Lesser Wagtail-Tyrant. Occasionally a roosting Striped Owl is also found here.
Roosting nightbird stakeouts. Local guides usually know where at least some nightbirds are sleeping during the day, such as Common and Great Potoo, Tropical and Tawny-bellied Screech-owl, and Crested and Mottled Owls. Sometimes they are partly obscured our badly backlit, but other times they show very well allowing for nice shots. It’s always worth checking them out.
Night photography. Numerous bizarre insects, colorful frogs and reptiles, and other macro targets can be found on a night walk behind the lodge. If you are into macro photography, or want to try it out for the first time, it’s a lot of fun. Of course there is also a chance for a nightbird or even a night monkey as well.
Day 5: Sani to Quito. One nice thing about Sani is that they use an afternoon flight back to Quito. That gives us the best part of the morning to spend shooting before we have to travel back up the Napo River to Coca and fly back to Quito. We’ll the spend the night in a hotel near the airport.
Day 6: Departure. The extension ends this morning with a transfer to the airport.
PACE: Relaxed to moderate. Breakfast times are typically 5:00-6:00am. Most days will have several hours of downtime to relax or download photos – in the middle of the day on the extension when it is hot and slow.
PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. A lot of walking is required, up to 3 miles (4.8 km) a day, and sometimes on trails that are very muddy (the lodge provides rubber boots), and accessing the canopy tower requires climbing up 120 ft. (37 m.) via a sturdy and well-made staircase.
CLIMATE: Usually very pleasant, up to c. 90°F/32°C in the middle of the day . Some rain can be expected, especially in the afternoons and evenings, and intense downpours are not unexpected on the extension (good rain protection for your gear is essential).
ACCOMMODATION: Good, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, and electricity. The electricity is provided by generator that is turned on for limited hours, but it provides sufficient time to charge camera batteries and devices.
WHEN TO GO: This tour can be run year round. While climate has become rather unpredictable in recent years, the driest months on average are June-August, the wettest months are March-April, and the other months are intermediate. Bird activity is slower when it is very dry, but even in the dry season, some rain can be expected. Rainy season tours are usually very productive, since most days the mornings are dry, and the increased cloud cover means there is usually less harsh sunlight to deal with in the middle of the day. On the extension, rain can be expected year round, but it usually falls in short, intense bursts; December-February are usually the driest months on average in the Ecuadorian Amazon, but even then you will likely get some rain.
PHOTO PHILOSOPHY: Only a little time will be spent at feeders, and the rest of the time will be divided between boats, the canopy tower, the boardwalk, trails, the parrot lick, and other sites depending on current conditions.
GEAR: A 500mm with a 1.4x or 600mm is the best option, but a 300mm with 1.4x and 2x teleconverters also usually does a great job. A flash (where permitted) is also useful since light can be quite low early in the morning and inside forest. Weather permitting, there will be some opportunities for optional nocturnal macro photography, especially on the extension, where a good macro lens and flash (a ring flash or off-camera flash is best) would be useful.
TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and all European countries. Visas are currently only required of a few nationalities, mostly in Asia, Africa, and the middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.
WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to Breakfast of Day 6; safe drinking water and/or juice during meals; safe drinking water as well as tea and coffee are available at Sani Lodge at any time; one of our photo guides with camera and audio playback gear; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary in a suitable vehicle with a local driver; airport transfers to and from the Quito airport, roundtrip airfare from Quito to Coca, roundtrip boat transport from Coca to Sani Lodge (may be shared with other lodge guests), private boat transport while at Sani Lodge, and private Sani local guide are also included; entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to help keep track of what you have photographed (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).
WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters in the Quito hotel (if you require their services); flights (except for the included roundtrip flight from Quito to Coca on the extension); snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; excess luggage charges; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.
THIS TRIP CAN BE RUN ANY TIME AS A CUSTOM TOUR
$2700, single supplement: $300
Theese tours are set to link up with our many Andrs Introtour, Galapagos tours, and Northern Ecuador Photo tours. They can be set up for most dates as custom tours. Please email the office
Length: 6 days
Starting city: Quito
Ending city: Quito
Pace: relaxed to moderate
Physical difficulty: easy
Focus: wildlife photography
Max group size: 6