Friday, May 4, 2018

Post #136 - Hello neotropics, goodbye shorebirds - with photos!

As anxiously as I await the return of neotropical migrants each spring, their arrival is admittedly a bit bittersweet since it signals the looming departure of shorebirds, my favorite and most obliging local photographic subjects. Since I moved to the Bay Area exactly a year ago, I've learned a ton about shorebird distribution and behavior, particularly as I tend to visit the same spots over and over. I know which species can be found and photographed on which tides, and I understand how the light and angles change through the seasons. In some ways, I feel that photography has opened me up to a level of behavioral study that traditional birding and its often listing-centric approach completely misses. These last two weeks have been particularly exciting as most of the birds have molted into the breeding garb ahead of their own migration back to the arctic. Here are a few shots to send the bird off. I hope you enjoy them.

***Click all images for nice, higher resolution view***

Long-billed Curlew - Numenius americanus
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Short-billed Dowitcher - Limnodromus griseus
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/1600 at f/5.6, ISO 1000

Black-bellied Plover - Pluvialis squatarola
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Western Sandpiper - Calidris mauri
 Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Breeding plumage Dunlin had been a particular photographic nemesis, so I decided to take control of that matter this week. Realizing the birds were in beautiful plumage bit would be gone very soon, I decided to crawl a long way out on the bay mudflats to get the shot I wanted. It took about an hour and half of crawling and pausing, but they finally got completely used to me and let me do my thing.

Operation Dunlin - here was my track. 
I probably crawled 60-70 yeards.

And here's what I looked like afterwards.

 Dunlin - Calidris alpina
Canon 500mm f/4 IS +1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 640

I can't wait for these guys to return in the fall! As for what will happen the next few months, I probably spend a lot of time photographing terns, though I'll have to drive south on the bay to best do it. Otherwise, summer birding and photography is kinda slow around here, so I'll have to work really hard to scrape out shots in the next few months. Gotta get a good Pigeon Guillemot flight shot in Pillar Point Harbor.....

Friday, April 27, 2018

Post #135 - Recap of April 23 Bay Area Bicycle Big Day!

This past Monday, Rob Furrow, Josiah Clark, Sam Saffron, and I set out to break the California bicycle Big Day record of 187 species established by Rob and Josiah in 2015. Our route was a permutation of that record-setting route, and we hoped that an additional two pairs of eyes would be enough to push us beyond that benchmark. Conditions Sunday night into Monday were about perfect; there was little overnight wind and temperatures were in the low-50s when we assembled at 2am in Half Moon Bay. We spent the next 20 hours on our bikes, and our route was roughly divided into 4 legs. Those were, very roughly:

LEG 1 - The Coast (2am - 9:45am): coastal slope owling, Princeton Harbor, ocean, Pillarcitos Creek, Highway 92, and Skylawn Cemetery

LEG 2 - Cañana Road (9:45am - 11am): Crystal Springs Reservoir, mixed oak woodlands, chapparal, and neighborhoods to SF Bayshore

LEG 3 - SF Bay (11am - 4pm): San Francisquito Creek mouth, Palo Alto Baylands, Shoreline, Lower SF Bay, Alviso

LEG 4 - Ed Levin (4pm - 10pm): Coyote Creek, Ed Levin, Upper Calavaros Road, Alviso (again)

OK, with that outline, let's get rolling!

Leg 1 - The Coast (2am - 9:45am)
We immediately found Great Horned Owl and Barn Owl along Highway 1 and clapped-up a Sora at the Verde Road Pond as we made our way up Purismo Creek Road. Northern Saw-Whet Owl was a great heard-only bird along that route, and we crossed over to Burleigh Murray to add a vocalizing, predawn MacGillivray's Warbler. After that we shook off a flat tire and headed north towards Princeton Harbor for the dawn hours. 

Biking south down Highway 1 at 2:30am

We taped Virginia Rail at Mavericks, surprised a Wandering Tattler at the base of the jetty, and climbed the bluffs to find two Marbled Murrelets on the ocean. After that, we made a brief stop at Venice/Pillarcitos for gulls. Though both Laughing and Glaucous had been scouted in the days before our effort, we mustered only Western, California, Herring, and Glaucous-winged. The general lack of Larids (Heermann's, Mew) with the combined misses of Brant, Brown Pelican, Sooty Shearwater, Pink-footed Shearwater, Horned Grebe, and Surfbird meant we did adequately but not outstandingly on the ocean. We were never going to find all of those misses, but we really needed at least a few of those to complement the tattler and the murrelets.

Burleigh Murray flat tire at 4:00am

We did salvage some nice land birds as we climbed up Highway 92 towards Skyline: several Olive-sided Flycatchers, an early Swainson's Thrush, and a singing Pacific Wren. Skylawn Cemetery yielded Red Crossbill and Pine Siskin with minimal effort. We were at 102 species by the time we dropped from Skylawn at 9:45 - on perfect schedule.

Leg 1: ~ 31.6 miles (2am - 9:45am)

Leg 2 - Cañana Road (9:45am - 11:40am)
The coast behind us, we continued down Highway 92 to reach Cañada Road. We missed both Ring-necked Duck and Wood Duck on Crystal Spring reservoir, the first mostly due to seasonality and the second mostly due to chance. But we did add Grasshopper Sparrow, Lazuli Bunting, Black-throated Gray Warbler, singing Cassin's Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Vaux's Swift, and host of raptors along Cañada. We descended along Woodside Road and wound our way through the contrasting neighborhoods of Atherton and East Palo Alto before hitting the bayshore. We were at 126 species at that point.

Leg 2: ~ 21.5 miles (9:45 - 11:40am)

Riding along Crystal Spring Reservoir at 10am

Leg 3 - SF Bay (11:40 am - 4pm)
We timed our bay arrival to the falling tide so as to add shorebirds on the exposed mudflats. We were mostly on schedule but the tide was a bit farther out than expected, which, coupled with heat shimmer, made the birding tougher than it needed to be. We filled in most of our missing shorebirds but missed Red Knot and Ruddy Turnstone because of tide and heat. Beyond shorebirds, we dug out Common GoldeneyeNorthern Pintail, Canvasback, and Ridgway's Rail. Our transit through the Baylands turned up Bald Eagle and a surprise Lesser Yellowlegs. Alviso and surrounds yielded Burrowing Owl and a single Red-necked Phalarope. We managed to grind out only a single Cinnamon Teal but missed Blue-winged Teal, Wilson's Snipe, Say's Phoebe, and Eurasian Wigeon. We had 165 species by the end of this leg.

Leg 3: ~18.6 miles (11:40 - 4pm)

San Francisquito Creek Shorebirding at noon

Leg 4 - Ed Levin (4pm -10pm)
We had biked ~72 miles by the time we started this final leg, so fatigue was starting to set in. We detoured along Coyote Creek to add Yellow Warbler then headed east towards Ed Levin Park. Reaching that destination after some painfully steep and very hot climbing we added Wild Turkey, Green Heron, Golden Eagle, American Kestrel, Rufous Hummingbird, Yellow-billed Magpie, White-breasted Nuthatch, House Wren, Western Tanager, Lark Sparrow, and two singing Rufous-crowned Sparrows. Climbing even farther up Calaveras Road (not exactly mapped due to Google thinking road is closed) we notched Rock Wren and Western Screech-Owl. We then turned around and dropped all the way back to Alviso where we dipped on Black Rail to end the day. At 10pm we were out of birds, so we closed up shop.

We finished with a very respectable 178 species in our 20 cycling hours. In that time we rode almost exactly 100 miles and climbed well over 4,000 vertical feet. It was a really fun day and a great introduction to bike Big Days. This was very different than anything I did on my 2014 bike Big Year, mostly because of the combined amount of riding and birding over those 20 hours. The time pressure was more acute, and it was frustrating to have to leave areas so soon after reaching them. But we had to keep moving so as to make sure we spent adequate time in each habitat and reached everywhere we wanted to bird.

Now that I've had a full run-through, I have a good idea what to expect on future iterations. This route has been adapted by Rob and Josiah over the past few years, and they should really be commended for their pioneering bike-birding efforts. Hopefully Sam and I will be able to offer some constructive suggestions for next year, and I know that with additional attempts we should be able to mount another challenge to the still-standing California record of 187 (the national record is 193 from Texas). 

Side note
I actually rode my bike to Half Moon Bay on Sunday afternoon (~15 miles) and home from Alviso on Tuesday morning (~30 miles) so that I could count all the birds we found on the Big Day on my Bay Area Green List as well. With the additions of Golden Eagle, Wandering Tattler, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Cassin's Vireo, Yellow-billed Magpie, Swainson's Thrush, Lazuli Bunting, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow, my Bay Area Green List now stands at 250 species.

***Bike Big Days and bike Big Years need not start and end in the same place. That would penalize anyone living in a less-than-ideal area. There's also no point in requiring the loop to be closed if people are going to drive somewhere optimal to start and end anyway. As long as the whole route is self-powered, that's all that matters. True Green lists, however, necessarily be accrued from a single point (like my San Mateo apartment, for example).

Had to make a lunch stop after riding 
home from Alviso on Tuesday morning....

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Post #134 - Bay Area Bike Big Day Preparation

How the heck did I not write for the last month? So sorry, but I'm back now. Let's get going!

As each new spring arrives, birders reacquaint themselves with northbound migrants that spent the winter at more southerly latitudes. When I lived in the Northeastern US, Eastern Phoebes and American Woodcocks were always the first spring arrivals, and now that I'm in California Hooded Orioles and Wilson's Warblers are the annual pioneers. With that influx of migrants on top of lingering wintering species, species diversity is usually highest in spring in many places across North America. And those circumstances invite the one of the most entertaining sorts of bird projects - Big Days! I have never actually been involved in a Big Day, so it's only fitting that my first will be a bicycle-based effort here in the Bay Area with bicycle Big Day gurus Rob Furrow and Josiah Clark at the end of this month.

It's tough to beat this view...

Rob and Josiah have been doing this for a number of years and have painstakingly optimized the route over that time. This year we are going to ride a permutation of their 2015 route along which they amassed an incredible 187 species. We will start high enough on the Pacific side of the coastal mountains to collect predawn owls. We'll then head down to Pillar Point for dawn migrants, harbor birds, and seabirds. From there it will be over the coastal mountains, hopefully collecting a few finches en route. After descending we'll hit the bayshore for shorebirds and waterfowl before continuing beyond the bay and gain a bit of elevation into hotter, drier habitat in the late afternoon. As the sun sets we'll head back down to the bayshore to search for Black Rail and a few other nocturnal birds. As mapped, the route will be ~85 miles with around 4,000 feet of total climbing, but it'll probably be closer to 95-100 miles once we drop back down to the bay for the night. We'd love to find 190 species, but that will certainly take some luck!

Street view of the route. Mileage indicated every 5 miles.

Satellite/Topo view of the route

The trick with any Big Day, bicycle or other, is to visit at many different habitats as possible without spending too much time in any one of them. It's therefore important to have a premeditated idea/timetable of how much time should be spent in each habitat. Big Days are infinitely more time sensitive than are Big Years, so that will be a bit of an adjustment for me given my 2014 Big Year experience. Ron and Josiah have worked all this out, so I'll just move whenever they tell me to!

I've cycled more than 90-100 miles in a day many times but usually in big chucks with just a few breaks along the way. We'll be doing a lot of starting and stopping, so it might be tough to get into a good rhythm along this route. I'm in decent (but not great) cycling shape right now, so I think I'll be able to manage it regardless. I'm actually more curious about how I'll maintain birding focus since I've never done any sort of Big Day before, but I'm sure Rob and Josiah will keep me on track. It will also be really interesting to see what effect my extra pair of eyes will have, particularly along the coast where scanning massive amounts of open water is the most likely way to add additional and oddball birds. 

So, that's a very general idea of how we expect out bicycle Big Day to unfold. Right now we are hoping to make April 23 the day, but some of that will depend on wind and weather. April 30 is also an option, but that's a bit later than ideal as we're cutting it close on lingering waterfowl anyway. I'm hoping to take a few videos at points along our route, and if I can manage that I'll be sure to share them in the blogpost that will recap our efforts. Please stay tuned!

And since we need at least one bird photo......

Western Meadowlark - Sturnella neglecta
Riverside County, California, March 2018
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 7D Mark II
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Post #133 - Bay Area Bike Birding update and related thoughts on the '5-Mile Radius' project

First - Please check out the Ecuador piece that I wrote for the Nature Travel Network. It distills my 5 Ecuador posts down to a much quicker read! 

Since I spent a good chunk of this past Saturday successfully chasing a continuing Broad-billed Hummingbird in San Francisco (a county first), I figured it would be a good time for an update on my most recent Bay Area bike-birding exploits. After that I'd like to spend a bit of time discussing the recently-popularized 5-Mile Radius and how it could provide the perfect gateway into bike-birding. Here's a map of my route to the hummingbird. It was 22.6 miles each way plus ~5 miles around Golden Gate Park afterwards for ~50 miles total. I didn't bother with the camera since it adds much weight for what would have been crappy record shots anyway.

My one-way route to SF. I rode in it 1:31 (15 
MPH ave), much faster than the 2:10 Google 
suggests. Return trip 15 mins slower with traffic.

Broad-billed Hummingbird was species #236 that I've found from my bike since moving to the Bay Area last May. The vast majority of these have been observed in my home San Mateo County, but I've tacked on a few additional birds by venturing into neighboring San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties. The most notable species that I've added so far, beyond the hummer, are Red-footed Booby, Dusky Warbler, Tufted Duck, and LeConte's Sparrow, the last of those being a county first and technically rarer in my home San Mateo than any of those others with at least 2 county records each. It's also fun that I've found pelagics like Ancient Murrelet and Buller's Sheartwater alongside the more terrestrial likes of Burrowing Owl, Lewis's Woodpecker, Lucy's Warbler, and Red Crossbill. So yeah, bike-bring around here is really good. I'm really hoping to fluff up my list this spring or summer with ~10-day loop to the Sierras and back, and I'm hoping to get my total towards 300 by year's end. That will only take a couple thousand miles of cumulative riding, so stay tuned.

California state view

County view

I am also hoping to join Bay Area bike-birders Josiah Clark and Rob Furrow on their annual spring bike Big Day in late-April. A recently-materialized trip to Honduras in the middle of that month might make that impossible, but I am going to do everything that I can to make it happen!

OK, with all that as backdrop, I want to discuss the recently materialized 5-Mile Radius (5MR). The idea of the 5MR is to outline a circle with a radius of 5 miles from your place of residence (or other point of your choosing should you live in an awful area for birding) with the hope that a small, well-defined, and high-localized geography will motivate at least some birding within it. For example, this is what mine would look like. If I wanted, I could shift this circle several miles southwest so as to include less bay and more mountains while still keeping my residence within it, for example.

I know at least some of you are asking, "Why would I want to restrict my biding to such a small area?" Well, I see at least two very important reasons one might want to give 5MR birding a chance. The first of these is that carbon emissions will be reduced versus always driving to farther flung places. While birding emissions aren't likely to be significant in the face of ever-increasing world petroleum consumption, we birders should at least think about modifying our collective driving behavior to minimize our environmental impact. Second, data collected in the 5MR are particular valuable as they are highly localized and specific and as such will greatly aid in local conservation efforts. One of the problems with birding data is that a lot of them come from just a few areas, or 'Hot Spots'. If everyone spent at least some time each week in his/her 5MR, we'd get a more even distribution of data than if everyone races to the same places to chase the same reported birds. Who knows? Maybe you'll find the next great migrant trap right in your own 5MR!

Pied-billed Grebe - Podilymbus podiceps
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/1600 at f/7.1, ISO 800

I know that the 5MR flies in the face of the driving and associated no-holds-barred listing that motivates much of our birding behavior, but I think it is a really interesting idea, particularly when cross-promoted with the various forms of green birding (walking, running, biking etc). As no point in the 5MR is more than 5 linear miles from home, it would be very easy to bird most or all of it by bike or foot. I personally have an ~25MR that I bird almost exclusively by bike (it runs from SF to Pigeon Point or so). What time I spend outside that radius is usually photography-motivated, but I sneak in a bit of petroleum-powered birding on those occasions. So, and as per usual, I'm not advocating that everyone immediately give up his or her car, but I do think the 5MR offers the perfect opportunity to reevaluate at least some percentage of our birding behaviors. I must admit that I fly to several international birding destinations each year, so what I save on the bike I probably more than give back on the plane. Such is the cost of being human. Just something for me and everyone else to think about in this installment. 

Willet - Tringa semipalmata
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Post #132 - Recent Bay Area shorebird photography - with tips!

Really quick - there is still space on the Colombia Photo-birding extravaganza that I am leading for Alvaro's Adventures Jun 22 - July 2 (full PDF itinerary linked just above my bio on that page). The general idea of this trip is to move slightly slower than on a normal birding trip so that we have time to collect shots in photographically productive areas - like around feeder arrays. We will not be sitting in a blind all day waiting for that one perfect shot, and we will cover plenty of habitats to run up your Colombian list! So, if you carry a camera while birding, I know you'll really enjoy this tour. We'll be visiting these exact spots (and many others!) where I collected these shots. 

***Click images for larger, sweeter views***

Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager - Anisognathus somptuosus
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 7D Mark II
1/200 at f/7.1, ISO 1600

Buffy Helmetcrest - Oxypogon stuebelii
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/800 at f/6.3, ISO 800

OK, on with the show! Since I've given you a lot to read in my recent Ecuador posts, I am just going to share a few recent photos and give you a few tips that might help you capture a few of your own.
***Again, click images for larger, sweeter views***

American Avocet - Recurvirostra americana
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D Mark II
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Tip #1 - Get Low
This is the single most valuable tip that I can offer. Shooting down on shorebirds (from the standing position, for example) doesn't do much to imbue them with character. You really need to get down to their eye level to make them seem larger than life. That will also help with bokeh (blur) and subject isolation from both the foreground and background. Getting low will also allow much closer approach. Shorebirds are really trusting, provided that you're laying down on your stomach. I know many people can't easily get low or just don't want to lay in wet sand or mud, but that's what I had to do to collect most of the shots in this post.

American Avocet - Recurvirostra americana
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

American Avocet - Recurvirostra americana
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 500

Tip #2 - Study tide tables
If you're going to be shooting somewhere tidal, it is imperative that you know what the tides are doing. For example, I never shoot SF Bay on low tide as the birds are too far out on the flats to make effective images. Likewise, the highest tide can be tough as the flats are completely inundated and the bird move elsewhere to roost. I generally look for mid-tides in the early morning or later afternoon so that I have decent light for the desired water level. It also helps to know what your subject eats so that you can find the tide when that food source is exposed. Rocky shorebirds, for example, might hide on high tide and then appear as the tide drops and exposes the rocks that they prefer. So, know your tides! It's easy to find them online.

Marbled Godwit - Limosa fedoa
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Black Oystercatcher - Haematopus bachmani
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/2000 at f/6.3, ISO 640

Black Oystercatcher - Haematopus bachmani
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Tip #3 - Use a very fast shutter for shorebird flight work
While shorebirds on the ground are relatively straightforward, shorebirds in-flight present a big challenge, particularly the little guys. Shorebirds fly really fast and most beat their wings very rapidly, so a fast shutter is going to be required to properly stop the action and get a sharp image. 1/2000 is the absolute slowest I'll go for shorebird flight work, but I generally prefer 1/2500 or 1/3200. In late afternoon sunlight, my starting settings are always 1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 400. I'll bring the ISO up as the sun drops, and, if I stay towards sunset, start dropping the shutter speed at that point to get correct exposure. Some people get scared off by higher ISOs but remember, you can fix noise - but not blur - in post-production. I generally skip shooting on days with less that perfect sunlight, but that's a luxury of living in California!

Black-bellied Plover - Pluvialis squatarola
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Dunlin - Calidris alpina
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Willet - Tringa semipalmata
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Marbled Godwit - Limosa fedoa
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 640

OK, that's it for now. And don't forget about Colombia!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Post #131 - Amazonian Ecuador and the Napo Cultural Lodge

In my last four Ecuador posts, I focused on the highlands northwest of Quito. This time we are going to make a dramatic move to the east and the Amazonian lowlands. Just to get you oriented, here's another view of the topographic map that I showed in the first Ecuador post. I've also included a larger map that should help to put this into a larger, continental context. Ecuador's Amazon represents the extreme western edge of the Amazon basin and is just a tiny slice of the largest river system on the planet!

Andes are the brown/gray stripe
right down Ecuador's middle

When to visit
We visited in late-December and it was pretty ideal. It was close to 90F on the first of our five days, but rain in subsequent days cooled things down nicely. The dry season runs from November to April, so you're probably going to want to visit in that window. We had at least some rain each day, but only for more than 30 minutes on one occasion. Those interested in reptiles and amphibians might want to come when it is wetter. We didn't see a single snake in our five days which was a bit of a bummer (Sonia would disagree). There were mosquitos, but no more than anywhere else that I've been in the tropics. I really can't imagine there is a bad time to visit such an amazing place, but I could be wrong.

Getting there
As far as I know, there really isn't a good way to drive to Amazonian Ecuador; We flew 45 minutes from Quito over the eastern portion of the Andes to reach the Río Napo at Coca. From there it was into a large and very stable powered canoe for another 2-2.5 hours to reach another 50mi/80km downriver (east). That ride is absolutely fantastic and wonderfully relaxing. It's really cool since the river channel shifts everyday depending how much water is flowing, so navigating everything is a real art! Everything, flight included, was booked and organized by our lodge, the Napo Cultural Center, as part of our package. So far as I could surmise, that's the way all the other lodges (Napo Wildlife, Sacha, Sani, La Selva, etc) do it as well. There aren't casual accommodations (i.e guest houses, local motels, Airbnbs) that far downriver, so your really need to go through a lodge. It is not cheap, but the experience it well worth it.

Speeding down the Napo

View from the speeding boat
I selected this lodge for three reasons. The first was price. Napo Cultural cost significantly less (like $1000-$1500 less for 5 days and 4 nights) than any of the other Amazon lodges, the closely related and most expensive Napo Wildlife Center included. The second reason was cultural. Napo Cultural is run completely by native Kichwa people, and all of the money the lodge generates goes directly into the community (rather than lining the pockets of foreign investors as it does as some lodges - do your research!). The third reason was that Napo Cultural has fantastic canopy access. That access was great for both birds and jungle vistas but does require you to climb over 200+ steps to reach either of two observation platforms. It was a workout with my scope and camera!

Climbing 1 of the 2 Napo canopy towers

The view from the top

What is the difference between Napo Wildlife and Napo Cultural?
In the most general terms, Napo Wildlife is more about luxury accommodations and Napo Cultural is more about immersion with native peoples - at least to my eye. From my perspective, Napo Culural was plenty luxurious, and I'm not exactly sure what beyond our already very comfortable experience Napo Wildlife (or any of the other competing lodges) provides for effectively double the price. 

Plenty nice for me.
We had one of those fancy rain showers too!

It's also worth nothing that Napo Cultural is set right on the Río Napo. That makes it very easy to move up and down the river and access different regions of the adjacent and incredible Yasuni National Park. Napo Wildlife is located an additional 1.5 hours - by hand-paddled canoe - up a small creek and into the forest, far from that main river artery. So, for those that want maximum chance to explore the area, Cultural might be better. For those more into staying close to the lodge, Wildlife might be better. As far was I know, there's nothing you can do at Wildlife that you can't do at Cultural (and vice versa), but the river access of Cultural really tips the balance for me. For example, the various parrot licks are 1.5 hours from Wildlife versus 10 mins from Cultural.

***as always, click photos for larger, better views***

Mealy Parrots and Blue-Headed Parrots on 
a clay lick. Minerals in the clay neutralize
toxins in the foods that they eat.

A Mealy Parrot surrounded
by Dusky-Headed Parakeets

Scarlet Macaws - Ara Macao
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/200 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Scarlet Macaw - Ara macao
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/200 at f/4 ISO 1600

Whoa! These White-lipped Peccaries came storming
in while I was photographing the macaws. I had my rig 
on a tripod so I just hit record to get this!

As for the cultural component at Napo Cultural, it is really cool. Upon arriving, we were assigned a pair of local guides that who took us through the various activities - canoeing, kayaking, hiking, observation towers, etc - during our 5D/4N stay. They were both very knowledgable and friendly, and beyond them we met all sort of other local folks, almost all of whom have ties to the lodge in some capacity (guides, cooks, staff etc). We sampled native food (though most was fairly Americanized), explored local customs and art, and even participated in some traditional Kichwa dances. I really felt as though our stay contributed to the economic well-being of the community. 

Local food

How are the days structured at Napo Cultural?
Napo Cultural (and I assume Napo Wildlife and all the other lodges) are different from the places we stayed in the highlands in that you can't just wander off the property and explore things on your own. Everything is coordinated around shuttling people up and down the river in the canoes. When you arrive, you are randomly assigned to a group for the days of your stay, and you do a bunch of pre-fabricated and awesome activities with that same group. What that means is that much of your experience will depend on how adventurous your group is. Our group was made up of two wonderful natives guides, Venancio and Silvia, and only one other person, a very friendly and adventurous guy (Coleman), also from the Bay Area. Since we were all up for anything, we were able to do and see more than larger groups where some people had less energy or lower tolerances for rain showers, for example. We also saw a ton of animals since we didn't have any loud people or children with us, and I suspect that our experience would have been very different had we been lumped in with the family of 9 and their many kids that arrived at the same time we did. So, if you're coming to bird, be clear that you want to be grouped with other birders rather than general family vacationers. Our guides actually bent over backwards to do a whole bunch of extra stuff with us since we were so enthusiastic!

Canoeing Blackwater Creek - 
this is actually the creek that connects 
Napo Wildlife to the Río Napo.

Sonia (wife), Silvia (guide), Venancio (guide), Coleman, Big Ugly

How is the birding at Napo Cultural?
Very good - with a few caveats. As I had never been to the Amazon Basin before this trip, virtually every bird I saw was a lifer. I wasn't so much into finding every elusive antbird as I was just enjoying the Amazon. We saw lots of birds, but I didn't bird or photograph with nearly the same intensity as I did in the highlands. If you've never been to the Amazon before, you're going to have a blast and see all sorts of cool stuff no matter what you do. With the structured activities, Napo Cultural is also a great destination for families. If, however, you've been to the Amazon before and/or are coming mainly to list specific and/or elusive species, you might get a bit frustrated by the structure of everything. One option is to hire your own guide from outside Napo Cultural and bring him/her with you. That way you can do your own thing with someone who knows his/her way around the area. It also worth noting that there isn't any real photography infrastructure (i.e set-ups, blinds) at Napo (I don't know about the other lodges though), so all my my shots were from the field. My eBird checklists from at Napo Cultural:

Hoatzin - Ophisthocomus hoazin
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/800 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Southern Lapwing - Vanellus chilensis
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D Mark II
1/1250 at f/4, ISO 800
**fastest shutter in my 2 weeks in Ecuador**

Many-banded Aracari - Pteroglossus pluricinctus
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/125 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Wow, that's a lot more than I thought I'd write. Hopefully I've left enough up to the imagination that you still want to visit. I think I've included everything that I wanted to cover, but if I forgot something please feel free to ask a question in the comments section.

That's it for Ecuador! I'm headed back to Colombia in late-June to lead a birding tour with a photography slant for Alvaro's Adventures. There still space if you're interested, and I'd love to have some blog readers along to enjoy the trip with me!