2012 Scarlet Macaw Protection Documentary

Sunday, February 28, 2010

16-19 Feb: Up the Raspa beyond Cushtabani

Hi everyone. Sorry for the delay in the updates. It's getting hard to fit everything in; data management, vehicle maintenance, planning, etc, and trying to relax for a few minutes here and there. But here goes...

Brad and I changed the plans for this trip at the last minute. There were some logistical hurdles and we made the call to head up the Raspaculo Branch instead of the Chiquibul Branch as there was some uncertainty regarding pickup and drop off coordination. One of the FCD rangers dropped us off at the Ballerina Rd put in and we headed up the reservoir. Derric Chan, the Chiquibul National Park manager was up river conducting a patrol with the motorboat. We crossed paths on the reservoir and were given a 'lift' to the end of the Raspaculo Branch part of the reservoir. This saved us about 4 hours of paddling...whew!

Charles taking a GPS coordinate (photo by Brad Westrich).

We were able to push quite a ways past the confluence of Raspaculo and Monkeytail Branches, covering 28km before stopping for the night in a low areas. We saw three pairs flying overhead on the way up and heard 2 macaws calling from the camp in the evening. A Tapir came crashing through the camp and slash into the water that night! That'll wake you up...

My home away from home.

Saw 47 macaws on Wednesday. We pushed up through 10.6km of rapids and camped above Cushtabani camp. Had a couple of crocodile encounters to keep things lively.

Misty morning on the Raspaculo Branch.

We began the next day trying to push further up the Raspa but only made it another 1.5 km above our camp before the waterfalls were getting too numerous and dangerous and the habitat began to turn extremely poor. I made the call to turn around and begin our descent.

We found two macaws on a Quamwood near Cushtabani Camp. Then a third macaw appeared from a cavity on the tree.

A group of three macaws checking out a tree.

We made the swifter trip down, covering 13.5km, observing 8 macaws and finding one pair excavating the front of a nest cavity. We observed this pair foraging in a ficus (fig) for about 10 minutes before they flew 75m upstream and perched atop a cavity in a Quamwood tree. One of them immediately began excavating the lower lip of the cavity. They continued this for the duration of our observations.

Breeding pair working on a nest cavity.

We camped again in a low area but had rain that night. This kept me up for quite a while worrying about the water level but it all turned out fine.

Brad checking out the area while grabbing a quick snack.

On Friday the 19th, we covered 29km and observed 12 more macaws. While paddling on the Raspaculo portion of the reservoir we observed a lone macaw perched on a small snag but neither feeding or apparently concerned that we were right there. After a few minutes it flew about 25m away to a dead Quamwood where its mate was sitting in a cavity entrance. Score! Looks like the breeding season is picking up.

Macaws checking out a cavity.

We made our way down the reservoir, spotting a river otter along the way. A successful trip. We continue to find nests well beyond the reservoir.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Chiquibul from above

This past Friday, Lighthawk generously provided a free flight for my project. The objective was assess potential habitat withing my study area since this is not so easy to do from the ground or the river. The pilot, Chuck Schroll from Tucson, AZ, was fantastic.

We had originally tried to fly a week and a half ago but a cold front put the kibosh on that. The guys assisting me from Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) had to turn around and drive back to Flores, Guatemala. We rescheduled it for this past Thursday. And another cold front blew in the night before. Clouds and fog...grrrr! Since the WCS guys made the drive, we went for it. That lasted about five minutes. We couldn't even see the mountains much less fly over and around them. Canceled...

Brad on left. Chuck and Lenney up front.

So we just played it by ear. I could fly on either Friday or Saturday afternoon, depending on weather conditions. I touched base with Chuck Friday and we were on.

Flying past 1000ft Falls feeding Roaring Creek.

The flight was fantastic! The original cast of characters had to be changed due to short notice. Brad was able to accompany us on the flight and Lenney Gentle of FCD went along as navigator. We headed southeast out of Central Farm (east of San Ignacio) and cruised over Roaring Creek and past 1000ft Falls...simply amazing.

Baldy Hills on Mountain Pine Ridge

We kept gaining altitude and flew over the eastern edge of the Baldy Hills in Mountain Pine Ridge. To the east we could see the Sibun River watershed. We then dropped into the Macal River valley and began our undulating and largely circular flight path over the Chiquibul Forest in search of potential Scarlet Macaw breeding habitat, covering over 200 miles along the way.

Looking for Quamwood trees. Found them! All of the large white ones.

We flight path was roughly down the Macal River, up Blossom Berry Breek, down the Raspaculo Branch, up Monkeytail Branch, and down the Chiquibul Branch before heading back. Just an amazing sea of green below us with a seemingly large amount of Quamwood trees available for macaws to search for nest cavities. Near the end of the trip, we passed over the famous Natural Arch under which the Chiquibul Branch passes before diving underground through the Chiquibul Cave System and popping back up over in Guatemala. We also had spectacular views of the giant sinkholes that are scattered throughout this karst system.

Newly constructed Vaca dam on the Macal River.

Heading north, we met up with the Macal River again and followed it up passing over the dams. I hadn't seen the recently (currently) constructed Vaca dam, the last in a series of three hydroelectric dams. Pretty nasty impacts. It was already filling up and you could see one of the tributary waterfalls slowly getting submerged within the growing reservoir.

Parting shot of the crew: Chuck Schroll, Charles Britt, Lenney Gentle and Brad Westrich

The timing of the flight was perfect. After the work was done the clouds began to move in and spit a little rain at us. Following the Macal, we flew over San Ignacio and Santa Elena, affording a nice view of my temporary home, and cruised into Central Farm. It was a fantastic trip providing me with a better idea of potential areas that I need to visit throughout the Chiquibul Forest.

We head out to the Chiquibul Branch tomorrow!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

9-10 Feb: That Monkeytail

Brad and I headed out last week on a joint patrol with the park rangers from Friends for Conservation and Development. We loaded up their 18ft motorboat with our gear, threw a couple of kayaks on top, and piled into the empty spots before cruising up the reservoir. Such a huge difference not having to kayak across the length of the reservoir!

Log raft along Blossom Berry Creek

We reached the confluence of the Macal River and Raspaculo Branch by 12:30pm and strategized for our two-day trip. Today (9th) we would visit Blossom Berry Creek and tomorrow we would head up Monkeytail Branch. We reached Blossom Berry Creek around 12:50, unloaded the kayaks and gear and were off by 1pm. The rangers were going to check out nearby trails for illegal activities.

We made out way up the creek and it wasn't too long before we encountered three sturdy log rafts. These were obviously built to transport the xateros across the Macal River and a little way up Blossom Berry Creek. We pushed our way past these and hit the first small rapid with a tree laying across our path; the first of many.

What caught my attention was seeing two shirts laid out to dry. I then smelled smoke...must be a camp nearby. We paused for a nervous five minutes that seemed like fifteen. I didn't see a soul so we crept forward and past the area.

Brad dragging his kayak under a fallen tree.

Continuing up the creek for 2 and a half hours, we saw no signs of people...or macaws. It was pretty quiet. There was some decent habitat but mostly hard kayak dragging. I was thinking of nixing the Blossom Berry for future nest search efforts, but it appears as though there is great habitat much further upstream. Still might be a logistic impossibility but I'll try it out at least once.

We turned back and returned to the 'camp'...approaching cautiously. Out my peripheral vision someone was coming down to the creek. It was Derric, the park manager, with machete in hand. They found a large camp above the creek where we had smelled smoke. Apparently it was quickly abandoned after we passed by. Hmmm.

We loaded up onto the motorboat again at 5pm and headed down the Macal River and up the Raspaculo Branch to camp for the night. Along the way, we observed a single pair of macaws perched on a tree at the river's edge.

FCD park rangers planning their activities around a xatero camp.

After a good night's sleep, we headed up the Raspaculo Branch, stopping at a major camp for legal xate extraction in the forest reserve. The park rangers were checking out the trails in the area to install national park boundary signs to hopefully reduce illegal extraction. The camp was active with 10-12 individuals staying there and about 4 horses. The rangers headed up the trail and Derric took Brad and I upstream, close to the Raspaculo/Monkeytail confluence.

Brad maneuvering up one of the many rapids along Monkeytail Branch.

From there, we unloaded and Brad and I headed about 3 or km up the Monkeytail. That was a brutal haul. Lots of kayak dragging, slick rocks...real ankle biters and shin benders. Beautiful scenery and cool falls, but exhausting work!

Near the turn around point, I heard a couple of macaws calling up ahead. We searched around but couldn't spot them. We headed up another fifteen minutes, had a snack and chilled for a few. Then began the trip back. It wasn't long, around 1pm, before we spotted a group of three scarlet macaws heading downstream. Those were the only macaws we spotted that day.

Nice waterfall along the Monkeytail Branch.

Yup, the way back was much, much easier but still a lot of work. I was trying to head down the left side of the falls in the above picture. Had to get out and line of the kayak. The current caught it and wedged the kayak down into the falls. Eventually I just had to give it a shove and let it go and then climb down the falls and retrieve it. It took in a lot of water so when I hopped onto it it just flipped! Boom! Into the deep water. Had to swim and pull it over to the side, turn it over and climb onto it. It didn't take much dragging before I had to stop and drain the water out.

We had to boogey on down the Monkeytail for the pick up. I could tell we were going to be a little late so we just had to keep pushing hard. I had to drain my kayak again and then keep pushing. Fighting with the rocks and the river I had a different name for the Monkeytail Branch; something more...colorful.

We made it back to the boat around 2:30pm and while draining my kayak I noticed a crack above the bilge hole...man! Going to try slapping on some epoxy. We cruised back down the reservoir and loaded up the jeep and trucks and scattered. Brad and I headed to the ranger station to drop off the kayaks before heading back to town. We were craving some barbeque chicken from Santa Elena, the barbeque capital of Belize. Barbeque and a couple of stouts...mmmm. Good ending.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Feb 3-5: Peñon de Buena Vista

Brad and I headed over to Guatemala this past Wednesday to visit more nest locations being monitored by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Guatemala. We initially planned for a week of data collection but had to pare it down to 3 days due to scheduling issues.

Charles concentrating on the...road. What road?

We headed down the bumpy road to the Mayan village of Paso Caballo around midday and picked up a couple of the WCS crew members. Then cut across the fútbol field and headed north along a crazy road with steep, steep hills going up and down, up and down...1st gear in 4 low, and unidentifiable roads. Love the Jeep; keep rollin!

Sunrise at the overlook (left). Looking the other way in the afternoon.

We arrived at the field station late afternoon/early evening, met the guys who were already there and unloaded our gear. Set up our tent hammocks before dark came upon us and then noticed that several of the fellas had meandered away from the field station down this road-lined trail. So, I grabbed my camera and headed down the winding path. I could see an opening ahead. The trail popped out from the canopy and an expanse opened up. Wow! We were perched atop some amazing cliffs overlooking an expansive wetland system below. Red-lored parrots were flying from the uplands down into forest below for the night.

We ate dinner and went to bed early. During the night both Brad and I awoke to the sound of a large...cat calling with this loud and raspy meow. Yikes! Crazy dreams that night.

Brad, Samuel, Antonio, Pedro and Jerry. Jerry shooting a line over the tree.

View from the nest...looks farther from up here! Charles descending down the rope.

We visited 5 nests the next day. All really easy hike to and climb...very accessible nests. No crazy maneuvering required. We had to skip one nest due to killer bees. No sight of macaws around yet. The last nest of the day required us to drive down the road. We took the whole crew (some folks were helping us with the nests and some were out looking for falcon nests) to the last nest. Why? Then we arrived...ahhh, it was an active xatero area in a forest concession. In fact, this particular nest had been poached every year. Xateros harvest a palm called xate which is used in the US and Europe in floral arrangements. In fact, the illegal harvesting of this palm in Belize by Guatemalans is at the heart of a natural resource and political problem in the Chiquibul Forest or Belize bordering Guatemala.

Inside of a Scarlet Macaw cavity

All this said, the last nest was no problem. Brad climbed it with ease, collected the data quick, quick as they say in Belize and we headed back to the station.

We grabbed a couple of Gallos each from the Jeep. Nothin like a few brews, 'cowboy cold' to borrow a phrase from Mr. Burkett back in NM. Headed back out to the overlook to chill for the evening. It was such an awesome transition in the evening. As the sun went down, the herons went to roost, laughing falcons sang their last chorus and the paraques began their nightly nightjar calls. Then a mottled owl could be heard in the distance. The edge of twilight lit up wetland ponds amongst the darkness; mirrors of light.

We chatted into the night, watching the occasional bat or owl fly in close and away. Then our stomachs called us in for the evening to drift lazily to the open kitchen for some fresh tortillas and...

We awoke early and had corn flakes and coffee in the darkness before heading out for the morning. Today we visited a single nest which required hiking an hour and a half at a good clip along an old forest road now overgrown with trees at different points. What a road! Crazy steepness. No walking around hills for these folks. Straight up, straight down. The climbing gear begins to weigh ya down. Whew! The walk back was worse; a little warmer, a little more sun and after climbing and measuring that nest. Just had to keep sucking that water down. I don't think I've sweat like that in a while. Soaked head to toe...completely. Sweat in my eyes! Guess I'm still more used to working in the desert where your sweat evaporates quick.

The steepness of the hills, some never ending, took me back to hike Kristi and I did in the Gila this past autumn. After floating from the Gila Hotsprings campground to the confluence of the Gila River and Sapillo Creek, we stayed the night and then packed out our inflatable kayak and camping gear. The trail out required a ten mile hike starting out with a 1000' ascent before hiking over hill after hill at each side drainage. The hiking guide for this was hilarious; the writer states at one point '...and after descending 300 feet, gird your loins for the next 500' climb...' So before every climb we'd cry out ,'Gird yer loins!'. Ah, good times.

Brad walking back from the long nest. Gassing up the Jeep before heading out.

After dragging ourselves back into the station, we relaxed for a few minutes in the shade before loading up our gear and heading back out the same crazy hilly road. Wasn't fifteen minutes before some branch slashed the sidewall of my right rear tire. Pssshhhhh, flop flop flop. Okay, ten minutes and on the road again.

We stopped in Paso Caballo to drop off Chus and pick up Antonio's wife and their sick child. He might have asthma, which would be a problem out there. It was a long and quick trip back to town. After dropping them off at the hospital, I picked up a new tire; no doubt at a cheaper price than could have been found in Belize.

Brad and I hit the road, of course not forgetting to grab some of that good Guatemalan coffee, and arrived back at the Belize border just after dark. I noticed that the lights in my instrument panel of the Jeep weren't working...hmmm. Yesterday, I also discovered that the rear lights weren't working either. Fuses kept blowing but I was able to isolate the short circuit after a day. Hate the electrical problems!! But the Jeep is running again...for now!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Welcome to a world of confusion

Benque Viejo - Melchor border crossing.

Dealing with border management and customs is always a tricky business for foreigners. It’s a shady realm existing somewhere between regulations and personality disorders. Luckily, knowing a local to get the process started is a great help but just a beginning.

In my attempt to make life ‘easier’ throughout my stay, I had the great idea of getting a temporary importation permit for my vehicle and kayaks. This should ease my frequent trips between Belize and Guatemala, especially as a way of being able to leave my kayaks out at the field station in Belize; the alternative is to haul them out every time I wish to cross the border at Benque Viejo. Then I would be required to drop them off at customs each time and just hope that they still reside there upon return.

So I spent half a day waiting on people, trying to learn the proper order of completing the paperwork, getting the necessary amount of money…going to point A, to point B, back to A, back to B, A, B, A, B….ahhhh!!!

And I didn’t get finished. Luckily my next trip to Guatemala was pushed back a day, giving me some breathing room to finish up tomorrow. Whew!

Off to Guatemala on Wednesday. I was also able to reschedule my habitat assessment flight over the Chiquibul for next Thursday (11-Feb)…let’s hope the weather holds.