2012 Scarlet Macaw Protection Documentary

Thursday, March 25, 2010

That...Monkeytail: 22-24 Mar

We FINALLY made it to the upper Monkeytail Branch. And it quite lived up to its reputation. We drove down to Las Cuevas Research Station this past Monday morning. It was empty. No one is using the research station. Quite a bummer. It used to be humming with grad students. The only people there were a contingent of Belize Defense Force (BDF) who maintain a permanent presence there.

We spoke with the commander about the condition of the trail to the river and then planned on parking near the trailhead before beginning the long drag to Monkeytail Branch. We were happy to find the trail quite navigable for 2-3km before ending at a large tree fall. Leading up to that we cut our way through a few smaller blocks. The most devastating thing occurred when I approached a tree that was bent over, with thick vines on the other side of the track. I thought that it was high enough to clear...but I was mistaken. The halting crunch was not good. Looking up through the moon roof of the Jeep to see the kayaks gone was not good. And getting out to see the rear rack ripped off the Jeep was definitely not good!

We unstrapped the kayaks and moved them forward. Then I inspected the damage. The Jeep had some damage but not too bad...and the rack was fine. I just pulled out my toolbox and reinstalled the rack about 6-8 inches forward of where it previously sat. We strapped down the kayaks and pushed on.

At the major tree fall we unloaded and I headed back to Las Cuevas, parked the Jeep and hiked back. From there we began the 2km overland kayak drag. This is not quite as fun as it sounds but is a great workout. All was going well until the track began to go up hill. Then the track disappeared into a thicket of dense vines and herbaceous vegetation. I pulled out my machete and sliced and beat through this while dragging my kayak and gear. The track would reappear and then disappear. Over and over. Was I going the right direction? Onward I pushed and again the track would appear. Whew! Exhausting is an understatement. After awhile, I only chopped were necessary and barreled through the rest. Twice we had to go over massive trees that had fallen directly across the track.

Brad dragging his kayak down the trail.

Finally, we began the descent into the river valley. Still fighting through the occasional thicket and tree fall. With the descent also came the sliding kayak which sometimes careened into a deep rut. We heard the sound of running water and glimpsed the Monkeytail off to our right. Seeing a wall of vegetation in front of us on the road we abandoned that and headed straight for the river. We were there!

Instead of setting up camp, it was about 4:30pm, I wanted to go up a bit. Big mistake. Already tired and dehydrated, we now had to walk up slippery, uneven terrain. After a few hundred meters enough was enough and we set up camp. After a hearty meal of fajitas we both passed out cold.

The next morning we arose still sore. My collar bone was killing me where the strap laid across to drag my kayak. That took a couple of days to heal up. After breakfast we headed upstream a little ways before being turned back by an endless boulder field. We headed downstream, walking almost as much as paddling it seemed. But the habitat was great. Nice clumps of large Quamwood trees.

We heard and saw several pairs of macaws along the Monkeytail that day. I spotted a pair sitting still and not really doing anything. This was quickly becoming indicative of there being a cavity nearby. We sat there watching them. Finally, one of the dove down sharply to the right. Where it went was out of our line of sight. So I moved downstream about 50m and there she was, head sticking out of a cavity in a Quamwood. Very cool! She stayed in there for a few minutes before they left screaming and flying to the east.

We found a cavity on the Monkeytail.

We continued pushing down the Monkeytail, stopping for lunch at the confluence with a major tributary coming in from the southeast. We moved up this tributary for a little while before turning around.

Brad maneuvering through the rocks.

Moving down this river is just brutal. It crushes your feet, bites your ankles and bruises your shins. The uplifts of slick granite are just a nightmare to walk across, especially while dragging a kayak behind you. Seeing someone maneuvering down it must be hilarious to watch. Not so much to do. You finally have your footing and your kayaks comes up from behind and sweeps your feet out from under you.

Brad lowering his kayak down a waterfall...or waterless fall.

We made it to about 500m above the confluence with the Raspaculo Branch and found just a fantastic campsite. Beaten down, we plopped down and got a fire going. We were going all out tonight. Spaghetti, baked potatoes and roasted garlic. Mmmmm. friggin' fantastic meal. And we heard macaws flying overhead.
Charles at the confluence of the Raspaculo (left) and Monkeytail (right) Branches
(photo courtesy of Brad Westrich)

We headed down the reservoir the next day. There were two occasions were pairs were most likely investigating cavities but they wouldn't give in and flew off rather than show us the cavity. Also had a couple of nice foraging flocks.

We went up the Macal River a little bit but decided to make our way out of the reservoir since the wind was blowing in a favorable direction. Two hours later we were out and heading to the FCD ranger base. We unloaded everything and headed back to town.

Here I am driving back to town...maybe happy..maybe a little
crazy (photo courtesy of Brad Westrich).

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Eggs in the Chiquibul: 16-19 Feb

This week we traveled back to Cushtabani Camp on the Raspabulo Branch in hopes of revisiting three nests we had found earlier in the season. For our 100km of paddling, we were delighted to find eggs in two of the nests locating three additional cavities with macaw activity.

We began this past Tuesday morning, driving out early after munching on an assortment of street vendor greasy breakfast foods...quite filling. We loaded up at the FCD ranger base and were on the reservoir by 10am. By the time we reached the confluence of the Macal and Raspaculo Brad and I felt as if we had both ingested about 5 Benadryl each. Lethargic and sleepy, we searched the confluence for macaw activity. Finding none, we set up camp at the spring near the confluence.

The next morning we began the trip up the Raspaculo leg of the reservoir. On the way up, observed 3 pairs moving around checking out several cavities along one stretch. One pair eventually flew downstream, another pair visited a cavity that was active the week before and the last pair looked on as this pair inspected the cavity.

A macaw pair inspecting a cavity on the reservoir.

We moved on not wanting to disturb these macaws as they were still in the inspecting phase of nesting. We continued up the river, observing 39 macaws along the way. There was one tree with several pairs all displaying various forms of pair-bonding; from simply preening each other's heads to another pair hanging upside down while spreading their wings completely out. Another couple began to copulate nearby. Hmmm, maybe there is a nest tree nearby.

One the 18th, we were able to visit two nests observed on the last visit. Both had eggs! The first was rather close to the river. We made our way up a Tapir track to the base of the tree. Then had to clear out some vines in order to get a shot at putting a line over a branch.
Nest tree up the Raspaculo.

The real problem was that the female wouldn't leave the nest and I didn't want to risk hitting her with the slingshot. Brad tried slapping the tree a few times to no avail. I then walked up to the tree and gave it a solid sharp slap. She popped out like a cork!

A stubborn pair and there egg.

We pulled out the climbing gear and I shot a line over. We were ready to roll. The next issue was maneuvering through the canopy of vines and acacia. I made it through but t was slow going. After making it up to the cavity I put the camera in the hole and snapped this shot of a single egg. Nice! They've started. I quickly switched over to the descending gear and lowered myself back through the canopy with Brad swinging me away from the nastier parts.

Working on their nest the month before.

We pushed on to the next nest location situated just below Cushtabani Camp. Along the way we heard macaws on the north side of the river. A glimpsed something red through a crack in the dense riparian vegetation. There was a macaw inspecting a slit cavity located on a tree trunk. It then flew over to an adjacent tree and inspected another cavity with its mate. Still in the inspection phase, we noted the location and moved on.

We reached the next Cushtabani nest location where about a month before we had observed a pair checking out a cavity. Where was it. We neared the location and Brad spotted the place where a river otter had hissed at that very spot. We moved about another 25m or so upstream. Ahha. We were looking at the tree from an angle upstream of the tree itself, but still no activity. I then looked up at a tree with a large broken fork and there was a macaw with her head sticking out just checking us out! 'Ah, and there is the macaw', I said with my best nonchalant voice belying the excitement I felt.

Nest below Cushtabani Camp and their three eggs.

We chopped a path up through the eight feet tall grass and pushed into the open gallery understory. Not bad...but how to shoot a line with a slingshot through all of those vines? Well, we're here so let's try. Three shots and we were in business. Maybe the repetitions were beginning to help? It was Brad's turn at climbing this one. Man the canopy was twice as dense. I tried to help through moving the rope this way and that but in the end he had to do most of the moving. The parents were rather cooperative in exiting the nest and hanging out nearby...shreeking from time to time.

Brad maneuvered himself to below the nest and shoved the camera up into the cavity. Snap...looking at the photo he called down with excitement, 'Three eggs!' Very cool. That's a large clutch. Maybe two of those will survive to fledge. Brad then maneuvered back through the dense canopy and we were done for the day.

View from the nest.

Daylight was beginning to wind down for the day. I wanted to push up to look for a campsite. We made our way up another few hundred meters and there was another pair hanging out in a tree. Eventually they flew down to some notch. Not being able to see well I paddled upstream. They were sitting on a cavity. Another hundred meters up was a decent place to camp. As we were moving our gear up I turned back and observed one of the birds entering the cavity. Very cool!

The next morning they were still there. We moved up to Cushtabani and then turned around. All of the nests were still occupied aswe moved downstream. We camped up on a nice slope on the Raspaculo. However, we discovered the next day that I had left my leatherman at the last site and Brad left a sock. We'll see if they're still there the next time we visit the area.

My poor beaten down binoculars; the workhorse (in addition to the kayaks) of this adventure.

The last day started out very nice and scenic. We stopped at a beautiful pool to take it in and listen to some nearby macaws. We then noticed a huge xatero trail, new trash and a couple of recently used campfires. Hmmmm.

Brad and myself taking in a beautiful pool on the Raspaculo Branch.

We paddled down the reservoir and decided to just go for taking out that evening. It was crazy; the wind turned swiftly against us. We paddled into gale force winds. The chop was throwing water into our faces and the wind nearly ripped the paddles out of our hands...it was intense! and exhausting. We passed Rubber Camp on the main part of the reservoir as the light began fading.

Being afraid of missing our pick up, I picked up the pace. Darkness began to descend and the clouds rolled in. Soon we were paddling across the reservoir in complete darkness with only the faint sillouette of the hills sides acting as a directional guide. I paddled into one inlet to find that I had turned in too soon. I pulled out my headlamp and flashed it back towards Brad before continuing on. Soon I could see the shape of an island (now a peninsula in the low water of the dry season) that sits across the Ballerina Rd take out. I flashed my headlamp and Gliss flashed the headlamp from my Jeep. Ah, a sigh of relief. We were out.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Sun's Fury: Macal and Raspa 9-12-Mar

Brad and I had a good but seriously exhausting week paddling 50km on the upper Macal River and Reservoir. The weeks of past overcast skies were long gone and the tropical sun beat down upon us with draining intensity. We made our way down to the Upper Macal via Despair Cairn Road atop Mountain Pine Ridge. Having to stop once to clear a fallen tree from the road we arrived at the drop-off around 10:30am.

Kayaking down the upper Macal.

It started out nice, but things got intense once we needed to visit trees off the river where we had observed macaws inspecting cavities a few weeks prior. Grabbing our machetes, we beat a path through thickets of spiny vines, tangles, and eight feet tall grass as thick as bamboo. All the while, biting horse flies swarmed assaulting our backs. For all that effort, the cavities were not active as yet. We did notice a lot of plumbeous kite pairs along the river and a solitary eagle soaring high above. Another interesting observation was a river otter in the same location as our last visit; must be a den somewhere nearby. All in all, we observed 10 macaws that day and 7 the next.

Chillin' around the campfire.

We chilled in the evenings, setting a campfire the first two nights to ward away the swarms of biting insects. The nights along the river are active. At least three species of frogs calling, the occasional shriek of a night heron, and my favorite, the loud stomping and crashing of a Tapir running by the camp towards the water. Gets your blood going...

While going down the river, we developed a survey method to increase our visibility of the trees beyond the tall riparian vegetation. At each stretch of long pools, we alternated standing on our kayak while the other person towed. So one of us had a great look at the surrounding area. Worked out well. On the shorter stretches we both got up and rowed gondola-style.

While doing this, I was pulling Brad when I noticed something large, dark, and not very rock-like in the water...Tapir! We were able to observe it for 10 minutes and get within 20 feet of it before it lost its cool and barreled off through a fallen trees and blasted into the vegetation.

Baird's Tapir drinking in the middle of the Macal River.

Tapir swimming away from us.

Now in full retreat.

We really hit the reservoir on day 3 and were punished severely by the sun. Having finished all of our water at breakfast, we wanted to wait to get to a spring located a little ways up the Raspaculo Branch; the reservoir water is just nasty. So we made our way down the Macal portion of the reservoir towards the confluence, stopping to check out an areas we saw a pair attempting to locate a cavity. They kept flying back into an areas and were chased away by a pair of Amazon parrots at one point. But we didn't find anything.

We made it to the spring, parched and maybe a little loopy. But it was great. It comes pouring out into a small waterfall, running down these stalactites that you can row under, get showered and fill up your water bottles. Fantastic and refreshing! We retired to a shady spot on the eastern bank for lunch. During this time a pair of macaws flew over the western ridge and landed above us. We wrapped up lunch and paddled away from the bank to observe them. They were perched and doing...nothing...absolutely nothing. After two hours of observation and splitting up, myself under the tree and Brad on the opposite bank, they finally revealed their nest to us in a concealed location on the backside of the tree.

It was too late to try to climb the tree and they were really bothered by us so we went across the river to camp and try again the next day. Along the reservoir, Macal and Raspaculo portions, we observed about 40 macaws that day.

On Friday morning, we headed upstream to check out a couple of nests, one from the previous year and a new one. Both were inactive. During this time, FCD brought some tourists from Blancaneaux Lodge for a tour in their motorboat. All I heard was voices and was wondering who was by our kayaks. We grabbed our machetes and ran down to the river. What a relief! So we all returned to the cavity and they watched as I scaled the tree. No activity. Oh well. We went up to the next nest and while the cavity looked great there was no activity as yet. We observed 11 macaws that day.

We headed back to the active nest and tried...for two hours!...to shoot a line over the fork above the cavity. No luck! The slingshot was just not powerful enough. Our best shots hit the trunk below the fork. Time for an upgrade. So we had to abandon our attempt for the next trip and we began our long exit trip to the take out just above the Chalillo dam.

What an exhausting paddle! The wind was at gale force; nearly ripping the paddle out of our hands. The chop assaulted the bows of our kayaks and water splashed in our faces. Onward we paddled, mile after mile in the waning light. We passed Rubber Camp and Brad was lagging behind. I didn't want our ride to leave without us so I pushed on.

We now paddled in complete darkness. The clouds were set above and the features surrounding the reservoir became alien. Was this the right inlet? Hmmm. I finally reached into my bag and pulled out a headlamp. I shined it back towards Brad so he could see where I was then I pushed forward to the next inlet. Then shined my light. Gliss, one of the FCD rangers, flashed the headlights of the Jeep and called out. We made it! I pulled my kayak out and Brad pulled up about ten minutes later.

Exhausted, we loaded up and changed into dry clothes. Off to the ranger base we went and back to town for a nice shower and a cold one...

Monday, March 8, 2010

To Chiquibul's end...

Brad, Glenn (FCD Ranger), and I headed down the Chiquibul Branch this past week. We originally intended to head down Monkeytail Branch but the condition of the long trail wewould be dragging the kayaks down was unknown. I also needed to survey the Chiquibul Branch and the road to the river was known to be good. So we loaded up that Tuesday morning and began the 2 hour drive to Bordel Camp.

We put in the river after 11am and planned to first head upriver, then head back down past Bordel Camp to Resumadero Camp before doubling back to the put in. However, this quickly changed. We struggled for an hour and a half moving the first 200 meters. It was ridiculous. My GPS screen was smashed, the handle I use to drag the kayak broke, and I lost my pocket knife that my brother gave me years ago.Argggggg!

Yet we pushed on. After more hauling we made it to another short pool. Ahead of us was another small boulder field with water running underneath it. I thought...hmmmm, better scout ahead. I grabbed the paddles and went climbing over the boulders and was disheartened with what I saw. I came back and had the fellas follow me to a vantage point ahead. The boulders were twice as high as those we had been struggling with and the end was not in sight.

The boulder field. My bane!

No more I said. Can't afford to destroy the kayaks and dry bags hauling them through this stuff. So we turned around and began exploring the lower Chiquibul. We passed Bordel Camp and stopped for lunch at the confluence with Smokey Branch. We then pushed up Smokey Branch about 5.5 km. Some good habitat for the first half but then turning into steeper terrain. We heard a single pair flying to the west of us at our camp.

One of many limestone overhangs.

The next day we covered 20km and saw 8 macaws. On the way out of Smokey Branch, the FCD Park Ranger burned 2 xatero camps. At the confluence we continued downstream. I must have flipped over 3 times that day; getting caught up on fallen logs.

The geology of this river is simply amazing. It is by far the most beautiful river that I've been on in Belize. Limestone cliffs, overhangs, and now we encountered a cave perched above the water. Too climb it?....maybe later.

Brad and Glenn head down a small rapid.

Cave perched above the river.

Then we passed through Natural Arch. This thing is huge! With stalactites on the ceiling and dripping with vegetation, it was mesmerizing passing under its eminence.

Charles in front of Natural Arch.

We continued down and about halfway from Natural Arch and Resumadero Camp we heard macaws. 1, 2, 3, 4 pairs of macaws passed overhead. One pair veered off and landed in some trees nearby but out of sight. We headed down a xatero trail and spotted the pair checking out a cavity on a nearby Quamwood tree. We watched them for twenty minutes then thought we heard something messing with out boats! We sprinted back not knowing what or WHO we would find there. But it was nothing...a trick of the mind. The macaws took off, screaming and flying to the east.

Nest Quamwood in center. Can see the red of the macaws if you zoom.

We continued downstream and then the river...stopped. It just pours down a hole and into the earth. Guess we should turn around.

End of Chiquibul Branch.

The next day we passed back through Natural Arch and stopped at the cave. Brad stood up on his kayak and pulled himself up into the cave using an overhanging branch. Guss it's time to man-up. I stood on my kayak. Hopped up and pulled myself up the branch. Way cool! There were Mayan pottery shards and a reinforced wall structure. Pretty cool. The rest of the trip was chill. Oh...besides the hook holding my hauling rope breaking. Had to haul my kayak backwards over the rapids. This is not fun.

Inside the cave.

All in all a good trip. Camped out for a day while awaiting our pick-up. Did a little bird watching and spotted an immature Black Hawk Eagle. Now we just need to find a way to get to the upper Chiquibul Branch.

Immature Black Hawk Eagle.

Taking off in an hour or so to the Chiquibul. Should be revisiting the Upper Macal and start climbing some nest trees. We'll see what happens when we get there!