2012 Scarlet Macaw Protection Documentary

Monday, May 31, 2010

Trip up the reservoir

Well the rain has persisted but I think it is beginning to slack off a bit...hope it continues to slacken.

In the meantime, I'm almost a week into my treatments for leishmaniasis. I have the cutaneous form. Left the photos at the house...hope some of you aren't bummed about missing out on those. Only two more days of injections left and then Brad and I can head back upstream.

While making my way through these treatments, Roni Martinez - conservation officer for Blancaneaux Lodge, allowed me to go along with three guests on a 'day with a ranger' tour lead by FCD. These are trips designed to show the lodge guests what it's like to patrol the Chalillo dam reservoir on a motorboat and gives them a chance to see scarlet macaws, tapirs, crocs, and other wildlife. More importantly, it provides the only other monitoring activities out there besides the two gringos kayaking in the Chiquibul. This trip was much easier than kayaking...

Historic nest location that is now active along the Raspaculo.

It ended up being a very productive trip; three new nests were observed, two completely new nest locations and one historic nest that is now active...very cool!

Small, secretive cavity at a new nest location.

We were also able to visit several other nests and most are still active. One we know failed due to one of the parents being shot and the carcass left near the nest...disturbing and sad. This was discovered the week before by FCD staff. The tree was also partially chopped. It was still standing a couple of days ago...very strange.

Dead adult that was shot and the nest tree with chopped buttresses...very sad
(photo courtesy of Lenney Gentle).

We were also able to see that the next nearest tree had two machete chop marks and climbing spike marks, but only about 15 feet above the ground before they stop. The climber must have abandoned the attempt. Can't say I blame him as the tree is dead and leaning over. However, I'm not sure if the nest is still active. If it is then the parents were both away from the nest foraging.

Machete chop marks from a poaching attempt.

After confirming that the rest of the nests were active we headed back to the take out. Overall, it was a good trip and can't wait to get back out there and climb these nest trees.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Rain, rain go away

After spending a week helping the NMSU Belize Field School, Brad and I headed down to the Monkeytail Branch with the help of Kristi and Ernesto. It was nice to get back in the field...or so we were thinking.

After picking up Ernesto we headed over the pine ridge and down through the Chiquibul forest reserve to Las Cuevas research station. From there we tried out the new kayak cart system (Kristi calls this the Yak buggy or yuggy for short). The last visit to Monkeytail was quite a trial. From that experience we decided to avoid dragging our kayaks overland since they take enough of a beating once on the river.

The trip to Las Cuevas was uneventful but that was only the beginning of a very long day. We arrived and were invited to have a cup of coffee and something to eat before heading down the trail. The man in charge, Jimmy Boucher, decided to come out with us and bring his chainsaw. Apparently they had opened up the trail more since our last visit...sweet. We piled into the jeep and headed down Monkeytail trail, sloshing and swerving until finally getting caught up on a large leafcutter ant mound. After unsticking ourselves we made our way to the top of the Monkeytail Branch valley. Time to unload.

Brad and I installing the cart system (photo by Kristi).

Brad and I installed the wheels and began the descent. Everything was going so well until we began hitting the tangles of small vines. It's hard to move forward when ten vines are encircling a wheel...stubborn. I soon developed all sorts of new names for the cart system...even threatened it with my machete at one point.

Brad and I dragging the kayaks down the trail (photo by Kristi).

The short trip was actually exhausting! Pull, pull, chop, pull, chop...grunt/swear. Jimmy was up ahead of us with the chainsaw working on clearing some of the fallen trees. Along the road down we heard three pairs of macaws flying around and making a raucous. One of the pairs I recognized by their distinct calls....interesting.

Brad and I look on as Jimmy cuts up a tree fallen over the trail (photo by Kristi Drexler).

We made it down far enough where we could hear the river roaring...ROARING! Oh man. We hit the side trail and were shocked by the height and current of the river. None of the boulders or uplifted slabs were visible. Just down river the river was spraying up at the first rapid. Hmmm. Guess we'll try it.

Flooded out Monkeytail Branch.

Jimmy departed a little but earlier and were followed by Ernesto and Kristi after we got settled down by the river. About twenty minutes later I decided to paddle across the river to a 'slow' spot and check out the approach to the first set of rapids. Whoa! The current was killer and felt extremely unstable. The slow current was fairly powerful as well. I paddled back across where it seemed tame and hopped out of the kayak to walk back upstream. It ended up taking all of my strength to pull myself upstream using the overhanging branches. Scared me...if it's like this here, what is the Raspaculo going to be like? In fact, 2-3 days of more were predicted so I made the decision to call it off. But Kristi and Ernesto were heading out.

Brad is a runner so I sent him to try to catch them before they cleared Las Cuevas or, at worst, get on the radio at Las Cuevas and have the FCD rangers send them back at the junction before leaving Chiquibul. I thought there might be a good chance that they got stuck at some point; buying Brad a little time.

Ernesto inspecting the stuck in a rut jeep.

As you can see, indeed they got stuck in a nice sized hole. They had to let the jeep cool down while Jimmy ran ahead to get the golf cart to tow them out. Apparently, just after they got unstuck and headed down the road Brad was nearly upon them. He say them as they drove off! and he had to run another mile to Las Cuevas. Luckily they were still there.

Potential new nest along the Monkeytail trail.

While Brad was gone I decided to head up the road and check out a decent-looking cavity. So I hiked up the road. I reached the cavity and noticed something dark inside it. Suddenly a long, lanky, streaky bird flew out and away...hmmm. Then a macaw pair flew in and one perched above and the other perched atop the cavity. It continually looked into and worked around the cavity but would never enter the cavity. It flew off but quickly returned and attended the cavity entrance for twenty to thirty minutes.

Wicked-looking caterpillar.

I headed back down the road to check on the boats and grab a snack. After chilling there for a few minutes I hiked back up to the cavity. Nearing the nest, I heard the macaws screaming and moving away. Upon arrival I was surprised to see, perched above the cavity, a Black Hawk-Eagle. It spotted me and quickly retreated. All very interesting. It might have tried to go after one of the macaws as a prey item.

I then decided to hike a little further up where we first observed macaws in the area. Nearing that location I heard the low rumble of the jeep...YES! Way to go Brad!

Kristi stayed at Las Cuevas and the cook came along with Ernesto and Brad to help haul gear up out of the valley. They also brought some much needed lunch. The guys at Las Cuevas rock! I repaired the front rack (which had been ripped off by a branch when coming back in) while they all headed down. We then had the laborious task of hauling all of the bags and kayaks up the road to the jeep...exhausting! But we did it in good time.

Brad, Jimmy and I doing the kayak train to haul the kayaks up the road.

Now the fun begins...driving back out of the slippery, muddy and, now, heavily rutted road. It was crazy. Only got stuck once and not bad. But I swear I was only driving the jeep straight down the road about half the time. Mainly fishtailing and swerving...barely missing trees, stumps and massive holes. Crazy. Meanwhile, Brad was in the back holding the chainsaw...yikes!

We made it back and enjoyed a cup of coffee before heading out as darkness approached. Glad to make it out but kinda bummed that we had to delay our nest visits. Oh well, can't defy mother nature.

Getting caught up on some much-needed jeep maintenance and looks like I'm heading to Melchor, Guatemala tomorrow for some heavy metal injections...on my birthday! Yes...going to feel like crap. Just got the positive diagnosis on the leishmaniasis. It's for real and it's eating my leg! Time to get rid of this and get back on the river.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Chicken Little and tha gang

After an entertaining night hanging out at Barton Creek Outpost we headed back to the Chiquibul last Friday. Christina, one of the volunteers at the Outpost went with us to see the upper Macal River. We turned off at the road to 1000ft Falls and made our way over Mountain Pine Ridge and down into the Macal River Valley, but not after making at least one wrong turn. We reached the river a little before noon and immediately had a raucous flock of 25 macaws upstream from us in a couple of trees. Some seemed to be harassing the oropendolas in one of the trees. There was a lot of wing displaying, preening, etc happening. At one point a pair flew down to a cavity and began dipping into it. We had seen this before at some other cavities, but they never followed up with nesting in those cavities.

Macaws dipped into a cavity and it turns out they were thirsty.

After Kristi and Christina took off Brad and I headed upstream to that tree and I climbed it to examine the cavity. After reaching the cavity I peered in and was excited to finally figure out what it was that they were up to…drinking water. More like a tea considering the amount of leafy material in there. That makes a lot of sense. They don’t descend to the rivers to drink and they need to get it somewhere…very interesting.

Brad watching macaws forage on Gumbolimbo fruits.

We headed downstream until finding a camp in the evening, but not before getting to watch a flock feeding on dried Gumbolimbo (Bursera simaruba) fruits.

Arose at 5:15am the next morning and enjoyed a slow morning of coffee next to the running water, rippling reflections and morning bird chorus. We could hear macaws calling downstream from us.

Tapir swimming across the river.

Continued downstream to begin monitoring nests. Saw two tapirs and heard a third. Also, had great looks of an Agami Heron in the riparian vegetation overhanging the river. We reached the first nest around one in the afternoon. It took a little while to get the rope up over the tree but we got it and I ascended to the nest. Both parents were present and the female was in the nest. They flew to a tree nearby to watch and occasionally voice their opinion of our activities. One chick was present in the nest with feathers beginning to emerge. It was interesting trying to pull it out. There was some resistance but the little macaw was not able to do much. I finally had to grab it using the bag. I told Brad later that it feels like holding a small chicken, so I named it Chicken Little. I lowered it to Brad and could hear it calling while he measured and banded it. While he worked up the chick I installed temperature dataloggers. After the work-up, I placed the chick back in the nest and we headed out of there.

Her e I am retrieving a macaw chick.

The chick I called Chicken Little. Brad placed a band on it. Might be the first banded macaw in Belize?

It turned out to be a hot day as we moved down river and had to take the occasional dip in the water. The breeze picked up in the afternoon…always welcome. As we neared the next nest evening was rapidly approaching. So we set up camp about 100m upstream under the canopy in an old campsite of ours. Enjoyed a nice evening although it was a little warmer than the previous night. As evening descended lots of Mealy Parrots flocked around and were making a racket. Could also hear macaws just downstream, which had us excited about the next day.

Awoke the morning of the 9th with a chill in the air. It was much colder last night and I had to get into my sleeping bag and zip it up. A fog was blanketing the area giving it a surreal feeling.

We were leaving camp after breakfast when Brad noticed that his kayak was taking on water. Man! Another leak. These rivers are just tearing the boats up on each trip now…just going to be one gigantic patch by the end. We pulled up to the take out for the nest and had to re-clear some parts of our trail on the way in. We lost a nut we were using to shoot the line over. Brad dug into the bag to retrieve another and that’s when I realized that I had forgotten to buy more of them. Uh oh. I headed down to the river and scavenged for some ‘appropriate’ river stones. They worked great. Shot the line over and Brad headed up.

Brad climbed up to this nest and found that the chick and eggs had been predated.

He made it up to the nest to find that the chick and eggs had been predated. The eggs were crushed and there were remnants of yolks on the lower lip of the entrance. Since we were there, Brad installed the temperature loggers and we collected habitat data. Brad descended and we were just putting our gear into the bags when I heard voices and chopping no more than one hundred feet from us….xateros! I hastily threw everything in the dry bags and headed back to the kayaks at quick clip. They were moving in the same direction as us so I spoke to Brad loudly with the hopes that the xateros would pause long enough for us to get down there first. It worked! We threw our bags on board and paddled downstream. About 100m down I turned around and there they were; two guys standing in the middle of the river watching us watch them. I waved and they waved back. We continued on and I occasionally looked back. They watched us until we were out of sight. They might have been xateros from a legal concession on the pine ridge but they shouldn’t be harvesting xate in the Chiquibul National Park (which is where they were coming from).

Two perspectives of Brad's descent to madness...or the ground.

After a bit we had to stop and bilge Brad’s kayak…here we go again. The river is low and we’re constantly dragging so it’ll only get worse and we can’t attempt a repair until we get to flat water on the reservoir. In addition, my feet are beginning to fall apart again…river rot. Brad’s are in better shape than mine. It’s not bad yet but we both know what it can turn into and it can happen quickly. I switched over to going barefoot and just wearing my crocs.

We were both amazed at just how low the reservoir was getting. Silt was getting washed away exposing cobble. Little falls and riffles were abundant instead of nonexistent. Ignoring the desolation of the reservoir banks, I could imagine what the river used to look like. Along the way we had excellent looks at King Vultures, including a juvenile which was a first for me.

An adult and juvenile King Vulture.

We approached an area on the reservoir with lots of macaw activity on previous trips. Again there were some pairs socializing and feeding. A little further down we were paddling and observing when Brad spotted a female sticking out of a cavity…score! One for Brad. We grabbed our gear and hustled over to the nest. Hmmmm…there was a thick layer of basket vine surrounding the bottom half of the trunk. Good protection with all of those nasty spines. Again, it took a while to get the line over. Lost our last good stone and had to try using little pieces of slate stone (light weight and flaky). But we got it over. Brad had to pull the line over as I ascended in order to help me avoid impaling myself on the nasty vines. I reached the nest and found it occupied by two sleeping chicks; one 10 days old and the other about 15 days old; too young to band.

Here I am next to a new nest with two chicks. Brad measured

one chick and determined that it was too small to band.

We packed up and headed down the reservoir. Didn’t get to far…Brad’s boat was so full of water it was practically capsizing! We were 200m downstream when we had to pull over and camp but not before a futile attempt to pull Brad’s boat out to bilge. It weighed so much that the back handle ripped off in the attempt to pull it out. We were able to bilge enough to move a little further down to a shallower bank. We decided to camp on the desolate flat in order to repair the kayak. We pulled the kayaks out of the water, bilged Brad’s kayak and began to set up camp. It’s interesting camping with hammocks on the ground. Threw down a tarp and used sticks to prop up the ends of the hammocks.

I went down and put a patch on Brad’s kayak and then we cooked dinner over a small campfire. The good thing about the desolate flat was no flies or ticks. Again, we had an amazing evening of stargazing; 5 shooting stars as well.

Awoke at 5am the following morning to a chorus of mealy parrots, macaws, chachalacas, guans, egrets, herons, woodpeckers and toucans. Headed down to the next nest on the reservoir and found the parents in attendance. We were now going to try out the pole-camera monitoring system. The parents flew to some nearby trees to watch our fiasco unfold. After several attempts at getting the length of the pole correct, the housing hit a lateral branch, snapped off and plummeted, with Brad’s camera, some forty feet to the ground exploding on impact. The housing was trashed. Hmmm…guess that’s that. That sums up an hour of effort into a few depressing sentences.

We spent the rest of the day checking to see if two other nests were active, which they were, and getting off the reservoir due to the leaky kayak. I had to shake myself out of a state of depression and move on. A few hours of jovial fellowship did the trick.

Followed a tapir across the reservoir to the Mountain Pine Ridge side.

We arrived in the late afternoon and headed directly to the upper reach of a nearby stream for fresh cold water and shade. Relaxed there for a while and then set up camp. The evening approached and we went for a walk down to a peninsula to watch a flock of macaws across the reservoir. Spooked a few white-tailed deer. Headed back to camp and enjoyed a relaxing evening under the pines and stars.

We had most of the next day to kill before our scheduled pick up. Spent time mending some holes in pants and patching up holes in dry bags. Now what to do? This project keeps me so busy that I rarely have idle time during the day. In Belize, slate carving is a big sell with the tourists and the area surrounding the camp is loaded with slate. So Brad and I collected various sizes of slate and took them back to camp. I ended up carving two pieces; one of a macaw sticking out of a nest cavity and the other of a perched macaw. Turned out well for a first attempt.

We tried our hand at slate carving. Here is my nesting macaw. Brad is working on a Tapir.

Kristi made the long journey down from La Milpa field station in the northern part of the country to come out and pick us up. Being exhausted by the time she reached San Ignacio, my friend Ernest Garcia and his family drove the Jeep out to the reservoir to get us. We took them to the stream where the kids played in the waterfall. Then we walked down to the reservoir and showed them crocodile footprints. Afterwards, we loaded up the kayaks and headed back to town. Only Ernesto had been out there so it was nice for the family to see the reservoir and the edge of the Chiquibul; few Belizeans ever get back there and have no idea what it looks like.

The Garcia family: Zahir, Elenita, Ernesto, Nicole, and Selena.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Overnight on Chiquibul Branch

Playing catch-up once again on the blog. Sooo much to do between field visits.

One the 1st of May, Kristi drove us down to the Chiquibul Branch. We picked up two FCD rangers (Larry and Quiros) to help provide an escort. It takes one and a half hours to drive from where we live in San Ignacio to the ranger base located on the north end of the Chiquibul Forest. It then takes an additional hour and a half of driving down some fairly gnarled roads to reach the Chiquibul Branch. We usually put in at a historic camp called Bordel Camp which is now being used by gold miners. We then have to kayak downstream to visit the one nest we’ve found along this river. However, on this trip we decided to cut off some time and put in at Natural Arch due to recent road improvements (mainly due to the road finally drying up as we reach the heart of the dry season).

Driving down to the Natural Arch

The trip in was great. We saw curassows and macaws foraging at Christina Camp. But then as we got closer to Natural Arch the jeep began to exhibit some problems operating at low speeds. Mainly there was a rubbing vibration. Couldn’t find any obvious cause to the problem. I had nailed a couple of good rocks the road. On top of that, the starter had begun to act up.

Facing a dilemma of whether to head out or do the field work.

After navigating the last part of the road, which was somewhat tricky with serious jeep-eating ruts that are difficult to see in the tall grass (that’s when having the rangers helped A LOT as they knew where to drive), we ascended a steep rocky incline and parked atop Natural Arch. Now the dilemma. We are way back in the Chiquibul and we’re going to need an extraction the next day using the jeep. The rangers don’t have a reliable vehicle, much less the authorization from my on and off again collaborators, to come get us. On top of that, the radio communication is bad back there and I was worried about the Jeep breaking down and leaving Kristi stranded out there (granted the rangers were there but still…). After agonizing for 10 minutes I decided to go for it.

Larry and myself carrying down a kayak to the river.

Kristi and the Rangers assisted with carrying our bags and kayaks down the steep trail to the base of the arch. This was Kristi’s first visit to Natural Arch so that was cool; it’s such an amazing feature. After a few minutes of arranging gear and saying our goodbyes we heading downstream.

Brad and I getting our gear in order (photo by Kristi Drexler).

On the way down we pulled up right next to a Tapir and spooked it causing it to bolt through the near shore. Also had our first Morelet's crocodile on the Chiquibul Branch at the same spot.

The nest tree at the top of a dead Ceiba.

We reached the nest by 1pm and made our way to the nest, bags and machetes in hand. As we approached, the female climbed out to observe us. Our planned strategy was going to be to climb up the back side utilizing the one live branch left on the tree. However, upon arriving we were shocked to see the live branch and that back section of the tree had torn away from the tree and plummeted. Shoot! Unlike last time, the female took off and watched us with concern from a distance. The egg(s) must have hatched.

Now the nest entrance is at the top of this massive Ceiba stump and is facing up. There are no branches above it to shoot a line over. The hardest problem was the height of the tree and weakness of the slingshot. I just couldn’t get a line over the top. We finally had to settle for shooting it over a lower lateral branch. It was snug against the trunk but the day was extremely windy so I was a bit nervous about climbing this tree. After tying the rope off I ‘geared up’ and began the slow, careful ascent. Upon reaching the highest point possible, I could plainly see that there was no way to continue the ascent and access the nest. Had to descend. We know that it’s active but have no idea about the status of the chicks…so frustrating!

We made it back up to Natural Arch and spent a beautiful evening and night camping just below the Natural Arch. We stayed up late relaxing in the coolness of the night. The stars were amazing; we could even see a few peeking under the arch.

The Natural Arch from our campsite.

Brad writing in his journal at camp.

The next morning we continued upstream towards Bordel Camp. Made a side trip up Smokey Branch for half a kilometer but no activity. An interesting area this lower Chiquibul Branch is. One nest but no additional macaw activity…none. Reached the camp well before the anticipated pick up time so we relaxed in the river even getting in a short nap while half submerged. Occasionally would watch the small tetras, swordtails and two-spot live bearers swimming me.

Napping at the take out (photo by Brad Westrich).

Kristi arrived in the afternoon bearing BBQ and cold beer. Kristi rocks! Relaxed for a bit before heading out of the Chiquibul. Stayed the night on the way back to town at Barton Creek Outpost to hang out with our friends (and long lost relatives…very long lost) Jim and Jackie Britt. Such a good feel to the place…very chill. A good end to the trip.

Myself, Kristi, Larry, Quiros and Brad at the take out.

After the trip we headed to the Mennonite village of Spanish Lookout to have my Jeep further Belizeanized. Good-bye Catalytic Converter. They don't last long down here...

Getting the catalytic converter removed in Spanish Lookout (photo by Kristi Drexler).