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.