2012 Scarlet Macaw Protection Documentary

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Ahead of the storm

On the 24th of June, Brad, Ernesto and I headed down for our last visit to Monkeytail Branch. Much to our delight the trail/road from Las Cuevas Research Station to the river was dry and, for once, we weren’t sliding all over the road and worrying about getting stuck in a rut.

Brad and I setting up the new kayak sleds.

After the previous experience with our wheel system, we completely abandoned that for thin sheet metal sleds. These helped keep the kayaks in good shape but the drag produced from them required an exhausting amount of energy to get the kayaks down the valley slope. Panting and aching, I abandoned mine about 100 feet before reaching the river. No more!

We reached the river about the same time that we normally arrive at Las Cuevas. As usual, we just walked in and soaked for a few minutes before taking off. The river was at a nice water level and we quickly gained the first nest before lunch. On our previous visit, there had been zero activity and the nest had suffered from a raptorial predation event. So it was to our surprise that we found both parents present, one in the cavity and one on top, and, what’s more, 3 eggs at the bottom of the cavity! A late, second attempt. If they successfully fledge, we’re looking at late August at the earliest…crazy…hope they make it. Brad continued to take habitat measurements. We then left and moved just down river for lunch.

Of course, at our lunch spot we noticed that both of our kayaks were already developing cracks and taking on water…what’s new?

Three new eggs on the Monkeytail Branch (photo by Brad).

After lunch we moved down to a bend in the river where several nice cavities were spotted. An apparent xatero trail passed through the area so it made walking to the cluster of trees easy. However, spotting the right trees from below the general canopy is a bit tricky. I found what looked to be a nice tree and we shot a line over and I climbed. I was a bit nervous about some of the flies as my mind was intensely nervous following Brad’s bees attack on the previous trip up the Macal River. All went well and the cavity was suitable for comparison. It began sprinkling while up there but the downpour held off until we reached the kayaks.

Brad climbing up the nest on the Monkeytail Branch.

Looking up while hanging from the comparison nest.

As soon as we were moving down the Monkeytail it really began pouring. We knew that a tropical system might be moving in, which can spell disaster in the mountains…floods.

Bilging my kayak in the rain...fun!

After passing the main tributary I needed to pull over and bilge the water out of my kayak. I found a nice bedrock uplift that met my needs well.

Here I am maneuvering through a small channel.

We continued downstream, passing the rock where we encountered the large group of xateros on our prior visit to the Monkeytail Branch. After pushing downstream until 5:30pm, we reached our usual campsite above the confluence with the Raspaculo Branch. After setting up camp we made a ridiculous attempt at starting a cook fire for dinner and, after 45 minutes of futility, settled on cooking with hexamine fuel tablets…much more sensible under those weather conditions. It rained a little during the night but not hard.

View from one of our poached nests on the Raspaculo Branch.

We got a late start the following morning and reached the first of our two poached nests on the upper Raspaculo Branch by 9am. Our objective was to at least get the necessary data from these two nests before having to leave ahead of the potential stormy weather. Brad installed the temperature dataloggers and we headed upstream in search of a comparison nest. In short time we found what appeared to be a suitable tree.

After chopping our way up the steep slope, we reached the floodplain and continued chopping a path through the thick, tall grass and vines. Connecting with Tapir trails, we made it to the tree in about twenty minutes.

We easily shot a line over and I began to ascend through a thick layer of vines covering the bottom of the trunk. After penetrating that thicket, I paused and scanned the tree, for a fourth time, in search of bees. Crap! On a lateral branch a small cavity that I had overlooked was humming with activity. Seeing this, I quickly descended and we abandoned that attempt. Heading upstream, we settled for a cavity on a fig tree along the river.

Base of another poached tree. This on was chopped down.

We then continued upriver to the second poached tree, which had been chopped down a month ago. Along the way we watched on as an iguana dropped out of a tree, attempting to reach the water to flee our presence. It badly misjudged its position and, instead, slammed against the river bank, with a loud “Thwack!,” knocking itself out cold! Soon afterwards we were treated to a nice view of an ornate hawk eagle as it flew in above us with a small iguana in its talons…very cool.

Arriving around a quarter past four, we took measurements of the fallen tree and nest cavity. For comparison, the adjacent tree was perfect and had a couple of cavities. Brad climbed this tree and took measurements. While doing this, he noted that the substrate felt ‘soft’ when sending the tape measure into the cavity. Just before descending, he remembered to take a photo inside of the cavity. Much to his surprise, a raptor was sitting on eggs inside! I later determined it to be a barred forest falcon…very rare and a lucky find.

Nesting barred forest falcon (courtesy of Brad).

After finishing with the comparison nest, we cleared out a small area below the trees for our campsite. I then decided to give Ernesto a call to get a weather update. After a few attempts, I was able to get a hold of him. Between the static, I definitely heard him. “Get out!” “Alex is now a tropical depression”. Wow! It was late, close to 6pm and daylight was fading. I told him we would head downstream until dark, camp and push to get out the next day. We hopped in our kayaks, each holding water, Brad’s had more than mine, and we paddled furiously to try and gain the campsite at the confluence of the Raspaculo and Monkeytail Branches. At least we were heading in the right direction to take advantage of the fading light.

We reached the campsite at dusk and quickly set up camp. After eating dinner, we called it a night rather early. I awoke during the night to hear that the downpour had begun. It rained all night.

Breakfast in the rain, under the shelter of my hammock (photo by Brad).

We arose in the morning to rain and had coffee and breakfast under the cover of our tent hammocks. We then began the long haul downstream to our exit. The rains picked up and up.

Making our way through the downpour of tropical depression Alex.

It now turned into an intense rain, we were lucky to be on the reservoir now and not up the river. We paddled all morning and into the afternoon. Upon reaching the main part of the reservoir, the wind picked up and was blowing into our faces. So now we had to paddle the remaining two hours with the rain in our faces and chop slamming into our bows, spraying water over us…joy.

With relief, Ernesto was at the take out, nervously awaiting our arrival. We quickly loaded up and got out of there. The mountains were getting an intense rain storm and I really wondered what it was going to look like on our next visit to Cushtabani.