2012 Scarlet Macaw Protection Documentary

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Lucky to be alive

Three weeks ago two Guatemalan technicians working for Wildlife Conservation Society visited to conduct a survey of trees surrounding the scarlet macaw nests in Belize. A similar survey was recently conducted in Guatemala. We had a rough start and it really didn't get any better.

Ernesto and I playing in the mud (photo by Brad).

On the 17th of June, we loaded up the Jeep for an early start. Crossing over Mountain Pine Ridge, we headed for the Kinlock Camp Road. The idea was to put in at this new location, providing us with access to the Macal River at a spot closer to where we needed to begin and then we could just work our way downstream. It didn't work out.

Ernesto was driving while I had the GPS hooked up to my laptop to navigate the unsigned roads to Kinlock and down to the river. Everything was going well when we hit a mud spot. The Jeep promptly sunk. Four-wheel drive refused to engage and we quickly were deeply mired down to the frame.

We attempted every type of pushing and lifting, shoving rocks and branches under the tires to no avail. I haven't been that muddy in a long, long time...I might have been ten years old. While looking under the front end, I noticed that two plugs to the front axle shift motor were unplugged. No wonder the four-wheel drive wasn't engaging. Plugged those in and we were able to sink in new ways.

I finally pulled out the come along, a type of winch, and my tow cable...and there were no trees close by...go figure. We had to tie it off to a tree that was nearly perpendicular to the jeep. It was good for about five minutes of revving and winching before it would snap with frightening force and nearly break whoever was working the come along. Then we would have to retie it, each time getting progressively shorter. After about eight hours of this crap we moved the jeep about 7 feet and were still in the mud and out of rope. It was hopeless.

I pulled out my satellite phone and tried to get help from the Forest Dept as well as Friends for Conservation and Development. It was a case of wait and see, wait and see...oh the office is now closed so sorry. In a last ditch effort, I called our friend Emil. He promptly rounded up a vehicle and some friends for the rescue.

While waiting, Ernesto and I took a walk down the remaining to road to see the condition. Hmmm...it was crazy. There is no way the Jeep would have made it...a crazy idea based on the suggestion of someone who had obviously not been there. I was really pissed at myself for following his suggestion instead of going using the roads I know to be good.

Brad, Ernesto, Pancho, and myself eating in the road (photo by Vicky).

We returned to the group and got a fire going on the road for dinner...a little spaghetti. I then brought out the rum and agua de coco to assuage our pain while waiting. It was not two hours when we were all out cold, sleeping in the middle of this far out dirt road to nowhere. I awoke at 8:30pm to Emil walking through our slumbering circle with his headlamp on. What? of cool!

Brad playing with a de-stingered scorpion.

It was not long before we had the chain hooked on from Gonzo's Mitsibishi and we were out. We were now following behind them in the dark. It was difficult to monitor the condition of the road in front of us...and I fell into a HUGE rut! No! We were heading out and home and now I probably killed the Jeep and was really stuck. They hooked the chain back onto the front end and pulled while I floored it. Nothing.

Ernesto and Emil next to the recently rutted Jeep.

I got out and looked under the jeep. I wall of dirt and rock was flush with the front differential. It was not going forward. I had them pull the Mitsubishi behind the Jeep and we were able to back it out. Okay, on the road again. The stress of trying to get the Jeep unstuck all day had caused the radiator to spring a leak. Now overheating. It took three stops of refilling the radiator at creeks to get us back into town...at 2am.

Exhausted, we all crashed, glad to be clean and have a bed under us...what would tomorrow bring?

Zahir Garcia, the smallest member of the research team.

Ernesto and family came over the next morning and we got a late start, leaving around 11am. We headed to the Ballerina Rd put-in, just above the Chalillo dam. It was a longer route, but a sure one. We loaded up the kayaks and hit the water. Vicky's inexperience on the water was apparent as she quickly b-lined towards the shore and beached herself. Unable to free herself, Brad and I retrieved her. There was no time for an hour learning session so we tied her kayak onto the back of my kayak and headed off. She could provide some propulsion but I was going to handle the steering. This worked well. It was a little extra work but more efficient than the alternative. Along the way we had a nice look at a Tapir...a first for Vicky!

Pancho (foreground), Vicky and myself (background) paddling up the reservoir (photo by Brad).

We reached the first nest and was surprised that the veg crew could not collect any data. It was at that point that their methodology became more clear...oh man. These reservoir nests were not going to go well. We then headed up a nest that had been burned by poachers...they set fire to the tree if it's dead in the hopes that the chick will jump out. I am sure that most of the time they just burn to death.
Nest burned to the ground by poachers.

We camped at this spot amongst the dead trees and stumps and continued up the next morning to a nest we had been told was probably poached. While we confirmed this, Vicky and Pancho measured the trees in the area. Sure enough, another poached nest. We then headed up above the reservoir to Kinlock Camp. It was tough work pulling my own kayak along with Vicky's put we switched off and got the work done. We reached there we were shocked that someone had cleared a road through the area...interesting. It was early enough to climb the nest tree before camping. We retrieved the temperature datalogger (which failed due to battery failure, arggghhh!) and collect habitat data.

Nearly ready to fledge chick.

The next morning we headed up to our furthest up nest on the Macal River, about 3km upriver. It didn't seem to take too long to get up there. Brad climbed this tree. We expected the chick, Chicken Little, to be close to fledging. Sure enough, it was, and it was just gorgeous! I could hear it screaming from the ground. Brad then took a few minutes to collect habitat data. After slinging a rope around the tree to measure the circumference of the tree at the nest, he attempted to pull it back around. It got stuck, wedged in the fork of a lateral branch. He pulled and yanked, kicking and slapping the tree several times in the process.

All of a sudden I heard, "Oh god, killer bees!" It was a horrifying feeling. There was nothing I could do down here and Brad was stuck up there. "Cover you face," I yelled. It had already pulled his bandana over his face and was switching over to his descending gear blindfolded (glad we've used this gear for six months already!). I haphazardly threw gear into the dry bag and as soon as he hit the ground I sent him to the river with the bag, still wearing all of the climbing gear.

We were luck...Brad was VERY lucky. The bees called off the attack after he descended. I took a few photographs and pulled the rope down, put it up and walked down to the river. I inspected Brad's head for stingers but he had got them all using the compass mirror. All told was stung about 7-10 times in the face. It was crazy!

The swollen progression of poor Brad.

We headed downriver and I tried to climb a comparison nest. By the time we were set up and heavy downpour began. Not knowing how bad it was going to be, we had to call off the attempt and get downstream. We reached Kinlock Camp and ate lunch while Pancho and Vicky loaded up their kayaks. We then headed back downstream and camped above the confluence with the Raspaculo Branch. It was a beautiful evening. Brad began swelling up and by the following morning his eyes were nearly swollen shut.

Pancho, Vicky and I heading downriver (photo courtesy of Brad).

We stopped at the confluence to attempt to climb a dead stump with a poached nest. The rope kept getting stuck at the top and we could never pull it over the top. We did pull a temperature data logger over the top to at least collect that data.

Think I'm going crazy.

We pushed down the reservoir towards the take out and the last nest. We ran into a Blancaneaux Lodge tour being conducted by FCD and were informed that the pair across from Ballerina Rd were, in fact, using a cavity to the left of the one we had all originally suspected. By this time I was really on edge and mentally and physically exhausted. Pulling two kayaks and gear around all over the place, on top of the normal work, was exhausting. Luckily, by the last day, Vicky was getting the hang of paddling and she did really well paddling the rest of the way down the reservoir solo...way to go Vicky! I was already having reservations about taking them up the Raspaculo to Cushtabani. That's another level or two of distance and intensity. Not to mention that the risk of flash flooding was very real with the onset of the rainy season.

We climbed the nest and I was quite shocked to find three peeping, newborn chicks in the smallest macaw cavity I have ever seen. They barely fit, what was going to happen when they began really growing. Only one was going to make it for sure. Brad and I headed over to the original cavity and climbed that one as a comparison nest. By the time we finished, I was severely dehydrated and worn out and frustrated with the trip. After all of the time with the veg crew, it seems that their methodology which works well in the primary forests in the Maya Biosphere Reserve do not apply to the successional riparian forests where we were working.

We paddled over and loaded up. On the way out, the jeep began hesitating and lugging. I had everyone get out and then Ernesto was able to get the Jeep all the way up to the ridgeline. The rest of us, tired and thirsty, had to stumble and walk up the gravel road to the top. I was pissed. I was tired. And I was ready to go home.

No comments:

Post a Comment