2012 Scarlet Macaw Protection Documentary

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Macaw marathon

Kristi, Ernesto, Brad and I headed out last Thursday to the Monkeytail Branch via Las Cuevas Research Station. As usual, the roads proved exciting and we briefly got stuck in one rut.

After dropping into the top of the river valley we unloaded the gear and headed down the trail with the kayaks on the 'yak cart' system. I went maybe two hundred feet down the road when the back left wheel fell off. Kristi put the wheel back on and within a hundred feet the wheel fell off again. Then again! Then both back wheels. This second attempt with the cart system was an utter failure and we abandoned the wheels and returned to dragging the kayaks. It takes a toll but it SO much faster and easier...especially downhill. No vines getting stuck on the axles or wheels getting jammed on small logs.

We reached the bottom to find the river at a nice level and moving at a non-terrifying speed. After enjoying a dip in the river with Kristi we ate lunch. We relaxed for a few before Ernesto and Kristi had to extract themselves from the Chiquibul and Brad and I headed downstream.

Within an hour we reached our only nest along the Monkeytail. We shot the line over and up Brad went to check the nest and retrieve the temperature loggers. As Brad ascended, I pulled on the rope to help him maneuver around some vine. In the process a dead branch dislodged and dropped. I never heard this and looked up just in time for it to smack my cheek...right below my eye!

Here I am with a nice shiner emerging.

The nest was empty and we thought that despite previous activity on the past two trips, there must be something wrong with the site. However, after the trip we were able to get better looks at the photos into the cavity and noticed macaw and raptor feathers in the cavity. Maybe there was some sort of struggle from a predation attempt. I now think that the nest cavity itself was suitable but that a predatory bird cut the breeding cycle short.

We paddled the rest of the afternoon, enjoying the fact that we weren't struggling with a sinking kayak or boulder fields. Smooth sailing...until we came around the bend. A large group of young xateros were relaxing on the bedrock apparently after bathing following a day's work. Two of them bolted into the jungle upon our arrival. 'No problema, no problema!,' I called out. I briefly explained our business as we passed by. The rest of them were uneasy but had calmed down so we passed without incident.

We traveled another km or so down the river before reaching a previously used campsite. We set up and bathed before relaxing for the evening...what a start!

Macaw pair courtesy of Brad.

We continued downstream the next morning...early...quickly reaching the confluence of the Raspaculo Branch and heading upstream. By 7:30am we reached our first nest. We unloaded our gear and went up to the nest tree only to find fresh climbing spike marks. I climbed up and confirmed that, indeed, no chicks were present and the nesting attempt had failed.

Here I am estimating canopy cover from the nest.
View down the river from the nest entrance.

We continued upstream, pushing hard against the fast current...bend after bend...km after km. I noticed that we were getting close to the next nest but both of us sensed that something wasn't right. Where was the nest tree. There was one with a cavity near the river but it didn't seem quite as it should. As Brad paddled up ahead he noticed the tree lying behind the riparian vegetation and stretching out to the river.

Poached tree chopped down.

Those poachers cut down the tree and then hacked a hole into the backside of the nest to reach the chicks...if they survived the fall. It was awful. Another great nest site gone...forever.

Cavity chopped into from the backside of the tree.

We headed upriver, we passed the former xatero camp, now reduced to a tangle of logs and vines. I was a bit nervous and was relieved to see this area uninhabited. Although, they might have been the ones that poached the nests on the way out...maybe.

Brad stapling a temperature datalogger into a nest.

We paddled hard and approached the southern tributary where we always find pairs feeding and socializing. They didn't disappoint. We even recognized a pair from their distinctive calls. Not far up I spotted a macaw head sticking out of a cavity. Yes! As we observed the other parent flew in and soon they were both on the cavity entrance. New nest...but it was late in the day so I decided to check it on the way back downstream and instead begin to look for a campsite over the next hour before the sun went down.

Macaw pair attempting a second clutch.

We looked and looked but of course that is when the terrain is either too steep and vegetation too thick or you are in a floodplain. So we kept going and going. Then I spotted a nice 'shelf' on the edge of a floodplain and hill. We paddled to the shore and pulled our kayaks up onto a bank. I grabbed my machete and chopped my way uphill to the shelf. Near the top I suddenly encountered a well-used trail. A few feet further was a large clearing with a recently-abandoned camp. It was like encountering a small trash dump in the middle of paradise...very weird and creepy. The hut was still there with a tarp on it. I didn't stay to investigate but instead got the hell out of there and informed Brad before we made a hasty retreat into our kayaks and upstream.

Relaxing at camp (photo courtesy of Brad).

We finally found a decent camp up a moderate slope below a small rapid. As Brad shuttled gear up the slope, I began to clear the campsite. We soon had it set up and were back down in the river getting cleaned up before relaxing and having dinner.

The following morning we headed up to Cushtabani, the terminus of our upstream paddling and the residence of three nests. We stopped at the first one to find it abandoned and failed, apparently from predation. We skipped the middle one and continued to the farthest nest in order to find a good lunch spot. We were absolutely famished!

Angry macaw chick.

I climbed the next nest. What an exhausting tree. The bottom half is covered in a tangled thicket of vines. Brad had to use all of his strength to pull me to the side of the vines as I ascended, which is really hard to do with diagonal tension on the rope! I was whipped before I reached the halfway point. After several breaks I reached the cavity and put my hand on the entrance lip. Just as I pulled my face close to the nest entrance a large, nearly fully mature chick lunged at me! It hissed and snapped...reflexes took over and I let go! I then swung back over and snapped a few photos. Two fully grown chicks! Yes!!! There wasn't enough room to install the temperature logger in there so they will need to wait for the next visit.

Wary macaw chick.

We packed up, fell into the river for a few minutes and chugged a liter of water before heading back to the second nest. Brad climbed this one...straight through the vines. At the top he stretched his arm into the cavity entrance and heard something scratching up to the entrance. A large chick was trying to go after his hand as he took photos of the two chicks in the nest. Looks like we're having some success at the top of the Raspaculo Branch.

Brad taking a photo into a nest cavity.

We stumbled back to the kayaks and, again, submerged ourselves into the river. Then the race against daylight was on. We wanted to make it back to the previous camp. We pushed hard and made it just before dark.

The next morning we began the much more enjoyable trip DOWNSRTREAM. We stopped at the nest we skipped a day and a half before. The parents were nearby but not at the nest. I climbed this one but there were no eggs or chicks in the nest...weird. I collected habitat data and installed temperature dataloggers before descending.

View into a deep nest cavity.

After reaching the ground, Brad noticed two broken eggs below the nest. One of them was empty but the other had a nearly full grown embryo and it wasn't more than a day old. This nest failed between the time we spotted it and when we returned...sadness. We collected habitat data and moved downstream.

Dead embryo below the nest.

We made it past the confluence with Monkeytail Branch and camped for the night near the river. A starry night was welcome and a nice breeze kept us cool as night came upon us. The next morning we quickly reached the nest at Codd's Camp. Luckily, an apparent poaching attempt had failed and the chopping on the tree didn't deter the macaws from continuing to nest.

Poaching footholds cut into the buttress.

Attempt by poachers to chop down the tree.

We headed down to the next two nests.

Macaw pair attending their nest.

The first one had obviously been climbed in the past few days but the nest only had eggs so they left it, probably to return another days.

Two macaw eggs.

View from the nest.

Around the next bend we found a similar story. Poachers had climbed and even left trash at the site. After multiple attempts at shooting a line over, at a steep angle that had the metal ammo plummeting down upon us on repeated attempts, I got the line over an ascended.

More damage by poachers.

The parents sat nearby and screamed on occasion. I was pleasantly surprised to find four eggs in the nest. After seeing this I quickly installed a temperature logger and descended.

Four eggs.

But not before taking a few photos of the parents...

Parent at the nest.

Parents at nest, watching me.

Here I am feeling a bit tired.

We were both physically and mentally, and emotionally drained...the sun was beating down upon us with no relieve to be found on the reservoir. We paddled somewhat lethargically down to the spring at the confluence with the Macal. After pulling up under the waterfall there and getting a refreshing 'shower' and filling up with water we decided to forgo camping and the spring and heading for Ballerina for the night. Then we would only have to paddle to the opposite bank in the morning to check out that nest and call it a trip.

It worked well, with the wind to our back and good company to make the arduous trip a bit more enjoyable. It's funny to see us crossing the reservoir during the afternoon...all covered up with bandanas, etc. Look like banditos.

We enjoyed a nice evening and a relaxing morning the next day before heading over to the nest. It was just a rediculous time getting the line over the tree. After we finally did, Brad got nailed in the back by a falling branch. But we were successful in getting the rope secured in a good spot and Brad climbed up. Despite the recent activity and the presence of a lot of feathers in the area, the nest lacked any young.

Brad at the nest across from Ballerina Rd.

We paddled back across and relaxed for an hour before getting picked up by Ernesto and our friend Carlos. A hell of a long journey, with much sadness, but it was good to FINALLY get back to Cuishtabani.

Now on to Chiquibul Branch...

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