2012 Scarlet Macaw Protection Documentary

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Mosquito hell at La Corona

This is well overdue and will just be photos, but this was from the final field visit to the Maya Biosphere Reserve in 2010. The final days of field work. Thanks to all of my friends at Wildlife Conservation Society for their help and for their efforts at protecting the amazing species in that region.

Back to Guatemala: Good friends and lots of mud

On the 13th of July, Brad and I headed back to Guatemala begin the last stretch of field work. We arrived in Flores in the afternoon and strolled around in the cool of the evening.

We awoke the next morning and readied ourselves for a trip to El Burral, an important area for nesting macaws in the Parque Nacional Laguna del Tigre. The plan was to leave at 8am so at seven Brad and I loaded up and we going to cruise over to a breakfast joint on the opposite side of the island near the Wildlife Conservation Society office. Got into the car, put in the key and...nothing. Engine turned but no spark. Great! We were going to drive this out to Paso Caballo, a mayan village just inside the park.

We went ahead and ate breakfast and then met up with Pancho at the office when eight o'clock rolled around. Thus we began the two hour process of getting various mechanics to check it out. Finally, a guy with a scanner was going to swing by and read the computer. We waited and waited. Finally had one of the fellas from the office tow us to the mechanic. Got there and it fired up immediately...what a waste of time. Something loose but who knows what or where.

Lunch, groceries, beer and off we went...

We reached Paso Caballo by mid-afternoon and transferred all of the gear into a nice, older Toyota Hilux (like a Tacoma) with really nice clearance. The

Monday, July 12, 2010

Last trip in Belize, now back to Guate...

Brad and I headed back to the Chiquibul one last time. This past Friday, we loaded up early in the morning and headed out for two days of work on the reservoir. We started out by heading across the reservoir, opposite of the put-in at Ballerina Rd, to check on an apparent macaw nest. This was the smallest cavity nest that we had observed.

We paddled over there and I quickly scaled the tree and could hear the hissing of a chick. A foul odor wafted from the nest. The lighting is terrible and I cannot get a camera in there to take a photograph. Hmmm. However, I was able to enough of the chick to instantly recognize that this was NOT a macaw chick. It had developed enough in the past two weeks to obviously be a raptor...and then a bat falcon flew in and perched nearby. Okay, I get it. Last time, two macaws were perched nearby but this was just out of curiosity.

Nest cam on the reservoir.

I climbed down and we headed up the reservoir to get some real work done. One and a half hours later, we were up at the Macal/Raspaculo confluence and made our way over to the nest where the macaw had been shot. We had yet to be able to get an idea of the cavity structure of this nest. With the reservoir almost full, the tree was halfway submerged and we were able to use an extension pole with a homemade PVC camera rig to retrieve our temperature logger and take a video of the nest interior. And it worked! Finally!

Brad beneath one of the unclimbable, dead nest trees.

We then headed up to the next nest, quickly collected habitat data, and moved up to the poached nest at Francelia Line. We reached the nest and set the rope up. Brad was just about to climb the nest when I heard a loud 'whoop'. "What was that," I thought to myself. Brad was in the process of putting the climbing gear on, so I grabbed his machete and went back down to the kayaks. I scanned the reservoir and then spotted three guys standing on the opposite bank, about 200m downstream...xateros. Okay, it'll take them a bit to cross so no real worries, but were they communicating with someone on our side of the reservoir? That was my concern. I never heard a reply.

Since no threat was imminent, Brad quickly scaled the tree to retrieve the temperature dataloggers while I maintained a vigil watch on our friends across the water. So I watched them watch me. Soon Brad was coming down and needed assistance maneuvering around some vines. I helped move him around them and then returned to my position...they were gone.

We were soon back in out kayaks and heading back downstream. We rested about 400m downstream for a quick lunch in the middle of the reservoir and then made our way to the confluence.
One of the never-used artificial nest boxes installed as part of the Chalillo dam
environmental mitigation.

It was time to switch gears and begin visiting artificial nest sites for habitat comparison. At the confluence were two of these. We measured the first one near the water's edge and then penetrated the forest to access the second one. Upon arriving, we were shocked to stumble into the recent remains of a xatero camp. It would be our luck to have another close encounter.Abandoned xatero camp at the Macal River/Raspaculo Branch confluence.

We then headed up past the spring and up to a second set of artificial nests. Once again, xatero camps and trails...these guys own this place! It was getting late so we needed to head back down to the spring in order to camp for the night.

As we approached the last bend before the spring, Brad saw and heard splashing...Tapir? Nope...four xateros bathing in the reservoir. They saw us and bolted; four naked Guatemalans running for the safety of the forest from us, the big, bad gringos. It was kinda funny until we had to change our camping arrangements. Instead of relaxing for the evening, we now had to continue paddling all the way back to the confluence and beyond to camp on the Pine Ridge side of the reservoir.

We were set up at dark and relaxed for dinner.

It rained for much of the night and I arose early to get coffee going. We were on the reservoir by 6:30am and heading back to the confluence. We went back up the Raspaculo Branch in search of artificial nest boxes. We spent the morning and early afternoon bushwhacking our way around the edges of the river and by noon were heading back downstream.

As we paddled downstream, dark, ominous clouds pushed in from the south, sounding out loud claps of thunder and flashes of lightning. Close and closer, they finally reached us and a wall of rain passed over...cold, giant drops pounded us. We fought through it and by the time we reached the main part of the reservoir it finally began to lighten up. It was good timing because we were reaching the last of the artificial nests.

We quickly took habitat measurements, in pain now as my feet were now beginning to deteriorate with the hellish river rot that we cannot seem to escape from, regardless of the type of footwear and rigorous nightly cleaning. It's just painful.
The last kayak bilging for Brad.

We made our way to the Ballerina Rd take-out, reflecting on this project and the unreal nature of it and the fact that we had completed out season in the Chiquibul. Words really cannot describe this experience.

It was the most amazing place I have worked...it gave to me and it took away...I walk away a changed person.

Our fond farewell to the reservoir...one hell of a ride.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

One last trip to Cushtabani...bittersweet

This past week, the weather cleared up, and we headed back out for our final trip to Cushtabani on the Raspaculo Branch. On the 1st of July, we began the day in search of a new oxygen sensor for the Jeep. I finally had to settle pulling one off a junked jeep and installing it. Guess the best way to test it is to head out to the field. We reached the Ballerina Rd put-in around 11am and were amazed at how much the reservoir had filled up from tropical depression Alex!

Ernesto and me at the Ballerina Rd put-in. The reservoir it much more full following
Tropical Depression Alex (photo courtesy of Brad).

We put in and began the furious paddle up the reservoir. Of course the wind was against us, as it generally seems to be. Along the way, we paused to observe the status of 4 nests on the Raspaculo. Only one appeared to be active. There seemed to b an uptick in the abundance of macaw pairs moving around and perching in the area. Leks of Pieridae butterflies were all over, sitting on log flotillas, and exploding into a swirl of yellow, green, and white which also shimmered in reflections upon the water…just magical.

On the reservoir again...

Drinking from the 'tap'.

We reached the confluence with Monkeytail Branch, and, to our shock, we could see how high the water level had reached the week before as a result of tropical depression Alex. The water level had reached about 6 or so feet above the current level, bending the vegetation over and depositing debris all over the place. Glad we had outrun that! It was late and we were exhausted, so after a quick meal we rapidly found our hammocks and were asleep by a quarter after eight.

The following morning, we arose after 10 hours of sleep and hit the river after breakfast. Not long after beginning, we stopped at a nest where a temperature logger had failed. Here we installed a new logger to record temperature for a couple of days while we continued upriver.

Here I am paddling back up the Raspaculo Branch.

We pushed really hard, all day, only pausing briefly for lunch. Along the way, we encountered more swirls of butterflies, a couple of tapirs and several nice-sized crocodiles. One of the tapirs slowly ambled past us and headed downstream, walking along the river bottom and coming up for air from time to time. We observed several pairs of macaws around a large tributary coming in from the south. Around mid-afternoon, the clouds began to darken and rumble…oh man. I began to get nervous as the rain came down. Now we were way up here and committed. It wasn’t a downpour so we would not be deterred from our goal. The rain ceased after ten minutes and I was now very confident that we would reach our goal.

We had to pull our kayaks over a few strong currents and waterfalls. I really did a number on my ankles while traversing one set of rapids; my curses of pain getting drowned out by the roar of the water. By 4pm we were reaching the final few bends in the river.

It was amazing that we made it all the way up to Cushtabani. We still had a little time for work.

Brad up at a nest near Cushtabani.

Brad headed up the nest tree found adjacent to our campsite and installed temperature loggers. The two chicks had fledged! Yes! We then collected habitat data for the nest site.

The soupy mess after the rains. But the chicks had fledged...Yes!

Heading to camp and dragging our gear up to the campsite, we called it a day, a long and tiring day. Lazy eyes claimed the night early on and, again, it was only a little after 8pm before the night’s slumber began.

We arose the next morning tired and sore but ready to get to work. We installed another set of temperature loggers and collected habitat data, then kayaked to another nest and removed a set. While attempting to remove the set, I quickly pulled the outside loggers. Then I looked inside but heard something bumping around in there and some chirping. I couldn't see anything so I took a few pictures...bats roosting in the top! Very cool. Several empty nests on this trip now had bats. I then pulled out the mesh holding the inside loggers...empty! Where was the logger? I felt around, took some photos and eventually began pulling out handfuls of roach-filled clumps of detritus. On the third handful, I found it...yes!

Bats roosting in an empty macaw nest.

We then tried several trees for comparison and struck out each time. Cavities that looked good from the ground ended up only being a few inches deep. What an incredible amount of work for nothing!

We traveled upstream against some really intense currents and were able to find a couple of decent looking trees. An Ornate Hawk Eagle was perched nearby, a good omen. I climbed the first one and it was good. While measuring, I heard more bat chirping. After coming down from that nest we chopped our way over to another tree with a probable cavity. Alas, the only good fork to shoot a line over was way above the range of my slingshot...bummer!

We headed back downstream and to our delight, an otter had its head poking out of the water and then quickly dove and disappeared. It was our first otter in a couple of months. We also spotted a nice-sized croc sliding backwards down a bank and into a nice pool.

Near camp, we went to the nearby nest and pulled down the loggers (we devised a string system that would save us the hassle of climbing back up for the sole purpose of reclaiming the dataloggers. It worked! and we called it a day.

Here I am desperately searching for the inner temperature datalogger.

The next morning, before heading downstream, Brad stopped to bilge his boat. I went ahead to one of the nearby nests to retrieve the datalogger. I yanked on the string and the outside logger popped off but the inside datalogger was stuck inside. I pulled a little harder and the string broke; the outside logger came shooting down. Man! Now we had to climb up. I went back down to the kayak just as Brad was paddling up. We grabbed the gear, shot the line over and up Brad went to retrieve the logger.

It wasn't there or below. I couldn't believe it so I climbed up there. Sure enough...nothing. Where the hell could it have gone? We were just baffled. I even scanned the surrounding trees and vines using binoculars while hanging from the rope. That was really frustrating, but what could we do? We headed back downstream.

Along the way down, we stopped at a nest to retrieve another set of temperature loggers. This nest was interesting in that the original attempt failed when the cavity veiling collapsed, filling in the cavity with debris up to the lower entrance lip. On the last visit, we saw that they had used the cavity above it for a second nesting attempt. When we stopped, it was confusing because the eggs were cracked open on the ground, right below the cavity, one still having a mature embryo exposed. What would do that? And leave it?

I was anticipating an interesting time getting the internal logger out as I accidentally dropped it into this deep cavity. We brought along a fishing hook and magnet (as a last resort) to try and retrieve it. When I climb up it, I was surprised to see the logger on the lip of the lower cavity entrance! Ah ha! The eggs had fallen through a hole in the bottom of the upper cavity and just rolled out. Wild!

Paddling back down the Raspaculo.

We paddled the rest of the day, looking for comparison nests. We finally found one and Brad started climbing...Bees! Had to abandon that attempt. Then it started raining and raining and raining. That pretty much killed our opportunities.

Pondering pain and the project (photo courtesy of Brad).

Reached the campsite at the Monkeytail confluence. Oh man, the feet were really beginning to feel awful...river rot setting in. I was also beginning to feel depressed because the reality of the situation was not good. The nest comparisons were not panning out and our ability to work for a couple more days was NOT going to happen. The next day alone was going to hurt.

Macaw drinking out of a cavity and then walking around.

View from a recently poached nest.

So we headed down the next morning and checked on the nests along the lower Raspaculo Branch. The two dead trees appeared to have successfully fledged. The two live trees in between were, as predicted, recently poached. So we went ahead and retrieved the dataloggers and collected habitat info before continuing the journey down.

Brad recording data.

At the final stop, my feet were in such pain that I just wore my crocs barefoot. It was better but the flies were swarming my feet and the situation was nearly unbearable. We fled the area, stopping at the spring above the confluence to refill our water bottles.

Toasting our final visit to the Raspaculo.

We needed to end on a good note and with exiting a day early, there was rum and agua de coco to be had. We toasted the Raspaculo for all of the good times and hard times. This was possibly our last visit to this magical river. So long Raspa!