2012 Scarlet Macaw Protection Documentary

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!

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