Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Back in Belize
Well, I'm FINALLY getting around to updating the blog to show last year's (2011) work. Let me start out by thanking everyone how made this possible. This was a collaborative effort with Dr. Janice Boyd of the Schubot Center, whose work in using satellite telemetry to track macaw movements made this project possible. Loro Parque Fundacion provided the necessary funding without which this project would never have begun. Marcial Cordova of Wildlife Conservation Society - Guatemala provided the essential technical expertise. Mark Hagen and the HARI (Hagen Avicultural Research Institute) staff, especially Josee Birmingham, were essential to this project as they provided project training, advise, and equipment. Roni Martinez and Eddie Tzibof Blancaneaux Lodge, as well as Ernesto Garcia and Erin Manzanero, provided with logistical and field support. None of this work would have been possible without the unflinching support of my wife, Kristi Drexler, to whom I (and the macaws) owe much gratitude. And thanks to everyone else that helped this project be a success.
Okay, we were back in Belize! The goal was to deploy three satellite telemetry collars on nesting females in order to gain an understanding of movement and habitat use during the later stages of nesting and post-breeding; one year in total. We picked up Marcial at the Benque border on 3-May and the next day headed to the Chiquibul, picking up Roni along the way. We were on the reservoir by 8:30am.
Paddling up the reservoir, we encountered a couple of Brown Pelicans near Rubber Camp and reached the Macal/Raspa confluence around 12:30pm. There were several pairs actively flying in the area. None of the nests in proximity to the confluence were active. One had broken off about halfway up the trunk. We stopped and checked out a probable nest in the vicinity but it was a broken stag and would not have been possible to use for this project, so we moved on.
As we approached the Francelia trail area, we encountered three probable guaceros (parrot poachers) who disappeared into the jungle on the north side of the reservoir as we approached. Not a good sign.
A bit further upstream, we stopped to check on a historic nest and found it scarred from the poaching event from the previous year. Quite sad. But, with the macaw activity in the area, we decided to make camp here and attempt to locate an active nest in the area. The chances seemed good.
The following morning we split up. Roni and I walked downstream along the shore and then cut into the jungle, attempting to locate the trail and a nest tree from the previous year. We were unsuccessful with this. But we did have a startling, and sad finding...a dead macaw, obviously shot and left to decay. How old was this bird? Was it raising a chick? It was a somber moment.
Reaching the confluence, I glassed the old nest tree from a distance to find that familiar red head poking out of the cavity entrance. YES! We pulled our kayaks out of the water and made our way over there with the climbing gear and net.
Marcial climbed up the tree and verified that a chick was present and old enough to allow us to continue. If they are too young then causing the female to spend too much time away from the nest could be fatal to the nestling. We then helped him set of the trap. After testing the trap and having everything set up, Marcial descended and we hid ourselves below the understory canopy.
Playing the waiting game sounds easy, right? Well, try that with no distractions, no view, being absolutely quiet and still...and picking an amazing number of ticks of your pants, shirt...and your person. Not fun! As darkness approached, it was apparent that the female was EXTREMELY wary of the net, refusing to enter the cavity and standing to the side of the nest, eyeing the net with grave suspicion. Marcial ascended the tree, removing the net, to allow the female to enter the cavity for the night. We then made our way back to camp, set up, and proceeded to have dinner before retiring to our hammocks.
The following morning we returned to the nest and set up the trap again. All day we waited. And all day the pair flew around squawking and chattering...obviously upset. The female would land on the side of the nest and peer over at the net, and fly off. This happened repeatedly. As you can see, this time I armed myself with a book. After a full day of sitting, Roni and I retreated to begin dinner while Marcial continued the vigil.
Before sunrise, we made our stealthy approach to the base of the tree, cringing at any noise made as we snaked our way through the understory. We set ourselves up, observing the nest. Then Marcial gave the signal and Roni pulled the trap closed. As the female leaped out of the cavity and into the stretched out net, we closed it behind her and lowered the net. Marcial quickly ascended the tree, placing her and the net into a bag and down they came.
We quickly extracted her from the net and worked on installing the first collar on her. After finishing this we placed a leg band and then took her out to an open area for release. We first placed her on a small shrub and she flew unsuccessfully, landing down on the ground. She eventually made her way up into another small shrub and hung out there for awhile until her mate began calling to her from a nearby tree. After ten minutes, she finally took off, flying past us and up into the trees.
We made our way back to the confluence to head up the Raspa, where there was a good chance that we would encounter a couple of active nests. And indeed there were. Unfortunately, one of them was in an old, dead Ceiba snag. Climbing that was out of the question, so we searched around there unsuccessfully for another nest. We then made our way towards Kodd's camp. Along the way we found an active nest that was mentioned on a tour operator's blog. It was still active, which was amazing since it was near a very busy xatero trail.
Marcial and I made our way up there and he eventually climbed up. The nest had a chick! But it was very young, maybe a day or two old. So, we pulled out of there. It was getting late and we needed to set up camp. The best spot was across the river and downstream a bit. But it was a terrible location, obviously by a major trail and a well used location. I guess we were tired enough to not care. So we set up our hammocks. I got bit by a harvester ant soldier. OUCH! Had to move my hammock. As we were having dinner, a gunshot rang out from upstream. We tensed. Someone was hunting up there. Later on a second shot was fired. This was not good. That is where we needed to go!
The next morning we packed up and cautiously made our way upstream. Roni spotted a smoldering campfire on the bank. As we stopped, we could hear muffled Spanish back into the forest where we knew a historically occupied nest was located. We then heard a pair of macaws screaming. The nest was being poached! And we could do nothing about it. With anger...and sadness, we had to retreat. These nests along the reservoir are so vulnerable. In fact, Friends for Conservation and Development found that 89% of nests located along the reservoir were poached in 2011! 89%!!!
After a long paddle back to the Ballerina Rd put in, Kristi was there to pick us up and haul us back to town. It was great to have one collared, but we needed two more and where were we going to find these? The area up the Raspa seemed hot with illegal activity. I needed to think about this.
We agreed that I would conduct a reconnaissance trip while Marcial was working back in the Maya Biosphere Reserve (Guatemala) and then we would come back out to the Chiquibul after more nests were discovered. Let's just say that there was some concern.