Skype: PEPEREDS | PERU: +51 987-183-166 pepe@peperojasbirding.com

 

 

Macaws at the clay licks are an unsurpassed natural history show!

Hello my English-speaking friends! I recently decided to publish posts in Spanish as well, and here I’ll translate the first of those articles which is about the years I spent living in the Tambopata rainforest. Enjoy and feel free to send me your comments in whatever language you like!

More than 2 decades ago, while studying Forestry in Lima, I was invited to travel to Tambopata to assist as a founding member of the Tambopata Macaw Project. Little did I know that this experience would have huge impact on my life and in shaping my career.

Before going into further detail, it is important to mention that the Guacamayos project originated in the Manu National Park in the late 1980s and the project director and principal researcher was Dr. Charles Munn, who at that time belonged to the Wildlife Conservation Society.

A pair of Scarlet Macaws preening each other.

Regarding macaws, until that time, there was very little (or none) that was known about the biology, behavior and ecology of wild macaws, however they faced a very bleak future due to the illegal trafficking of pets. For instance, at that time, for every ten macaws that were sold in the world, only one reached its final destination and even then never adapted to life in captivity.

The first phase of the project focused on learning everything possible about the behavior and biology of the three species of large macaws that occur in the region: Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao), Red-and-Green Macaw (Ara chloropterus), and Blue-and-Yellow Macaw (Ara ararauna). After a few years of field work, it was learned that all macaws are cavity nesters. In this part of the Amazon this means trees, preferably Shihuahuaco trees (Dypterix sp), as is the case of the Scarlet Macaw and Red-and-Green Macaw; or degraded palm trees (Mauritia flexuosa), as it is the case with Blue-and-Yellow Macaws. We also observed that they feed exclusively on seeds, eat clay from the banks of rivers (known as collpas), and their incubation period is 26 days. From the day the egg hatches until the moment they leave the nest is between 90 to 100 days, and it was learned which species prayed on them. I could go on with more, but that could take a long time!

A family of Red-and-Green Macaws frolicking at the TRC clay lick.

The next phase of the project was to develop techniques to assist in the recovery of wild macaw populations under human pressure.

This part of the project coincided with the discovery of the largest and most diverse macaw collpa known to man: The Colorado collpa in the Tambopata river about 8 hours upstream from the city of Puerto Maldonado, which was known among native people and some locals. It was precisely one of the locals who took the expedition of researchers that had come by boat from Manu and found this collpa and its impressive diversity in addition to a very healthy and stable population of the three species of large macaws.

By this time we had very important data on the ecology and reproductive biology of the macaws, and it was decided to start working simultaneously in Manu as well as in Tambopata. Given the discovery of the clay lick and in an effort to protect it, Eduardo Nycander established the Tambopata Research Center (TRC) as the main headquarters of the macaws project. It is important to note that at this time, the Tambopata area did not have any type of protection within the system of protected areas that is currently in place, not even as a reserved area despite the incredible density of macaws and other species of fauna.

Blue-and-Yellow Macaws at a clay lick, Tambopata.

Once TRC was built, an entire trail system around shihuahuaco trees was established with the idea of ​​looking for natural macaw nests as well as begin experimenting with the first artificial nests — this being part of the main objective to help wild macaw populations recover. We split up the work: one part of the team climbed trees to clean and prepare them, ensuring that the potential nest sites were isolated from the adjacent vegetation to prevent the access of predators. The other part of the team worked on building the nests themselves, that were made from a section of Pona palm tree (Iriartea deltoidea) that had been used in the construction of the research center.

Firs type of artificial nests use at the Tambopata Macaw Project with palm tree sections.

 

Carrying the nests through the forest was quite a task….

 

…and hanging them a monumental effort!!!

The result was 24 nests weighing each approximately 350 kilos (772 pounds) that had to be transported by 6 men on average throughout the forest!

The first nest to be hung took 2 days. After a lot of sweat and some recalculations, a very efficient method with pulleys was found that allowed us to hang 2 nests per day … a big achievement!

With the artificial nests hanging, our focus was to find as many natural nests as possible and to follow up activity on the nests we had hung We covered a lot of area by boat and by hiking along the river and forest to look for active macaw nests.

Ready to lower a Scarlet Macaws chick.

Once we found one, we proceeded to climb using climbing equipment, removing the chick from the nest and lowering it to where our colleagues proceeded to take measurements of the tail, tarsus and wing length as well as the weight. 

Weight measuring.

When we found ectoparasites, we removed them and finally returned the chick into the nest. We repeated this process every two days on each nest, to accumulate data of growth and development that at that time did not exist for wild macaws.

 

Here, we are measuring the culmen…

 

Measuring the wing.

 

Measuring the tarsus.

 

…and measuring the tail!

Out of 24 artificial nests, only one was successful, that is, that a pair of macaws used the nest and achieved to raised a chick! While the numbers might seem like a failure, this was for us an achievement and a good sign. The question was, why did the other 23 nests fail? It’s difficult to specify a single cause as there were a number of variables in play, such as not all nests were degraded and allowed to be hollow in time, some had more time hanging while others were “new”, etc. Despite this, we knew we were onto something.

The famous Aguajal Inn, a huge palm swamp where we did some field work for weeks!

At this stage we developed a technique to speed up the natural process in which aguaje palm trees (Mauritia flexuosa) die and become hollow (like a chimney), a process which involves insects (a weevil beetle), high temperatures and humidity. The Blue and Yellow Macaws like to use these hollow palm nests.

Cutting the crown of a Palm Tree I learned to appreciate the versatility, quality and value of the Victorinox Swiss Army knives

Do this, we climbed and cut the crown off the palm trees and left them to see how long they took to degrade. With much surprise, we observed that in a span of 9 months many of these palms were already being occupied by adult macaws to nest! Another successful method had been found.

At the same time, we continued with the monitoring of natural and artificial nests to evaluate the conditions of growth and development of the chicks. The data allowed us to track the growth and development of the chicks, and was used to create a database that would later be crucial to carrying the project forward into future stages.

That’s it for Part I. I’ll post a follow-up blog sometime soon about where they project went next and where it is today. Meanwhile, you can learn more about the Tambopata Macaw Project here, and the Tambopata Research Center here.

Thank you to Rainforest Expeditions for some of the photos of the early project and if you have any questions/comments about this post, or if you’re interested in birding Tambopata with me or on your own, Contact Me and let’s talk!

 

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