Dr. April Reside
Hallelujah it’s Raining Eggs
After farewelling EBCC at Manu National Park, we headed upstream along the Rio Madres de Dios. We refuelled and scrubbed off the mud in Puerto Maldonado, and then continued upstream along the Tambopata River. In the Tambopata National Reserve, we’ve signed up to volunteer on the Macaw Project.
The Macaw Project is focussed on collecting basic information on the large macaws (‘guacamayo’ in Spanish) that occur in the region: Scarlet Macaw, Red and Green Macaw, and Blue and Yellow Macaw. In addition, the project monitors the other parrot species in the region, including the IUCN-listed Vulnerable Blue-headed Macaw. The project has been running since 1989, with rigorous scientific methods since 1999. We’ve arrived at the start of the wet season which is also the onset of the breeding season; so macaw lovin’ abounds, and we are climbing the trees to monitor the progress of the egg laying. Once we find an egg, the trees are not climbed until 26 days later (scarlets) or 28 days later (red and green) which is when we expect the chicks will hatch. Other tasks include counting every bird species that comes down to a clay lick, general parrot census and monitoring territorial nesting behaviour.
Watching the clay lick is quite magical, seeing hundreds of brightly coloured parrots descend onto the clay. As well as the 13-odd species of parrot, regulars to the clay lick include Blue-throated Piping-guan (who tend to scare away the parrots), Razor-billed Curassow, and an Agouti. We occasionally see a family group of capybaras, and once we saw a porcupine just after dawn.
If learning to identify all the parrots and their calls wasn’t challenging enough, the tree climbing has definitely thrown me out of my comfort zone. The first time I accompanied a guacamayero (someone who works/ volunteers with macaws) out on a tree climb I looked up at the 33 m high nest and thought “They won’t want ME to climb up there, will they??”. Sure enough, after the training period Beloved took to the tree climbing like a duck to water. I wasn’t so sure I was up to the task. It’s hard to climb a tree when your brain is screaming “What the hell are you doing, get down immediately!” at you. After a good deal of coaching and patient support, and I attempted my first climb up to an artificial nest in the tree named ‘Amor’. To say I was terrified is a substantial understatement. My brain about to explode with anxiety, I inched my way up that rope at a snail's pace and shakily undid the latch of the nestbox, while a Scarlet Macaw sat on top of the box watching me. Imagine the surprise when I opened that box … and found a beautiful pearly macaw egg waiting inside. I couldn’t quite believe it.
In the weeks that have followed I’ve climbed 10 different trees, with a total of 14 climbs. The highest climb was to a nest that was 30 m high! Incredible. Its still super scary, but I’ve gotten to the point that I can actually look at the view without wanting to cry. And I’ve perhaps earned the record of the greatest ratio of eggs:climbs – I’ve found four eggs in total!
Despite the early starts and long hours, Beloved still goes out spotlighting for frogs, snakes, mammals etc every night and I usually go with him, but I don’t last as long. So after only an hour or so on one particular night I declared it bedtime and headed sleepily back downhill to camp. Only about 100m further the path I saw these big predator eyes looking at me … I crept a bit closer to get a better look AND IT WAS A PUMA!!! ‘Don’t eat me please don’t eat me, I’m definitely not puma lunch, I really hope you can’t smell fear,’ echoed through my mind - I was terrified. We had a stand-off staring at each other for a few seconds that felt like ages, then it took a few steps, stared for a bit, took a few steps, stared for a bit … then wandered off. I honestly thought for a moment it was contemplating me for its next meal. I’d been told not to turn your back on them so walking back to camp I kept turning around every few minutes to make sure it wasn’t following me! I wasn’t so tired anymore!
On another occasion, we were checking out the frogs and caiman in the little streams. I found a funny floating object, and stared at it thinking how unusual to see a floating dead cane toad in this pristine little rainforest stream. Well the cogs are a bit rusty in the ol’ noggin, and after a few moments it dawned on me. “It’s a Pipa pipa!” Turns out it wasn’t a dead floating cane toad; no, this very charismatic (note: sarcasm) description was of a super kooky frog we’ve been wanting to see, and it was floating near the surface of the water with its eggs on its back.
A few nights ago Beloved and I were on our pre-dinner nightly meander, and we saw very fresh cat prints beside a little water hole. We decided to creep along quietly and see if we could find the culprit. Its difficult to creep along silently with all the frogs to look at, and I called Beloved back to show him a nice large specimen up a tree. While Beloved showed the appropriate level of appreciation by taking some photos, I thought I’d just creep up a little further. To my amazement, an ocelot crossed the path in front of me!
Beloved is doing a superb job with biodiversity encounters, and not content with his botfly, has managed to contract the protozoa Leishmania. This is likely to mean we will have to cut our stay at Tambopata short to seek treatment – Vaseline won’t do the job on this one.
The Tambopata Macaw Project are trying to raise money for their research and conservation work, in particular to increase the rate of survival in Scarlet Macaw chicks that would otherwise likely die of starvation. You can check out their video and crowd funding campaign here. If you would like to try your hand at climbing 30 m trees as well you can message them on Facebook.
The blog post above has been kindly provided with permission by Dr. April Reside, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science at the University of Queensland. Please check out her blog Conservation on the Fly for more fascinating entries:
Please also follow Dr. Reside on Twitter https://twitter.com/april_reside