I'm sat in our hotel room in San Jose, thinking about the past six months, trying to assure myself it wasn't all a fantastically vivid dream. I did just spend six months in a remote part of the world researching scarlet macaws! This incredible opportunity has finally come to a close and we leave with fond memories, new friends and a huge number of photos and videos to organise through cold and dark January back in the UK.
Internet in our little pocket of paradise wasn't always available which was mostly a blessing but also meant that I didn't do as much blogging about the experience as I would have liked. Instead, over the coming weeks I will try to write about some of my fondest moments/photographs as well as the important work we conducted and the fantastic birds we became friends with, yes thats right... they are our friends (too much time alone in the jungle).
Statistics of the trip
Number of days - 178 (25.5 weeks)
Average km walked per week - 56 (35 miles)
Total km averaged over placement - 1,428 (892.5 miles)
Thrown in at the deep end
Ellice and I arrived in Punta Banco around 6.30pm, it was dark and a storm had come in meaning that we were getting soaked as we unloaded our gear into our new home. Susanne and Thomas, an Austrian couple who we were relieving, met us and had the job of showing us around for the next two weeks. I'm going to try and not bore you with a bit by bit regurgitation of our placement, but will hopefully give you a little taster of the experience and of the incredible nature we were immersed in.
The Lapas (macaws)
Well I can't not talk about the beloved lapas, our principal subject for our six months. These birds are full of character and this opportunity allowed us to work in relatively close proximity to the birds and as a result we were able to build a relationship with certain birds and understand the wide variety of personalities.
This scarlet macaw population was first reintroduced in 2002, from the national zoo in Costa Rica which has a very successful macaw aviary, having been locally extinct due to deforestation, hunting and the pet trade. Costa Rica did have macaws across the majority of the country, and though found throughout throughout Central and South America there has been a big conservation effort to reconnect fragmented populations within the country. From 2002-2014 75 birds were reintroduced and now at the end of 2015 there is an estimated 130 birds in the Pavones region with another breeding season about to start.
Thought to be one of the most intelligent bird species, macaws can generally live to 50 years old and considering that they are already breeding successfully and that there are potentially third generation birds now circulating, the population should continue to successfully establish itself. Seemingly the main factor holding back the macaws is nesting trees as they require large trees with opportunity to create a cavity. However much of the surrounding area is recovered land from slash and burn farming so secondary forest and not slow-growth primary forest. This is a problem as the fast-growing pioneer trees of secondary forest may quickly reach suitable sizes for the macaws but they are not as structurally stable as slow-growth hardwood trees. During our placement we witnessed three known nesting trees fall down due in part to sudden heavy spells of rain followed by extremely high temperatures, often putting the (relatively) shallow tree roots under strain.
The result of this is the birds are continuing to spread far and wide, making it increasingly difficult for us to monitor the population. However, as frustrating as this is, it is a brilliant step forward for the project that has been a complete success and looks to continue being so. One of the main people behind this is Ilona Thewissen, a Dutch PhD student who has been working in the region for over a decade now. As the project goes into a new phase she has now set up an NGO called the Wild Macaw Association. This entire project is self funded and people working for the project are doing so on a voluntary basis so if you can spare any money to donate towards the project that would be most appreciated.
In due course I plan on running a limited edition print series where much of the profits will go towards the project.
Melvin and Weasel nest
The personalities and distinguishing
For our research we had to distinguish between ringed (introduced) birds so we could accurately identify individuals and record data to relay to Ilona for her PhD. The first thing we would look for is a ring, this determines how much data we can document. If it is a ringed bird then we can gather lots of information for the study, however if it is a wild born bird then there is only so much we can record. If there is a ring, we will then try to identify the individual via markings such as scars and dot configurations on the wings. If we cannot identify the bird on site then we compare photos against a photo archive.
There are five birds who really stand out. We would see these birds numerous times a week and though there are plenty of other individuals that could be mentioned, the five below really stand out.
The bird pictured at the top of the blog. He was a loner for much of our time here and as a result would often be seen squawking away as if reassuring himself and even trying to generate conservation with anything and everything! His illusive partner, ironically called Rogue, was missing for five months of our placement. During this time, Sky was just below Melvin and Weasel in the pecking order (see what I did there...). But as soon as Rogue returned Sky's behaviour clearly changed and our sightings dramatically dropped, furthermore he actually dropped down the hierarchy with Buttons and Laurel gaining dominance over Sky. Sky is a left legged ringed bird, while Rogue is a right.
Melvin and Weasel
The two most dominant birds in the study area. Melvin and Weasel are a same sex couple (both male) that even have their own nest, see above. Tolerant to a degree, they quickly chase any other macaw which strays too close and have even been witnessed chasing black vultures that were seemingly taking an interest in their nest. Melvin was always straight forward to identify thanks to a scar underneath his left eye, while Weasel had a wonderful crown (the tuft of feathers above the beak) so he is affectionally referred to by the volunteers as 'King Weasel'. Both of these birds have left leg rings.
Buttons and Laurel
This cheeky pair regularly push their luck with birds of higher dominance, this eventually worked with them overruling Sky and they cautiously test the water with Melvin and Weasel too! Buttons is from the last release group, while Laurel is an older bird. This is another same sex couple. A feature that is only be possible to know thanks to them being sexed upon release. Both of these birds have wonderful double dots along their wings and have right leg rings, Laurel also has a scar on his left cheek (see pictures below).
One thing is for certain, macaws put a lot into developing their partnerships. Generally this is how you will see macaws, in pairs. However interestingly enough we regularly saw one trio, one male and two females. This just left me confused as Splice, the male, is a subdominant bird with a crooked beak, but clearly he has a wonderful personality as Alice and Scarlet never seem to leave his side and the three of them are working on a nest together!
The pair that I was able to observe the most was Melvin and Weasel, the same sex pair with their own nest. We will come onto nest stakeouts in another blog, but for now here is a short video that shows their passionate relationship, one minute affectionate, the next volatile!
A species to conserve
One of the biggest problems with the conservation of certain species or areas is that it doesn't grab the attention of the public. Not everything can be as big and cuddly as a panda or as powerful and elegant as an elephant. However, the scarlet macaw is certainly a charismatic species, a species that can help to conserve its native habitat, which won't solely benefit macaws, but every other species found within that habitat.
The future is bright for scarlet macaws, and as the project now looks to educate surrounding communities about the importance of macaws for the environment and for bringing in ecotourism to the region, it will hopefully become a community run project in the not too distant future.
Until next time...
I'll leave it there for now, as it is time to go out and enjoy my last evening in Costa Rica, but in due course we'll look at the incredible turtle programmes going on throughout Costa Rica, as well as other rainforest wildlife and some quirky photo stories with behind the scenes video.
Have a Merry Christmas and if I don't write anything else beforehand, a Happy New Year!