Wildlife conservation in the Peruvian rain forest: what it's like to be a macaw researcher
Cut off from the rest of the world, the Tambopata Research Centre is only accessible by boat and is nestled in the middle of dense, impenetrable rain forest. This remote wildlife haven would be my home for 2 months.
Getting to the rain forest was a journey in itself and upon arrival I nearly face planted into the muddy river bank under the weight of my bags, much to the amusement of the guys who I had undertaken the boat journey with. This was the downside to needing a lot of kit for working in the harsh conditions of the rain forest!
This fantastic conservation project is safeguarding the future of macaws in Peru by carrying out daily monitoring and health checks of the macaws and their chicks, which frequently use the artificial nest boxes constructed and put up by the macaw project team. The long-term research being carried out in Tambopata is rigorous and has greatly expanded knowledge and understanding about macaw feeding, foraging, nesting and parental behaviours. By studying the macaws everyday, this provides continuity and young chicks which are ringed by the project can be followed throughout their life. A big part of being a researcher with this fantastic project is learning to climb the immensely tall, towering trees in which the macaws nest. At the beginning, the task seems daunting but after getting used to the single rope climbing system suspended from the ceiling in the research centre, you start to feel more confident.
My first tree
It all seems fine until you look down. The exhilaration of pulling yourself up a rope high into the jungle canopy is something very special. Getting to the top gives you this overwhelming sense of achievement and looking out across the canopy at eye level with macaws and howler monkeys is phenomenal. The all-engulfing sense of impending death and sheer terror, hits when you look down at the void of space that falls away beneath you. You alone control the speed of your descent, which is slightly terrifying. In a torrent of both English and Spanish swear words, gripping onto the rope for dear life, I managed to get both feet safely back on the ground. Shakily walking back to the research centre, I hoped that next time, the feeling of imminent death would be less pressing.
After a couple of practices climbing trees to monitor empty macaw nest boxes for any signs of activity, it was time to climb my first tree with macaw chicks. With utmost care, the chicks would need to be taken out of the nest, placed safely into a bucket and lowered to the ground for a veterinary examination. All this would need to be carried out whilst hanging 30 metres above the ground, suspended from a single rope. No pressure here but the future of an entire species is literally in your hands! To this day, no one has ever dropped a macaw chick so this gives a good indication of how thorough and effective the training process is for macaw researchers on the project.
As I neared the nest entrance, I was 'greeted' by the two macaw parents who shrieked angrily as I approached. I wrapped my legs tightly around the wooden nest box, ensuring there was no gap between the bucket and the nest. The parents watched on protectively from a nearby branch as I went about my task, gently lifting out the scarlet macaw chick from it's nest.
This chick was still quite small, with it's slightly pink warm-to the touch skin exposed in between sparse fluffy feathers. The feathers on its wings had begun to emerge, with distinct layers of vibrant reds, oranges, yellows, greens and blues running down it's wings in a rainbow-like gradient. I was amazed by the perfection and beauty of this young bird as it looked up at me with its bright black eyes. I breathed out a heavy sigh of relief as I watched the bucket lower slowly to the ground into the hands of the team on the ground. All the while, a vigilant macaw parent sat centimetres away from my face, squawking in annoyance. The adult bird repeatedly put its head into the nest entrance, checking to see if its chick had returned. After the vet team had taken the key growth and developmental measurements and removed any bot flies that may be parasitising it, the chick was returned to me in the bucket. Much to the macaw parents' relief, it was placed safely back in the nest.
Difficult macaw mums
As the chicks grow larger, they become stronger and more resistant to handling, often lying on their backs with their feet in the air, kicking angrily with their talons. This challenge is made even more difficult when the parents are also inside the nest at the same time. Some nests in particular have notoriously aggressive mums, which hardly ever leave the nest and proceed to attack the climber at any opportunity possible! For these nests you need patience, some very thick gloves and often a towel as well to gently place over the adult, as this calms them down and reduces aggressive behaviours. Macaws are wonderfully curious birds and if they do stay in the nest, they are intrigued by the climber's every move. And like any protective parent, they will defend their chicks at all costs. Some parents get used to us climbers and tend to just stay in the local area but watch from a distance, whilst others are aggressively territorial.
If you do manage to get the adult subdued underneath a towel, this then means that you only have one hand left to handle the chicks and safely get them into the bucket. This wasn't too much of an issue when the chicks were smaller but as they grew, they get a lot heavier and a lot more feisty. Not to mention that if the adult manages to wriggle its way out from underneath the towel, the first thing it will do is lunge straight at you. Having had this happen a couple of times, you definitely try and pick up techniques to avoid this happening again! My worst encounter with a macaw mum resulted in her grabbing my finger in her beak in a razor-sharp grip. Even through very thick gloves, this managed to pierce my finger in multiple places leaving it throbbing. I hate to imagine what the damage would have been had I not been wearing gloves! At least I still had all ten fingers so it wasn't too bad really and was definitely a learning experience!
The claylick and beyond
The claylick in Tambopata is the longest in the world and provides a vital sodium supplement to many animals including macaws, howler monkeys, capybara and peccaries. The feeding behaviours and usage of the lick are monitored regularly. It really was a truly phenomenal experience getting on a little motor boat before first light, travelling a couple of hundred metres up the river to a small island overlooking the claylick. Much of the 6 hours spent at the claylick is a waiting game. You often hear the macaws calling from the trees on the opposite bank but it can be several hours before they decide to use the lick, if at all. The most impressive site is when all the trees are dotted with splodges of red, blue, yellow and green, the canopy laden with perched macaws. The noise is almost deafening and the chorus of squawking drowns out everything else. It's the most fantastic sound and with time, your ears become tuned to it, able to pick out individual species from the orchestra of squawks.
Life in the rain forest
It's incredible how quickly you begin to lose track of time here. There is no concept of a weekend, a lie in, or anything to distinguish one day from the next. The whole timelessness of it all feels very surreal sometimes and I'd almost describe it as a state of deliriousness where one day just fades into the next. The 4:10 alarm and the smell of sweaty damp clothes which never dry marks the beginning of each day; the rigid meal times give the sense of extreme déjà vu every single day. Internally, I'm wide awake, continually awed and amazed how much I learn each day. Externally however, I'm barely functioning. I'm in a continual state of exhaustion, with aching muscles, endless blisters and insect bites that never go away. Trying to get enough sleep just to feel normal is becoming an ever increasing challenge. Despite the unforgiving nature of this harsh environment, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the world; you start to feel like you understand the order to the complexity of the rain forest and its invigorating feeling like you are contributing to something so much bigger than yourself.
With my fingers taped together and gauze wrapped around my healing blisters, I'm slowly finding ways to cope with the endless climbing sores. I feel like I've gotten stronger as well, the work here is physically very demanding but your body eventually gets used to it. All in all, throughout my time here in Tambopata, I've climbed 76 times and have absolutely fallen in love with the way of life and the exhilaration of each climb. With the end of my time in the rainforest looming closer everyday, I make every second count. I wouldn't have swapped my time as a macaw researcher with this fantastic research team for anything in the world and I very much hope to return in the future.
Check out the macaw project's website for more information: https://vetmed.tamu.edu/macawproject/