Quest of the Blue Throated Macaws by Donald Brightsmith
By Donald Brightsmith
The brilliant gold chest and turquoise-blue back shown in the sun immediately drawing my attention to this magnificent macaw. I checked carefully and just as I had hoped, it had a broad band of dark blue feathers just below the bill. It was December 1997 and on my first trip to Bolivia I was standing in the presence of one of the most beautiful and endangered macaws in the world. Unfortunately I was in Santa Cruz de la Sierra at the city zoo staring longingly into one of 4 cages that housed this most beautiful of Bolivian natives. As I watched the bird pick a piece of fruit from its food dish, I fantasized what it would be like to see this bird flying free over the savannahs of its native range. And now, less than 8 months later, I was flying back to Bolivia to visit the famed savannahs of Beni in search of wild Blue-throated Macaws.
For many years the Blue-throated or Caninde Macaw (Ara glaucogularis) was an almost mythical bird, known only from a few museum specimens and the occasional individual that appeared in the pet trade. It was even thought by some ornithologists that this bird might only be a subspecies of the more common Blue and Gold Macaw (Ara ararauna). But in the early 1990's a small population was discovered in the savannahs of Beni in north eastern Bolivia. Since this time, censuses have revealed that there may be as few as a 100 pairs of these birds left in the wild, making this the most endangered of the Ara macaws.
As I flew to the city of Trinidad, capital of the Department (or state) of Beni I chatted with the local businessman in the seat next to me. I told him I was traveling here to look for the Blue-throated Macaw. Not only had he heard of the bird, but much to my surprise, he told me he owned a tract of about 20,000 acres of savannah with a few breeding pairs of Blue-throats. He went on to tell me that in the 1980's and early 90's trapping of these birds was rampant, and the prices paid for the birds were high. And from what I know, he was right! I have heard that there may have been as many as 1,200 birds or more exported from Bolivia, and rumor has it that as many as 5,000 may have been taken from a single ranch! These scary statistics are especially mind-boggling given that as few as 100 pairs remain in the wild. But fortunately, the Bolivian government had banned the capture and export of the birds and the price paid to trappers in Bolivia has dropped substantially. My seat-mate explained that with the price drop, the change in law, and the increased awareness about the uniqueness of this species, the amount of capture has been drastically reduced and that local ranch owners are becoming more interested in protecting the birds, especially if they can generate revenue from tourism. I was encouraged by his knowledge and positive attitude towards the birds and quietly hoped that the economic and political realities of this area would continue to help preserve this rare and beautiful species.
I told him that many of the birds exported to the US ended up in the hands of competent breeders who are now having great success breeding them and it is my goal to someday take eggs or young from these captive pairs and release them back into the wild. I mentioned that we are still a long way from this, as worries about government permits, disease risks and imprinting still stand in the way, but my plan to lead the Peruvian research team from the Tambopata Macaw Project in developing hand-rearing techniques that produce non-imprinted birds is the first step.
The City of Trinidad, Bolivia
As my plane circled the airport, I thanked my seat-mate for the information and stared out the window at the savannahs of Beni. The flat open savannah extended unbroken to the horizon with only the occasional road visible as it snaked off through the sea of grass and trees. The wide expanses of grass were punctuated with small forest islands and the entire landscape was dotted with marshes, lakes, ponds and rivers.
In the airport, I met the rest of the my traveling companions: Liliam, a native of Bolivia and our local guide and coordinator; Heinz Lambert a German businessman, aviculturist and amateur photographer who had come to Bolivia with his wife with the sole intent of photographing the Blue-throated Macaw; and Pepe Rojas a Peruvian who has worked since 1991 on macaw projects in Tambopata and Bolivia. After the exchanging the usual pleasantries, we headed off and checked into our hotel.
Not wanting to waste a moment, I dug out my camera and binoculars and headed out to explore the city. Nearly every Latin American town and city has a central plaza that forms the heart and soul of the community, and Trinidad was no exception. The plaza is a place to meet, a place to relax, and on the weekends THE place to see and be seen. As with most latin plazas, Trinidad's had lovely gardens, nice architecture and an interesting mix of wild birds. Upon arrival I was greeted by a group of three children singing and dancing in a large central gazebo (photo*). When they saw my camera they immediately began to ham it up and yelled "Photo! Photo!" The danced and sang for me until one asked what time it was and my response sent them scurrying off towards home. As I moved away, a pair of beautiful Red-capped Cardinals (Photo* Paroaria coronata) descended to a puddle for a drink. Then I spotted an odd brown bird walking in the grass: a Rufous Hornero (Furaruis rufus). The name "hornero" comes from the Spanish word for oven, because this species makes a domed mud nest in the shape of the traditional ovens used in much of Latin America. As the hornero flew off, I heard a high, sparrow-like chirping from the far corner of the plaza. I followed the sound and discovered a pair of Blue-winged Parrotlets (Forpus xanthopterygius). To my surprise, they were not perched in the high branches of a flowering tree, but on a metal tube on top of a telephone pole. As I watched, the male backed down the tube and disappeared out of site! I could tell that they were looking for a place to nest, but this seemed like a rather unlikely choice. It was obvious that the birds were not enamored with the spot either. Perhaps the female thought there must be something better because after a bout of intense chatter, the pair flew to a low tree in the plaza. Here the male descended to a large brown sphere on a thick branch. As I approached I could see that the sphere was the mud nest of a Rufous Hornero. The hornero was nowhere in sight and did not protest, so the male parrotlet sat contently at the nest entrance for a full 10 minutes calling and surveying the plaza.
At one point during my observations a young boy approached and asked what I was doing. I showed him the birds, and he quickly explained to me that parrotlets often nest in these nests, a fact that I knew from my own research. He said they stole these nests because "they were too lazy to build their own." He also told me that the bird at the nest entrance was the male "because the male always enters first." I was amazed by his interest and knowledge and while I am not sure if the male always enters first, I will remember his words as I continue my travels.
As I headed back towards the hotel, I spotted a three-toed sloth climbing slowly among the branches only 15 ft. overhead, searching for clumps of fresh new leaves for lunch. Slow and rather helpless on the ground, most sloths arrive in plaza gardens like this one with the help of locals that find them in the forests and transport them to the plaza. Surprisingly, sloths often survive and even reproduce in the gardens, adding another interesting dimension to these attractive central plazas.
After a rich lunch of local river catfish and pacu fish we boarded our elevated seat truck and headed out for an afternoon trip to Lake Suarez. Heinz readied his massive 800 mm lens and camera and was soon contentedly clicking away. The drive took us past natural marshes and canals where bright pink Roseate Spoonbills (Ajaia ajaja) (photo*) plied the water with their spatula shaped bills in search of aquatic insects while storks, egrets, Rufescent Tiger-Herons (Tigrisoma lineatum) (photo*), and Whistling Herons (Syrigma sibilatrix) stalked the shallows looking for small fish. Kingfishers perched over still ponds and a Snail Kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis), a type of hawk, glided across the marsh and plucked a large snail from the water. This kite, found as far north as the Florida Everglades, is completely dependent on these large snails for food, using its long, curved beak to remove them from their deep spiraled shells.
The distant calls of a pair of macaws reminded us of the object of our quest, but Liliam and Pepe assured us that Blue-throats were almost never seen this close to town. As we watched, a pair of Blue and Gold Macaws, gleaming in the afternoon sun, crossed in front of us and headed off to roost in a distant grove of trees. Following the lead of the macaws, we too headed back towards "our roost" for dinner and an early bedtime.
Across the Great Savannah
The next morning we boarded our truck and headed out before dawn towards Cutal, our lodge and base camp in the heart of Beni's famed savannah. As the sun came up, we got our first look at the area official described as "seasonally flooded savannah of eastern Bolivia" (photo *). This area is a beautiful patchwork of rivers, lakes, ponds, marshlands, grasslands, savannahs (grasslands with isolated palm trees) and dense forest islands. This diverse landscape, good soils and the large amount of water make this a very productive area. The area's major industry is cattle ranching, as the ranchers take advantage of the high productivity of the natural grasslands. At one point we stopped by a large marshy pond where the cattle were joined by a herd of 20 wild Capybara (Hydrochaeris hydrochaeris). Jokingly described as guinea pigs on steroids, the capybara are the largest rodents in the world. They do not behave like the omnivorous rats and mice to which they are related and fortunately these 100+ lb., 4 ft. long rodents never infest houses! Instead they behave more like deer or moose avoiding man and eating large quantities of grass and aquatic vegetation. Throughout many parts of the Amazon basin Capybara are rare and difficult to see because they have been heavily hunted for food. But here in the savannahs, the abundant supply of cattle has reduced the need for hunting and allowed the large native vertebrates, including Capybara, caiman, monkeys, river dolphins, macaws, and large waterbirds, to survive alongside humans and cattle.
Liliam explains that every year, starting in December, millions of acres of these grasslands and savannahs flood as the rains cover the low flat landscape under a blanket of 3-4 ft. of water. This dramatic flooding changes the landscape from one of isolated rivers and lakes surrounded by grassland and forest to one of isolated forest islands surrounded by a "sea" of shallow water. But we were here in July, the height of the dry season, and the capybara, caiman, and waterbirds were concentrated around the remaining small bodies of water.
As the morning progressed we began to amass an impressive list of wildlife sightings. A crab-eating fox (Cerdocyon thous) ran down the road ahead of us, a pair of Toco Toucans flew across the road, a Chestnut-eared Aracari (Pteroglossus castanotis) (a type of toucan) perched by a nest cavity on a dead tree, and all the while Heinz's camera clicked happily.
Just as the sun cleared the trees, Heinz spotted a small macaw in the top of a tree on the east side of the road. He signaled the driver to approach slowly and stop. It was a Yellow-collared Macaw (Ara auricollis) perched only about 30 ft. up, right on the side of the road, but the sun was directly behind it making photography impossible. As we stood lamenting our luck a raucous call from behind us caught our attention. We turned around to see perched in the full sun only 20' high a young Blue-fronted Amazon (Amazona aestiva). After a few minutes and a number of photos, the bird flew off, only to be replaced by an equally cooperative Maxamilian (Scaly-headed) Pionus (Pionus maxamiliani).
Further down the road, we stopped to photograph a group of 4 Dusky Conures (Aratinga weddellii) on the broken top of a narrow, hollow palm tree that was likely their nest (photo*). Two birds sat and chewed idly on the tips of the tree while the other two copulated. The bright morning sun lit up the birds and made them gleam, making even this rather plainly colored species brilliant.
Our next stop was the "toll booth" at the Rio Ipurupuru. The booth consisted of no more than a barbed-wire gate stretched across the road and after paying our toll, we found the crossing was blocked by a broken down pickup truck. While our driver and a group of local men helped pull the truck from the road, I sat and watched a tern make lazy circles over the river. As the tern dove down towards the dark water, something else broke the surface from below. Much to my surprise two Pink River Dolphins (Inia geoffrensis) surfaced just off the bridge below us. I watched the dolphins for a few minutes before noticing that a small girl was holding a young Blue-fronted Amazon (* Photo). I jumped down from the high truck and asked the young child if I could take some pictures, but all she did was shyly look away. After a little reassurance from mom she slowly nodded her head and held up her lovely pet. After taking a few photographs I removed a small package of cookies from a pocket in my vest. With this the little girl's eyes lit up and by the time that I was back up in the truck and we headed off she was happily crunching away on her "hard-earned" sweets.
We stopped to stretch our legs in an area where the savannah grass had been recently burned. As we watched, a flock of Peach-fronted Conures (Aratinga aurea) flew in and dropped to the ground in the burned area where they proceeded to eat the partially burned palm fruits. As we prepared to reboard the truck, a group of large macaws called quickly attracting everyone's attention. We listened and searched intently and soon the forms of 2 large macaws came into view above the canopy. As we watched, we could see their blue backs and yellow bellies. Then as they approached closer, we made out the thin black bibs indicating that they too were Blue and Gold Macaws. No Blue-throats yet.
We turned off the main road shortly before 11 am and entered Cutal, one of the large ranches owned by the Quaino family. It was on this family's land that the Blue-throated Macaw was "rediscovered" by the expedition in the early 1990's, and it was here that we would spend the next 2 nights as we tried to discover this species for ourselves. As we wound along the long dusty driveway an armadillo scurried off into the brush, and a pair of Blue and Golds clung to a low, dead palm tree, proclaiming that this would be their nest site in the coming breeding season.
We arrived at the ranch house/lodge in time to enjoy a rich lunch of local vegetables and beef in a rich dark sauce. It was exquisite. The beef produced on the ranch had a full rich flavor the likes of which I have never tasted. The Bolivians at the ranch claimed that despite Argentina's fame, it is Bolivia that produces the best beef in the world and this meal made me a believer.
After lunch, while the others were resting I went out to explore the area around the ranch house. Despite the fact that it was midday on a warm and sunny day, there were plenty of parrots and other birds to see. A group of about 20 Blue-winged Parrotlets searched for seeds on the ground, the brilliant blue of the males' wings flashing as they fluttered like sparrows to and from nearby trees. The local pair of Blue and Gold Macaws circled briefly overhead and flew off in the direction of their nest. To my surprise, a pair of Blue-fronted Amazons duetted from a large tree right in the center of a cattle corral behind the ranch house, further amazing me how accustomed these birds were to both the cattle and people that shared their home. Pairs of Canary-winged Parakeets (Brotogeris chiriri  ) chattered as they flew among the palms. I checked the palms for nests, but the dense fronds made it impossible for me to determine if they had excavated nest cavities in the bases of the old palm fronds like I have seen among the escaped Canary-wings in Miami. Glittering emerald and rufous in the sun, a small Rufous-tailed Jacamar (Galbula ruficauda) sallied out from its perch over a nearby pond and caught a dragonfly in its long thin bill. It quickly beat its prize against a branch and swallowed it whole. A pair of Wattled Jacanas (Jacana jacana) and their young ran confidently across the floating vegetation in search of insects, their large feet spreading their weight sufficiently to keep them from sinking.
As I headed back towards the house, I looked up to see a Peach-fronted Conure perched on a termite mound only 30' from the house. Since I have been studying birds that nest in termite nests for the last five years in Peru, I was particularly pleased with my find. The Peach-fronts had made a deep, narrow tunnel running straight up into the mound. Although I could not see it well, could tell that there was likely a large a spacious chamber at the top of the tunnel where the birds were raising their brood. In this nest, as with nearly all others I have found, the termites still lived in the termite mound but they had sealed off all of their passages leading to the birds' nest. As a result, the conures had a safe, protected and insulated nest chamber completely isolated from the thousands of termites that lived around them.
Boat Ride on the Rio Ipurupuru.
As I reveled in my find, the others began to leave the lodge and board the truck, signaling it was time to go. As I approached, Liliam informed me that the Blue-throats were difficult to find in the afternoons and the consensus was that our time would be better spent going for a relaxing afternoon boat ride on the Ipurupuru River. This was fine with me, but it meant that we would have only one day to look for the Blue-throats. I quietly hoped that the macaws would cooperate on our one day. So leaving our quest behind, we hooked up the boat trailer to the truck and headed out over the ranch's seemingly endless savannah. The wide open grasslands dotted with palms and other small trees stretched from horizon to horizon making everything seem strangely small and insignificant.
As we drove through an area of tall grass, we came upon a group of 4 American Reas (Rhea americana). These 4' tall relatives of the Ostrich blended perfectly with the brown dry-season grass and we would have never noticed them if they had not began to run along the track ahead of us. The large male paused watching us intently as the other three moved off into the grass.
When we arrived at the river, I was surprised to see that it was not much wider than a 4 lane highway. As I pondered over what odd creatures might be hidden beneath the dark waters, a large wake zooming down the center of the river betrayed the presence of a Pink River Dolphin. It surfaced 10 yards past me and continued down the murky river. Heinz pointed out two large Black Caiman, about 8 and 10 ft. long, that were taking in the late afternoon sun on the river's far shore. As we boarded the boat, the caiman slipped quietly into the water, ready for another evening of patrolling the shallows in search of unwary fish and small mammals.
The river was alive with wildlife: pairs of Canary-winged Parakeets darted among the treetops in the dense river-edge forest; a Brown-capuchin Monkey (Cebus apella) cautiously drank from the edge of the river, watchful to avoid the jaws of hungry caiman; majestic Orinoco Geese (Neochen jubata) took a break from their grazing to watch us pass; a Jabiru Stork (Jabiru mycteria) stood on its massive nest and fed its hungry chick; and a family of 4 howler monkeys climbed slowly through the branches. The large male howler was a dark reddish brown, while the female and two young were dusky yellowish which was why I was surprised to see in my guide that they were, in fact, called Black Howler Monkeys (Alouatta caraya). A group of 3 Capybara froze in the open just at the water's edge. These animals supposedly freeze in an effort to avoid being seen, but the group of 3, 100 lb. rodents sitting on the bare mud of the river bank were ridiculously obvious, causing me to laugh quietly to myself. It just goes to prove that no system is perfect.
At one spot along the river, a fire raged in the grasslands nearby. As we watched the smoke and ashes rise into the sky, we noticed four large hawks 50-100 ft. high, swooping and diving through the rapidly rising columns of hot, smokey air. I knew that hawks frequently hunt insects and mammals displaced by advancing fires, but I was mystified why they would be up so high. But as we passed through the gentle rain of ashes from the fire, the answer came to me from above. It came to me in the form of a three inch flying locust that landed in the boat. The insects were attempting to fly away from the advancing fire, but were being caught up in the rapidly rising hot air and the hawks were waiting up above to snatch them out from among the ashes. Soon the light began to wane and we had to leave the hawks to their hunting and return to the lodge where another wonderful meal of fresh fish and chicken awaited us.
The next morning, we rose before dawn and headed out across the savannah to Barbazul Island. The island takes its name from the local name of the Blue-throated Macaw or Paraba Barbazul which translates to "blue-bearded macaw." Pepe explained that the Mocatú Palm (Attalea phalerata) provides nearly all the food and most of the nest sites for the Blue-throats. As a result, the macaw is almost never seen in areas without this species of palm indicating that it is dependant on this one species of tree for its survival. This highly specialized diet is possible because the palm fruits throughout the year and individual trees may produce 3-5 bunches of fruit that all ripen at different times. Yet these palms can grow only on the slightly elevated areas, like Barbazul Island, that literally remain as islands when the savannah floods in the wet season. Unfortunately, research suggests that the grazing and burning so common in this area is killing many of the young palms. If this trend continues it could threaten the future of the trees and the birds that depend on them. But for now, there is no shortage of food and it appears that trapping and a lack of suitable nest sites are responsible for reducing the population of wild Blue-throated Macaws.
This dependance on a single restricted habitat is a characteristic Blue-throats share with some of the most endangered parrots in the world. Among these habitat specialists are the Glaucus Macaw, found historically in Yataí Palm groves but now extinct; the Spix's Macaw, confined to Caraiba river-edge woodlands but now nearly extinct, and the Lear's Macaw, a critically endangered species found only in Licuri palm groves. It is obvious that this dependance on single plant species is a major cause of rarity, so any species that shows this characteristic, including the Blue-throats, runs the risk of ending up like the Glaucus and Spix's Macaws.
Most large macaws in Peru and Bolivia nest during the wet season, but the Blue-throats nest during the dry season. This unusual timing of nesting is apparently very important to the survival of the species. The Blue and Gold Macaws outnumber the Blue-throats about four to one in the Beni and with their larger size and greater numbers, they would likely occupy all of the suitable nest sites and prevent the Blue-throats from breeding. But by nesting in the dry season before the Blue and Golds, the Blue-throats finish nesting just in time for the Blue and Golds to move in and begin their nests. Despite this rather neat arrangement, fights for nest sites are still common. Pepe and others report that Blue and Golds, impatient to start their nests, still fight with Blue-throats, and pairs of Blue-throats commonly fight among each other for prime nesting sites. This indicates that just like in Tambopata, Peru; the Pantanal of Brazil and the forests of Central America, nest sites for macaws are in short supply.
Search for the Blue-throats
When we arrived at Barbazul Island, we were introduced to Erlan, a ranch hand and local expert on the habits and habitats of the Blue-throated Macaws. With our objective close at hand, Heinz switched into overdrive. Focused and driven, he and Erlan started off down the trail behind the ranch hands' house and set off at a fast pace towards a Blue-throat nest that was occupied last year. I fell behind as I paused to enjoy the large woodpeckers, jays, hawks, conures and amazons that were common along the way.
As I rounded a bend in the trail, I spotted Heinz and Erlan stopped up ahead. Heinz was taking photographs and I could hear macaws calling. My heart quickened has I quietly closed the distance between us. But the calls didn't sound right and as Erlan moved on ahead, I knew we had not attained our goal. As I approached I found the source of the calls, a group of 6 Yellow-collared Macaws were perched a mere 20 ft. overhead calling in the morning sun.
Only a few yards further on ahead, Erlan stopped and showed us the nest tree that the Blue-throats used last year. It was a dead and broken palm less than 20 ft. tall. I was amazed by the small size of the tree and low height of the nest, a radical change from the towering nest trees of the Peruvian rain forest were Scarlet and Green-wings nest in cavities that may be over 100 ft. high. Erlan and Pepe decided the best strategy was to sit down and wait in the hopes that the birds would drop by to visit the nest. As the minutes passed, our excitement waned and we began to worry about the prospects of finding the birds. After about an hour and a half we decided it was time to try another trail through dense palm groves were the macaws often come to feed. We left Liliam at the nest to warn us if the birds returned, and headed back the way we came. As we passed a palm grove, the loud grating call of a large macaw rang out from very nearby. We ducked into the shady grove and moved towards the call. We paused briefly to watch a South American Coati (Nasua nasua), a long-tailed and long-nosed relative of the racoon, as it ran off between the trees. Then with a loud squawk we heard our macaw take flight and head out over the grassland. I held my breath and raised my binoculars. It was flying away and had a blue back and yellow breast but I couldn't see the face. Then as it veered, it showed the clean black collar of the Blue and Gold Macaw a beautiful bird, but not exactly what I was hoping for.
With renewed determination, we continued down the trail hoping to find the birds as they fed. We passed a family of Black Howler Monkeys taking a late morning siesta in the branches of a leafless tree. My faith in science's ability to name organisms was somewhat restored when I saw that the male in this group was, in fact, indisputably black although the yellowish female and young still made me wonder about the wisdom of the name. We passed a Mocatú palm full of ripe fruits. Under the tree the ground was littered with dozens of fresh fruits where the pulp had been carefully stripped away suggesting that the macaws had been eating here yesterday or possibly even this morning. Interestingly, the Blue-throats do not crack the seeds like so many large macaws, but instead use their thin chisel shaped beak and long lower jaws to strip away the outer husk and consume the soft pulp, leaving the seed intact and unharmed (*photo).
When it was obvious that the birds were not near this recently used tree, we pushed on hoping that the birds had moved on to the larger stands of palms at the end of the trail. As we arrived at the final grove, we could hear a pair of macaws fly overhead, but trapped as we were under the dense canopy, we were unable to see the birds. All agreed that they sounded like Blue and Golds, but the nagging doubts remained. Hearts sank as we waited in the palm grove and Heinz jokingly reminded Pepe that his head was on the line if he could not get good photographs the birds. With not having even seen the birds yet, I began to think that even Heinz's impressive 800 mm lens would not be enough to get the photos that he had traveled so far to take. I was personally hoping that I would at least get a glimpse of the birds.
Pepe was determined and walked the entire length of the trail just to make sure that the macaws had not returned to the feeding trees we had passed along the way. But at noon we all decided it was time to go back for lunch and a brief rest.
But even while resting, all kept and eye and an ear out for macaws. We sat behind the cowboys' quarters looking out over a large stand of palms in the hopes of spotting the birds coming in for lunch. Pepe and Erlan concurred that it was time for yet another change in strategy: we would drive to a different island, Isla Cafe, where Pepe had observed a nest a few years before.
Search for the Blue-throats: Take 2.
Rested and fed, we headed out around 2:30 with renewed energy, but a bit of apprehension. Liliam proposed visiting the wading bird colony in a nearby lake, but this was quickly vetoed because we were leaving first thing in the morning to return to Trinidad and our time was running short. As we wound along the bumpy track we frequently scared groups of cattle from the road. Being accustomed to seeing macaws in the towering, pristine rain forests of Tambopata and Manu in southeastern Peru, I was stunned by the realization that this heavily grazed savannah grassland with isolated trees and small forest islands, so different from the towering rain forest, was the exclusive home of this rare and beautiful macaw.
My contemplations were interrupted as the driver stopped at a band of slightly longer and greener grass, and announced we could drive no further. But Isla Cafe was just a hazy dark spot on the horizon, still miles away. Liliam tested the ground and found a 6 foot band of ankle deep pudding-like mud, but since it was only 6' wide, she convinced the driver to put the vehicle in 4-wheel drive and "go for it." With mud flying in all directions and shouts of encouragement from the passengers in the rear, we sped easily through the obstacle leaving 8" deep tracks in the dark black mud. But with our destination still a mile away, another large wet area signaled the end of the drive. We were as close as we would get, so we all got out and headed off on foot towards Isla Cafe and our last chance of finding the elusive Blue-throated Macaw.
As the others forged ahead, I paused to admire and photograph the wetland birds including storks, nighthawks and a pair of Southern Lapwings (Vanellus chilensis) that irately buzzed my head as I passed too close to their nesting territory. As the group disappeared into the island's forest, a good 5-10 minutes' walk ahead of me, I decided I should pick up my pace. With 40 yards to go, I heard large macaws calling. The sweet and soft calls unlike any I had heard before rang out from the interior of the island, and it sounded like the birds were in flight! I couldn't hide in the open grassland where I stood, so I crouched low and waited, holding my breath and hoping the birds would fly into sight. They did, circling out over the eastern edge of the island. When I got my binoculars on them, all I could see was their blue backs and a little of the yellow below. As they circled around to where I could see the face, they disappeared behind the trees. I got a brief glimpse of the throat but couldn't tell if they had the thin black line of the Blue and Gold, or the broad blue "beard" of the Blue-throated. After an interminably long 5 seconds, they made another circle over the tree tops and flew straight towards me showing off their wide blue bibs: BLUE-THROATED MACAWS!! They completed the circle over the island and landed out of sight. I stood up and sprinted the remaining distance to the island, sloshing obliviously through the mud, and ducked under the canopy. I quickly spotted my companions smiling and looking up. And there, perched in the highest branches of a flowering tree, sat the pair of Blue-throated Macaws. The birds' faces blushed pink, their colors was intensified by the rich light of the late afternoon sun. I was stunned by the sight, completely forgetting the camera that hung around my neck. But looking at Heinz reminded me and I quickly began to take photos.
We sat silently and watched the pair in the canopy. After about 5 minutes, the birds called loudly and dove from the canopy of the tree as a juvenile Great Black-Hawk (Buteogallus urubitinga) flew in and landed exactly where the pair had been perched. The hawk, a predator of mostly small terrestrial and aquatic vertebrates, did not appear interested in attacking the macaws only in asserting its dominance and like so many youngsters, stirring up a bit of trouble. The macaws circled briefly and then headed off in the direction of the ranch house.
Free from the worries of scaring the macaws, all began to talk. Heinz hugged Pepe and announced with a huge grin that the trip was a success, and that Pepe's neck would be spared. They quickly told me that when they first entered the island the birds were perched on a broken topped palm. The same tree where they had nested when Pepe studied them years earlier. They showed me the nest. It was about 25 ft. up and like the other we had seen in the morning, it too was in a broken off palm. Pepe estimated that the birds should be starting to breed and may have already had eggs in the nest. I looked around and realized that the forest island itself was only about 2.5 acres in size and the vegetation was a mix of palms and larger broad-leaved trees. The land here was only about 5-6 ft. higher than the vast expanses of surrounding grassland, but this little bit was enough to prevent the island from being inundated during the wet season, allowing the palms and other trees to survive.
It was already 4 pm, but Heinz wanted to try and photograph the birds by the nest, so after the congratulations were done, the rest of us moved off as he hid behind a tree to wait. I decided to walk leisurely back to the truck, so I headed out across the grassland. As I walked, small groups of Peach-fronted and Dusky Conures hurried off towards their roosts and a large Jabiru Stork searched for fish trapped in the shrinking waters of the marsh. Just as I arrived at the truck, I heard the distant calls of the Blue-throats, and turned to watch the pair circle over the island and return to the same perch from where the hawk had scared them.
As I watched the sun set over the wide open spaces of the savannah, I tried to imagine what this area would have been like just a few decades earlier, before the boom in the macaw trade, when local people reported "huge flocks" of macaws filling the afternoon skies with their raucous calls. And I hoped that some day I would be able to return to work with local conservationists to help restore the populations of this magnificent bird so that future generations can continue to experience the exhilarating beauty of wild Blue-throated Macaws.
The Author: Don Brightsmith is finishing his doctorate in Zoology at Duke University where his work has focused on Brotogeris parakeets and other birds that nest in termite mounds in tropical rain forests. Starting in May of 1999 he will be supervising the Tambopata Macaw Research Project in Peru. Don also leads tours to Tambopata and the Bolivian savannahs. If you would like to travel to Peru or Bolivia, or just want more information, please contact him at (919) 471-0464, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his web page at http:\\www.duke.edu\~djb4\