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A Sad end to the Vaca Muerta Nest

Sarah Faegre | Dec 11, 2007


December 9th (6:20pm)

A breeze has finally lifted the stifling humidity from the air and as the sun sets and dark clouds role in we hope for rain.  Funny how it has gone so quickly from daily inundations to a serious lack of drinking water after only four days without rain.  I suppose that we had become so accustomed to using as much water as we wanted that we didn't stop bathing and washing clothes until our supply of about 400 liters was half gone.  Now we're down to about 100 liters which, if necessary, will last the three of us 1-2 weeks...but life in the camp is much nicer when one can bathe.  The BTM nests of Isla 2 and Vaca Muerta are tranquilo-Manu and Goliath are big, but skinny, and we have had to give them each supplemental feeding once in the past two weeks. 

The thunder is rolling closer and the sky is changing from gray to dark blue-black.  Lightening flashes on the horizon to the west.  Blue-throated Macaws call their whiny screech from Isla 2.  The Vaca Muerta nest has thankfully not flooded and the female is very diligently incubating her three eggs.  She is quite a mess to look at from spending weeks inside her damp, muddy, nest cavity and it is increasingly easy to tell her apart from the brilliantly-colored, immaculate male. 

Yesterday I had the amazing opportunity to watch the male perform a unique bathing technique, taking advantage of a brief rain shower.  At first I thought he was just playing when he landed on a slender bunch of twigs and leaves and hung upside down, flapping his wings so that the small branches bounced up and down.  Then he took off and landed on another clump of leaves...and another...and as I watched him through my binoculars I could see the water that had collected in the leaves raining down on his ruffled feathers as he hung upside down, flapping his wings in just such a way that it shook the water off the leaves but did not break the twig he was clinging to.  After repeating his bat-bird bathing technique four times he flew to a larger branch where he landed upright and vigorously preened his damp, ruffled feathers.

Vicente and I hiked to Veiniuno today (a different nearby estancia) to familiarize ourselves with the route and meet the people who live there (particularly important since it is the closest estancia and airstrip in case of emergency) and also to initiate a trade of foods.  I have been desperately missing fruit since the mangos I hiked back from Tres Palmeras ran out a few days ago and Vicente hoped they might have some cheese and charque (dried meat).  He also knew that some of our excessive supply of noodles and chocolate cookies would be very happily welcomed by the folks living there. 

So, off we went, our backpacks loaded down with food, GPS on my belt, Vicente leading the way on what is normally no more than a 1-hour hike.  Two and a half hours later, exhausted and soaking wet we arrived after taking a rather round-about walk through the hummocky, flooded savannah.  We never found "the path", which turned out not to exist, but we arrived nonetheless, only to find it apparently deserted.  We wandered around the palm-roofed buildings, Vicente calling repeatedly, "Gente...?  Señora?"  Surprisingly, when he looked into one small building he saw a man, working away, totally oblivious to our presence.  Vicente had met him before, last year, and knew that the man was entirely deaf and so of course he had not hear Vicente calling.  Vicente thumped on the doorframe loud enough to cause vibrations and the man jumped with fright, spinning around and staring at us with confusion.  He soon remembered Vicente and invited us to sit down and have some bread and cheese and a yuca drink called chive.

Vicente communicated mostly by writing on a piece of paper when, at times, Ernesto couldn't read his lips.  We learned that all the Ventiuno gente (people) had gone by horse for a Sunday visit to another estancia.  Veintiuno had no mangos or achachairu but they did have guineo (tiny, sweet bananas), cheese and charque, which Ernesto gladly traded when we unpacked our food offerings.  After a relaxing hour, spent eating bread and cheese and drinking chive in the dry, palm thatched shade, our energy was restored and we began our return trip.  On the way out of the Veintiuno property I saw a flock of Peach-fronted Conures-a gorgeous little Aratinga parrot that is common around estancias, but absent from the 7-island area where the campamento is located.  This was the only commonly observed psittacid in the area that I had not seen here in the Beni and I was very excited to finally see them.  The little Blue-winged Parrotlets, which are nesting in an old hornero nest at Tres Palmeras, are gorgeous little creatures-the brilliant blue on the males' wings flashes in the sunlight with an iridescent, metallic brilliance.

December 10th

The mosquitoes are starting to form clouds.  As I sit in the escondite (blind), re-applying repellant ever half hour, the mosquitoes hum incessantly and cover every deet-free surface with a veil of their black bodies.  There are a lot of mosquitoes, but still, "this is nothing," says Vicente, who is in his second year with the project.  "When there are a lot of mosquitoes you can't even talk because if you open your mouth it fills with mosquitoes."  Even now, I have to put repellant all over my thighs and backside before going to the bathroom-my normal hand-waving technique is totally worthless-and I end up with a very itchy bum after a 10-second pee.

The water is starting to become a nuisance as well-yesterday, we waded back from Veintiuno though thigh-deep water, my water-filled rubber boots weighing me down with every step.  "But this is nothing," says Vicente.  "In January the water will be so high that your legs get wet and your boots fill with water even when you are on a horse!" 

December 11th

A sad, sad day for the parabas (macaws) and for the project-we have lost our Vaca Muerta nest.  What exactly is the combination of circumstances that led to the nest failure, we don't know, but I climbed this morning to find 2 of 3 eggs cracked and empty and the third cold and damp.  The nest cavity damp, but not flooded.  The adults were in a palm at the edge of the island when we entered and they have not returned to their nest.  I am now waiting in the blind to see if they come back at all, and to try and take a last photo or two.  I am curious to see if they have abandoned entirely of if they will come back to look in on their failed nest.  Did the nest flood, killing the eggs?  It is not flooded now, but it is certainly quite wet.  Could dampness alone kill the eggs?  Were the eggs fertile?  Were they abandoned for some other reason?  This couples' second failure of the season.  "Better luck next year, parabas," said Vicente.  "I hope you find a better nest."

The three eggs in the Vaca Muerta Nest met a sad end, despite all our attempts to protect them.

Look closely to see the partially developed embryo which died in the egg (the head is on the left—note the dark eye).