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Cops and roost watches

Sam Williams, PhD | Feb 03, 2019


My roost count plan started to unravel because predictably, I was late. I tore myself away from the computer, hurled belongings at an overnight bag, made a coffee to go and ran to the car. The drive would take close to two hours. Only, the oil light was obnoxious and didn’t go out. No problem I had oil in the house for the top up. Sarah had said there were house keys in the car, panicking I took a quick look but they were the set for the old house from which we’d recently moved. I was locked out. By the time I’d been to the shop and sorted the oil it was hopeless. There’s no point going to count parrots. If you are going to be late. All the action might have happened in the five minutes when you were supposed to be there but weren’t and then your observations of nothing are completely and utterly wrong, worse even, they may be misleading. 

I mulled over the options and reluctantly concluded it would be best to just stay at home and I’d also save money by not needing a night in a cabina. Sarah was of course right and on closer inspection I saw she had switched over the key ring so I did have the house keys. I didn’t have to wait for her to return from her bike ride. Having had coffee I’d blast through a bunch the work that had made me late in the first place as a small compensation. In the morning I’d make an early start and get to the roost before dawn. 

Sometimes I find it frustrating that I have to live with my brain all the time. With stress running a bit high my brain woke me at 230am. This is not unusual. Fortunately on this Sunday morning it was perfect, just 15 minutes before my alarm. I was on the road in a jiffy and already ahead, happy that on this trip the roads would be empty. 

I arrived at the roost observation point far earlier than necessary. I’d crossed the mountains to the north of San Jose and dropped down towards the Caribbean lowlands where the rainforest is home to Great Green Macaws. I was nowhere near the Caribbean Sea it’s just that rain falling here flows out to the Caribbean, whereas on the other side of the hills it flows into the Pacific. My viewpoint was a remote cattle pasture where the forests used to be, overlooking a valley where the forest still was. This of course was all inferred, nothing could be seen, it was pitch black. I slipped under a line of electric fence and walked up to the highest point. Sitting on an old yoga mat with my notebook and binoculars at the ready I had a long wait ahead. I was only 150 feet from the car but I could have been in a field of dewy grass anywhere in the world. 

The sky was turning blue black and the dawn was approaching when two distant torches (flashlights) appeared further along the pasture maybe a quarter of a mile away. I was surprised because I thought I was going to be on my own. Maybe it was other volunteers who were joining the count. Being a nice chap, I shone my bright torch in their general direction to guide them to where I was sat. I even waved which was I quickly realized, not particularly useful in the dark. They called out and hooted but that didn’t seem necessary to me so I remained quiet. I laughed at myself when the beams of their lights swooped across the pasture and they circled back. They were farmers presumably bringing in cattle for milking. Not long after a motorbike pootled up the dirt road and past my car. I thought little of it. A moment later it returned. By now the sky had passed through inky blue and colours were appearing. I guessed the macaws might be waking up in 15 minutes or so. 

Ten minutes later the motorbike returned and this time is stopped where my car was out of sight around the curve of the hill. I wasn’t about to miss the birds but given that macaws are pretty obvious I figured I should go and check things were ok. As I rounded the hill I could see red and blue lights flashing lazily on the car’s back window. It was the police. 

I’ve found that the observing of parrots often requires an open mind when it comes to fences and fields. The farmer’s mind however was firmly closed. It was undeniable that he was right, and rather annoyingly the first policeman confirmed that I was indeed trespassing. In my experience the best way to handle these situations, for this was not my first, is to be very polite and to act as though one had no idea. And so I began with introductions and handshakes all round, followed with a good waving of my binoculars which is often a good get out of jail free pass. Luckily they were aware of the Great Green Macaw’s importance and understood the notion that I might genuinely be counting them. 

The second policeman seemed to find the whole thing rather amusing for which I was very grateful. The first was a little more serious and he took down my name and passport number, which I think I remembered correctly. When the farmer explained that people were entering this very field and murdering his cows to steal meat my shock was honest and I understood his concern and applogised profusely. I assured them I was vegetarian and I think I didn’t really fit the profile of someone who might hack the hind leg of a farmer’s cow. I was allowed to stay and importantly they left me alone before any macaws had flown over.  

Unlike good children, macaws are seldom seen but not heard. I’d barely sat back down when a loud squawk from over the forest announced the imminent arrival of macaws. It was 5.31am. At 5.34 I heard another squawk. The early start was going to be worth it but Oh what teases they were being! With a little spike of adrenaline, I eagerly searched the skyline for them. At 5.37am distant flappy things turning into a group of macaws arriving over the hill from the south. The light was wonderful and it shone on their vibrant colours. Thought of as just another boring green parrot the Great Green Macaw was not traded as much as the more showy species like Scarlets. However, when they fly the colours are astounding. Their wings are full of blue, their rump is aqua-marine and their tail blends a rainbow of colours from deep red to yellow. They are truly magnificent macaws! 


The group numbered 11 macaws. What a wonderful sight! The tingle of excitement is addictively good. From the viewpoint I had a fabulous panorama and I could follow them as the arched across the sky. A couple of surprised calls and a little wobble in their flight path as they flew over, told me they had seen me. In these moments I regret that I am alone, this is something so beautiful I want to share it. My writing can hardly do the experience justice. 

At 5.38am another pair flew over and at 5.41 another. I was still smiling from the first group. For such a small and population this was a decent sized roost. Off they went to the north and out of sight. It was 6.38am before I saw another group this time six macaws flying on a near identical flight path as the earlier birds. These were the late sleepers, I’d have been in the first group. They were quickly followed by a pair, a single bird and then lastly another pair. What an amazing morning. 
These truly wild macaws are part of Costa Rica’s remaining wild population in the north of the country and we are trying to work out just how many there are. On this same morning dotted across other locations were dedicated volunteers who were also at known roosts. This was our first crack at a count and we know there’s more to be done to ensure we have a good estimate. When we are able to monitor the parrot’s numbers over many years we can evaluate how things are going and importantly how effective our conservation efforts are. There’s little point working away for years without checking to see it we are having the impact we hope we are. We did this on Bonaire and the roost counts there continue. Indeed, just last month was Echo’s annual census and they had highest number of Yellow shouldered Amazon Parrots ever counted. Let’s hope we see that with the Great Greens. 

Dear reader, since the moment those macaws flew past I’ve been wanting to tell you about my adventures. Predictably it has taken me a little while to write it up. Right now it’s already the macaw’s breeding season and many of those individuals in the groups I watched have split off into their pairs and they are busy at their nests. We have a team of six guys who are in the field every day monitoring those nests (We’re not sexist at our Punta Islita site our volunteer team consists of 9 girls and one fella! It’s just how it worked out). With our new organization the Macaw Recovery Network we are excited to contribute to the conservation of Costa Rica’s wild Great Greens. I know you’ve heard me promise to write more once or twice before. I’ll do what I can but you might also want to check out our new website, where there will be lots of other updates and you can sign up for our newsletter. For those of you who are inclined you can also find us at and we’ll be adding beautiful images on instagram @macawrecoverynetwork 

If you’ve enjoyed my overdue return to blogging please contact me through the Macaw Recovery Network. If I find there’s even just one reader out there I might be more motivated to post more tales. I could even address my ramblings to you personally. Thanks!