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Morning at the Colpa

Elizabeth Hobson | Jan 13, 2010


Many species of birds and mammals have been observed eating clay at sites around the world. A cliff just upriver from the Tambopata Research Center has been called the largest parrot clay lick in the world. Over time, the river has eroded the bank at this site to create a tall and quite long exposed cliff face of clay. Although the clay lick is large compared to other sites, what truly sets it apart from other clay licks is the immense number of individual birds which congregate at the clay lick and the incredible species diversity.  With other clay licks, a species may be found in the surrounding area, but may for some reason never visit the clay.  At TRC, up to 17 species of macaws, parrots, parakeets, and parrotlets use the lick. All species found within the local area visit the clay. 

Activity at the clay lick begins around dawn. Researchers ready to record data on clay lick behavior and ecotourists excited to view the amazing spectacle pile into boats which take them the short distance upriver to the observation point. Human activity is timed to minimize disturbance for the birds, and everybody settles in just before dawn. The first birds arrive in the grey light just before the sky is colored by the dawn, flying in pairs or small groups, calling loudly in the heavy humid air. The birds generally land in the trees on the brink of the cliff and gather into groups in this staging area. The sun rises and gradually the colors are revealed - a flash of a scarlet macaw in one tree, a wink of green and yellow on an amazon parrot in another.

Eventually, a group of individuals flies from the trees and circles over the clay, starting what is known locally as the "dance". This flocking behavior differs widely from day to day, and appears to differ based on the species of parrots in the flocks. If red-bellied macaws begin the dance, the flock is usually composed of a small number of individuals, usually all red-bellies. The flock is usually very compact and they tend to circle tightly over their preferred area on the cliff, and land after only a few minutes. On the other hand, if blue-headed parrots are the main species in the flock, species composition tends to be much more varied and the flock may be comprised of several parrot and macaw species, as well as a few parakeets. Blue-headed parrot majority flocks tend to be very large and sometimes include several hundred individuals of multiple species. These flocks tend to circle over a much larger area of the cliff, flying almost its entire length, and circle for a much longer time, anywhere from 15-45 minutes before finally landing on the clay. Blue-headed parrot flocks were some of my favorite days observing at the clay lick. As the flock circles in front of the clay cliff, their path leads them directly over the observation point. Hundreds of birds skim low over the scrubby trees of the river floodplain and whoosh over our heads in a cacophony of parrot calls and a kaleidoscope of color.

The flocking behavior or "dance" ends when the birds finally land on the clay. Usually a few birds land initially, but are joined within minutes by hundreds more. Through the scope, I could see birds scraping off beakfuls of clay. The large macaws would sometimes break off large chunks of clay and either eat them while perched on the cliff, precariously hanging on with one foot and holding the clay clump in the other to eat it, or would fly off, carrying the clay in their beaks, to eat at their leisure in a nearby tree.

29. June 2003 - Letter Home
The dance was spectacular this morning. Hundreds of parrots and macaws formed a huge mixed flock that circled in front of the clay wall, then shifted to fly out of sight towards the fish pond, only to come roaring back directly overhead. It's an absolutely incredible sight, and totally made up for the rest of the morning - in the next 5 hours of observation, I recorded 3 pigeons on the clay.