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Todo Tranquilo in Macaw-land

Sarah Faegre | Dec 03, 2007


All is tranquil at the Vaca Muerta nest and we can't wait for the Christmas babies to hatch!

December 1

Back at the campamento after a short, piranha-free visit to the main camp at the estancia, Tres Palmeras, about 10 km away.  I swam the ever-widening river and floated my belongings across the same way the locals do-tie everything up in a big, canvas rain poncho and tow it across while swimming.  The horses swim too, of course, and it is much less scary swimming next to a horse because the turmoil of their kicking legs is said to scare away the piranhas.  When we arrived at the crossing on the way back there was a large caiman floating in the chocolate-colored water-but the caiman don't worry me-they are smart enough to know that my toes are not fish.  The piranhas, on the other hand...

All is well at the estancia, minus the stud horse and Sarah D.'s hands.  The young stallion dropped dead quite suddenly, after an attempted treatment for an unknown illness.  They dragged the carcass off a ways, but the dogs still make many trips daily to their new restaurant, "Caballo Muerto."  The stench of death hovers near Tres Palmeras with the dogs, but it is a very happy, stinky home.  Poor Sarah D. no longer has the use of her hands, at least for a few weeks, until the blisters heal.  She slid down a climbing rope after forgetting to attach the figure-eight to the harness before descending from the 7-meter nest.  Sarah is very distraught by her sudden handicap but is holding amazingly well considering the difficulties of living out here without the use of your hands.  "I am the foreman now," she joked, as she pretended to direct me and Matthew in our wood-chopping attempts.

At the river crossings on the way to and from the estancia we got obstructed glimpses of the incredible Hoatzin, an amazing bird that might be described as a giant, prehistoric, painted chicken.  The Hoatzin has bright blue skin around its eyes, crazy, spiked yellow hair-do, rufus primaries which glow red in the sun and contrast with tan secondaries and body coverts.  Bright red eyes and red leggings on the upper thighs, like bloomers, and a long, full, black and white patterned tail are a few of its striking plumage characteristics.  Its distinctive, reptile-like hiss is the first sign of its presence, as it is always hidden in the thick, riverside vegetation.  By following the hisses, one can soon spot the clumsy movements of this large, but rather shy bird.  How I would love to get a clear photo of the Hoatzin, but for that, I will need a day at the river.

December 3rd

A cool, cloudy day at Vaca Muerta, watching the tranquil BTM nest.  How it has survived such a tremendous amount of rain without flooding I do not know, but I am thankful.  Mom is incubating her eggs non-stop and all is well.  Her eggs will hatch between the 17th and the 25th of December-Christmas babies! 

The rainy season is here in full force and the mosquito season is just beginning.  Already we are starting to feel that our island is just that...there are not many places we can still walk to without the water rising over our rubber boots.  Yesterday I tried to walk down the "road" to Isla 4, normally a 30 minute walk in the dry season.  It took me an hour of wading carefully through the deep water and making large detours around ponds too deep for my boots.  It is very tedious walking through flooded savannah and I can't say that I'm terribly fond of it.  But just to put things in perspective, this is "very little" water, compared to the massive flooding that will occur during late December and all of January.  Probably our little Isla Chiquita will flood entirely, says Vicente, and we will have to move to a higher island.  This is the first year the project has camped on Isla Chiquita because the camp location is determined by where, throughout the 7 islands, the BTM nests are located.  Isla Chiquita is the perfect location for visiting the nest on the adjoining Isla 2, but as the rainy season progresses, the walk to Vaca Muerta will eventually become impossible, unless you accept that your boots will flood and you will be very wet for a while (which is a likely outcome, unless we get a horse or move the camp to Vaca Muerta).  There is already talk of moving the camp to Vaca Muerta, come the end of December, when Manu and Goliath have fledged-but only if we have help from the neighboring estancia, Veintiuno, and the use of their ox-pulled cart.

I've been in the field for three weeks now and I finally feel that I can reliably tell apart the vocalization of the 3 large macaw species.  Normally I have a good ear for bird and animal sounds and I have been rather disconcerted during my time here to be the only one who can not differentiate between the raucous screeching of the blue-and-gold macaws and the slightly whinier BTMs.  The Rojas are easier to differentiate-their dinosaur sized voice matches their gigantic bill.

As for the conservation aspect of this project, I am actually surprised by how well the BTMs are doing.  I was imagining a species nearly doomed by predators and competitors-Blue-and-gold Macaws and Toco Toucans stealing all the best nest cavities, toucans, iguanas, snakes, hawks and owls snatching eggs and chicks from nests left and, sitting in the blinds 24/7 with slingshots and pelting the invaders with mud balls.  I am happy to see that in reality it is a much more tranquil seen-a hopeful scene, where the BTMs are not being mercilessly persecuted by the larger, more abundant macaw species.  In fact, the Isla 2 nest belonged to a pair of Rojas (Green-winged Macaws) last year and it is probably no coincidence that pair of Rojas is always nearby-probably waiting for the BTM chicks to fledge so they can use the cavity for themselves.

Vaca Muerta female in nest (note drain holes, created by the team to help flood-proof the nest)

The river crossing