The race to save a rainforest icon

Tambopata Macaw Project: The race to save a rainforest icon

Hola! I have recently returned from a trip to Peru where I have been volunteering as a field research assistant at the Tambopata Macaw Project (TRC). This trip was a dream come true as I have always wanted to go to the Amazon and work with Macaws. During my time at TRC I had the chance to work with lots amazing people and I have learnt a lot about how animals interact with the amazonian environment. I have a small article coming out In the the Australian Parrot Society magazine about my time at TRC thatI wrote with Annie Hawkins the field leader.  I have attached it below:

My eyes flash open to a cacophony of screeches and roars bellowing through my window. My mind slowly catches up to my senses and I realise that I am no longer surrounded by the comforts of Australia; rather I have woken up in the heart of the Amazon Basin. I draw back the mosquito net over my bed and greet the boisterous Howler monkeys outside my window that had the nerve to wake me up before my alarm. Despite the rude awakening, I am soon on my way to the most extensively studied clay-lick in South America. By 5:00 am I am sitting with a group of international volunteers and researchers, contemplating how ten-year old me would have never believed that I would one day live out my childhood fantasy – to escape to the Amazon jungle and work with macaws.

Blue and Yellow Macaws and Red and Green Macaws coming down to the clay.
Blue and Yellow Macaws and Red and Green Macaws coming down to the clay.

The Tambopata Research Centre (TRC) is nestled on the banks of the Tambopata River in the Madre De Dios Department of Peru, 6 hours by boat from civilisation. A Peruvian architect, Eduardo Nycander founded the research centre in 1989 just a 5 minute boat ride from the Collpa Colorado, the largest and most biodiverse known avian clay-lick in South America, and arguably the world. Close to 20 parrot species, including 6 macaw species consume this clay, normally right after sunrise. In 1999 Professor Donald Brightsmith, an onithologist from Texas A&M University, became the director and expanded the centre’s focus to include how the macaws interact with their environment ecologically and physiologically.

I followed this Scarlet Macaw from when he was only about 30 days old until he fledged (90 days) and was in charge of measuring him everyday
I followed this Scarlet Macaw from when he was only about 30 days old until he fledged (90 days) and was in charge of measuring him everyday

Information gathered from the clay lick surveys are used to investigate why the macaws consume the clay and to explore seasonal dynamics and patterns of clay lick usage. There are multiple theories as to why the birds come down to the clay such as toxin neutralisation and mineral supplementation. The importance of sodium has been explored in detail at TRC and is believed to be the main driving force of clay lick consumption in the area. The unripened fruits and seeds that the macaws forage on lack adequate levels of sodium to sustain normal bodily processes. We have observed that macaws spend more time on the clay lick during their breeding season; if the birds were consuming the clay to neutralise toxins we would expect the time spent on the clay to be consistent throughout seasons. Sodium is an important compound needed for the healthy development of chicks as it facilitates cell signalling, which occurs at a higher rate during early development. From October until April the research centre is full of life as the Macaws are busy establishing nests and raising chicks. This period of time is the most interesting for researchers as we begin studying macaw breeding behaviour. Gaining access to macaw nests requires climbing up to 30m into the canopy, an impressive physical exertion. There can be upward of 38 different nest that are climbed by trained researchers and monitored daily. These are Scarlet and Red-and-Green Macaw nests, which are either artificially installed nest boxes or natural cavities found in hardy ironwood trees. Blue-and-Yellow macaws nest in hollowed out dead palm trees, which are difficult to climb and currently not being accessed.

One of the jobs us researchers at TRC had to do on a daily basis was climb up to the artificial nest boxes and check on the baby Macaws. Once we put the babies into the bucket we could lower them to the researchers below to be weighed and measured.

Once the chicks have been safely lowed to the veterinarians below, they are weighed, measured, appropriate samples are taken and their body condition is assessed. A few weeks before they fledge, chicks look like chubby, clumsy versions of their parents; they even weigh more than an adult. The average weight of an adult macaw is around 900 grams and chicks can get up to 1,400 grams. After the vet’s assessment the chicks are raised 30m back up into the canopy and the climber will return the chicks to their nest. When the chicks are placed safely back into their nest, the parents normally return and the climber may be lucky enough to see them preen and softly coo to their chicks. Sitting 30m above the ground is a unique working environment to say the least, but experiencing this process is life changing for myself and any other passionate naturalists that has had the chance to be apart of this research.

Deep in thought measuring one of the chicks from 'Candamo'.
Deep in thought measuring one of the chicks from ‘Candamo’.

Conservation is a very difficult field to be immersed in, as it is often a case of 1 step forward and 10 steps back. In Peru macaw populations are under continual pressure from habitat loss as large expanses of natural areas are threatened by the agriculture and gold mining industries. This pressure has only gotten worse in recent years as the Interoceanic Highway was constructed between major ports of Brazil and Peru in 2012. This super highway has significantly increased the amount of gold mining activity along the Made De Dios river, which is of a particular concern to the macaws of Tambopata. A telemetry study was conducted at TRC to determine the range size of individual macaws and it was found that they could travel up to 150km in search of resources. This only highlights the importance of securing and enforcing large expanses of natural protected areas to ensure that macaws and other wildlife are protected from threats within the buffer and matrix.   The macaw populations in Tambopata reserve are the largest and most contiguous of all South America and the research at TRC is a vital part of their success. More than half of all macaw species are either endangered or extinct therefore the more we know about the species the better management decisions we can design and implement. The continual research at TRC is imperative for the longevity and conservation of macaws in the area as well as declining populations throughout the neotropics. If you are interested about the work carried out at TRC or you would like to become a volunteer or visit the research centre please be directed to the contact information below.

Website Macaw Project-​​

Macaw Project Facebook Page-​ Tamopata Macaw Project

Photo Credit to Cover Photo: Tom Lloyd


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