Thanks to the Ancient Summit, the best Tour Company to organize our time in Peru!
Fifteen red and green macaws perch on branches across three trees. They sit in pairs, except for one couple with a chick. They blend so well into the foliage, that to the unaided eye they look more like flowers than birds.
So I watch them through my binoculars. They survey the area. They call to one another. They groom themselves and their mates. The chick explores a nearby branch, gripping the wood inexpertly with its beak.
One macaw takes off and flies in a large circle, landing not far from where it began. Its mate calls out from its perch: Raah! And it calls back: Raah!
Cesar leans forward in his chair. “We are making progress,” he says.
We’re in a watchtower, 200 feet from the Macaw Clay Lick in Peru’s Manu National Park. The birds have been flying in, out, and around the area for over five hours now. They have been landing everywhere, it seems, but on the clay.
Even so, when Cesar tells me things are progressing, I believe him. He is my guide here in the Amazon Rainforest, and he has yet to lead me astray.
“See where the bird is now relative to the others?” He points to the macaw, which is lower in the tree than the others. “Once one macaw starts moving lower, the others will follow. Once one macaw lands on the clay, the others will land on the clay too, and they’ll begin to eat.”
There are different theories as to why the macaws come to eat the clay. Some believe that it coats the stomach, allowing them to eat otherwise toxic substances found in the rainforest. Others theorize that the clay provides the birds with essential nutrients.
The mate of the braver macaw now joins it, lower in the tree. Cesar and I share a smile. “Progress,” I say.
One question that’s been on my mind is why the birds are so fidgety about this whole exercise. Their average macaw is around 3 ft in length. Their curved beaks are powerful enough to crack open nutshells. Yet any time an ibis or blue heron flies low over the river, the macaws scatter temporarily in a patchwork of brilliant color.
I ask Cesar about predators. He says the macaw’s main predator is the harpy eagle. But human activity has also heavily impacted the animals. Habitat destruction, the illegal pet and feather trades, and local consumption of bird meat have resulted in mostly micro populations of the birds throughout the Amazon basin.
I begin to make notes in my journal, when Cesar suddenly says: “Here we go!” I look up, and it is happening at last. A bird higher up in the tree line swoops down and lands on the clay. A second follows, then a third. Soon there are 12 birds on the clay. They scrape at the red earth with their beaks; they push, pull and bite each other, all vying for a spot where natural curvatures of the cliffs provide a sort of landing place. It’s like a painting come to life.
One macaw finds a tree branch low enough to hang from, albeit upside down, and starts to eat. Another grabs the tail feathers of a third and pulls until the victim takes of off, providing the best view of all: with the macaw’s wings outstretched and flapping, the bird’s colors are at their most brilliant.
It now seems obvious why birds were so fidgety: against the neutral background of the clay, their brilliant colors couldn’t be more conspicuous.
Cesar puts my SD card in his camera and snaps away with his powerful lens. The thought occurs to me that I had considered opting for a few extra hours of sleep this morning instead of coming out here, and I am reminded of what a difference a great guide makes.
The simple events and colors unfolding in front of me are captivating. There must be 10 different shades of blue when the macaw’s wings are fully extended. I take in as much as possible, knowing the photos will never do this experience justice. The birds eventually get their fill, and begin leaving the area, one pair at a time.
Back at the Manu Wildlife Center, (MWC) we eat lunch as Cesar tells me about the lodge’s Scarlet Macaw Project. MWC began the program to help address birds’ near disappearance from the area.
Macaws generally lay two eggs per nest, and in most cases only 1 of the chicks survives into adulthood. MWC volunteers collect one egg from the nests and bring them to MWC. There the birds hatch and are raised until they are old enough to be released into the wild. The MWC has also hung long vertical boxes nearby to provide places for the birds to build their nests.
Part of the revenue generated from my stay at MWC goes towards the project. In fact Ancient Summit, the organization that organized this trip, exists in part to fund conservation through tourism.
After lunch I had intended to lie down in a hammock and finish my book. But instead I find myself putting my rain boots back on and following Cesar along a muddy path through the jungle. “We leave the mud exposed instead of covering it with leaves,” Cesar says. “It’s easier to detect the snakes that way.”
10 minutes along the path brings us to the Scarlet Macaw Project. Either because I’m alone or because of my newfound interest in the bird, Cesar does not take me to the regular viewing area. Rather we walk up onto the clay lick the lodge is working to cultivate. He introduces me to an employee who is working on the project. Then we sit down and once again we wait.
It is now the late afternoon, and each day at this hour, MWC leaves corn and sunflower seeds on the red clay cliffs where these macaws were raised. As before, the birds arrive and land in the trees around us. The employee plays a recording of a macaw from the clay lick, letting them know it’s safe. Slowly, but more quickly than this morning, the birds approach the wall. At last one lands on it and begins to pick up the grains left for them.
Each day the MWC counts the number of birds that return. Today we count 22.
Ceasar pours some of the feed into my hand. I squat down and after a few minutes a scarlet macaw sifts through the corn kernels I’m holding, in search of the preferred sunflower seeds. In one swift motion, the bird picks up a shell, cracks it open, retrieves the seed with its tongue and spits the shell back out.
I stroke the bright red feathers under its chin with my thumb while it focuses on the food. The feathers are softer than I had imagined, and I experience the thrill of interacting with a wild animal. I am a part of a process to help ensure this bird’s existence in the area. An animal that had previously held no interest to me is now something I am thrilled to be a part of preserving. And that is a wonderful feeling.
Best time to see the macaws: Red and green macaws can be seen during the dry season, from May through October. You will likely to see the greatest number of Macaws during the months of July and August.
Traveler: Laura Fine Morrison
Photos by: Cesar Coavoy
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