Birds, bees and babies

Bees, they make fantastic honey, but not room mates and with breeding season just around the corner, it was time for them to move along. As you can imagine, dealing with a hive of Africanised honey bees, in an artificial nest box, up a 20 ft tree wasn’t a task for the faint hearted. Luckily, Jack & Tom (field and site managers are now also budding amateur bee keepers) suited up and retrieved the buzzing, old nest box.

Following the advice of a local professional, they left the nest box on the ground for 24 hours to allow the bees to calm down. With them being killer bees, it was probably a wise move. The plan was to have the nest box collected by this local enthusiast so he could safely remove and harvest the honey. But, as we all know, things don’t always go to plan. The next day we arrived expecting a nest box full of bees, instead we were faced with the surprise of an empty barrel.

As it happens, the local wildlife had cleared out the bees and in reward feasted on their delicious honey. So, the dangerous part of the job was now done, free of charge. Talk about ecosystem services! Jack and Tom could now bring the box back to our site with the threat of the “killer” bees, thankfully, just a memory.

Usually, as the Media Assistant of the project, I spend my days behind the lens of a camera, capturing the beauty of the Macaws here in Costa Rica. However, with so much to do in preparation for the upcoming breeding season, I volunteered my services to restore this well loved nest along side the rest of the team. With 80 nest boxes to rebuild everyone was chipping in, in anyway they could.

Having followed the staff around for the last five months, photographing their every move, I had a pretty good idea of where to start. Or so I thought, the realisation of the task at hand now dawned on me. No longer was I documenting our efforts to save parrots, I was now doing it. Me, responsible for the success or failure of a pair of Scarlet Macaws breeding? Daunting to say the least. So, with my bucket of soapy water and scraper, I set to work on the first step towards making this nest box usable once again. Step 1: completely eradicate all traces of invasive bees.

Before I could start making any exciting changes to this recycled nest box, it had to be scraped and scrubbed, using a lot of elbow grease! The exterior of the barrel was coated with the remnants of last years camouflage: a mixture of PVA glue and saw dust. But, after hacking away at it with my scraper, it eventually came away making it fairly easy to remove. Next, all the furniture had to be removed and discarded as any trace of the bee’s pheromones left on the box would attract a new swarm next year. On to the wax…


Now, I’m not going to take all the credit, I did have some help. Who knew bees wax would be so hard to remove? My reinforcements arrived in the form of Jack (the field biologist) who, thankfully, had a lot more elbow grease than me. Between us though, we managed to eradicate all traces of those pesky bees from the inside of the barrel. So, by using hot water, soap, scrubbers, scrapers, knives, bleach, more hot water and several hours of our time, we were well on our way.

With the Costa Rican sunlight ebbing away behind the trees, it was time to call it a day and get a well deserved cup of tea.

Full of excitement and coffee, it was time to tackle a new day. We headed down to the bodega (or, as this Brit calls it, “the tool shed”) and began. Having gone through the plan earlier, I knew I needed to accurately cut the wood and bolt it to the inside of the barrel. This needed to be equally placed so that the same bolt could be used to hold the exterior wooden panelling. The exterior wood is not only aesthetically pleasing to the Macaws, but it also acts as a thermal insulator, preventing the nest box from over heating during the dry season, when temperatures reach highs of 40 degrees Celsius. The interior wood doesn’t act as a thermal insulator, but rather, they are blocks to be chewed and gnawed upon, which is a natural behaviour and in turn creates the soft bed in the nest. A necessary step in turning a hole into a home. This will hopefully become a soft, safe place to incubate the egg. To some, this may only be cutting wood and sticking it on a barrel, but to me this was creating a safe and functional home for these magnificent parrots.

As this style of artificial nest box is now two years old our team has learned a lot and now there were many plans for their improvement. Jack, who has been working out in the field monitoring the nest boxes for the past 10 months, has been developing an ideal profile of what the Macaws need and want from a nest box. Along with Tom and Sam (Site Manager & Executive Director), he created new designs and a check list of what all nest boxes needed to have to interest the Macaws and help them raise their young successfully. It was the team’s job to ensure each nest box met these specifications. Some of them were almost complete, whilst the one I was working on was very basic. This meant a little more work, but I was pleased about this as it meant I could see the entire process through, from start to finish. With the three conservation specialists on our team, I had no doubt that these nest boxes where going to exceed expectations. After all, our Macaw clientèle are pretty picky so we have to ensure these meet their high expectations!

Some of the changes needed were to include drainage holes and air ventilation. Due to Costa Rica’s extreme weather, the nest boxes go through intense heat and rainfall, so it was important to take both into account. After a full day using power tools, I was an expert with a power drill and fearlessly wanted to be the one to drill the holes. Well, that was until Jack opened the box of new drill bits needed. It looked like something from a horror film, the bits were big, spiky and scary! Not wanting to back out, I shakily took the drill and its new monstrous attachments and began creating holes in the bottom of the barrel then moving onto the sides.

Because Jack is managing all the refurbishments of the wild population nest boxes, he was never far from my side, ensuring I had the correct technique and was safe throughout the process. Thankfully, he had more confidence in my skills than I did and encouraged me to keep doing the “scary” jobs as well.

One of the most important improvements for this particular nest box was a side hatch. This is a little door on the side of the barrel, which will allow The Ara staff to gain safe access to nest inside without causing stress to parents or chicks. The door is invisible from the inside and can only be unlatched from the outside, preventing any accidents. Having these being very successful in some of boxes, we knew they all needed to have side entry.

This is vital to our work, as we need to monitor the wild population and their chicks, this includes weighing and conducting health checks, as well as ringing them. Without this little side door, our staff would have huge difficulty when suspended from a 20ft tree trying to gain access to a chubby chick at the bottom a barrel through a hole just larger than your fist.

Now, with some context, you can understand that when Jack asked me to cut this door out of the side of the barrel, I was a little nervous. One, because its an important feature of the nest box, and two, using a power saw on a cylindrical object didn’t seem too wise. The image of me sawing my leg off had popped in to mind, but trying not to be dramatic, I tackled it head first taking his advice to drill an opening hole first. I know what your thinking, and yes, both my legs stayed attached. It was the best door I had ever made, the first too, but still the best. Feeling as proud as punch, I made sure to show everyone that walked past. It was now a good place to stop for lunch before the midday heat took hold. Smiling away to myself I left the bodega feeling eager to get the nest box finished.

With a few more amendments to make and only a few hours of sunlight left, we cracked on. Next we attached the roof, which has a few functions, similar to the exterior wood it acts as an thermal insulator, it also provides shade from the suns rays going into the box and most obviously it protect the nest from the rain. Which after drilling all those holes was definitely needed. The next item to check off our list was a ladder. Sounds strange? I was confused at first too, but because the barrels are quite deep (perfect for nesting) the Macaws need a way to get in and out. So ensuring they have something to climb onto is vital, the ladder isn’t usually made out of wood as you would think, for the simple fact we don’t want them chewing it for bedding and then becoming stuck inside! So, it is made from metal, safe and practical. While Jack created a ladder from thick chain, I drilled the holes (my new talent) ready for it to be put in place. Once in place, there’s only one task left, sanding the metal bolts down. As confident and brave as I’ve become with power tools, I thought best to leave this one with the pro. So, while Jack ground away any extruding metal, sparks flying everywhere, I stood back and admired our hard work. An overwhelming sense of pride came over me, knowing that with team work and determination we have managed to make a beautiful nest box for a pair of Scarlet Macaws. Hopefully, in the next 6 months this will also become a home for a chick or maybe even two.

Conservation work comes in all different forms. Being able to step into a role I wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to do has opened my eyes to how much work, science and knowledge goes into these seemingly small projects. Without the amazing team at The Ara Project and all the generous donations we receive we wouldn’t be able to do these vital projects and for me, to be a part of that, it is something incredible.

As I’m sat here reflecting on this and thinking about the implications of the work that we do, I’m rudely woken from my daydream by a painful sting from a hairy caterpillar that has crawled across my hand!

But right now, even a stinging hand can’t dampen my spirits.

Now….how do we get this back up a 20ft tree?

About the Author
Staff and volunteers at The Ara Project come from all over the world and all walks of life! Some of us have years of experience working with parrots and in conservation and for some of us, this work is brand new! But we all have one thing in common which is that we're dedicated to helping these beautiful birds roam free once again in Costa Rica.