I watch the waves lapping serenely at Playa Islita, reflecting on my first month volunteering with The Ara Project when, with a thud, a beach almond plummets to my feet. I don’t need to look up to know who threw it: a wild Scarlet Macaw, one of The Ara Project’s previously released flock, gnawing contentedly at husk after husk of its favourite treat. I have to get back to site in time for the 2pm feeding, but I know once 4:30pm rolls around the flock will join me by the Guanacaste tree for their turn. Although the food I fill their feeders with contribute only a fraction of the wild birds’ diets they are most certainly appreciated, and it makes for a pretty amazing view. Without a doubt, watching these released birds swooping in to feed at sunset is a highlight of the day I’ll never tire of.
I arrived at The Ara Project’s Punta Islita site two months ago, to join the first intake of a new apprenticeship programme. Beginning right in time for the up-coming breeding season, we’re set to cover a comprehensive curriculum from captive breeding of macaws, monitoring of wild populations – as, of course, our goal is the eventual release of as many captive-bred parrots as possible – to a broader insight into the workings of a non-governmental conservation organisation.
My background in the area is solely through volunteering so I know being here is going to involve acquiring many new skills, facing new challenges and all the lessons learned from overcoming them; and I’m both incredibly excited and grateful for that opportunity! Personally, I can’t wait to see what the macaws themselves have to teach me and to find my strengths within the team. First and foremost, I have become responsible for eleven pairs of Scarlets in the aviary called Curu.
One of the most enjoyable things about working with the same aviary on a daily basis is that you get to know each individual bird and how they act as part of their pair. Not only is this fun, it’s also a very important part of facilitating a successful breeding season. Knowing what stresses a macaw out means we can avoid it, and knowing how each one likes to move around the enclosure lets us arrange perches and enrichment in a way that’s both comforting and stimulating for the pair. The idea is that the happier the parrot, the more inclined they will be to breed!
Of course, with some pairs it’s not so simple.
Take Gonzo and Owen in Curu 10 for example. Gonzo can’t fly despite his best efforts, but Owen (actually a female) can. So the perches must be arranged in a way that Gonzo, whose posture is decidedly wonky, can balance on and climb along whilst giving Owen space to exercise his wings.
Another couple of pairs who I’m paying particular attention to this breeding season are Curu 6 and Curu 8. These guys and girls are last year’s breeding pairs. Unsurprisingly, they’re quite aggressive toward humans. Upon entering the enclosure, the female of Curu 6 – parents of Boubou, last year’s fledgling, will spread her wings to show her dominance, whereas Curu 8 prefers lunging at you from their branches – that is, when they’re not inside their nest boxes. As these pairs start to show breeding behaviour I’m going to have to take special care to keep noise and activity to a minimum.
Now that our apprenticeship has begun, I’m very eager to get stuck into some tree climbing, nest monitoring and starting to recognise breeding behaviour but first – nest boxes!
It’s surprising how much construction is involved in conservation! Our first project as apprentices has been to design and build new nest boxes with housing for a small, removable camera. Fortunately, I can already feel how far I’ve come since fumbling with tools and materials to make enrichment toys in my first week; in fact I’m finding the ability to build with my own hands rewarding and almost addictive. Luckily, because pairs can start showing breeding signs any time from December onwards – so we’re really working against the clock!
Although parrot conservation is an area that I’ve come into seemingly by chance, the more I get to know the macaws and the work that goes into protecting them, the more motivated I become to contribute to the cause.
As the apprenticeship and breeding season come into full swing, I can’t wait to learn more about macaw behaviour and what it takes to manage this kind of conservation project; and to hopefully witness my very first successful hatching in Curu!