The Birds and the Trees: interning at The Ara Project

I came into this internship with little idea of what to expect. I knew I wanted to strengthen my understanding of conservation management and of the breeding of scarlet macaws, but this can be achieved in many different ways. When Sam told me I was going to learn how to tree climb to install nest boxes, I was overjoyed. It was a perfect way of introducing me to important practical skills whilst making a valuable contribution to the birds and to the project.

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A scarlet macaw nest box mimics tree cavities of old trees or deep hallows of dead palm trees. It is essential to promote breeding in released and wild populations since most of these trees have been cut down. The nest boxes are securely fastened onto trees to provide a safe breeding space as many old palms cannot support the weight of heavy rain in the cavity and collapse from the pressure—bringing eggs from the nest down with it. Nest boxes also allow for us to estimate the wild population size and to monitor poaching.

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Incredible view for this nest box

On a drive back to Punta Islita, Sam stopped at the side of the road and picked up a couple blue soda barrels. He threw them onto the roof, quickly fastened them and jumped back into car and told me that those were future nest boxes. I didn’t understand how this was going to work. Back at Islita we looked at old nest boxes for inspiration on our new design and I realized how nifty this project really is. Almost all the materials are recycled—like repurposing the non-degradable soda barrels and modifying them with wood. But I was still boggled on how I was going to do this. I had almost no experience building and I was far from understanding how any power tools work (but I learned how cool electric drills are, they can do so much!!!!).

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After a day or two of experimenting with the tools, I started to realize that this isn’t so bad. That working all day long hidden from the sun in the bodega, listening to The Talking Heads on repeat and exchanging a couple random thoughts with anyone looking for a tool was actually comforting and a lot of fun. Nonetheless, building these boxes was still hard work—from sawing each piece of wood to getting the smell of grape soda out of the barrel, it sometimes felt endless. I grew a sense of empowerment the quicker and quicker I got at building them and the closer I got to putting them up in the tree.

 

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On this climb I had an unreal view on the valley, Ara project and Playa Islita.

Every time I got up to the top of the tree and sat above the deep canopy, I was shocked by the views I was witnessing. Sometimes the trees overlooked a vivid green valley, sometimes just leaves from the treetop and sometimes an unreal 360 view of all of Punta Islita. Despite these views, my favorite memories will always remain in the friends I met up in the tree.  Near the end of the first installation climb, Sam and I were visited by a family of howler monkeys that sat on my branch about 15 feet away from us. At first, the male’s deep howls and displays made us nervous and we were getting ready to quickly get out of the tree. But within a couple minutes, he calmed down and his curious little one approached us with its big black eyes.

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Sam and I, joining the howler monkey family!

My favorite memory comes from one of last trees I climbed. We chose this tree because it was tall and had a great opening from the canopy. But it was at the top of the valley, making me unsure if the birds would ever find it. When I got to the top of the tree early in the morning, I looked around at the view and saw four Scarlets flying down the valley and away from me. I was frustrated that my previous concerns were right—the birds probably wouldn’t find this tree. A little demoralized, I grabbed the metal wires and wrench and started to install the nest box. But within the next couple seconds, one of the four Scarlets turned back and sat on a branch on my tree. As if it was saying, “Don’t worry, we saw what you are doing! Thanks!” Within a blink of an eye, it flew away and rejoined its friends and I discovered a new confidence in this tree.

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Four Scarlets watching me install their new home!

I had an unbelievable time interning for The Ara Project and I really cannot believe how fast time has flown. I have learned so much about conservation, building and myself. By being pushed beyond my limits, I am realizing that I am capable of doing so much more than I let myself believe. But most importantly, I now understand that conservation revolves around experimentation and that these nest boxes have the potential to never be found and the potential to fruit many beautiful jewels of the jungle.

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I have grown a special connection to each of the tree I found and climbed and only hope that the Scarlets love them as much as I do. To the quirky family I found at The Ara Project, thank you for being so funny and weird—I’ll miss ya!

-Soph

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.