The Joy of Flying Free
The weeks leading up to the release of thirteen Scarlet Macaws from the Punta Islita site of the Ara Project were some of the busiest the project has recently experienced. Countless hours were spent readying the birds (and ourselves) for this milestone and I was thrilled to be a part of it, especially considering the release has been a long-term plan for the project and I was able to see the results after being here for only two months.
As the birds tip-toed to the edge of the freshly-opened aviary and paused with the forest before them, I glanced around at the staff, volunteers and supporters who quietly looked on in anticipation. Each of our backgrounds, origins and personal reasons for why we came to the project varied, but on the morning of January 30th we showed up together for the birds and the stories they will write as they fly free.
The suspense of waiting for the birds to take flight lasted nearly an hour. During that time, cameras were adjusted, reports whispered, glances exchanged, legs stretched and mosquitoes swatted. Meanwhile, the parrots grew braver. After 58 minutes of bated breaths and multiple flight “fake-outs,” one bird decided to take the leap and leave the aviary in favor of a nearby tree. This was the confidence the rest seemed to have needed and soon six more joined in.
Despite the frantic and deafening calls from the macaws flying free for the first time, the gasps from those around me were audible. This moment was a first for many of us and incomparable to any other event. Not only that, but we were able to come together and share in this experience and exhale deeply…
I’m an avid fan of Brené Brown, a public speaker and researcher who has written books on courage, vulnerability and empathy. In Braving the Wilderness she writes, “Show up for collective moments of joy and pain so we can actually bear witness to inextricable human connection.”
The collective joy we felt in watching the birds leave the safety of the aviary in favor of a new wilderness will forever be a memory of mine. In our collective stories, it will be a brief point in time preceded by long days in the dry season heat, frantic tidying, eleventh-hour paperwork, hospitality preparations and the panic of no internet at the exact moment when Facebook Live was scheduled (yikes). It will be followed by the many excursions to locate and identify the young wayfarers and their progress. A small moment of joy on our timelines, but for me it was made even more significant by the human connections it encouraged.
Brené doesn’t say that we can only show up and connect in moments of joy, but in moments of pain as well. Working in conservation we are all looking forward to the highlights like the one we had on January 30th. Reporting breeding behavior, finding eggs in nests and the anticipation of chicks is the “fun” part and on all our radars, but there will inevitably be moments of pain and disappointment as well. I hope that in those times we gravitate toward our inextricable human connection while maintaining our vision and drive to see more macaws thrive, breed and fly free throughout their historic range in Costa Rica.
For those who are curious, my story has over 29 years’ worth of chapters, the majority of which have been written nearly 2000 miles away in my mountain home of Knoxville, Tennessee. Within those pages you’d read about the many pets I’ve cared for, adventures I’ve embarked on, the family and friends I love and share moments with, my time at the University of Tennessee where I earned a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, the three months spent confined to a wheelchair after a rope-swing megaflop (please excuse the slang), an unexpected and joyful six years working with a variety of people and birds at Zoo Knoxville and the decision to leave home and risk it all in order to play a new role in conservation.
The current chapter finds me at the Ara Project where I will spend a total of seven months learning and serving as one of three apprentices. Much like the macaws we’ve just released, I hesitated at the threshold for some time before deciding to leave the safety of home, friends and family (as well as a full-time and benefited job), but I knew I wanted to gain the experience the apprenticeship could offer me.
The management of birds for captive breeding and release in such a remote area is dynamic and challenging; it has required me to learn new skills while simultaneously coping with being away from my familiar people. Thankfully, there is a community of individuals here with whom I’m building connections and their presence is largely influencing my time here. I hope you’ll allow me to share some more glimpses of what that time looks like as I navigate through my story.
Until next time,