The Wonders of the “Whaa Whaa”: Part I

I joined the Ara Project team in November 2015, which seems in the distant past now, to become the Site Manager of the projects Manzanillo release site. When I first arrived there I was blown away by the whole area, it was even more stunning, lush and packed with life than I was ever expecting and the Great Green macaws that were released there are beautiful beyond description. Seeing them flying free in the Caribbean forest was a sight I never got tired of.

But even when I was watching the magnificent Great Green macaws from our viewpoint every day I was becoming more and more intrigued by another one of Costa Rica’s 17 parrot species – the Yellow-naped Amazon. My interest had been piqued when Sam (The Ara Project director) gave me an introduction to the parrots of Costa Rica and their conservation status in my first week. He described them as the America’s version of the African Grey parrot, a bird that has been so heavily traded and poached from the wild that they are now listed as Endangered by the IUCN, and are still decreasing. I had heard of the African Grey but was not familiar with the Yellow-nape, so as anyone would do I googled them. Some of the first things that come up are videos of people’s pet Yellow-naped singing or making weird and wonderful noises; unfortunately this is the main reason they are very sought after as pets. Dig a little deeper though and a sadder story emerges – a story that is not uncommon with most bigger parrots – people get them as pets and then give them up as they can’t look after them. This is unfortunately the what happens in a lot cases,  people simply are not prepared for the care they require so will give them up or many will only live a short unhappy life compared to the long one they could have lived in the wild.

During my evenings I read up on Yellow-napes in the scientific literature, aviculture sites and blogs and so I began to build a picture of these intriguing birds. But I still hadn’t seen one in the wild. I had to wait until June 2016 but finally I was given the opportunity to accompany Professor Tim Wright from New Mexico State University and Christine Dahlin from Pittsburgh Johnstown University on their research trip surveying for Yellow-napes. The aim of the trip was twofold; firstly they were continuing a long-term vocalisation study and secondly, and this is where I came in, they were carrying out roost counts. Previous work pioneered by Tim had found that Yellow-napes have distinct dialects very much like humans do; the current study was building on this work carried out by Tim and his research group.

Yellow-naped Amazons, quite conveniently, roost communally – that is they sleep in big shared roosts. This means if you can locate the roost in an area you can get a very good idea of how many individuals you have living in that area. Done at the right time of year you can also calculate productivity.
On our first day we drove to a sleepy rural village on the southernmost tip of their global range. The holiday village was by the sea and it being June (during the rainy season) it was all but deserted. This added to the sense of intrigue and mystery as we drove around between the empty houses at dusk trying to find a good spot to try and see my first wild Yellow-naped Amazon. We finally came out on the beach; it gave us the biggest uninterrupted view of the skyline over the nearby mangroves so we parked there.

As dusk set in Alyssa – a research assistant on the trip – and I headed off down the beach while the others went in the opposite direction. The beach was long and littered with driftwood and rubbish, an ugly but all too common sight on many beaches. As we walked light rain began to fall and the dark storm clouds gathered out to sea to our left, so seeing birds tonight seemed less and less likely. We continued on, determined, not put off by the increasingly strong wind blowing the rain in our faces. If I closed my eyes I could imagine being back in the UK in winter; the only difference was that even with the blowing rain it was still over 20C! Being on the equator the sun drops like a stone, so the light was fading fast, dusk is only the briefest of interludes between day and night. We stopped to assess our options and see how far was had come; turning around we could see our footsteps weaving in and out of the big logs that littered the beach. We would go no further; we had lights so we weren’t in trouble but going any further seemed pointless. We stood and searched the skyline one more time, a skyline that was becoming less and less defined as the night closed in. Then we heard it: “Wha Wha”, two beautifully short and melodic (for a parrot) notes. Then came more, we tried desperately to locate the owners but it seemed they were flying just above the canopy and the angle we were at meant they were tantalisingly out of view. As we followed the sounds along the tree line, finally out flew my first wild Yellow-naped Amazon, and a little shot of adrenaline quickened my heart. Even though we could only see their silhouettes it seemed kind of fitting. They hadn’t totally been de-mystified, I needed to see them up close, so more excitement was left for the morning. Needless to say that that little sighting got me hooked on Yellow-naped Amazons!

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.