Macaw research in the Peruvian Amazon

Wow, where can I start? I just returned from a stint in the Peruvian Amazon. More specifically, in the Tambopata Research Center (TRC) situated in the Tambopata National Reserve on the upper Tambopata River in the center of a large uninhabited track of primary tropical lowland forest near the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park in the Madre de Dios Region of Peru. Whew! In short, it was beautiful and amazing, and the work I took part in was so important to the conservation of some of the most colorful and spirited birds on the planet.

Proyecto Guacamayo, or the Tambopata Macaw Project, is based around a series of clay licks in the area (in fact, this area hosts the highest concentrations of avian clay licks in the world). The director of this project, Dr. Donald Brightsmith, has been working on this project for over 10 years. Dr. Brightsmith was my professor for a month-long tropical ecology field course in Costa Rica in 2000, and was a huge factor in getting me interested in birding and the tropics.

So for over a decade, scientists and volunteers have been monitoring parrot and macaw populations in the area. This involves studying clay-lick activity on a daily basis (the birds come to the lick in hundreds to eat the clay and receive nutrients that are lacking in their forest diets), conducting parrot census in the forest, collecting data on foraging habits of the birds, and recording daily climate data.

The project also collects nesting and breeding data, through a number of artificial nests placed in the area, and tracks some of the birds via satellite telemetry to discover home ranges and seasonal movements.

In short, here is what I did on a daily basis at TRC:

Get up at 4 am to go to the clay lick. You would think this would be done reluctantly, but the excitement of what I might see at the lick surpassed my tiredness from staying up late the night before drinking pina coladas or talking with my fellow volunteers. The boat to the lick left the dock at 4:50 sharp, which gave me just enough time to make my giant jungle hair presentable in the pitch black darkness of the dawn and brush my teeth, all while stumbling around not trying to wake everybody else up. There are no "doors" at TRC, simply hanging curtains outside of individual and shared rooms. Therefore, everyone is privvy to your morning stumbling.

At the lick, we record what birds we see flying toward the lick. These include big blue and yellow macaws, mealy parrots, scarlet macaws, red-bellied macaws, chestnut-fronted macaws, white-eyed parakeets, blue-headed parrots, and many more. The parrots usually arrive around 5 am and alight on nearby trees until it gets light. They then circle the lick a few times and land on it. We record all of this behavior and then take counts of which species and how many of them are on the lick every 5 minutes for 2 and a half hours. Sometimes we stay at the lick all day, recording which birds (and how many) come and go from the lick throughout the day. Volunteers trade off half-days when an all-day lick observation is required.

Being at the lick as the sun rose, hearing millions of bird calls around me, watching monkeys wake up in the trees and being surrounded by the many colors of the parrots flying over me was an amazing and unique experience, unmatched so far in my many adventures abroad. I quickly had to learn the calls of around 10 species of bird and how to identify them as they grouped onto the lick, flying in and out constantly and oftentimes in large numbers. It was a challenge! But in three days I was able to identify all the birds on the lick. The calls came more slowly ("all parrots sound the same!" was a common refrain at the center), but I was able to guess most of the calls I heard correctly in about a week's time.

The rest of the day
After breakfast and lunch, if it wasn't laundry day (all laundry was done by hand in plastic tubs outside and was a time-consuming affair), we would choose from the following activities, depending on what needed to be done: census walks, foraging walks, or nest checks.

For census, we walk to pre-determined points in the area (or in nearby areas reachable by a short boat ride) and stand for 10 minutes at each census point, recording what we see and hear in the area. We record the birds we see flying over us, or those we see perched, how many of them, and how they are grouped. This is where my birdwatching activity came in handy, as many times there will be parrots or macaws in a tree directly over your head (watching and laughing at your pathetic birdwatching abilities) and you won't even be aware of it. As brightly colored as they are, they can be neatly camoflauged in the large tropical trees, and insanely quiet. At other times, of course, they can be the most obnoxious thing in the forest with their loud screams and calls.

Foraging walks are similar, in that we arrive at checkpoints in the forest and identify any parrot or macaw that is in the area and record what plants and fruits it is feeding on. It is easiest to identify these food items when they are dropped on your head by a mischievious macaw, at which point you look up at the macaw and give it a thumbs up for its help in the matter.

Nest work and nest checks: There are over 30 artificial macaw nests in the area (as well as natural ones). We monitor these artificial nests with cameras, to find out how many eggs are laid and the behaviors of mother and babies as they fledge. During breeding season, the babies are removed from the nest for health checkups. This is done by having one of the volunteers (the least important one, presumably) climb 40 meters up the Ceiba tree (biggest and oldest trees of the forest), gather the chicks, and lower them to the ground in a bucket (bucket o' chicks). Measurements are then taken and the health of the chicks assessed. We then raise the chick bucket back up the tree and return the chicks to their original positions. The macaws are cool with this and seem to understand that we mean no harm to them or their babies. They usually take a perch on a nearby branch and watch curiously as we do our work.

Unfortunately, it was just before breeding season when I volunteered at the center, and, though I did learn to climb, didn't get an opportunity to be raised 40 meters into the forest canopy, nor did I get to handle macaw chicks. I climbed about 5 meters using my newly-acquired death-defying climbing skills up a tree, and that was just fine with me.

The rest of our time at TRC was spent either on the computer (or more accurately, trying to get the dodgy internet to work, and by the time you did get it to work, the power was shut off. I think I sent a total of 3 emails during my time at TRC. Then again, who expects internet 8 hours into the Amazon?), preparing cables for nestcams, reading, hanging out, showering (possibly more important than sleep), finding new ways to make chicken and rice interesting, entering project data, and learning macaw calls via mp3 (or more accurately, falling asleep in your hammock during "example 5" of the mealy parrot calls).

This experience is one I will not soon forget, and I hope to return to do more work on it. Seeing these beautiful birds in the wild, how intelligent and curious and happy they are, really makes their conservation status hit home. Many of these birds are endangered due to poaching, the illegal pet trade, and habitat loss. It was heartening for me to see the dedication of volunteers and scientists to these wonderful and important creatures. The more information we gather on these birds, the easier it will be to protect them.

For more information on project goals, research performed, and outcomes, visit TRC's home page at

Some of the highlights of my trip:

Seeing a spider wasp (about the size of my hand) carry off a paralyzed tarantula (also about the size of my hand) to its nest, where it would shortly proceed to lay eggs in the spider, which would then hatch into lovely larva and consume the spider from the inside out as they reach maturity

Getting the opportunity to meet semi-wild macaws in the area. These macaws were hand-raised during a project to save 3rd and 4th chicks from macaw nests (3rd and 4th chicks normally die in the wild) and were released around TRC to help stabilize the macaw population

Climbing trees! Although I didn't make it far, this was one of my favorite activities.

Seeing some wonderful and rare species of animal in its natural habitat, including the giant river otter (which basically only exist now in Peru and Brazil), toucans, and hoazins (the only species of bird that eats leaves)

Seeing some beautiful landscapes, including the Andes at dawn (from Cuzco), our island census points, and the clay lick itself

And, of course, THE BIRDS! I've a new respect for macaws. They are delightful!

Thank you, Don Brightsmith and TRC!


  1. Absolutely awesome!!!! What a great experience. You captured it all so well! I am so glad for you that you get to go back, but sad for us here at BD. We will miss your beautiful face! Good luck, Jennie!

  2. Thats nice you defentely gave me the info I need for my project.Nice time I wish I could do that :)


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