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Macaws, Wild and Tame

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Red and green macaws, Iwokrama Reserve, Guyana, South America

Macaws, as a group, are not the best dispersers of plant seeds. They're usually seed predators, slicing through ripe fruit to eat the seeds. When I hand a quarter of apple to Charlie, my chestnut-fronted macaw, he macerates it, reducing it to shreds, digging to the core. He obviously enjoys the apple seeds as much as or more than the fruit. Macaws are spectacularly messy eaters, and once they've dropped something to the forest floor, they don't go down and pick it up. Even homemade bread, right, Charlie?Charlie, my chestnut-fronted macaw (Ara severa). I told Charlie's story on National Public Radio back in March. He's captive-raised. He's been with me for 22 years. And every time I see parrots in the wild, I wish hard that I could set him free.

Plants make juicy sweet fruits in order to tempt animals and birds to eat them, and by doing so swallow and later disperse their seeds. They don't "want" their precious seeds to be eaten. So seeds often carry a toxic load to discourage seed predators like macaws. Ah, but the macaws are one step ahead of the plants whose seeds they enjoy. Tim Ryan's (ravishing) guest post about the clay licks of Tambopata shows one way psittacines combat toxins in their system--by eating nutrient-rich clay that also helps neutralize phytotoxins!

There are exceptions to this seed predator role, however, and an encounter with a large flock of red-shouldered macaws (Ara nobilis) at Rockview Lodge in Guyana, South America proved to be one. Several huge mango trees on the lodge grounds were coming ripe when I stayed there in November, 2008, and the macaws were all over the still-green fruits like the white on rice.
Ara nobilis is the smallest of the macaws, smaller even than some of the Aratinga parakeets (conures, in the pet trade). It has an accordingly shrill, cakky voice, and it was easy to find red-shouldered macaws wherever we went in Guyana, from the urban Georgetown Botanical Garden to the darkest interior.

This flock was putting a big hurt on some ripening mangoes. Eating all the nice flesh and leaving the seed to dry on the tree is probably not quite what the mango had in mind. Which leads me to wonder: what is the mango's preferred agent of dispersal? I'm guessing howler and capuchin monkeys, which could carry an entire fruit some distance away before devouring it and dropping the seed. Macaws are breaking the dispersal rules, but I doubt that concerns them. Macaws love to break rules (she wrote, gazing at the shredded pages of her Sibley Guide to Birds and Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds).

Other species, like this palm tanager, are the beneficiaries of the macaws' work.A palm tanager probably wouldn't be able to pierce a mango's thick skin without help, but they eagerly move in where the macaws have been.

This young red-shouldered macaw begged noisily from its parent, who was busy stripping mango flesh off the seeds.
Parrots in captivity are usually kept one to a cage. They rely on their human companions to fulfill their social needs, something at which we do an admittedly imperfect job.

When you see parrots in the wild, you realize how they were made to live. They're never alone, and what's more, they're forever messing with each other, allopreening and squabbling and playing and tussling. Family bonds are intense and long-lasting.

I watched and shot photos as best I could as the adult preened its fledgling all over. I can attest that the wingpit and tail base are a macaw's two favorite places to be tickled. Charlie raises his wing just like this when I preen him there.

Soon the rest of the family crowded around and everyone got a good preening. I was heartened to see this adult caring for three youngsters; glad these little macaws were doing their best to keep the mangoes stripped and the air full of their happy screeches.

It's been nice to write this post with a macaw on my shoulder, preening away, occasionally sticking his warm rubbery tongue in my ear-oo! And yet I'm wistful, knowing that he'll never live the way he was meant to live, in a flock of his own kind, raising his own kids and tearing up mangoes in the top of a tree. There's no way I can be a whole flock to Charlie, but I do my best.

Grassland Raptors of Guyana

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Every June, we go to the prairie pothole region of central North Dakota. I'm amazed anew each June as I am reminded how much life can be packed into a grassland. Maybe it's just that you can see the life of a grassland so much more easily than that of a forest. There is a whole lot of life in savannas.

Our conveyance along Ginep Road near Rockview Lodge was a huge crawler diesel that went about ten to twenty mph along the dusty road. We were loaded into the open back, which afforded good, albeit dusty and diesely, birding ops. Time and time again in the tropics I find myself in vehicles like this, where one must bang vigorously on the cabin roof to get the attention of the driver when a good bird or animal hoves into view. Because everything is of interest, the Science Chimp's impulse is to bang nearly constantly on the roof, so I know enough to stay away from the cab.

How different the savanna was from forest! This is natural savanna, formed where the soil is too shallow to support tree life. It was very odd to see a troupe of brown capuchin monkeys making their way from one treed hillock to the next. I really felt I was in Africa--again and again I believed that, and had to remind myself that this was South America.You can see the monkeys' curled tails as they bound down the hillside. Lovely creatures!

Here is a savanna hawk, to scale in its immense landscape.

And here, a close-up (though not nearly close enough for me) of this long-legged beauty, Buteogallus meridionalis. What a gorgeous beast, long winged and big-bodied. It's after snakes and lizards mostly, and it loves a good grass fire, which sends its prey leaping and scuttling right into its strong yellow toes and stiletto talons. What you can't quite make out in this photo is the fine vermiculate barring on its neck and breast. Breathtaking.
Another savanna hawk's eye gleams as it scans the scrub for lizards.

The roadside hawk (Buteo magnirostris) is a common little thing that might as well be called a riverside hawk. I always get a kick out of its No. 2 pencil-orange cere and feet. Crested caracaras (Polyborus plancus) always take my breath away. They are simply spectacular, and when they fly there huge white patches in the primaries flash. There's something a bit curassow-like about them as they stalk around, but they're raptors all right, and they're always looking for something dead, dying or disabled to exploit. Their feet are better for walking than grasping, so they feed on small prey from insects to small mammals, and exploit carrion as well. Polyborus means, loosely, "multiple gluttonies."
I like the name Mexican Eagle for this bird--this pair reminded me of the Mexican coat of arms.

Oh! What are you, most beautiful thing? I know I know you...I've seen you before, with your snowy breast and chestnut shoulders. Your color scheme is the bomb.
Let me guess. Hmmm.
White-tailed hawk? (Buteo albicaudatus)

Yes. A raptor with a good, good name, and a voracious predator of everything from insects to rabbits. All told, I was very glad not to be a mouse on the Guyanan savanna.

Rupununi Reverie

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


People of the Rupununi
dwell in heat unimaginable
never sweating, never gasping
like this pallid northerner
suddenly sauna'ed.

She stands in the morning
gazing downriver
Her baby tiny, quiet on her arm.

The river is cool and clean.

Nearby, a basket
woven on the spot
of what was at hand
of leaves still living

We each have things we can do
At which the other wonders.
Mine, tied up in gadgets
that do my will
But need an outlet.

Hers, having to do with grace
and knowing what is enough.

Sexing the Single Caiman

Monday, January 26, 2009


I suppose some people would look at this gatorbelly and think what a nice pair of boots it would make. That kind of lust for its beauty put the black caiman in a huge downward spiral from the 1950's to the '70's, and it's only just recovering from the slaughter. Black caimans, like so many creatures persecuted elsewhere (giant otters, for one), are still common on Guyana's beautiful Rupununi River. I am so thankful for Guyana, for the Rupununi, for huge reptiles that make a swirl in the water.

I looked at the caiman's tiled abdomen and said a prayer to all that is beautiful and perfect just as it is.

Ack. What are they doing?

Feeling for conclusive evidence of the giant caiman's sex, that's what. Think fetal sonograms: If you don't feel anything, it's a female. Male caimans, like all reptiles, and all aquatic creatures as I think about it, keep their wedding tackle inside until they need it.

I resolved not to shake Ashley Holland's hand when I thanked him for our excellent nocturnal adventure.

And it was a female, and her toes curled when they did the internal exam. Awww.

"They always do that," our leader commented. It felt disrespectful to laugh, so I covered it up with a little wheezy cough.

Because there are not too many places where you're going to be able to look close-up at a caiman's vent, here it is. I was awestruck. I had this flood of images running through my head, of cells dividing in the embryo, of God with a sewing machine, of somebody or some antic evolutionary force figuring out how to resize and then upholster those Formica scales smoothly over living muscle and make them fit, flexibly airtight, around a sphincter. Ye gods. Design, functionality, beauty and awe in a caiman's bunghole.

I am in Science Chimp heaven. Again. Geeking out, hands on a ten-foot, three-inch wild female black caiman. That's as big as she will probably get. Who knows how old she is? Whether she'll keep growing?

Males can get to 16.5 feet, and Wikipedia says "The largest reported black caiman, measuring 7.7 meters (25.2 ft) and weighing 1,310 kg (2,870 lb), was shot in Acre, Brazil in 1965 and, which if accurate, would count as the largest crocodilian recorded besides saltwater crocodiles."

Pause to let that sink in. Look around, eyes crossing. That's four feet longer than my living room. A twenty-five-foot-long black caiman? How would it even turn around in smaller rivers? How old must it have been?

and how I wish they'd marked and released it instead of shooting it. (It would only take about 20 men to hold it down, c'mon!) Here's the thing. Some reptiles are said not to stop growing over their lifetimes. Kind of like fish or haul up this leviathan, and the first thing you have to wonder is how old it must be.

Now, for the first time, right in front of my astonished eyes, researchers are getting growth and allometric and reproductive data on this species. To find out more about the study, initiated by herpetologist and conservationist Peter Taylor, please click the link. The study involves local Amerindians, who are learning first hand how to study and protect the species, and realizing the benefits from the ecotourism that follows having a healthy population of a spectacular reptile (not to mention a spectacular mustelid, felids and endless fabulous birds).

By a clipped scute on her tail, they knew she was a recapture. So they could compare how her measurements had changed since the last time they had her in the noose. This is how we learn, this is how we answer the questions I've posed and so many more.

It was kind of upsetting to see the wrassling necessary to subdue a study subject, but it was all good. For everyone but the caiman, I suppose. She was not enjoying herself anywhere near as much as I was.

Zick, a bundle of firing synapses barely contained by her Life is Good shirt. Photo by Erica Gies.

There there, old lady caiman. They're almost done with you now.

Measurements and sexing all done, it was time to truss the poor girl up like a Thanksgiving turkey so no bits would hit the ground when she was being hoisted up on the hanging scale.

Somewhere I wrote her weight, in the dark, maybe in my little notebook. I can't find it. I found some scribbles, but the weight isn't among them. Rats. At this point all us Marlon Perkins pikers were really, really ready to see the Jim Fowlers put her back into the water, free of all this manhandling.

The Guyanan assistant tied the most amazing knot to keep her jaws closed while the noose and the tape was removed. It could be loosened with just one tug, like the sewn seam on a 50-pound bag of bird seed. I watched him tie it, careful but lightning fast, and all the wonder I felt at the caiman's perfection leapt over to those beautiful hands. Homo sapiens is one boffo primate.

They carried her to the water's edge--grunnnnnt!-- and pulled on the magic knot with a long cord.

One tug, and she was free, and nobody had to lose a hand untying her jaws. Pretty dang slick.

The whole time she was lying trussed up she was sighing, a deep, watery rumble from her very guts, and the sound moved me, as the sighs of a beached whale would. It was good to see her great jaws come open, and she said Ahhhhh again and then she was gone, just a huge muscular lash on the water's surface.

And silence, and the sound of my own breathing.

Feeling the Caiman

Sunday, January 25, 2009

I had so much fun shooting the aquatic struggle that I was almost disappointed when the researchers landed the beast and we got to see our quarry close up. It would be flash shots from now on. Rats. But my goodness. That is a BIG CAIMAN. Not your average baby alligator.

As you can see, they've managed to run some electrician's tape around her jaws. Crocodilians have tremendous crushing power to bring the jaws closed, but comparatively little to open them, so you can realistically expect to subdue a caiman with tape. That is, if you know what you're doing. It's the whole principle of successful alligator wrestling. Once you get the jaws closed and secure, all you have to worry about is the tail and feet and the sheer massive fishy strength of the beast. Almost eleven feet long. A very big caiman. The researchers were guessing it was a male, because males get bigger than females.

I was squeezing and palping and feeling the caiman all over like a blind person--we all were. I couldn't believe my good fortune to be able to touch and press the flesh of an animal so mysterious and dangerous. There was something holy about it.

A communion.
It was time to turn the animal over.I absolutely could not get over the beauty of this animal. I had to run my hands over that smooth, cobbled belly skin.

It felt like soft, slightly pliable plastic tile. Tile, laid over someone's torso. There was something disarmingly human about the beast, laid out like a patient on a table. She was completely motionless, heaving a deep, rolling, watery sigh now and then. The researchers bent over her, measuring every possible length and circumference of her amazing length, Lilliputs bent on discovering everything they could about poor, tacked-down Gulliver.

Next: Sexing the Single Caiman.

Caiman Hunt!

Thursday, January 22, 2009


This is about all you ever see of a wild caiman--a pair of eyes looking at you, then slowly submerging.

After my experience with the giant anteater, I was feeling iffy about one of the activities booked for us on the night of our arrival at Caiman House. We would hunt down a caiman and measure and collect data from it. Well, obviously we faint-hearted writers and artists and photographers wouldn't do it; researchers and assistants would do it while we watched and tried to take pictures in the pitch-black night. I came very close to saying no, no thank you, I would rather see a caiman minding its own business. I fought with myself all through dinner, then realized that if I was ever going to learn more about caimans, this would be the time. You have to live life as big as you can, or not much happens.

They pronounce it Kye-mon (rhymes with sky).

Most of us think of caimans as "baby alligators," and many of us probably remember when they were offered as new hatchlings in pet shops. God, what a horrible thing that was, but I remember friends who kept small, sickly tan "baby alligators" in little fishtanks in their homes. File under WHAT WERE WE THINKING? The black caiman is not a baby alligator. It is a huge beast, a crocodilian to be reckoned with. Not as dangerous as a croc or an alligator, but not to be messed with, either. And thank goodness they're no longer being exploited for the pet (slow death in captivity) trade. Although I still see quite a few, stuffed with straw and shellacked, lined up on store shelves, shaking maracas and playing marimbas in the Latin American tourist traps. Bleh.

What was happening here was a caiman capture. Researchers, armed with long catchpoles and nooses, big hanging scales and measuring devices, would attempt to noose an adult caiman, determine if they'd seen it before (using a scale-clipping code that identifies the animal), weigh, measure and sex it, then release it. We were warned that, in order to tire the animal out and render it tractable, they would fight it as they would a game fish for quite some time before attempting to handle it.

It turns out that this is the best way to deal with large caimans. It's not safe to tranquilize the animal because we don't know much about dosages, and because there are a lot of other caimans around looking to climb the caiman social ladder, releasing a caiman that's groggy could result in drowning, maiming and death for the study animal. And it's not safe to try to handle a fresh, snappy caiman, so this is the method they've arrived at as safest both for animal and researchers.

So, tired from a full day of Karanambu and river birding and hiking to Caiman house, we piled into boats and went looking for a big caiman to catch. I was already fretting because I didn't know how I was going to photograph the action in total darkness. I shouldn't have worried. First look at the beast, hauled from the deep.Oh my gosh. Can it really be that big?
Agggh! Look at that THING! It is HUMONGOUS!

I mentioned fighting the animal to play its strength out. I had plenty of time during the tussle to experiment with different ISO's and apertures, flash or no flash. My favorite pictures were made in ambient torch light (we in the boat had flashlights trained on the action). I love this slow-shutter shot.
When the caiman would go quiet, I could get some that were almost sharp. Was it a crocodilian, or a fire-breathing dragon they had? Oh, oh oh, these are for you, Timmo.

It was as if her rage shone from her jaws.

The lizard wranglers had made an unfortunate catch, looping the noose around the caiman's upper jaw instead of around the whole head or neck. So much of the maneuvering was trying to get its mouth closed and another noose around the jaws. That would be key to handling it safely. I really like this shot. The flash is illuminating the scene just enough to freeze the action, but not enough to burn out the colors and chiaroscuro.

The caiman is surrendering.I have to go lie down now. More anon.

Crane Hawk!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Talk about excited. Any time you put the words "crane" and "hawk" together, a birder is bound to get excited. Here's a ruby-eyed beauty, looking for fish and frogs and crayfish along an eroded bank. I love the soft light falling on him. I'm less in love with the branch bisecting him.I couldn't look at the tangled bank behind him without thinking what a nightmare it would be to paint in watercolor. I can see some branches I'd edit out right off the bat. Some really nice ones, too.I do love the pinky-orange legs, the ruby eye, and the stormcloud plumage. The long legs and crane-like coloration probably led to the name, not to mention the red eyes...White windows in the primaries and bands on the tail were spectacular when he took off. It was a fleeting glimpse of a bird I'd love to know better.

We docked and began an uphill walk toward our night's accommodations. The first thing we saw was a Great Potoo, waiting for nightfall, high in a tree--obviously a stakeout. This is a BIG bird, larger than a screech owl. Loosely related to the nightjars (whip-poor-wills) and frogmouths, but not really. It mostly just lives like they do, catching large flying insects at night, so it looks like them.Flash photo taken in desperation. I much prefer ambient light, even when nonexistent.I know, blurry as all getout. 'sOK. You can tell what it looks like, right?

We wound our way through the Amerindian village of Yupukari, enjoying the soft laughter and a very off-tune guitar in the gently falling night. The sun was a blazing smudge behind the palms and thatched roofs.
A black rooster pecked about in some burnt grass, looking as though he'd been caught in the fire.

And a white-fringed antbird reminded me that we were not in Ohio, or Africa.

Toward evening, we arrived at Caiman House, which is a very cool place. We walked up from the river as the sun sank.I liked it immediately, although it had no raccoons. There were some very nice and well cared-for doggehs (a good barometer of the quality of one's accommodations in the tropics). This is the dining room.The food was great and loaded with fresh vegetables, served family style at a long table. Yum!
Just at dusk, a pair of lizards were getting happy on the sundowner deck.The most spectacular sunset I'd seen in 2008 went on and on and on. I loved the black palms against the glowing sky.When viewing sunsets, I always make myself turn around from the main show to see what's going on behind me. It's often as good as the backlit stuff.

But I wasn't expecting a bee-eater, or a fairy tern.
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