The next morning, we headed off to visit the other clay lick, which is frequented by scarlet macaws. This time, the blind was on a platform that was just lower than eye-level with the birds. When we arrived, there were about 9 macaws pecking around – 8 scarlet and 1 blue and yellow. While the tapir lick was a wallow, this lick consisted of horizontal terraces with deposits of clay. It was far larger in the past, but has shrunk between the rains washing the soil away and the birds consuming it.
Most of the macaws were fairly calm, but the single blue and yellow one was a bit of a bully. While the rest generally kept to their sections, he kept trying to muscle others over, and flap his wings and squawk if they wouldn’t move. Although he may have been individually aggressive, I think he was asserting his right to be there. The scarlet-fronted macaws dominate the clay lick and the area in general, presumably by forcing the other species out. He might have felt threatened by their presence and so was demonstrating his strength.
Seeing the lone blue-and-yellow macaw was significant, as macaws are almost always found in pairs. Unlike other animals that “mate for life,” but it’s really a once-a-year hookup, macaws’ relationships are surprisingly conservative from a human point of view. On the lick, we saw a few running their beaks through each others’ feathers to bond. When we heard some squawking at each other earlier in the trip, Fiorella joked, “You know how it is in long-term relationships.” The similarity to human relationships don’t end with the sexual pairing either. Macaw chicks are born featherless and beakless, making them exceptionally helpless compared to other birds. While macaw chicks stay for a year and a half, peregrine falcon chicks strike out on their own after only a month and a half. In a corresponding manner, macaws also have exceptionally long lives. They live about 35 years in the wild, but can live up to 60 years in captivity.
In addition to the clay, the birds were also eating seeds placed there by researchers. Peru Verde, the non-profit associated with our tour group, is doing research on the scarlet macaw, which has a declining population due to habitat destruction. Scarlet macaws nest in dead Belly Palms woodpeckers have already carved holes out of. Unfortunately, many of the large trees have disappeared because of logging. When a pair of macaws can’t find a tree that meets their standards, they won’t nest at all. As macaws only raise one to two chicks a year, a few years of not nesting has a big effect on the population. To better understand their biology, scientists are studying both their diet and nesting habits. They’re also constructing nest boxes, much like New York has for bluebirds. Instead of wooden ones, which they found degraded too quickly in the wet season, they’re taking PVC pipe sections, adding little platforms inside, lining them with chicken wire, and mounting them to trees. Thankfully, this substitute seemed to be working! The only box that seemed to be totally unsuccessful is in the same tree as a number of oropendulas. As oropendulas are quite loud, perhaps the macaws didn’t want to compete over noise levels!
Besides seeds, macaws usually eat fruit. Unlike other birds and monkeys that eat fruit and allow seeds to pass whole through their system, the macaws’ strong beaks break the seeds apart. To protect against seed destruction by macaws, some trees’ seeds have evolved to have a small amount of poisonous strychnine in them.
We watched the birds for about 45 minutes before they started to fly off.
On the walk back to the lodge, we spotted and heard more red howler monkeys, much closer than before. Apparently, they have absolutely no taboos about bodily functions. The larger one was peeing and pooping, with a smaller one nearby. The smaller one then climbed on top of the larger one, and started going to the bathroom as well!
We also encountered a swarm of leaf-cutter ants, with their own trail that paralleled the human one. The cutters (mediae) were carrying bits of leaves and flowers just as big as them or bigger. However, they won’t eat the leaves themselves – they cultivate a fungus that they feed to the queen and larvae. The fungus also produces a sap that the adults eat. As few other animals have anything that resembles agriculture, I’ve always been fascinated by leaf-cutter ants. Next were the soldiers (minors) that protect the convoy. The smallest ants (minims) act as quality control, cleaning the leafs before they get to the nest to ensure they aren’t carrying any parasites. They’re so small that one was even riding on top of a leaf carried by another ant! With the ants seeming to have higher health standards than some of our industrial agriculture, the image of a little ant with a clipboard popped into my mind.
Returning to the main camp, we then took a different set of trails out called “The Grid.” The researchers established this set of criss-crossing trails so they could follow birds and monkeys through the jungle without needing to bushwack. However, it was very easy to get lost if you didn’t know where you were going, so I stuck close behind Fiorella.
Just as we headed out on The Grid, hardly steps from the lodge, we spotted a huge troop of squirrel and brown-fronted capucin monkeys. It was the closest we had seen them yet, with a few in the brush a few feet in front of us. Unlike the monkey at the Cock-of-the-Rock, these monkeys weren’t trying to mooch off of the kitchen. Instead, they were just hanging out in some of their favorite fruit-bearing trees. The squirrel monkeys scurried from branch to branch, up and down trunks, just like their namesake. They made daring leaps, bouncing between trees like they had springs in their legs. The brown-fronted capucins weren’t quite as graceful. When they’d follow the same route, they’d crash through the branches, barely hanging on to the palm leaves the squirrel monkeys nearly floated onto.
On the trails, we spotted a few more birds, although we heard them more than saw them. Several times, Fiorella pointed out something out to us, but we’d just see an unidentifiable flash of wings. However, we did get our best look yet at a pair of spider monkeys. While lighter in weight than the red howler monkeys, spider monkeys’ gangly arms and legs make them the largest monkey in the Amazon. They’re the classic “swinging” monkey, reaching out from a branch to grab the next instead of just flinging themselves. In addition to their long limbs, they use their prehensile tail for balance.
We actually saw more on the ground than we did in the trees. A line of army ants marched across our path, their fierce mandibles ready to grab any intruder in their way. I leaned over to watch, then stepped over them gingerly, reminded of an old Saturday Night Live sketch where a guy is reduced to a skeleton by them in a matter of seconds. We also startled a cane toad, a little brown amphibian that almost completely blended into the forest floor. He looked relatively harmless, even though his species has brought holy terror to Australia. Although humans brought them there to eat the insects devastating the sugar cane crops, their population quickly got out of control. In addition to their high rate of reproduction, they have no natural predators in Australia due to their poisonous skin. The one in front of us seemed much more small and vulnerable than his international cousins, so we allowed him to go his way without a fuss.
After a three-course lunch back at the lodge and a relaxing nap, we left for our last outing in the rainforest – the tree platform. As a little girl, I had imagined being up in the canopy, looking out over the whole forest. Now, I was actually able to fulfill that dream. The platform itself was in a huge kapok tree, its trunk rising from the forest floor up to the blue sky. After climbing 150 feet up on a wobbly spiral staircase, we had an amazing view. Trees of all shapes extended into the distance, their leaves creating a sea of green. Our tree’s white branches reached out, shading the ground below us. Sounds from across the rainforest floated through the air, although most of them were bugs. It wasn’t all idyllic though – the mid-afternoon bugs and heat combined for a surprisingly uncomfortable experience.
However, we spotted a few animals who were willing to venture to the top of the canopy. A number of colorful butterflies flicked their wings, landing on our shoulders or back a number of times. I almost fell off the ladder that connected the primary and upper platforms trying to take a picture of one! A striolated puffbird alighted on the branches of our tree, after Fiorella called him with her phone. Others hid in the foliage, but we were able to see them with the spotting scope Fiorella dragged up the platform. She didn’t bring it on the rest of the trip because it’s expensive and she said her husband would “kill her if the lens was scratched,” but it was perfect for this position. Birds that appeared to be blurry smudges in binoculars were crystal-clear in the scope.
A few hours spent in the sky was enough, and we descended back to the forest floor. We ate dinner at the lodge, packed up our gear, and prepared for an extremely early morning the next day.