We were tromping down a trail in the dusky dawn of an Amazonian rainforest, loaded down with equipment, and already swatting at the relentless mosquitoes. After two days of heading farther away from human civilization, slowly motoring in canoes along The Madre de Dios River, an Amazon tributary, we had finally arrived in this very special place in the world, the Manu Biosphere. And now we were on our way to the Blanquillo Macaw Lick.
When I first arrived in this South American rainforest, I had expected to see parrots and macaws at every turn. We were in an exceptionally pristine place in the world, still relatively inaccessible to humans, this park where one tenth of the world’s birds reside. It seemed like parrots would be everywhere.
But as it goes in life, it’s not that simple. For one thing, macaws are slowly being eradicated from the planet due to habitat destruction and unsavory pet trade practices. Secondly, macaws fly high up in the sky.
For days we had been spotting macaws, but to us on the ground they looked like flying ants in the sky. They weren’t sporting bright colors, nor were they giant parrots; they were teeny tiny black silhouettes. Their audible squawks, from 150 feet up, were the only indication that they were not ants.
Hence, the trip to the macaw lick; to see Ara chloropterus up close. The Lick was merely a simple bend in the river and yet it had been drawing on my imagination long before I ever left home. What would it be like, I had wondered, to see a macaw in the wild?
A macaw’s diet is primarily seeds, flowers, and fruits which have naturally-occurring toxins designed to protect the plant. The minerals in the riverbank clay have a neutralizing effect on the toxic alkaloids the macaws have ingested.
Almost like clockwork, between 8 and 9:30 a.m., the red and green macaws gather here on the riverbanks to feed on the clay in the soil. A pepto-bismol moment for them.
It is such a regular routine for these birds that a bird blind has been set up. The blind is relatively large, holding 20 or more people. We had to arrive early to get inside the blind before the birds flew in, so we wouldn’t scare them off. Once in, we could not leave.
This photo shows the back side of the blind and the only entrance. On the opposite side, the side facing the riverbank, are large, unscreened openings facing the riverbed. (The river was dried up when we visited.) There were rustic stools inside where we sat with our binoculars and cameras, facing the riverbank, waiting for the macaws to arrive.
There we sat in this heat trap topped with thatching, covered in clothes from head to toe, a squalid sitting target for every biting insect that ever lived. We had to be quiet, not scaring the birds.
While we waited for the birds and watched our skin turn into pizza, we occupied our time reading the field guides, adjusting and preparing opticals, and a few in the group caught some shut-eye. Then someone got sick in the toilet stall and after that, frankly, I was becoming miserable.
Soon after that the birds started to arrive, one flock after another. Landing on the riverbanks, vines, palm fronds and palm trees, they clung to the clay, working their thick, hooked bills into the earth. There were squawking, screeching raucous macaws wherever you looked, and some awesome parrots too.
This lasted for over an hour until the bird abundance dwindled. It was a glorious phenomenon to witness, and nothing in my daydreams could compare to the beauty that I had seen that morning.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted.