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Fledging of the Macaw

15th July 2017

 

Coming back from a forest walk to photograph some frogs and katydids, I noticed in the grass a tatty blue jacket flapping in the breeze. With a second glance I saw it was clearly a bird, the tatty tears being the feathered edges of the wings. It was blue and the right size for a heron so I assumed it was hunting of the marsh and quickly set up my camera. As I peered through the viewfinder the bird turned and I saw the white face of a macaw.

Blue-and-yellow macaws are increasingly scarce in the Peruvian Amazon.  Its bluntly descriptive name owes to the vibrancy of its colours – the bluest of blues and yellowest of yellows which, paired with its long, flowing tail, make this bird a joy to see. It was with excellent fortune that the Untamed Photography team came across a nest at the top of a Mauritia palm on a small lake which adults had been visiting quite frequently. Unfortunately the bird inside was not visible and had presumably taken off while we were out on a forest walk, photographing frogs and katydids.

The fledgling was now thrashing in the grass, unable to take off and at the mercy of sharp vegetation, as well as predators like snakes. Seeing the cuts of the face of the struggling juvenile, Chris, biologist and joint head of the company, offered the bird a stick to perch on which it kindly accepted. It was astoundingly confident with people, allowing us to take excellent photos having moved it to a nearby tree. Overnight the macaw moved itself a fair way and was now sat atop another tree, presumably having flown there, and was being fed regularly by the attentive parents. The next day it was flying freely overhead with its mother and father.

  1. Having missed this first bird fledging, my photography co-ordinator and other joint head of Untamed Photography, Mark Fernley, was delighted to tell me he had spotted another nest very close by and near enough to the edge of the lake for excellent shots. It was a much shorter tree and a chick was visible in it, poking its head up every so often and stretching its wings. With such a great opportunity, we agreed to watch the nest and film the bird fledging and flying afterwards. The plan was to combine this footage with that of the last chick and make a short film about the parental habits and first flight of blue-and-yellow macaw chicks.

Over the course of that first day, it seemed increasingly likely we had stumbled across something rare – a nest with not one but two well-developed chicks. Ordinarily, one chick will eat its siblings at a young age, leaving only the one to feed. That two fledglings were in this nest shows how perfect the conditions are in the area.

  1. The next day, the two birds were perched on the edge of the nest. They were sunning their wings, a nice pose of which I wanted a couple photographs. While I was snapping, one of the macaws unexpectedly flew off, leaving me a little panicked that I’d missed one of the chicks leaving the nest. The bird was larger and confident in the air, though, so surely an adult. A few hours later we saw both chicks show themselves and confirm that all was well and that this was indeed a two-fledgling nest.

 

I had set myself up with a wider shot, nest on the right, to include the adults’ approach to the nest and with luck the chicks taking to the air for the first time. Mark had a closer shot, making use of his longer lens record in more detail the fledglings practicing and the adults feeding. He moved around, looking for different angles to use in the final film. I was more stationary, determined to be in the right place when the chicks finally took to the air.

 

The sun was harsh on this day and drinking plenty of water was vital. Sat out under the rays for so long, my arms and the tops of my ears burnt, as did Mark’s shoulders. To ignore the insect bites, the mosquitos that made them and the sweat bees which would obsess over my face to lack up salt from my sweat, nose or eyes was an increasingly difficult task.

 

At this point it started to seem that the adults were willing the chicks on. Perched in a nearby palm, they would call to the chicks and fly past the nest, as if encouraging them to follow. Between these sessions, the adults would disappear into the forest, usually for a couple of hours or more, to eat and fill their crop.

 

  1. The third day came around. We were optimistic now, with the young blue-and-yellow macaws’ wings strengthening, and it seemed they could take off at any moment. They were leaning far out of the nest, still holding on the edge of the treetop with its taloned feet, and the flapping was now so powerful we could hear it.

 

The weather had decided to turn which, although bringing temporary respite from the biting insects, was an issue for our cameras. I hadn’t even taken with me my rain guard, packing as light as possible so as to travel around Peru after my internship. With myself being largely useless, Mark tied up the waterproof roof of a hammock to a pole, a tripod and a machete sunk into the ground to give my camera and me shelter from the rain. This would later be very a very useful shade from the harsh sun. Although I was covered, the birds didn’t seem quite so comfortable in the rain and their practice was halted.

 

The weather turned good again though, and the fledglings once again began to flap. The breeze which had picked up appeared to help them too, as the wind over their wings gave them extra lift. It seemed they were about ready to fly.

 

We were finally beginning to recognise from a distance which of the parrots were adults and which were youngsters, which was helpful because it meant we’d stop panicking when one suddenly took off without us filming. The adults are actually a little more scruffy.

 

  1. Day 4 with the macaws saw more confident, stronger flapping. Day by day they seem more capable and the time to fledge was always approaching, though we weren’t sure quite when that would be.

 

We have had scorching heat throughout mid-day which has kept the young blue-and-yellows in a long siesta, waiting for the heat to subside before they get flapping again. I couldn’t blame them, with the powerful sun threatening to burn my arms and insects flocking, attracted by the sweat emanating from me. Even Mark found sitting patiently out there difficult without losing concentration. The parents, too, seemed to be taking a break as they were nowhere to be seen for most of the day.

 

When the parents returned, however, the nestlings climbed up to perch at the edge of the nest, giving us our best views yet of feeding. As with many birds, macaws keep food in a crop to be regurgitated into the mouths of the young. The parent bird will rock its head back and forth to bring up the slurry and will lock its beak with that of the eager juvenile. Feeding with these macaws seems an almost violent affair, the chick flapping and squawking with as a mouthful is forced down its throat. The chicks don’t seem to mind this, though, and look to the adult expectantly whenever one returns to the nest.

 

  1. Finally, day 5 has come to an end. We are making sense of a couple of behaviours observed over the last few days. It seems the breaks in activity aren’t just due to weather. We noticed some days ago that the juveniles only seem active with the parents in view, perhaps relying on them for safety or encouragement. The adults in turn are only present in the morning and evening, disappearing to forage for a long stretch the late morning and mid-day before returning to feed the chicks again, sometimes two and usually three times daily. In addition, one parent will swoop down to the nest while the other remains in an overlooking palm, maybe to simply give the other adult room to do its chores, or maybe to look for predators.

 

The adults show a routine when visiting the nest. They will land in a specific palm tree, usually on the same couple of branches, having approached from a specific angle (sometimes flying in a wide arc if the direction of approach didn’t match that angle). One will then swoop down straight to the nest, or sometimes fly down and turn tightly to land on a perch behind the chicks if they are in the way. With the chores done, the adult will then fly at a right angle to its approach, soaring almost directly over me at Camera Two.

 

We’ve also been watching the adult climb down into the nest and, after a few seconds, small clumps of mud or dirt start flying out of the nest and into the water below. I have discussed with Mark quite what this is and we have to theories. The adult may possibly be digging the nest deeper, to accommodate the growing chicks and perhaps remove weakened, rotting wood which may also pose a risk of infection. Alternatively, the adult is removing droppings from the nest. Neither of us have actually seen the birds defecate and it may be that the chicks simply do it in the nest and leave the adult to clean up in order to reduce risk of infection and, with the sheer volume being expelled, maybe to stop the nest overflowing. Either way, the fish of the lake seem highly interested in whatever it is.

 

  1. The chicks are continuing to improve. They are leaning out of the nest as far as they can go, completely horizontal, and flapping so hard only their gripping of the nest perch with their talons is keeping them from hopping into the air. That said, it seems that one is flapping more strongly and frequently than the other. Often with young animals, they will compete with each other for food and the attention of the parents. Where there are more young animals, the weakest will receive the least food and develop slowest – the runt of the litter. In the case of macaws, there are only two or three in each nest to begin with. This is done by the parents to provide an insurance in case one dies within the first few days but after that, any further investment should be made so that conditions are the best possible for just one individual to give it the best start. In rare cases, like ours, food is abundant enough for two chicks to be fed and to develop well. Now though, one is falling behind the other. Nature is harsh and if the one chick gets too far ahead, it will bully its sibling out of the way upon feeding and the slighter, meeker animal will lose out. Hopefully this won’t happen, as to have two chicks fledge would be an excellent achievement for the adults and a great demonstration of the richness of the area.

 

The juveniles are becoming more confident without the adults, too, climbing to the edge of the nest even when they aren’t present, although they aren’t flapping when on their own. This might suggest just a spark of independence which, over the next year, will grow as they become able to look after themselves completely.

 

The macaws even seem less fearful of the abundant and massive yellow-headed vulture, keeping a wary eye out but flapping on nonetheless. A vulture actually landed, with food, on an old palm not 15 metres away from the nest and our birds barely batted an eyelid. Again, this growing confidence might be a sign of independence to come and perhaps of the chicks making the great leap sometime very soon. We have sighted, however, another predator in the form of a 3-metre-long red-tailed boa. Most likely it will stay deeper in the forest where we found it but the threat remains.

 

  1. Today marks a full week since we first started filming these blue-and-yellow macaws and their ability continues to grow. They are becoming more curious about their surroundings and are spending more and more time with their heads reared out of the nest, even without the parents on guard.

 

We have now had proper views of the adults feeding in a nearby palm, the same species used for nesting. It makes sense that the bird would eat the fruit of, and therefore spread the seeds of, their nesting tree. One also brought back a fruit-laden stick to eat at its perch overlooking the nest. This is the first confirmation we’ve had that our parent macaws are indeed feeding when they spend long periods, many hours sometimes, away from the nest.

 

The macaws’ nest is now starting to deteriorate, which is a worry. Bad weather and the chicks’ flapping and perching is causing chunks, both of bark and of the treetop itself, to break away. I fear the birds don’t have that much time left before their home starts to really fall apart and become unusable.

 

  1. The nest is empty. We are not sure quite why yet. Of course, it is most likely that the chicks have finally flown, sometime unexpectedly late last night or early this morning. That both are gone would suggest that they each fledged not long after one another. We can’t find them nearby, although the parents are flying overhead occasionally before heading off into the trees where we can’t follow. Although predation of the fledglings is possible, with luck the chicks have managed to move away from the nest and the parents are meeting them. In any case, it has been an excellent journey, following these birds as they have grown and developed their skills and confidence. It is heart-breaking that we have missed them fly.

 

  1. Day 9 brings mixed feelings. We have thankfully found one of the chicks in a treetop. It looks healthy and strong. Impressively capable, too, as it has made its way some distance from its nest to that tree. We have seen the parents feeding it and watching over it with incessant vultures still circling overhead. Though it looks a little uneasy on its feet amongst the branches, it has done well to get this far and has passed through the most treacherous part of its life successfully.

 

As for the second, we are unsure. It is hopefully in another tree, being not quite as strong as its sibling and unable quite to keep up, but remaining safe. This is the best scenario though and it may well tragically have died, likely at the hands of a predator such as that boa we had seen a few nights before.

 

Still, to have one healthy and safe is excellent news.

 

  1. The trees are empty today. However, all is far from lost. We have seen twice our little macaw flying overhead, almost and strongly and confidently as its parents. He is now flying free.

 

Tragically though, the second young macaw is nowhere to be seen and has most certainly perished. Even so, to see the one surviving macaw flying high overhead is a fantastic feeling! We have followed it since it first started flapping, through the pouring rain and scorching sun, seen it grow stronger and stronger, more and more confident despite the threat of vultures, a massive boa and a plummet into a caiman-ridden lake. It has been a difficult and tiring journey, for the macaws and for Mark and I with our cameras, and to see it all culminate in this young bird going out into the world is a wonderful feeling. And in a year’s time, that young bird might just be a parent itself, taking on the journey again in a whole new way.

Story written by Mark Fernley