by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.
Loud, raucous calls ricocheted around us. The bare, exposed riverbank cliff - 250 feet across the river from us - was a beehive of activity. Its surface, boiling with life, was the focus of our attention. Periodically, a burst of birds erupted from that face and dispersed in the surrounding airspace. In those eruptions, iridescent greens, yellows and blues flashed in the early morning sunshine that warmed the earthy brown of the riverbank clay, high above the water below.
This, now less crowded, cliff face was an invitation for some of those hundreds waiting to swoop down and try to gain a toehold on the almost vertical bank of clay, in order to bite off a chunk of that earth. If alarmed, or for some other reason they needed to depart, the chunk of clay could be carried to a nearby tree branch for more leisurely gnawing.
Twenty of us, including our guides, sat on folding camp stools and watched in awe as the approximately one hour long show that begins just before sunrise, unfurled before our eyes. Cameras clicked constantly, recording the spectacle and telescopes trawled the treetops for close-up views of the spectacularly coloured, feathered participants.
We were located on a riverbank, opposite the clay lick, alongside the upper Tambopata River, deep in the jungle terrain of one of the three Amazon reserves that make up the Tambopata Madidi Reserve in Madre de Dios, a province of Peru, near the border with Bolivia.
According to the National Geographic Society, these parks protect the most species-rich natural habitat in the world. We had flown for about thirty minutes from Cusco, Peru, to reach the river port town of Puerto Maldonado. We then travelled in a long, narrow, wooden river boat for 7 hours up the rainfall swollen, floating debris clogged, Tambopata River - estimated to to be nearly 20 feet above normal levels for this time of year. The Tambopata River flows into the Madre de Dios River, one of the headwater tributaries of the Amazon River. It had been a long and arduous journey, but as we watched, in wonder, the action before us, we all agreed it had been a journey truly worth making.
The amazing scene we watched on successive mornings last month, is the result of a congregation of primarily psittacine birds that visit this clay lick, the largest of several such mineral laden, clay riverbanks, in this region. Cobalt-winged parakeets, Dusky-headed parakeets, White-eyed parakeets and Black-capped parakeets from the parakeet family are regular visitors. Amazonian and Scarlet-shouldered parrotlets may come. There are Orange-cheeked parrots, Blue-headed parrots, White-bellied parrots, Mealy parrots and Yellow-crowned parrots who also may visit. However, the real stars of the show are the Macaws - Chestnut-fronted Macaws, Red-bellied Macaws, Blue-headed Macaws, Blue and Yellow Macaws, Red and Green Macaws and Scarlet Macaws. Macaws are also the principal species being studied in the Tambopata Macaw Project. It is an effort to learn, among other things, why these birds are so keen to travel, sometimes very great distances, to reach these sites.
At the moment, no one really knows, for sure, what the attraction is for the birds. It is speculated they may benefit from various minerals in the clay to aid with food digestion. Others suggest, being the intelligent and social creatures they are, the birds may come just for the chance to socially interact with others of their kind.
No matter why they gather, it is magical to be part of the gathering and it's wonderful that efforts are being made to preserve such places in a habitat for them to survive and enjoy.
Now here's an exciting local event that some readers may find of interest. At the Holiday Inn in Guelph, November 13-15, 2009, the Canadian Parrot Conference is being held. It is a wonderful opportunity for parrot enthusiasts to get together and learn more about these fascinating avians. There is a very good chance you will get to see some Macaws, very up close and personal. At this year's banquet you can also get a chance to win a bid for a trip to the Tambopata Research Centre in Peru, donated by Rainforest Expeditions, and experience a visit to clay lick, for yourself. For more information visit www.canadianparrotconference.ca
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.