Journey to the Raso da Catarina, Brazil

A travel report by Karin and Heinz LAMBERT, Schafflund, Germany. Published in the January 2002 issue of Papageien and translated by Tony Pittman, editor and publisher of the Blue Macaws website

During our visit to the Hyacinth cliff in June 2000 with the wonderful sightings of Hyacinthine Macaws (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) in their habitat we met a young Brazilian called Gil. He was very knowledgeable about parrots. During the course of several discussions on the wildlife in Brazil we also spoke about Lear\'s Macaws (Anodorhynchus leari). Gil claimed to know a farmer on whose land a large population of Lear\'s Macaws lived.

Excited by this information we planned a trip first to the Pantanal and then to the Lear\'s Macaws. During the preparation period Gil sent us a picture of twelve Golden Conures (Guarouba guarouba) on their roosting tree with the news that he had seen the birds near Santarem in the Amazon basin a few weeks before. We therefore extended our visit by a week to have the opportunity to see the Golden Conures.

Lear\'s Macaws in the Raso da Catarina 

In September 2001 we travelled with high expectations to Brazil. Bird watching in the Pantanal, the largest wetland in the world, was planned for the first twelve days. The rainfall has been low for the last two years and this has affected the wildlife. For instance the Wood Stork (Mycteria americana) has not bred in twelve known breeding areas. The low water level has probably exhausted the food source of the storks. The Hyacinthine Macaws had, however, started breeding some eight weeks before our visit. With some wonderful impressions and much slide-film of the wildlife in the Pantanal we set off for the Lear\'s Macaw area.

We have the ornithologist Prof. Helmut Sick to thank for the discovery of the Lear\'s Macaw. He spent half of his life researching the bird-life of Brazil. He had been searching for the mysterious blue macaws since 1954. Up to the year 1979 he had organised five great expeditions to various locations in which the blue macaws had been sighted. The last journey in 1979 led him to the cliffs, which we also visited. There he saw the Lear\'s Macaw in flight for the first time, thus bringing a 120 year-old riddle about this bird to an end.

Gil met us in Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia, giving us an exuberant welcome and promising us many close encounters with Lear\'s Macaws. We were., however, very sceptical because we just could not believe that we would see many specimens of such a rare blue macaw. The next day we travelled over a very sandy track in a four-wheel drive vehicle to the alleged roosting and breeding area of the Lear\'s Macaw. It was an open and partly bushy landscape with caatinga vegetation and isolated licuri palm trees (Syagrus coronata).

Many palms were surrounded with thorny vegetation and as they were only some five metres high, they almost vanished from view in these bushes. Numerous little farmsteads stood left and right along the road. The inhabitants possessed a few cows, sheep and goats and practised a meagre form of agriculture consisting mainly of maize cultivation. The serious lack of water in this area prevented good harvests. Sometimes it did not rain for a whole year. The people are very poor and it is not surprising that any wild animal that can be eaten is hunted. We had a magnificent view over the cliffs before us. Many holes could be seen in the high steep walls of the cliffs. Dusk set in after an hour and our hopes of seeing Lear\'s Macaws disappeared again as the transition from day to night only lasts 20 minutes in the tropics.

Suddenly without any warning sound a small group of Lear\'s Macaws came flying and disappeared into one of the holes just above us. Unfortunately the existing light was insufficient for taking good slides. We could not recover from our surprise for the next five minutes. More Lear\'s Macaws arrived than in our wildest dreams. We were fortunate that it was just full moon and we could watch the action for almost an hour in the moonlight. At times as many as 80 macaws flew over us. Their loud calls filled the air and the echo effect between the canyon walls increased the sound level. We were then optimistic that we would get near to the macaws to observe them feeding.

However we were to discover that it is very difficult to see even one macaw flying during the day, let alone observe them feeding. On the afternoon of the penultimate day of our stay Gil decided to use an old trapper trick. He obtained three sacks of maize cobs, tied the cobs together in pairs and suspended them in the fronds of three palms at a location that the macaws would fly over on the way to their roosting places. Then we returned to the cliffs to enjoy the sight of the flying macaws again.

A poisonous coral snake took up some of the time until the arrival of the birds. On the way back to our accommodation we checked out the maize in the palms and discovered to our surprise that the macaws had already found them. The next day we left at two in the morning to build two hides out of old palm fronds. We were scarcely finished when the first Lear\'s Macaws came flying. For some four hours we stood in the very cramped hides and watched the birds feeding, playing and quarrelling. I was able to take several hundred photos from about 30 metres distance.

We had a long conversation with the owner of the land about the Lear\'s Macaws. Sr. de Farias has been protecting the macaws at his own expense for 15 years. Here is some information about his farm, which is 80,000 hectares (Ed: 200,000 acres) in size, and on his activities for protecting the birds.

1. There are 1,000 sheep, 150 cattle and a few horses on the farm. He also cultivates a modest amount of land.

2. There are a few fields of maize cultivated near to the cliffs just for the macaws. Unfortunately there has been a serious water shortage for many years.

3. There are some 50 roosting and nesting holes in the cliffs. The area is unfenced so Sr. de Farias is unable to control access by third parties.

4. Some of his farm-hands, according to him six persons, keep an eye on the macaws during the breeding period. Unfortunately the financial resources available to him have been restricted by very poor harvests. The government has been promising financial assistance for years, but none has been forthcoming yet.

5. Sr. de Farias visits schools and village meetings to inform the local people about the Lear\'s Macaws to enlist their assistance in protecting the macaws.

Finally Sr. de Farias asked us if we could donate funds for irrigation plant (bore-hole, generator, pump, water tank and hose-pipe) for the maize fields. The total cost would be about $ 7,500.

Our personal impression of Mr. de Farias was very positive. He is a quiet man of about 50 years, who was able to give us detailed information about the Lear\'s Macaw. We believe it would be very worthwhile to support this farmer financially and that the money would be used to protect the birds. According to his estimate there are only some 200 Lear\'s Macaws left in the wild. We shall provide a donation of $ 1,000 ourselves. The wildlife film-maker Renate Brucker will also contribute $ 1,000. We hope that a few more parrot lovers will be found to save the Lear\'s Macaw.

We set off homewards satisfied with the wonderful sightings, with many good pictures in our luggage and the hope not to have visited Brazil for the last time. The parrot population in the Pantanal appears to be good to very good. Hyacinthine Macaws and Blue-fronted Amazon parrots (Amazona aestiva) could be seen in many locations. The parrots were not shy and do not appear to be hunted. However, there is clearly much hunting activity in the area of the Lear\'s Macaw. Most mammals have been extirpated. News from Gil has confirmed our observations. At the end of October 2001 a Lear\'s Macaw was found shot dead in a maize field. We saw very few mammals and the larger parakeets and macaws cannot find sufficient sustenance. Only isolated large trees for breeding still exist.


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 " Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret "

( If you drive out nature with a pitchfork, she will soon find a way back)

Horace (65-8 BC)