I switch on my headlamp and enter the dark forest. Our trio walks through the Peruvian Amazon in silence, out of respect for our surroundings and also because it’s not yet 5 o’clock in the morning. By the time we reach the forest’s edge overlooking the Tambopata River, the day has cracked its pre-dawn window. We travel a short distance by boat to reach the Colorado clay lick, a section of eroded riverbank about 100 feet high by 1,600 feet long.
We’re not the first to arrive. Several dozen mealy parrots chatter and flutter in a nearby tree as five scarlet macaws fly overhead in perfect formation. A pair of blue-and-yellow macaws glides past, flashing their gold underwings in the first glint of sun. More birds stream in from all directions. Squawks and screeches fill the air while the trees are aglow with the brilliant feathers of at least 200 tropical birds. A group of red-and-green macaws begins to circle above the clay lick, and a few swoop down to land on the red wall of soil. This is the signal all the birds have been waiting for—that it’s safe to be on the exposed riverbank. Mobbing the lick, they devour beakfuls of soil. Then, a shriek pierces the din, spooking the birds off the wall in a colorful eruption of feathers. Some wheel overhead and return. Soon, all of the birds disperse and the forest goes quiet.
While clay lick use is well documented in southeast Peru, there is still debate over why the birds eat soil. Researchers with the Tambopata Macaw Project have been studying the biology and ecology of macaws in the Tambopata region since 1989. They have documented evidence that clay in soil can reduce the absorption of dietary toxins found in the seeds that the birds eat. Clay licks also provide an important source of scarce sodium, and the birds use them most during nesting season, when they feed soil to their chicks.
Throughout most of tropical America, the large macaw species have experienced major population declines due to habitat loss from logging, mining and agriculture, as well as hunting and collecting for the pet trade. Compounding these causes is the naturally low reproduction rates of macaws. The large macaw species depend on old trees of sufficient size that harbor cavities big and dry enough to successfully nest. Suitable trees are naturally in short supply, and logging and pet collecting activities have reduced their numbers further. To address this issue, researchers with the Tambopata Macaw Project are developing techniques to boost the reproductive success of the birds. They are also continuing to study clay lick use, track macaw movements and evaluate tourism as a means of protecting the birds and their habitat.
The Tambopata Research Center is the base for the Macaw Project. It also serves as an ecotourism lodge where visitors experience some of Peru’s best wildlife diversity. The center is located in the Tambopata National Reserve, a 680,000-acre conservation unit adjacent to the 2.5 million-acre Bahuaja-Sonene National Park. The combined area protects some of the last untouched lowland and premontane tropical humid forests in the Amazon Basin and is home to more than 600 bird species, 100 mammal species, 1,000 butterfly species and 10,000 species of plants. For visitors, the big draw is the macaw. Here, it’s possible to see more than a dozen parrot species, including five or more macaw species. Large, colorful and chatty, the charismatic macaws are flagship species for conservation—if they can thrive, then so can other species that share their habitat.
When I visited the Tambopata Research Center, the forest was full of life—macaws and other birds, monkeys, reptiles, insects and more. And the lodge was full of visitors thrilled to see this unique part of the world. During my stay, a group of Peruvian wildlife guides was conducting a training session to further tracking and identification skills. In their 20s and 30s, the guides were sharp, passionate and dedicated. At lunchtime, I asked a table of guides how they felt about the future of the forest. One man echoed the sentiments of the group when he said, “The forest is our future. Preserving it is what our generation wants.” Just then, a scarlet macaw perched overhead gave a loud shriek and bobbed its head as if to agree.