The above example of camouflage in the the animal kingdom is courtesy of the Common Pauraque. A resting pauraque looks very much like a pile of dirt and leaves. During the day, they rest on an open place on the ground and remain very still so predators will have trouble detecting them. Females also build their nests right on the ground and rely on camouflage for protection.
The particular bird in the above picture was pointed out to me by a tour guide at Estero Llano Grande State Park near Weslaco, Texas. He roosts in the exact same place everyday, so has been photographed by many birders. I even saw his picture in the February 2015 issue of “BirdWatching” magazine.
The guide gave us a good tip on finding roosting pauraques – they often roost on the ground among shrubs where there are a lot of leaves. However, they don’t like to walk much (they have tiny legs) and their wingspans are about a foot and a half wide. So, they will generally be found roosting in spots they can get to by flight. Due to their wingspans, they will be found roosting in areas with suitable flight paths (over a foot wide) leading to them.
Common pauraques are in the nightjar family (Caprimulgidae), which is a family of nocturnal/crepuscular insectivorous birds that generally hunt their prey on the wing. Common Pauraques occur from southern Texas to central South America in woodland areas that have some open areas nearby for foraging. They do rely on their sight while foraging, so they are most active at dusk, near dawn, and on moonlit nights. They do most of their foraging on the wing, but can also jump from the ground to catch insects, and they may run a bit on the ground (despite their tiny legs) to catch insects.
Estero Llano Grande is a good place to see Common Pauraques. I saw a second one fairly close to the first one that was pointed out to me.
Estero Llano Grande is considered a birding ‘hotspot’ due to the wide variety of habitats found there. It’s also a good place for butterflies. Here are a few more pictures of wildlife I saw there:
There are several bird feeders around the visitor center, where quite a few different birds (such as green jays, inca doves, and black-crested titmice) could be seen. I managed to get a picture of a northern cardinal. They’re beautiful birds that I don’t get to see very often.
There were also plenty of hummingbirds visiting the hummingbird feeders. Most of them were buff-bellied hummingbirds, which can be found in the US along the Gulf Coast. In the US, they breed in southern Texas, but some of them migrate a bit north for the winter and stay along the coast in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama or Florida.
Hummingbirds can be very interesting to watch. Despite their tiny size, they can be quite territorial and often chase each other from feeders or flowers.
There’s a large viewing area by the visitor’s center where one can watch birds at a large wetland. Quite a large variety of waterfowl and wading birds can be seen there, including coots, ducks, ibises and egrets. The bird in the above picture, an American coot, looks somewhat like a duck but is actually in the rail family. Note the strange-looking feet – they are not webbed and the toes are lobed.
The ducks were also interesting to watch, as many species actually pair up on their wintering grounds, and a few males were already courting females. That’s what the Gadwall in the above picture is doing, although the female gadwalls are out of frame.
There were about seven Yellow-crowned Night Herons around “Alligator Lake.” And yes, I did see a few alligators:
Great Kiskadees were quite common. The only place to see them in the US is the far south of Texas, but they are very widespread and common in Central and South America. They can often be found perched on branches near water bodies, where they will repeatedly fly out to capture an insect or small fish.
Above is a Black Phoebe. Like the Great Kiskadee, they often perch on branches near water bodies and fly out from the branch, grab an insect, and then fly back to the same or a nearby perch.
Like the Great Kiskadee, the Altamira Oriole is a south Texas specialty. They are striking, black and orange birds that occur in Central America, Mexico, and the far south of Texas. The above picture shows an Altamira Oriole nest.
I would have liked to see the actual birds but didn’t get a chance that day. However, on the last day of my trip, I went to the Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge, and saw one just as I was walking back to my car. He was even nice enough to perch still so I take his photo:
In my last post, I wrote about Whooping Cranes and the trip I took to see them at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The Whooping Cranes were the highlight of that trip, but the refuge is home to many other bird species. Here are a few pictures of birds and other wildlife at the refuge:
Both species of pelican that occur in North America were quite common in the area. The smaller Brown Pelicans are coastal species and occur in the area year-round and breed there. American White Pelicans, however, are generally migratory, although there are populations in Texas and Mexico that do not migrate.
These two pelican species have different foraging styles. Brown Pelicans will dive for their food, and I frequently saw them dive straight into the water from the air. American White Pelicans do not dive like that and scoop prey from the water. They will also steal food from other species, especially cormorants.
The above picture shows three adult and one juvenile Brown Pelican. The dark brown bird is the juvenile. Note also the white necks on the adults. Adult Brown Pelicans have white necks when they are not breeding, while during the breeding season, the backs of their necks will be dark brown.
The black bird in above picture is a Neotropical Cormorant. Cormorants are frequently seen in the company of pelicans and both Neotropical and Double-crested Cormorants occur on the south Texas coast. These two cormorant species are not always easy to differentiate, although the neotropicals are smaller, have shorter beaks, and have longer tails. The shape of the gular (throat) pouch also differs between the two species.
I actually took the above photo in Lethbridge, Alberta, but it shows one structural difference between breeding and non-breeding American White Pelicans. During the early breeding season, American White Pelicans develop a round, horny disk on the top mandible of the beak. This is lost after the breeding season.
I managed to see quite a few “lifer” birds on the trip, as I’d never been to the east coast. A “lifer” would be a bird that I had never seen before. The Gull-billed Tern (seen in the above photo) and the Neotropical Cormorant were lifers for me. It’s always exciting to see a see a new species, and ever better for me if I can get a decent picture.
Osprey were very common, but I also managed to see a Peregrine Falcon. Peregrines are well-known for having the fastest dive speed among birds, as they can reach speeds of 320 km/hour during a dive. The species was considered endangered in the United States during the mid twentieth century, and population declines were largely due to the use of organochlorine pesticides (primarily DDT). These pesticides caused females to lay eggs with thin shells. The species has since made a recovery due to DDT bans and the release of captive-bred birds.
Shorebirds are abundant on the gulf coast during winter, as many species that breed further north overwinter there. Shown above is a Ruddy Turnstone. They spend the winters on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the USA and breed in the high Arctic. Their breeding plumage is much sharper than their winter plumage.
Willets (one is shown above) are medium shorebirds that overwinter on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and breed on the north Atlantic coast and inland in central Canada and the northwestern USA. They are rather plain shorebirds, but in flight, they are easy to recognize due to the sharp, black and white striped patterns they have on the undersides of their wings.
Herons were also quite common, and the above photo shows a Snowy Egret (which is in the heron family). Cattle Egrets, Great Egrets, and Reddish Egrets also occur in the area.
Dolphins were also quite common and often swam beside or behind the boat. I also saw several dolphins while on a boat trip off of South Padre Island.
I took the photo of the above bird (a Long-billed Curlew) in a field between Harlingen and Corpus Christi. A very large flock of curlews was foraging in the field. Long-billed Curlews often forage for worms in pastures and their long bills help them probe deep into mud. On coasts, where some birds overwinter, they will forage for shrimp and crabs and can often reach them in their mud burrows.
A Ferruginous Hawk and Sprague’s Pipit were also present alongside the curlews. These three species are declining in Canada (the Ferruginous Hawk is particularly scarce), so seeing all of them in one spot was quite thrilling for me. I couldn’t get a decent picture of the hawk (it was too far away), but here’s a photo of one I took near Mountain View, Alberta.
The Texas pictures were all taken with a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70 camera. It has a 60X zoom lens, so I didn’t have to get too close to the birds to get decent pictures.
Suddenly, across one of those glimpses of eternity, there flocked the forms of two majestic birds; and from them came a far croaking trumpet sound. By their long wings, long necks, long legs and snowy plumes, I later knew they were two white cranes, the noblest thing that flies, sailing on to their northern home, and the ring triumphant of that stirring trumpet call still echoes in my heart.
Ernest Thompson Seton, on the Whooping Crane, from “Trail of the Artist-Naturalist, 1940.
Last post, I wrote about the parrots of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. My main reason for visiting Texas was to attend the Rio Grande Birdwatching Festival. I chose this festival in particular because I would get to see wild parrots, and because one of the post-festival trips featured one of North America’s rarest birds: the Whooping Crane.
The Whooping Crane (Grus americana) came perilously close to extinction during the first half of the twentieth century. Populations had been declining due to hunting and habitat destruction, and by 1941, there were only 23 Whooping Cranes left in the world. Today, there are about 600 of them, with about 400 of those being wild birds.
Increasing the number of Whooping Cranes in the wild was a very difficult task for conservationists. The breeding range of last population was not discovered until 1954, well after it had become apparent that the species was in mortal danger. The species also has a low growth rate, as Whooping Cranes do not breed until age four (at the youngest) and pairs typically raise only one chick to fledgling each year. It helps that Whooping Cranes can be bred in captivity, but ensuring the survival of large numbers of released birds is difficult because they must learn their migration routes. To get around this problem, some cranes have been conditioned to follow ultra-light aircraft, which can then escort the birds on the appropriate migration route.
Today, there is only one self-sustaining wild Whooping Crane population, which is the one that overwinters on the Gulf Coast of Texas and breeds in Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada. There are also ongoing efforts to establish a non-migratory population in Louisiana, and a migratory population that overwinters in Florida and breeds in Wisconsin. The latter population has almost 100 birds in it.
Efforts to establish a “Rocky Mountain” population that would breed in the northern Rocky Mountains and winter in New Mexico was not successful. This is because the population was started by placing Whooping Crane eggs in Sandhill Crane nests. The Sandhill Cranes raised some Whooping Crane chicks, but as adults, the Whooping Cranes did not try to mate with each other but courted Sandhill Cranes instead.
There is also a small population of non-migratory Whooping Cranes in Florida (about 20 birds) and these are the descendants of captive-bred individuals that were released into the wild. No more captive-bred birds will be released into this flock as it has suffered from a high mortality rate.
Despite the difficulties inherent with conserving them, Whooping Cranes are no longer in imminent danger of disappearing and can thus be seen as a conservation success story (albeit one that is still ongoing, as they are still endangered).
I live in Alberta, and part of Wood Buffalo National Park, where Whooping Cranes breed, is in Alberta. However, the Whooping Cranes there are (apparently) very difficult to see and tend to nest in some very inaccessible muskeg areas. So, to have a chance at seeing these rare cranes, I headed to Texas.
The Whooping Crane tour group I was with stayed in the Rockport Area, and took a boat ride into the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to see the cranes. It was a grey and chilly day, but that didn’t matter, as I managed to see 19 Whooping Cranes, including some juveniles. This year had been a particularly good one for the population, as at least thirty-two chicks were raised to fledgling.
The above photo shows an adult pair with their offspring, which is the one with some rust-coloured feathers. The young stay with their parents during their first winter.
That adult Whooping Cranes are territorial was apparent from seeing them in the wild. Each pair or trio (pair with young) had its own feeding area located at least a few hundred meters from other cranes. Birds would sometimes get too close to each other, which would result in some vocalizations and a threat display.
Cranes would sometimes erect their ‘bustle’ feathers (as seen above) and call out to each other. These calls presumably help the cranes maintain their territory boundaries. Cranes have unusual and distinctive-sounding calls because they have very long tracheae. In most birds, the trachea goes straight from the pharynx (back of throat), down to the syrinx (which is just above the lungs), and then it branches to form two bronchi that connect to the lungs. In a crane, the trachea is not straight, but forms a long, looping coil along the sternum (breastbone). Their long, coiled tracheae allow Whooping Cranes to produce resonating calls.
Occasionally, a pair of Whooping Cranes would engage in a courtship display, where they would open their wings and leap up and down, facing each other. It was a wonderful thing to get to see, and I managed to get a picture:
Sometimes, a bird would start a courtship display while its partner just foraged or gazed into the distance.
Although I did get to see their courtship displays, the cranes spend most of their time foraging. They are omnivorous, but eat more animal than plant matter. Blue crabs are one of the most important sources of food for them at the Aransas refuge, but they will also eat other crustaceans, molluscs, plant matter such as berries, and small vertebrates.
As can be seen in the above pictures, many Whooping Cranes have leg bands so that biologists can track the activities of individual birds. However, not all cranes I saw were banded, and biologists often avoid banding them now, as being captured and handled can be stressful for a wild bird. This does not mean that biologists cannot identify individual birds, as cranes can be identified by their voices. Cranes can be difficult to differentiate by just listening to them, but by recording their calls and making a digital ‘voiceprint’ for each crane, individual birds can now be recognized and studied.
That these graceful and stately birds can still be seen living in the wild is due to the hard work of multiple generations of conservationists, both amateur and professional. I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to view them in the wild, and I hope that future generations will be able to as well.
I recently traveled to Harlingen in south Texas to attend the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. One of the highlights of the festival (for me) was getting to see wild parrots, both with one of the festival tours and on my own.
People attending the festival could sign up for a ‘parrot tour’ of Harlingen. There are Mexican Red-headed Amazons (AKA Red-crowned Parrots, Amazona viridigenalis) and Green Conures (AKA Green Parakeets, Aratinga holochlora) living right in the city. During the parrot tours, three vans would head out in search of the parrots and the first van to find the parrots would let the other two know where they were. The festival occurs outside of the parrot breeding season, which means the roosting flocks would be quite large. When parrots are breeding, they will roost in or around their nests; thus they won’t form these huge flocks.
The tours started at 4 pm, which is when the parrots begin forming large roosting flocks. The parrots often forage and rest in smaller groups during the day but before nightfall they congregate in large groups. This is a very noisy process – the parrots will start calling noisily, and once a flock is assembled, they would all fly around, calling, until it was dark and they had found a suitable spot to sleep for the night. The parrot flocks would roost in slightly different locations each night so a bit of searching was needed to find them. The searching was done with the windows of the vans open, as conures and Amazons are very noisy, which makes them easier to find. The conures and the Amazons stayed in separate flocks.
The groups first went out in search of the Green Conures. The tour group I was with located a flock of them quite quickly. Most of the conures were perched on power lines, although a few were up in palm trees. Most were calling to each other and a few pairs were busy preening each other. Even though it was outside of the breeding season, mated pairs would stay close to each other.
A few of the Green Conures had some red feathers on their heads, but that is normal for the species. Green Conures do breed in the Rio Grande Valley so the population is self sustaining. They begin breeding in March. It is unclear whether the population was established from birds who dispersed in naturally from Mexico or from pet birds who escaped or were released (or both). As Green Conures do occur in northern Mexico, it is certainly plausible that they occur naturally in the Rio Grande Valley. The same is true for the Mexican Red-headed Amazons.
After locating the Green Conures, the groups went in search of the Amazons. When I did the tour, the group of Amazons was located along power lines and in trees in a residential neighbourhood. Their loud calls helped us find them. Tour leaders brought out spotting scopes so we could get better looks at the birds, and many people took photos, including me (although mine did not turn out very well). At one point, the entire flock of birds (about eighty or so) flew away as though something had startled them. We did later find the flock perched on power lines next to a church.
I later headed out to the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco (about a 20 minute drive west of Harlingen), as I read that parrots can be found in that area. I looked through the nature center and took a walk on the trails. I asked one of the staff if parrots frequent the area and she told me to stick around the park by the nature center at 5:00 pm or so because a large flock of Amazons generally roosts in the area. At about 5, I drove around the area (with the car windows open) and found a very large flock of Amazons about a block away from the nature center. This flock was composed primarily of Mexican Red-headed Amazons, but I did count about five Red-lored Amazons in the bunch. There was also a Double Yellow-headed Amazon with them.
The flock was incredibly noisy and more and more birds kept arriving from all directions. The birds would call, preen themselves, preen their partners, or squabble over positions in trees or on the wires. They were very amusing to watch.
At one point they got up and flew to another location about a block away. They settled there for a bit and then the entire flock circled around the neighbourhood before settling to roost in some large trees in someone’s front yard.
I enjoyed watching them so much that I returned to Weslaco a second time to seek out the flock. Again, I had no trouble finding them – I just drove around the neighbourhood until I heard the flock. I also stopped at the Frontera Audubon Center and did some birdwatching on their trails. Several turkey vultures were circling above the trails and I managed to get the below picture of one:
I also got a few more pictures of the Amazons:
Stay tuned for more blog posts about my birding trip to south Texas. I got to see some extremely rare birds and I will be sharing pictures of them!
Click on the above link to see a story about wild, talking cockatoos.
“NO NEED TO THINK you’re going bird-brained if you hear mysterious voices from the trees – it’s likely just a curious cockatoo wanting a chat. Native parrots, especially cockatoos, seem to be learning the art of conversation from their previously domesticated friends. ”
I was at the botanic garden in Sydney and I thought one of the birds said “Hello” to me. I guess that’s not all that uncommon of an occurrence.
Here are a few pictures I took while I was there:
I’m going to take a break from writing the “oddball” parrots series to post this article I wrote for Parrots magazine about Hyacinth Macaws. Enjoy!
In the Land of the Hyacinth Macaw
By: Jessie Zgurski
Of all the great wilderness areas and wildlife spectacles of the Neotropics, it is the famed Amazon rainforest of northern South America that gets the biggest share of the attention and tourists. It is, after all, the world’s largest rainforest and is home to countless plant and animal species, many of which remain to be discovered. However, on a recent trip to South America, I chose to explore another lesser known but no less great wilderness area: the Pantanal region of central Brazil. It is not nearly as well known as the Amazon region to the north, but its wildlife is just as spectacular, if not even more so.
The Pantanal is South America’s counterpart to Africa’s Serengeti plains – the wildlife there is extremely abundant and very visible. There are, however, fewer of the giant mammals Africa is famous for, and there are a lot more cattle. But, the Pantanal makes up for this in the sheer otherworldliness of many of its mammals and in the astonishing number of birds that live there. Many ecotourists who visit the Pantanal get to see furry Giant Anteaters, which look like no other mammal on earth, and almost nobody leaves a trip to the region without seeing big groups of capybara, which resemble sheep-sized, aquatic guinea pigs. At night it is possible to see armadillos, which, with their leathery shells, look a bit like a cross between a large rat and a tortoise. Huge birds such as the graceful, ostrich-like rhea and the stately black and white Jabiru Stork are very common, and sinister-looking but harmless Yacaré Caiman are almost everywhere. Birders can see a startling variety of beautiful toucans, parrots, herons, raptors, and hummingbirds with almost no effort. With effort, the number of bird species seen in a short visit can easily climb over one hundred. I greatly looked forward to this trip for months before leaving, eager to see the Pantanal’s wonderful diversity of birds, but, there was one magnificent species in particular I had my sights set on, for I was in the realm of the Hyacinth Macaw, the biggest of all of South America’s parrots.
The Pantanal: Realm of the Hyacinth Macaw
The Pantanal is the world’s largest wetland and it is so big that early European explorers initially thought they had found a great inland sea upon discovering it. It covers 140 000 to 195 000 square kilometers of central Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia, although most of it lies within the state of Mato Grosso do Sul in Brazil. I visited the region during the dry season, which lasts from June to August, so what I saw didn’t resemble an inland sea, or even a modest lake. What I saw was grassland interspersed with patches of forest, a few small pools and some shallow, reddish rivers. However, the water marks on many of the trees revealed that much of the land had been underwater at some very recent point. In fact, about 80% of the Pantanal is submerged each year during the wet season, which lasts from November to March. A boat would have been needed to get to the lodge I stayed at during the wet season. However, it could be reached by a vehicle while I was there.
The Pantanal is truly a paradise for bird watchers such as myself, as the region is home to hundreds of species, and at least 250 of them can be found just on the land of the lodge I stayed at (Pousada do Xaraés), which covers 4200 hectares. Eleven species of parrot have been recorded on the property and I managed to see nine of them. Even just around the lodge, I could see all sorts of hummingbirds, raptors, thrushes, blackbirds, flycatchers, jays, tanagers, and two species of kingfisher. Nanday Conures, Peach-fronted Conures and Quaker Parakeets often perched in the trees right outside my room, and flocks of Blue-fronted Amazons foraged and roosted in nearby stands of trees. The sheer number of birds was amazing. For mammals, I was able to see two Giant Anteaters, a few groups of Ring-tailed Coatimundi, Marsh Deer, Red Brocket Deer, Grey Brocket Deer, a Giant River Otter, families and pairs of Howler Monkeys, herds of White-lipped Peccaries, and a Crab-eating Fox. I also saw jaguar and tapir tracks, but, unfortunately, not the animals that made them. I also saw no anacondas or any other snakes. That is something most people would say with a sense of relief, but I wouldn’t have minded seeing some of these often-loathed animals – from a distance, in the case of the giant or venomous species. I also didn’t see any of the monstrous giant spiders that live in underground burrows in the area either, but I always wondered how many I walked over, while being totally unaware of their presence a foot or two under my feet. I did get to see hundreds of caiman (a relative of the alligator), several Green Iguanas and many smaller lizard species.
I also spotted several flocks of the major flagship species of the Pantanal, and the animal I had come to see. The grand Hyacinth Macaw is a bird usually described in superlatives: they are the biggest of all flighted parrots, and are startlingly beautiful. Their glossy feathers are a rich, royal blue colour – a colour rarely seen on such a large animal – and their golden, almond-shaped eye rings contrast beautifully with their plumage. The golden, featherless patch on the edge of their lower mandibles adds to their charm because it makes them look like they are smiling. They admittedly do look a little awkward – even somewhat puppyish – while they walk on the ground looking for palm fruits. However, in flight they are elegant and move with very shallow wing beats that appear nearly effortless. Few parrot fanciers forget their first meeting with a Hyacinth Macaw, especially if it is with a free-living bird.
Meeting the Hyacinth Macaws
While in the Pantanal, the first group of macaws I saw was in flight over a ranch I was going horse-back riding at. One of my favourite ways to see a countryside is from the back of a horse. While the guides were preparing the horses, three hyacinths landed in a tall palm tree nearby that contained bunches of palm fruits– a favored food of wild macaws. I dumped my back pack in the dirt and grabbed my binoculars to watch them. I think I held up the group, but got a few pictures and went riding – hoping I would see more hyacinths.
I did see many more hyacinths throughout the trip. They seemed to prefer to inhabit open areas, and they had booming voices, so they were hard to miss. However, it is best to get up early to see wild macaws actually doing something besides perching, because hyacinths, like many parrots, are early risers. I, under normal circumstances, am not. However, hearing several wild hyacinths squawking right outside my room gave me a good motivation to get up at 5:30 am while I was in the Pantanal. And what a nice thing to wake up to! Hyacinths feed largely on palm fruits, and there were several palm trees around the property I was staying at. Hyacinths will gladly forage around farm houses and people if there is food available.
Wild Hyacinth Macaws are fascinating to watch and they have a lot of character. They often hang upside down by their feet or beaks as they pull palm fruits off of trees, and despite their size, they are really quite acrobatic. They often chat to each other in low, grumbly voices and they occasionally let out very loud, booming squawks. It is also easy to pick out the couples and family groups in a flock of hyacinths. In flight, pairs fly together, and a pair with an offspring will fly with mom and dad in front and the youngster slightly off to the side or a bit behind. Young hyacinths can stay with their parents for up to sixteen months, and the parents won’t breed again until the youngster has become independent. Hyacinth families in the region I was in – the Southern Pantanal near the town of Miranda – are usually groups of three, as it is rare for a pair to be able to successfully raise more than one chick. However, in some areas where there are fewer people, hyacinths often can raise two chicks to maturity. When a hyacinth family rests during the hottest part of the afternoon, they will rest close together and a few family groups will often roost in the same tree. The roosts I saw usually contained a dozen or so birds, but sometimes, a night roost can contain up to one hundred birds. Greenwing Macaws will also sometimes roost with hyacinths.
I should note that, while they are locally common in the area of the Pantanal I visited, Hyacinth Macaws are globally endangered. They actually occur in three disjunct areas of Brazil – the Pantanal, a region of dry cerrado (tropical savannah) in central Brazil, and the east-central Amazon. Although some live in the Amazon region, hyacinths are not rainforest birds. They prefer to live in open habitats and where they occur in the Amazon, they prefer to stay near forest edges. During their low point in the 1980s, there were only about 2 500 Hyacinth Macaws in the world and only about 1 500 of them lived in the Pantanal.
Two main problems contributed to the hyacinth’s demise in the wild: capture for the pet trade and the destruction of its habitat. Additionally, they are captured for their feathers where they occur in the Amazon. Hyacinth Macaws are targeted by smugglers because they are greatly coveted by many parrot owners and breeders, and a single hyacinth can usually sell for $8 000 USD or more. It has been illegal to export them from Brazil since 1967; however, between 1981 and 1984 about 700 birds were caught and exported legally from Bolivia for the US market. That was a huge portion of the population. Many of those birds were likely illegally caught in Brazil and then snuck into Bolivia for export. In 1987, hyacinths were placed on Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), meaning that they could not be exported legally from any country where they occurred, but it’s difficult to estimate how many birds have been exported illegally. It is also difficult to estimate how many birds have been captured and kept in captivity within Brazil. Based on how many smugglers have actually been caught, there’s no doubt that hundreds of hyacinths have been removed from the wild by smugglers.
Hyacinth Macaw populations have also declined because their habitat tends to overlap with regions where people want to raise cattle, especially in the Pantanal. I saw that they can live alongside cattle, if the palm trees that produce the food they eat and the large trees they nest in are not cut down. In the Pantanal, virtually all hyacinth nests are in Manduvi trees (Sterculia apetala). Like the majority of parrots, hyacinths nest in tree cavities, and Manduvi trees have all the qualities needed to make a good macaw nest, because they are tall and wide, and they have soft wood, so a macaw can easily enlarge an existing hole in one. Individual trees big enough for hyacinths to nest in are not common and several other species, including Greenwing Macaws, also nest in Manduvi tree cavities. The availability of nest trees really limits Hyacinth Macaw populations. A Manduvi tree large enough to make a good hyacinth nest takes 60 years to grow, so if people cut down the Manduvi trees in an area, it would take decades for the area to again become suitable habitat for a breeding population of hyacinths. This is especially true if there are a lot of cattle in the area, since they can trample or eat Manduvi seedlings.
Despite these problems, a significant population recovery of Hyacinth Macaws has occurred in the Pantanal thanks to the efforts of dedicated conservationists and the farmers and ranchers who worked with them. In 1990, biologist Neiva Guedes started Projeto Arara Azul (the Hyacinth Macaw project), with the aim of restoring Hyacinth Macaw populations in the Pantanal and ensuring their long-term survival. One of my guides in the Pantanal had been a field assistant for this project, so I got to learn a lot about it. Part of the recovery effort for hyacinths involved installing artificial nest boxes throughout the Pantanal, so populations could increase in areas where good nest trees were scarce. Since so much of the Pantanal is private land, researchers worked with farmers and ranchers to get the nests installed. Members of the Hyacinth Macaw recovery team educated the Pantaneiros (inhabitants of the Pantanal) about the macaws and why they are endangered through presentations and radio and television messages.
The Hyacinth Macaw Project has been very successful. The population of wild hyacinths now stands at approximately 6 500, with 5 000 birds living in the Pantanal region. Given the low natural reproductive rate of the species, this is a very impressive result. Poaching has also declined very sharply in the Pantanal, so things are looking up for the Hyacinth Macaws in this region.
The biologists working on the Hyacinth Macaw project have also gathered a great deal of data on the behavior and ecology of hyacinths. A research report was recently published in the journal Biological Conservation about the hyacinth’s relationship with another big, charismatic bird that lives in the Pantanal – the Toco Toucan. While coatimundis, opossums and jays eat hyacinth eggs, the biggest predator of hyacinth eggs are Toco Toucans. The toco is the species most people would picture if asked to think of a toucan. Tocos are black with white bibs, blue eye-rings and long, bright orange beaks. They weren’t too hard to spot in the Pantanal, due to their habit of flying in open areas between patches of trees and their very bright beaks. They are impossible to mistake for any other bird. They have a broad diet and eat most things they can swallow whole, and eggs make a very nutritious meal for them. I spend a lot of time watching several toucans swallow small palm fruits whole one afternoon. I found that group by following their calls, which are rather harsh and gronky sounding.
In addition to eating their eggs, Toco Toucans also compete with hyacinths for nesting sites and will even take over hyacinth nests after killing nestlings. Thus, their presence can really create problems for the hyacinths. However, the hyacinths actually need the toucans to persist over the long term, because the toucans disperse the seeds of the Manduvi trees that hyacinths nest in. Toucans actually disperse the seeds of many plant species, since they swallow whole fruits and expel their seeds either through their droppings or by regurgitating them. Since toucans travel widely, they do a great job of spreading around seeds, including those of the Manduvi tree. Hyacinths need Manduvi trees that are spread out across the landscape, because they prefer not to nest closely to each other.
Aside from the Manduvi trees they nest in, Hyacinth Macaws also rely strongly upon two species of palm trees for food: the acuri palm (Attalea phalerata) and the Bocaiúva palm (Acrocomia aculeata). While walking around the lodge one afternoon, I picked an acuri fruit off of a tree to examine. They are rock hard and very smooth, but the hyacinths can still open them with their incredibly powerful beaks. I would have needed a hammer and all of my strength. However, it still takes the hyacinths a lot of beak grinding to get these fruits open. It’s also a skill that takes juveniles some time to learn. But, as I saw later, some hyacinths have also found a way to get at the nutritious and fatty meat of the palm fruits without having to do as much beak work.
At one point, while traveling in a jeep, my guide and I came across a group of eight Hyacinths on the ground in the middle of a field that cattle graze on. They were clearly eating something they could hold with their feet, though they were very far from any palm trees, or any other plants that produce large fruits. We pulled in closer to the macaws, but not so close that the birds became agitated.
What the macaws were doing was picking palm fruits out of cattle manure. The droopy-eared, hump-backed Brahman cattle of the Pantanal – of which there are about eight million – will eat palm fruits that have fallen on the ground. They cannot digest the entire fruits, but they can digest off their tough, fibrous outer coatings. They then expel the fruits in their manure or they regurgitate them. Without the tough outer coating, the fruits are much softer, so when a group of hyacinths comes across a batch of these processed palm fruits, they will take the opportunity to get an easy-to-open meal.
Hyacinth Macaws have another neat little trick to deal with opening their meals. They are one of only two parrot species (the other being the Black Palm Cockatoo) that have been observed using tools in the wild. Wild hyacinths may take a leaf, roll it around a palm fruit, position the fruit in the beak and remove the fruit’s outer shell by moving the lower mandible back and forth. Perhaps the leaf makes the fruit easier to “peel,” by making it less slippery? This would be similar to how some people put a dish cloth over a tight jar lid to make it easier to get a grip on and twist open. This hypothesis regarding why hyacinths use leaves to open palm nuts is backed by the fact that hyacinths feeding on palm fruit found in cattle manure don’t bother wrapping the fruit in leaves. The fruit would not be as slippery and difficult to peel, so the leaf wrap would not be needed.
Saying “Goodbye” to the Hyacinths
My last day in the Pantanal was great in terms of hyacinth viewing. I saw several groups on a jeep ride and watched several foraging and resting around the lodge after I got back. After that, I left for Bonito, a town about a four hour drive away. I got to see more parrots around that town, especially Greenwing Macaws, which are very common around a large nearby sinkhole called “Buraco das Araras,” or “Hole of Macaws.” The greenwings nest in the sides of the cliffs there. I also saw a few flocks of Greenwing Macaws in the Pantanal as well, although while they will forage or roost alongside hyacinths, I never saw the two species together. Around Bonito, I also got to see more Orange-fronted Conures, Blue-fronted Amazons and Green-cheeked Conures. Bonito is most famous for the clear rivers full of colourful fish that run through the nearby countryside, so I also went snorkeling while I was there.
Was I happy with my decision to visit the Pantanal? Absolutely! The wildlife there was absolutely amazing. I would definitely recommend the region to bird-watchers, people who want to see wild parrots, or anyone who enjoys seeing wildlife. I would even like to go back to Brazil someday, to go back to the Pantanal again – I really loved it there – but also to visit the Amazon rainforest and the Atlantic rainforest.
Projeto Ara Azul – The Hyacinth Macaw Project
-this site is in Portuguese, but can be translated into English with the google.com translator.
-a site about the Hyacinth Macaw and its relatives.
Borsari A, Ottoni EB. 2004. Preliminary observations of tool use in captive hyacinth macaws (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus). Animal Cognition, 8, 48-52.
Collar NJ, Gonzaga LP, Krabbe N, Madroño Nieto A, Naranjo LG, Parker TA III and Wege DC. 1992. Threatened Birds of the Americas. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC, USA, in cooperation with The International Council for Bird Preservation, Cambridge. UK.
Forshaw JF, and Knight F (Illustrator). 2006. Parrots of the World: An Identification Guide. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, USA.
Guedes NMR and Harper L. 1999. Hyacinth Macaws in the Pantanal: Conservation and management. In: The Large Macaws: Their Care, Breeding and Conservation. J. Abramson, BL Speer, and JB Thomsen (eds.) Raintree Publications, Fort Bragg, CA, USA.
Guedes NMR. 2004. Management and conservation of the large macaws in the wild. Ornitologia Neotropical, 15, 279-283.
Pizo MA, Donatti CI, Guedes NMR, Galetti M. 2008. Conservation puzzle: Endangered hyacinth macaw depends on its nest predator for reproduction. Biological Conservation, 141, 792-796.
(Note: This was originally published in Good Bird Magazine)
Last month, I wrote about my brief visit to Sydney, Australia, where I was able to see wild Sulphur-crested Cockatoos at the botanic gardens and visit the Taronga Zoo. The brief visit to Sydney was a stopover on my way to my final destination, Christchurch, New Zealand. My primary reason for heading to Christchurch was to attend a conference, but I also planned to travel around the country to view some of its fascinating bird life. Because New Zealand is so isolated, no land mammals, besides a pair of bat species, have ever managed to colonize it without human assistance. As a result, many of New Zealand’s bird species have been free to occupy ecological niches normally held by mammals, so a diverse array of unusual, and often unbird-like, birds have evolved there.
While I was in Christchurch, I visited a few places where I could see some native birds in captivity. My first stop was the Southern Encounter Aquarium and Kiwi House, which was near the conference venue. Several freshwater and marine animals, and several species of native reptiles, were on display. There was also a kiwi enclosure housing two North Island Brown Kiwi. Kiwi displays are generally kept dark during the daytime, because kiwi tend to sleep in dens or burrows during the day.
Both kiwi were out when I went in to see them, and they were much larger and even more unusual looking than I had pictured them in my mind. Not only are they flightless, but they have lost their wings completely, and possess only small, clawed stubs in their place. These were hidden well under the kiwis’ shaggy, hair-like feathers. They also have cat-like whiskers on their faces, which seem help the birds find their way around in the dark. Their feet are very large and raptor-like, and have padded toes that allow them to move about silently. Their feet looked strong and the claws sharp, which presumably allow them to dig their burrows and defend themselves from intruders. Despite their sweet appearance, kiwi are very territorial.
While I watched the kiwi, they trudged about their enclosure, repeatedly thrusting their long, slender beaks into the deep soil and leaf litter, sniffing and feeling around for insects. Unlike most other birds, kiwi have a superb sense of smell and their nostrils are on the tips of their beaks, rather than being up at the top, as they are in parrots. Their eyesight is rather poor, which is unusual for a bird, so each kiwi often bumped into the walls of the enclosure. It was no big deal to them; they simply turned around and continued to single-mindedly search for insects. With their nocturnal habits, mainly insectivorous diet, and habit of resting in burrows, they seemed to me like a bird counterpart of a hedgehog.
Later on, I headed to the Orana Wildlife Park, which has many native animals on display, in addition to several other exotics, primarily from Africa. Many of the native birds were in a very large walk-in aviary. Kiwi were housed in a darkened kiwi house, and there were many wild birds in the pools around the park. Of all the birds I saw, the native Tui in the walk-in aviary stood out most. It was a gorgeous, dark, iridescent bird with a white, lacy cape around its neck and a pair of white disks under its throat. However, its song is what really grabbed my attention. It was quite complex, and consisted of some lovely, clear whistles interspersed with other noises, like coughs and clicks. Tui, it turns out, can produce a huge variety of sounds, because they possess two voice boxes. Some of the notes they can produce even go beyond the range of what humans can hear. And, like parrots or starlings, they can mimic sounds very well. However, they are not related to either one, and are part of the honey-eater family (Melphagidae). Some captive individuals even learn to mimic human speech very well. Tui are common and I saw many in the wild later on.
After the conference was over, I headed north to Wellington, which is on the southern edge of the North Island. My main plan there was to head to Kapiti Island, which is five miles off of the coast about a 45 minute drive north of Wellington. The island serves as a haven for several endangered bird species. Offshore islands are often set up as wildlife refuges because they can be cleared of introduced predators. Many of New Zealand’s native birds and reptiles are endangered because introduced rats, cats, possums, and stoats prey on them. Because New Zealand’s endemic birds evolved in the absence of mammalian predators, many of them have no natural defenses against them.
Unfortunately, the ship to Kapiti Island did not sail while I was there. So, I decided to drive about two hours north to the Pukaha Mount Bruce Wildlife Centre. There was a visitor centre there, with many educational displays and a cage of baby Tuataras, reptiles native to New Zealand. There was also a large forest preserve, with some rare birds to view in large, natural aviaries. Many of them are part of breeding programs intended to produce young that could be released back into the wild into the forest preserve or on offshore island sanctuaries.
One of the highlights was the chance to see two Takahe. Takahe were once thought to be extinct, but some were found in 1948 in a remote part of the South Island. Takahe are a species of rail (Rallidae) and are large (63 cm long) and flightless. They are very striking with their dark purpley-blue bodies, moss-coloured backs, large, bright red beaks and matching short, red legs. There are only about 250 of these birds left, mostly on offshore islands and the mountains of Fiordland, in the far south.
The Takahe grazed in their large enclosure while I watched them. In the wild, they eat tussock grass, focusing mainly on the more nutritious base and leaving the tougher tops behind. They’ll also dig for roots and corms. Most rail species are shorebirds, but Takahe are capable of living in a variety of habitats, including alpine regions.
I spent a couple hours walking in the forest, watching and photographing the free-living birds that lived there. These included dozens of North Island Kaka, the large, brown and red forest parrot endemic to the island. Many of them were bred in captivity at the centre. A mix of captive bred birds and wild birds caught elsewhere were first released into the forest in 1996. The population has grown, likely due to predator control programs and the predator-proof nest boxes that were put up for them.
The Kaka weren’t always easy to spot, but I saw several flying above the trees. Their earth-toned feathers make them blend in well with their surroundings, but their loud calls often gave their locations away. Additionally, there was a very large, metal, parrot-feeder set up in a clearing in the forest, which made kaka viewing much easier. The kaka are given supplemental food each day there at three pm. When I approached it around two, several birds followed me, thinking I had their food. I didn’t, but the kakas were very interesting to watch. They are quite acrobatic, and often hung upside-down in the trees. They also gnawed on tree branches a lot, whose bark they can easily tear off with their very large, heavy beaks. They do this to find insects and grubs to eat.
At three, workers came to give the kakas their daily ration of corn and nuts. The Kaka were quite competitive at the feeder and often tried to steal food from each other. Smaller birds also arrived to clean up any bits the kaka dropped to the ground. The kaka were also given a solution of jam and water in a bottle to drink out of. Such a sugary solution is a part of their natural diet, because, like lories, kaka have bristled tounges that allow them to lick nectar off of flowers.
The next day I headed to the Te Papa Museum back in Wellington, which has a large section devoted to natural history. Unfortunately, some of the most magnificent of all of New Zealand’s birds exist now only as fossils or models in museums, because about 40% of New Zealand’s birds went extinct after humans arrived. These include the moa, a group of fifteen or so flightless birds, one of which stood up to 12 feet tall and weighed up to 550 pounds. They were likely hunted to extinction by the Polynesian settlers who arrived sometime between 800 and 1300 AD.
The moa were primarily grazers, with the taller forms being able to browse off of tall trees, like giraffes. They were the bird version of grazers like deer, bison, or wildebeests; or even like rabbits, as some species were small. Of course, where ever groups of large herbivores exist, there will be something around that hunts them. For the moa, this predator was, of course, another bird. It was an eagle – the mighty Haast’s Eagle – which was the biggest eagle to ever exist. They weighed from 22 to 28 pounds and had wingspans of about nine feet. The wingspan was actually somewhat small for its overall size, so they had to flap hard while in flight. They could, however, maneuver through dense forests. The Haast’s eagle probably went extinct when its prey, the moa, disappeared. The museum had a large model of a Haast’s eagle coming down on a giant moa. Models of other unusual, extinct birds were on display as well, which included tiny, flightless wrens, the endemic Whekau (or laughing owl), a huge, flightless goose, and the huia, a large, iridescent blue-black bird belonging to the wattle-bird family (Callaeidae), which is found only in New Zealand. Many of these went extinct after European settlers introduced cats and stoats to the island.
Next, I headed back to the South Island and took the TranzAlpine train across the Southern Alps, from Christchurch, on the Pacific Ocean, to Greymouth, on the Tasman Sea. The journey was awesome. The train first heads over the Canturbury Plains, and then it moves onto the foothills of the Alps. Once in the Alps, the train heads through the mountainous Arthur’s Pass National Park. Shortly after leaving the tiny village at Arthur’s Pass, the train enters an 8.5 km long tunnel. The scenery consists primarily of snow-capped, grassy mountains when the train enters the tunnel, and when it emerges, it travels through a deep green, thick rainforest.
While in the mountains, I tried to picture what the landscape would look like had there still been herds of moa grazing the hills. I also kept a look out for one of the birds that still lives there – a large, olive-colored parrot, reputed to be among the most intelligent of all the birds. These birds – Kea – live only in the mountains of the South Island. Their colours are somewhat drab, except the scarlet-coloured feathers on the underside of their wings. However, their personalities are anything but drab. They are infamous for creating trouble for people by tearing rubber parts off cars, picking through garbage and backpacks, finding their ways into cabins, and even killing sheep.
I rented a car in Greymouth and headed south down the coast. On the way, I did some hiking in the Westland Tai Poutini National Park. Then, it was on to Queenstown, in the middle of the south half of the South Island where I turned south, then West, to get to Te Anau. It was a fantastic drive through some gorgeous landscape, but alas, I saw no Keas. However, many bird species, like Pukeko, a more slender version of the Takahe, and Paradise Shelducks, one of New Zealand’s endemic ducks, were easy to spot. There is a also Wildlife Center in Te Anau, which has many native birds on display in large, outdoor aviaries. Some are animals that were injured and were being rehabilitated for release back into the wild. There was a pair of Takahe on display and an aviary full of Antipodes Island Kakariki. These are similar to the more common Red- and Yellow-fronted Kakariki, although they are a bit larger and are solid green. What makes Antipodes Island Kakariki remarkable is the natural habitat that they manage to survive in. They are native to the subantarctic Antipodes Islands, which lie about 650 km southeast of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s a weird place to find parrots: there are no trees there, and it’s often chilly and windy. The island is uninhabited by people and is classified as a nature preserve, and a permit is needed to land there. They share the Antipodes Island with the Reischek’s Parakeet, Cyanoramphus erythrotis, which used to be classified as a subspecies of the Red-fronted Kakariki.
After Te Anau, I headed north up to Milford Sound. It was there that I found the bird I was looking for. I arrived at the sound and got out of my car to go for a walk. One of the first birds I noted was a beautiful White Heron standing in the water. These heron are very rare in New Zealand; only about 120 live there. While watched the heron, I heard a loud, shrill cry. Kea! There was a family of three up by the parking lot. Kea often hang around parking lots, since the cars make interesting chew toys to them.
The three kea seemed to be a mated pair and their offspring. Juvenile kea can easily be differentiated from the adults because juveniles have some orange color around their beaks which disappears when they hit sexual maturity. The juvenile was extremely noisy and constantly squealed at and bumped into his parents. He tended to approach them in a hunched over posture, because adult kea are very tolerant to juveniles in that pose. However, once he showed the red color under his wings to his parents, the juvenile was quickly pinned and verbally reprimanded by one of his parents. Apparently, showing the red under the wings is a threat, so the juvenile was acting a bit like a mouthy teenager. As long as he didn’t show the red under his wings, nearly anything he did was tolerated by the parents.
Food is tricky for keas to find in the winter, so the two adults spent a lot of time digging in the ground with their long, sharp beaks for roots to eat. Keas are generalists and will eat nearly any edible thing they find. Unlike other parrots, they can actually be carnivorous and will eat the young of other bird species and the carcasses of dead sheep. Occasionally, they will kill adult sheep, by pecking at their backs until they bleed. The sheep may then die of blood loss or an infection.
I watched the keas until it became dark, and then I headed up to the motel. I dragged my suitcase in from the car and spotted a kea underneath a truck. Looking around with the flashlight, I found another two. Were these the same ones from before? At any rate, I was glad I got extra insurance on the rental car, but I wondered if it covered kea damage. I went into the motel room to read, and I could hear the keas running around on the boardwalk outside my room. They squealed a bit too, and when I went to sit outside, they gathered around me and wrestled with each other a bit. They were not shy of people at all.
The next, and final, stop on my trip was to be Stewart Island, a 1746 km2 size island a one-hour ferry ride from Bluff, a town on the south end of the South Island. Stewart Island is a great place for bird watchers, as the island contains no stoats, which are extremely efficient bird predators. It is also sparsely populated, with only 420 people living there, mostly in the town of Oban. As a result, bird life is abundant there.
On the ferry ride to Stewart Island (or Rakiura), I managed to see several mollymawks (medium albatrosses) gliding gracefully over the waters. With wingspans of about two meters, they were a magnificent sight. I also spotted a few seals and shags (cormorants) from the ferry, and there were a few oystercatchers along the beach where the ferry landed. South Island Kaka and Red- and Yellow-fronted Kakariki are easy to find right in the town of Oban, as were Tui and Bellbirds. Tui and Bellbirds have clear, ethereal-sounding voices, so the dawn chorus in the forest on Stewart Island is very beautiful.
From Oban, a five-minute boat ride can take you to Ulva Island, a 266 ha island set up as a bird sanctuary. It has been cleared of introduced predators, and has several walking trails for visitors. I headed over there in the morning and asked the boatman to come back in four hours to pick me up. It really only takes an hour or two to walk all the trails on the island, but I ended up wanting more time there. Birdlife was super-abundant and most of the birds did not seem too afraid of me. The first one I saw was a small Stewart Island Robin, which actually came and tugged on my pants when I sat down to listen for birds. Saddlebacks, rare brown and black birds, would also approach me quite closely.
Weka are common on Stewart and Ulva Island. These are chicken-sized, brown, flightless rails and they are truly fearless. I saw a few along the beach and they treated me as though I wasn’t even there. One picked through a clump of seaweed for food as I sat nearby taking pictures.
Other birds on the island weren’t quite so bold. I saw several Kakariki darting through the trees and foraging on the ground. They have a reputation of being quite active in captivity, and they are like that in the wild, too. They were too fast for me to get any decent photos of. I could also hear the flapping wings of Keruru (native pigeon) from high in the canopy. I could often spot them with binoculars, and they are quite attractive. They are at least three times the size of the rock pigeons that are common in cities in North America, and they are white with green heads and green and purple wings. South Island Kaka were also present on the island. They weren’t always easy to see, but hearing their calls was never a problem, and I also saw a lot of trees with bark that had been peeled away by Kaka.
Later on, I tried to go “kiwi-spotting” along the beaches on Stewart Island during the evening and the following morning by trekking along different beaches. Kiwi are usually nocturnal, but on Stewart Island, they will come out on the beach to forage at dawn and dusk. I did hear a few, as they are quite loud, but I saw none. I did see more Kaka, Kakariki, fernbirds, various seabirds, ducks, raptors, native pigeons, bellbirds, Tui, fantails, white-eyes, and Weka by hiking around.
I took the ferry back to the South Island and headed home. The big disadvantage to traveling to New Zealand is the 12-13 hour trans-Pacific flight. However, it was an excellent trip and one I would definitely recommend for bird and nature lovers.