by Rosemary Kimble
From my perch I look out onto the Tambopata River, its’ brown swift water streaming through the emerald green rainforest. It seems like I can see the entire Amazon from this high in the forest canopy. It is hard to conceive that a couple of weeks from now the ceiba tree I am in will be taken down by the river. She is already four hundred years old and it takes eight volunteers to hug around her enormous trunk. But no matter how mighty a tree might be, the river is powerful, taking everything in its path as it changes course over the years.
I cannot believe, only a week ago I had never climbed a tree on a rope system before. Yet here I was, eighty feet off the ground with a birds’ eye view of the Peruvian Amazon, the most iconic rainforest in the world. Besides the occasional macaw calling, it’s quiet up here. Insects hum around me, lulling me into a more relaxed state of mind.
I reach into the nest and carefully clutch the rainbow-colored bird around its wings and chest, then gently lower it into the open bucket held between myself and the great tree trunk. It immediately rolls on its back, talons stretched toward me for protection, eyes wide and breathing hard. I try to soothe it with calming words and sounds, “Shhhh, it will be ok. We only want to help you. I will be very careful with you. I promise.” My promise to this fledging macaw, and all wildlife, is to do whatever I can help save them and their precious home, the natural world.
This beautiful chick was a part of the new translocation program, created by the Tambopata Macaw Project, to help the proliferation of these wild ones. And it was working. The research had shown that if a wild macaw chick had hatched more than a few days later than its sibling it had a much lower chance of survival. The project had found they could take a later-born chick and relocate it into a new nest with new parents and a sibling born closer to the same time, with excellent results. A survival rate likely better than if it had stayed with its original parents. Remarkably the new parents lovingly take on their adopted chicks as if they had hatched them themselves.
The baby bird was no more than seventy days old, not quite old enough to fly yet, but the untrained person would have thought it was an adult macaw by its size. I was here as a volunteer researcher to help document the growth of these chicks and their adopted siblings.
I put the lid on tight and then gently lowered the rope with the bucket on it, down to the veterinarians below for the chicks to be measured and weighed. I will be in the tree for thirty minutes or so now until the chick is sent back up to me to be put in its nest again. I lean back in my harness and relax. When the wind blows, my body sways with the tree boughs, my rope swinging from the movement of the giant tree limb that it hangs from. It is a sacred feeling to be here connecting with this ancient giant, learning about how it is affected by the elements, the wind, and the river. Getting to know its’ forest home and the other inhabitants that reside here is a rare privilege.
Learning to climb on the one rope system might have been the greatest challenge of my life. Just getting past any fear of heights would be monumental but I had just barely enough time to rest from traveling before our field leader had me training to climb. I had one day of learning the knots and three days of intensive climbing from rafters inside the lodge. Every muscle in my body ached from working so hard at it. I was still in pain when I made my first actual tree climb. I was terrified. I hoped I had the strength and could remember all of my training. How to properly put the ocho on, to ensure the rope could slide along it and get me down from the tree safely and quickly. Climbing up I had to stop several times to catch my breath. Exercise-Induced asthma I had not experienced since being a teenager, returning like a predator that had been lurking in the shadows all these years, waiting for the perfect opportunity to attack. I knew if I just took it slowly and remembered to breathe, I would be okay.
Learning to descend was a whole other challenge. You had to hold the rope with a leather glove at just the right angle to keep it moving through the ocho but not let it go so fast that you plunged to the ground. Often, I would spin on the rope going down, seeing only trails of green and the tree trunk whizz past my eyes over and over again. I would have to steady myself for a few minutes at the bottom until vertigo subsided.
It took several climbs to feel comfortable enough to trust my equipment but now I am at ease in the trees. I wake up each morning excited for another climb and for what I might see from above. A few trees away I can see a toucan resting on a branch, several blue and gold macaws fly past, a line of ants makes their way down the trunk of the tree to the forest floor below. On a couple of occasions, I have had monkeys pass by in the trees right beside me. Capuchin, spider and howler monkeys are among those that I cross paths with daily in the rain forest.
Where we were on the river is where what was once the largest clay lick in the world sits. That too has been diminished by the ever-invasive Tambopata River over the years. But it has not stopped the many species of macaws and numerous other birds from continuing to visit the clay lick daily. It is believed the clay helps neutralize the toxins that the macaws consume from poisonous seeds they can eat harmlessly.
Most mornings we come to the clay lick to do bird census. A phenomenal display of brilliantly colored winged ones congregates in mass. The cacophony of birds calling to each other is intense. Every five minutes we count the numbers of wild tropical birds that land on the clay lick. Endangered scarlet macaws, blue and gold macaws, blue-headed macaws and red and green macaws all gather on the brown hillside, pecking into the dirt for several minutes before flying on. The large birds with wingspans up to four feet share the clay lick with much smaller species such as amazon and mealy parrots.
I am constantly in awe of the animals I come across here. I have seen capybara (world’s largest rodent), a rare blonde-haired anteater, an ocelot, an electric blue tarantula, peccaries (wild boar) and huge snakes in shades of gold and chartreuse green. The anteater was a smaller species of its kind. It is nearly blind so it does not seem to detect six volunteers standing twenty feet away. We are all balanced on thin planks of wood to keep out of the mud, excitedly snapping photos. It’s a good thing it does not know we are there, as they can be quite fierce if they feel threatened.
My favorite wildlife sighting is of the ocelot two of us came upon, no more than fifteen feet away from us. It stood staring at us with curiosity, from dark eyes that seemed enormous for its tiny size. After perhaps ten minutes, with typical catlike prowess, it noiselessly slipped away into the dark forest, fearless of us.
Besides tree climbing, it comes with many other challenges to be here. Not only home to thousands of insects, this part of the Amazon has two different types of mosquitos and sand flies that causes leishmaniasis, an illness that creates open sores which don’t heal. Hiking along the forest floor you are constant prey to the mosquitos incessant biting and neither a mosquito net hood or repellent can defend you against them. You hope the sandflies are not also biting but they are typically too tiny to identify. The ground is constantly muddy, our rain boots are our armor against the deep pits of wet earth. We always hike and climb in our rain boots, causing painful blisters to come to bare. Sometimes it rains so much we have to cross creeks that form spontaneously, the water coming up to our thighs or the chest. I try not to think about the crocodiles and anaconda residing in the muddy waters, as I move across unsteady footings I can’t see below. We see jaguar paw prints the size of a man’s fist almost daily. Occasionally I can even smell the recent scent of their urine, making me wonder if we are being watched and glad I am not hiking alone out here.
When sitting high in a tree I imagine what it is like to be a macaw. Jumping from my perch, I fly from tree to tree, my long aqua blue wings stretched out, feeling the wind currents for when it is best to glide. I see myself landing in a sandbox tree, taking a moment to preen myself. Starting first at the quill of a red scarlet chest feather and pulling it through my beak to the end, straightening any out of place strands. I pluck off a fruit pod with my talon and use my beak to pry it open. Enjoying the bitter taste of the seeds inside before dropping the peeling to the ground. I am free and wild, safe from predators in the tall treetops.
While I am working with the Tambopata Macaw Project, I focus all of my energy on climbing trees. I want to experience as much as I can from the treetops.
And I want to be sure to fulfill my promise to these chicks that I am doing everything I can to help them. Being here and climbing trees, with all of the challenges that come with it, is what I know I can do for now.
When it becomes clear to our field leader the river is quickly gaining ground on the ceiba tree, we begin to monitor it daily and to keep a close eye on the nest which holds the fledgling macaw. Macaw chicks typically fledge between seventy-eight to eighty-five days after hatching. We desperately hope that she will fly soon, so she is not taken by the river with the tree. When the river is only twenty feet from the Ceiba tree we know we can no longer climb safely. Just standing by the tree on the bank it sits on, we can see smaller trees falling off into the river as if they are mere matchsticks. We are watching the nest from dawn until dusk now, hoping our little chick makes it out alive.
And then, just like that, she flies. As effortlessly as if she has done it her whole life. They only have one chance to get it right the first time and she flies from the nest with grace. Her parents and sibling meet her in another nearby tree. We can all stop holding our breaths, certain she will be safe now.
A few days later the ceiba tree meets her inevitable fate. The earth she sits on gives way to the powerful Tambopata River. She topples and floats away. Goodbye beautiful friend. You have had a life spanning eight times longer what mine will. Thank you for allowing me to experience life from above the forest canopy, for just a moment of your time.