After nearly 20 hours of travel and 36 hours without sleep, I managed to get all the way from Portland, OR, USA to Ara Manzanillo just in time to see some of the first natural-born Great Green macaws be reunited with their parents and reintroduced into the wild.
The day of the release, May 17, 2019, was a miracle in slow motion. Over the course of several hours, nine young macaws clambered out of the double-doors of Ara Manzanillo’s release site aviary and into their new world, a lush Edenic jungle just south of Punta Uva. Some were braver than others, and others very curious—within minutes, three particularly mischievous new releases disabled the GoPro filming their picturesque first foray into the forest, leaving those spectating with only our memories.
As each bird leapt into flight, it became a challenge to determine which macaw was older and which was just released. Thankfully Duaro, the site manager, clipped a tiny amount off each tail feather so we could distinguish them at a reasonable distance, but the birds’ behavior was still the most reliable way to recognize the new releases: while the older birds could fly quite gracefully, even acrobatically at times, the new ones took a while to learn how to judge when and where was appropriate to land, which led to numerous sad but cute George-of-the-Jungle- style wipeouts.
And thus began six weeks of waking up to the yipping, bleating, and barking of 30+ wild and thriving Great Green macaws. Because I arrived during the only two-month period when both the mountain almond and the beach almond (the Great Greens’ favorite foods) were out of season, the principal tasks consisted mainly of doing the morning and afternoon feedings, maintaining the site’s roads and paths, and, of course, making bird cookies. Bird cookies are a lipid-dense snack made from a medley of different seeds and nuts, which are perfect for the great green macaws whose diets are uniquely specialized to process almonds and to a lesser extent fruit. This makes them more vulnerable than their distant cousins, the more generalist/fruitivore scarlet macaws, of which we had exactly one living in the lower aviary during my time at Ara Manzanillo.
Kuká or La Roja, as she was most commonly called, was a rare subspecies of scarlet macaw Ara Manzanillo received from the Ministry of the Environment (MINAE) who needed a lot of work. She was kept poorly as a pet, coming to us malnourished, underweight, and infected with lice. Before I arrived La Roja was medically checked, kept in quarantine and treated for parasites at the neighboring Jaguar Rescue Center. In my first few weeks, her feathers were raggedy and dull where left intact. We had to work extra hard to make sure her living enclosure was furnished with enough enrichment to facilitate her recovery, which was particularly challenging due to a persistent infestation of leafcutter ants who liked to make quick work of every new beach almond branch we installed in her aviary.
Thanks to this and the other many ways the jungle exerted its will, the volunteer work at Ara could be arduous at times, especially if you are the only volunteer as I was for an unforgettable two weeks. However, I also found myself with a good amount of free time in addition to the weekly free day that each volunteer is granted in order to explore the surrounding area. I greatly enjoyed getting off site to snorkel at Playa Chiquita, bum around at the beach, tour the Jaguar Rescue Center, and mooch off of the wi-fi at some of the local bars. I also got to go off site while on-duty too, visiting the local indigenous schools with Ara’s education outreach coordinator, Tirza, and also for banding chicks, performing health checks, and removing nestboxes infested with African Killer Bees with Duaro, the site manager.
Of course, while the majority of my time at Ara Manzanillo bordered on nonstop euphoria for the amateur naturalist in me, it wasn’t all smiles all the time. One particularly somber night was spent after a trip out to the bar with two other volunteers, when we discovered a good Samaritan had delivered a dead macaw to the gate just six short days after the new release. That bird turned out to be Bomboloni, the only bird out of eight one-year-olds who was released after a long period of rehabilitation and close human contact at the Jaguar Rescue Center due to a congenital wing injury. The cause of death was uncertain, but it’s likely she died due to complications from her weak wing, exhaustion and stress. That made for a particularly melancholy trudge up “the hill,” made gloomier by the torrential rainforest rain. That event only further cemented in my mind how necessary it is to limit human contact with the birds.
Suffice to say, I took to scaring off the curious birds getting too close with the official Ara Nerf super-soaker (at right) with a little more gusto after that, even and especially when leading the tours!
Getting to lead the tours was a special privilege. While the fact that I only knew English did pose a bit of a challenge at times (and practically at all other times—download Duolingo before you go!), I was so glad I got over the fear of speaking to a group of strangers because of how rewarding it was to see the aras through new eyes each day.
All in all, my time at Ara Manzanillo was unlike anything else I had ever experienced, and I will never get over how cool it was to not only see some of the rarest birds in the world every day, but also thousands of different creepy-crawlies due to the immense biodiversity of the Talamanca region. I think my favorite has to be the blue morpho butterfly, which Tirza told me signifies peace and love to the indigenous Bribri. I saw three directly after witnessing the scarlet macaw fly for the very first time, winking and bobbing in the wind like fragments of dreams.
“Peace and love for the aras,” Tirza had said, smiling, and as I saw La Roja’s shiny new feathers and growing wing muscles, I knew it was true.