Scarlet Macaws (a success story in repopulating continental Panama)

On early August, I went to Chiriquí with a special mission: make great photographs of Scarlet Macaws (Ara macao) in complement to  this write up I was devising. A write up about the local reintroduction program of the species, its experiences, its progress and its future. All these in an effort to educate general public and to promote the initiative.

The first and the latest encounter

My first encounter with this species was in Coiba Island (report found here). These birds were once common in the Isthmus of Panama, but are now nationally endangered due to habitat destruction, removal of their nests and food sources and persecution by poachers who capture them to sell them as pets. Being the later a strong enough reason to keep the location of the place I visited as "undisclosed"; place I will call, from now on, Macaw Paradise. All I can say is it's located in a Finca in the lowlands of Chiriquí. This is very important to note because, this species has been considered about extinct from mainland Panama. Still it can be commonly found on Coiba Island (a protected area) where they are somehow not at risk from habitat loss or poachers, but it's more difficult to have access to them for good pictures. They also have been seen on Parida Island, another island in the Gulf of Chiriqui. In my Coiba report I mentioned a recent report from mainland Chiriquí but it was wrong to assume they could be individuals from Costa Rica or the reintroduction program by Universidad Tecnológica Oteima, as I'll explain below.

The mythical scarlet macaws of continental Panama 

Scarlet macaws supposedly could be found on mainland in Azuero Peninsula, in the southernmost tip of it, but I've heard from people that know very well the place that for decades they haven't seen even one. I even checked ebird.org only to find the aforementioned report of four (4) individuals in Chiriquí lowlands. I was very intrigued and started researching the internet about the reintroduction program, I found an article in a Boquete blog called El Bajareque, which is now offline.  
The article led me to Oteima University, so I contacted it's dean which eventually directed me to the advisor of their reintroduction program; Ralph Dessau. He sent me some information in advance to my trip, including the excellent news that the recent breeding season produced 10 parrot-chicks that were all grown up by the time.

Finally, I was able to schedule a visit to Macaw Paradise. I met Ralph as we had lunch in Boquete, and had a very interesting conversation about everything macaws. I also learned we have plenty in common but most important we are trying to help, making conservation efforts.

Ralph explained to me that Oteima's reintroduction project at Batipa Agro-Eco center is currently on hold. The project was initiated envisioning to protect and breed scarlet macaws and reintegrate them to their original natural habitat starting at Batipa Center,  contributing to the conservation of these birds of exquisite natural beauty but as of this moment no macaws are present in Batipa. The macaws are actually in another location were they have been breeding successfully in the wild. They fly away during the day in search of food in their natural habitat and return in the afternoon to stay overnight in the Macaw Paradise. Juveniles stay around the place and procure food from the fruiting trees around, and are also fed by the workers of the finca every morning.   The individuals reported recently were nothing else than members of the flock that were returning to their paradise.


Location of Macaw Paradise (large star), Parida Island and Coiba Island. 
Places where Scarlet Macaws can be found currently.

Location of Batipa, where Oteima's reintroduction 
project will be located 


Considering they had to start from scratch, Oteima's project looks very ambitious. However, similar projects in other countries have proven to be successful like Tambopata Macaw Project in Peru (http://www.macawproject.org) and The Ara Project in Costa Rica (http://thearaproject.org), and both have offered support to Oteima. Most important than all is the success story I am about to tell.

Lessons learned

The trip allowed me to learn that loss of habitat has been extremely harmful to the species; they lay eggs in tree cavities, and being large birds small holes are not suitable; people kept cutting suitable trees, and macaws were not able to reproduce as supposed. However, in Macaw Paradise a man was wise enough to leave a hollowed tree alone, and scarlets macaws have been breeding in it for 17 years. 

Scarlet macaws mate for life but it will take 5 years to juveniles to reach sexual maturity, and before mating they take many years of courtship. After mating the female lays two or three eggs in a tree cavity. The female incubates the eggs for about five weeks, and the chicks fledge from the nest about 90 days after hatching, and leave their parents about a year later. 

Macaws have naturally low reproductive rates, breeding takes many years, and an additional problem is that there's only one natural nest in Macaw Paradise. The flock was increasing over time but apparently there was only one breeding couple, presumably due to the lack of additional nesting sites.

Success story begins

The start of any reintroduction program is a successful breeding program. So, the first step was to install artificial nests in Macaw Paradise expecting other couples start using them. This step was taken two years ago, and now as I anticipated, we have witnessed the first successful breeding on artificial nests in Macaw Paradise. The first four nests that were introduced are originally designed for barn owls (https://www.barnowlbox.com) but two other wooden nests were fabricated by Jeffrey Crofutt. Five of the six artificial nests had been occupied on the latest breeding season and the inhabitants had produced ten chicks which are now fully grown. As a result, now we can count 28 macaws in mainland Chiriquí, and I can assure they are not mythical. I was able to see 11 macaws in one single moment.

What's next?

Now that the owl boxes and the wooden nests turned out to be a total success, the Batipa project is going to be advanced with the building of flight cages and breeding cages, the next step will be the movement of birds to Batipa into the cages as they adjust to the new habitat and their numbers increase. Artificial nests will also be installed there in the trees, as there is no natural nest sites in the area. Now it's known that similar nests in Batipa will also be occupied. The only problem Ralph is worried about is excessive inbreeding; all the individuals in the flock come from the same first handful of birds, they are all basically brothers and sisters. Therefore, he wants to increase the gene pool introducing individuals from Coiba or from Costa Rica, to breed with the existing ones. This might be very important because a large genetic diversity, is associated with robust populations that can survive bouts of intense selection. Meanwhile, low genetic diversity (caused by inbreeding) can cause reduced biological fitness.

The project will also ask Barn Owl Box Company to create special macaw nests, based on designs used in Peru and Costa Rica. And upon receipt of the new boxes they intend to propose lending such nests to MIAMBIENTE (formerly known as ANAM) for Isla Coiba, if in turn they share the increased number of chicks with Batipa project. At the same time Batipa will apply for grants to fund the project as considerably higher expenditures are being incurred.

Here's when Panama Birds and Wildlife Photos enters into scene. Right now we are starting conversations with conservation organisations to get advice and support to be able to get the individuals that will help to increase the genetic diversity of the flock that will be finally released and reintroduced in Batipa, so they have more probabilities of survival.

The possibilities

Besides the undeniable aesthetic benefits of repopulating continental Panama with such a beautiful species, there is a huge potential profit we could get from this initiative. Birds like macaws are an important link in preserving the ecological balance, they help in reforestation because they eat seeds in a geographic area, and then expel them in another area (seed dispersal). And last but not least, Batipa Macaw Project plans to follow the example of Tambopata in Peru, and turn Batipa into a center for ecotourism, and for scientists to conduct research related to the highly diversified flora and fauna. For tourists it will be of high value to have close range sightings that allow good photo opportunities, like the ones below.

The photos

Well, you should already be tired of reading, so now it's the moment to look at the pictures:










I got very close and personal with these macaws but I was traveling only with a 500mm lens, a shorter lens would have been great for in flight shots. That will have to wait for the next occasion.

Special thanks

I would like to thank Ralph and Jeff for driving me to the place and providing me most of the information for this article. I hope Oteima's Batipa macaw project materialise its second steps. Unfortunately for me, distance and time are huge obstacles but I will be supporting the project with all my means,  and I will follow up and help as much as I can. Of course I'll keep you posted...