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Project update: Saturday, 27 June 2009

BLOG 1 - JUNE, 2009

MBR scarlet macaw nesting sites and areas affected by fire (green = not burned; yellow = burned once; dark red burned 4 times)

The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Guatemala Program is focused on the conservation of the eastern Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR), in the northern half of the Guatemalan Department of Petén. The MBR was established by the Guatemalan government in 1990 and is part of the largest tract of intact tropical forests remaining in Central America, the tri-national Selva Maya of Belize, Mexico, and Guatemala. Unfortunately, the reserve faces many threats; in particular, illegal colonization and conversion of land to ranching and agricultural activities (often fueled by money from the illegal drug trade), uncontrolled fire, unsustainable natural resource extraction, looting of archaeological sites, and weak governance.

Our engagement in scarlet macaw conservation issues began in 2002, when we began efforts to monitor nesting success and identify the nesting distribution of the species across the reserve. Since that time, we have located 7 nesting foci within Guatemala, with most of the (still remaining) nests being located adjacent to an active front of illegal colonization sweeping eastward from Laguna del Tigre National Park. Our best estimates to date suggest that roughly 200 wild scarlet macaws remain in Guatemala. These birds belong to the northern Central American subspecies, Ara macao cyanoptera; the range of this scarlet macaw subspecies spans from extreme southern Mexico through Nicaragua. In comparison to the only other scarlet macaw subspecies, Ara macao macao, the population of A. m. cyanoptera is highly threatened, with less than 1000 birds remaining across their entire range. These dire facts, in conjunction with the location of the scarlet macaw nesting areas in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, have propelled us to promote the conservation of the Guatemalan population as the key flagship species for the entire central part of the reserve where they nest.

Over the last 7 years, we have worked to reduce the four main threats affecting the Guatemalan scarlet macaw population: habitat destruction, poaching, natural predation, and competition for nesting cavities (especially with Africanized bees). Our worst year in terms of observed nesting success thus far was 2003 when we recorded only 1 successful fledge (from 15 active nests monitored). In comparison, the 2008 nesting season yielded 25 successful fledges - a significant step forward.

Scarlet macaw chick at the La Corona nesting site on June 05th, 2009

The current 2009 nesting season however has proven extremely challenging. Thus far this year we have only located 24 active nests, as compared to 29 last year. An extended dry spell spanning April and May rendered macaw nesting sites vulnerable to fire. Some fires were lit in the area by illegal colonists attempting to “sabotage” the ecological potential of these areas, and undermine arguments for the conservation importance of the eastern Laguna del Tigre area still intact. In response, we have begun working with the support of the US Agency for International Development to strengthen the Guatemalan Park Service (CONAP) and their ability to protect key nesting sites by maintaining full time outposts in the area. Since April, two outposts have been strengthened, leading to the capture of 4 armed individuals in the area. We have also identified another 10 illegal incursions to be intervened by the park staff and police in the coming days. While we also work with the legitimate local communities in the area, the harsh reality of the significant pressure on the habitat requires us to support interventions with the park service and police as essential elements of a scarlet macaw conservation strategy in Guatemala. Sooner or later, many other sites across the Neotropics will face such pressures, so if macaws are to survive across their range in the not too distant future it is essential that we learn how to stem off significant waves of anthropogenic pressure sooner than later.

Besides our efforts to protect the habitat, we are also monitoring nests regularly, treating Africanized bee colonization within nesting cavities with Permethrin (and now Sevin dust as well), capturing video footage within nests to better understand natural predation, building and placing artificial nests, and educating school children in neighboring communities about the plight of the macaws in the area. This work is generously supported by the BBC’s Wildlife Fund, USAID, and the Coypu Foundation.

Thus far, the 2009 nesting season has only yielded 5 successful fledges. In most years, a majority of the chicks fledge from June through July, but this year, due to the number of eggs and chicks lost at from the first clutches laid, a number of nesting pairs have laid a second clutch of eggs. One nest inspected last week (i.e. second week of June) revealed 4 eggs laid, with a second nest found to contain 2 eggs. If any of these chicks are successful through fledging, it is likely that they will be in their nests through late August, perhaps even into September.

WCS field veterinarian Melvin Merida and Dr. Kim Joyner inspecting a macaw chick at the El Peru nesting site during the 2009 nesting season

In the hope of increasing the number of fledges as much as possible, our project biologists and veterinarian are developing plans with a local wildlife rescue center (ARCAS) and the Park Service (CONAP) to provide supplemental feeding to third chicks and/or pull, feed, and replace any chicks considered at risk. We hope that this first “experimental” test of these interventions will help us prepare a more robust approach to increasing fledging rates during the 2010 nesting season, while also helping to fledge a few more chicks during 2009. With the population at only some 200 birds, every successful fledge is worth gold. Stay tuned as our next post will provide a more detailed estimation of the expected number of fledges across the Maya Biosphere this year, as well as an update on our efforts to increase fledging numbers via supplemental feeding.

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