A metallic band was around the tree to try and prevent predators, such as ocelots or opossums, from climbing it to reach the hyacinth nest. Two of the team had on climbing equipment, and one went up the ropes to monitor the nesting box. They took photos and reported that there were no eggs yet, but that there were signs that the macaws had been “exploring” it, and they had been building up the nest with fresh wood chips, which they had pecked off the nest box.
One factor that surprised me, and probably doesn’t help in their survival, is just how highly specialised (read limited) the macaws are. Their main food source is the acuri tree, which produces even in dry season. They eat the hard nut in the centre of the tree’s fruit, and coexist well with the local livestock because cattle eat the fruit but defecate or regurgitate the nuts that the macaws then devour.
“There are more than enough acuri trees in the Pantanal for the birds to survive on,” said one of the researchers. “The limiting factor here is the lack of trees to nest in. They will usually only nest in manduvi trees, as they have a big enough trunk and are soft enough to hollow out a nest.” These are in short supply, which is why the nest boxes put up by the team have taken on such importance, given they also have a higher success rate for the survival of chicks.
We spent the morning being squawked at by irritated macaws as we visited tree after tree, some with cameras set within or above them. We watched footage from one of the nests and could see a pair of macaws being loving to each other. The birds are monogamous and mate for life, living 40 to 45 years in the wild. “They spend a lot of time cuddling,” said one of the team. “Macaws care very much for their families and for each other. They really are partners.”
If having an insight into these projects was enhancing my visit, every excursion was throwing up its own rewards. On one night drive we spotted three handsome ocelots hanging around under a bridge, lying in wait to catch fish. On the same drive a tapir, South America’s largest native mammal, lumbered through a field next to the track we were following. And sitting in an open vehicle at night with around 100 wild peccaries surrounding us will go down as one of the most surreal, as well as smelliest, experiences I’ve ever had.
One activity I was keen to do was to get out on the water on a sunset canoe trip. So, late afternoon on my last day, we headed out in a vehicle. The sun was shining and it promised to be a glorious sunset. But then the radio crackled into life. “There’s a jaguar!” relayed Jessica. “It’s probably Juju. Do you want to go and see her?” There could only be one answer.
A familiar head was peeping above some golden grass. Her senses were alert and her ears twitched as she looked around, yet she seemed entirely oblivious to our presence. As we watched on, we wondered if she was looking for the male who had been her love interest for the past day or two.
The minutes ticked away. “What do you want to do?” asked Jessica, needing a decision. “If we leave now, we still have time to make it to the canoes for sunset…”
I knew that Juju might stay where she was for hours, semiconcealed by the long grass. And so I agonised what to do. But, as I was about to acquiesce, Juju made up my mind for me, slowly rising to her feet and stretching – almost teasing me to stay.
As cameras clicked, and the atmosphere between those of us watching her became so charged that it felt tangible, Juju coolly sashayed through the grass. Was she really so oblivious to us that our presence made no difference? Or was she simply enjoying the attention, the admiration, the adulation?
She passed within a few metres of us, reached the red-earth road and paused. There she sat for a moment, looking for all the world like a domestic tabby cat deciding which way to go. Slowly rising, she sauntered off down the road. Engines started and we formed a respectfully slow procession behind her, loyal subjects all.
The author travelled to Brazil with Audley Travel. A similar 13-day tailormade trip, includes flights, transfers, four nights at Caiman Ecological Refuge, one night in Cuiabá, two nights at Cristalino Jungle Lodge in the southern Amazon, one night in Rio and three nights at Casa Cairucu, Paraty. It also includes the Hyacinth Macaw Project and a private excursion with Onçafari at Caiman.
Caiman Ecological Refuge is in the southern Pantanal, 240km west of Campo Grande. The author stayed at Caiman’s Baiazinha Lodge, which is set overlooking a lake. Included activities and guiding are excellent; excursions with the Onçafari team and the Hyacinth Macaw Project cost extra and should be booked in advance.