20 years ago I first heard about Macaws flying freely in my home country of the Netherlands. I was watching a television show presented by famous Dutch comedian and nature show host Ivo de Wijs. He talked about a 17th century estate in the west of The Netherlands that was recently bought by the national forest service. He pictured the audience a romantic view on the history of the estate with many tropical plants that, like magic, got a foothold in its 17th century landscape.
This magic also extended to the birdlife because at the end of the show there were a few glimpses of Macaws sitting high up a tree. I could not believe my eyes. Still a kid then I wanted to jump on a train to find them. But I had forgotten the name of the estate and for a long time I never heard of these Macaws again.
In the years after that I progressed my love of parrots as an aviculturist and after high school I went to study biology in Leiden. As any biology student can confirm every class has one or two of the odd birder types. These slightly detached characters are easily recognisable by the binoculars they seem to carry around everywhere and by the fact that they can whistle every known birdsong by hart without feeling the slightest bit embarrassed. They keep each other informed on the species they have spotted trough special websites and email-groups and this is how I came to know the whereabouts of the Macaws again. Surprisingly, almost twenty years after I first learned about them, they where still alive and well, flying on an estate in the Netherlands province of Noord- Holland, reportingly sometimes even flying right into city centres.
I decided to go and look for them. In summer I like to ride my bike trough the Dutch countryside and the estate is not that far from Leiden, where I live. How hard could it be to find these animals? They are not called Scarlet Macaws for nothing: brilliantly red birds, up to 80 cm in length, and if captive birds were anything to go by I should be able to hear them coming miles away.
I thought wrong. The first couple of times I went there I did not get to see the birds. Even when I brought with me one of my experienced birder friends they still eluded us. One week later though I got lucky. After talking to the people of the Dutch national forest service I got to know what part of the estate they frequented and thatís where I found them. Or rather they found me. Hearing some squabbling overhead I looked up to see the Macaws fly right over me. Stunned, surprised and delighted I watched them flying over a meadow. They landed high up a beach tree just out of sight. Quickly I ran towards the tree but I could not find them again. None of the many visitors to the estate had seen them fly, although they where in plain sight. That would be the last I got to see of them in over 2 years. Later that year I went abroad to do my master thesis on the yellow-eared parrot (Ognorhynchus icterotis) in Colombia and after that I was very busy graduating. I visited the estate several times when I got the time to go cycling but the Macaws never reappeared.
Then, March 2005 I told my new girlfriend, Grace, I once saw wild Macaws flying in the Netherlands. A parrot lover like me she insisted that we go and look for them again. I suggested to go in the winter months when the trees where still barren. In Colombia I learned that whole flocks of parrots could disappear in a canopy.
March 2005 was the coldest in many years. Me, my birder friend Wouter Teunissen and Grace went to the estate that was covered with snow. You could not imagine a more alien environment for wild Macaws. We were about to give up our quest when at the end of the day, at dawn, we heard the harsh calls that could only have been produced by flying Macaws. Running in the direction of the calls we finally found them sitting high up in a pine tree. They where still trying to disappear in the canopy! After a wile they flew off again vanishing in the woods. Happy for finally getting to see them but disappointed to have lost them again we went into the forest to try and find them. Of course it had to be my birder friend Wouter that first located them. This time they stayed put. Only flying a short distance toward a hollow branch in an old oak tree where they would spend the night. Close to the spot where they first found me. Knowing their whereabouts, Grace and I decided to get to know the birds better.
Despite our busy lives we went to the estate as often as we could, the old oak with the hollow branch at the centre of our search. Disappointingly they never reappeared there. We would crisscross the estate many times an evening or afternoon seeing only glimpses of them if at all.
We started asking around to learn more about the history of the Macaws. We were told that the first pair of Macaws originated from a nearby farm. Thirty years later the elderly widow that lives there apparently still fed the descendents of these Macaws on a daily basis. We started to include the farm in our circle through the estate. The Macaws always turned up at dusk to spend the night in the trees at the opposite site of the road to the farm, but we never saw the widow.
Days started to lengthen in spring and trees started to produce foliage. We desperately needed to get more information on the parrots daily movements because when those canopies were completely full there was little chance of seeing anything more than an occasional glimpse of the Macaws.
Then, one afternoon, we stumbled upon the birds inspecting a hollow tree. Could this be true? Were they contemplating breeding? We heard fantastic stories of the Macaws fledging five chicks five years earlier. But we did not dare dream of seeing these Macaws flying around with offspring in a couple of months.
I have seen happy parrot families flying in the wild in Colombia. It is really touching to see a pair of parrots fly in perfect synchrony with the youngsters following soot in a little less organised manner, continuously calling to one another, almost human. I can not think of a more caring image in nature.
We visited the beach tree regularly from then on. But again they never reappeared there. We really started to get worried when the parrots did no longer come in to roost at the farm. But our worries soon turned to delight when we finally discovered the tree that the Macaws had decided upon to be their nest.
The parrots choose a very counter intuitive place to nest; next to a busy road in front of two houses. Right next to the nest tree there is a path which people frequently use for an afternoon stroll or to walk their dog. Literally hundreds of people pass the tree on a daily basis. Being such rare and expensive birds we feared that the birds could get stolen if the wrong people got to know the nesting place of the Macaws. Amazingly though, almost no one ever noticed the birds. Many times we had to point them out to people that came to talk to us and ask what we where photographing.
Photographing the birds became an obsession for us. Newly graduated biologist and para-veterinarians do not earn a great deal of money. But no expense was spared to get the best pictures of the Macaws. We could now find them routinely at the nest and with the help of the pictures we started to recognise the individuals of the pair. The one with the bold spot on his neck behaved typically like a male as he guarded the nest when the female was busy inside. We called him Nape. We noticed that the female was missing two claws at one foot. We called her Toos. Toos was more elusive to us. She stayed inside the nest most of the time departing into the woods immediately whenever she got bored with decorating the baby room and fancied to stretch her wings.
At the same time we discovered the nest tree we also witnessed them mating many times. When we returned there a couple of days later the female only appeared infrequently and returned to the nest very quickly. She was clearly breeding. We set the date of the first egg at around the 1st of May. Scarlet Macaws breed around 23 days. The big wait had begun.
We undertook several attempts to inspect the nest. All failed miserably. First we borrowed a ladder from the people that life in the houses across the road from the nest. It was to short; which did give us some peace of mind as the birds or chicks could not be stolen with a simple domestic ladder.
Then we connected a webcam to several pieces of PVC piping. This actually worked but we stored the images the wrong way. The one image we did manage to recover only showed a blurry spot that could be anything. We got so exited about that, that we forgot to bring the PVC piping from the train on our way home.
Next time we came there it was clear there where no youngsters. The blurry spot that the camera had shown us where the remains of an undeveloped egg that was now lying at the base of the tree. The birds where on edge and very territorial, only barely accepting us at the tree; they once flew recklessly close over Grace. Despite the evidently failure of the first nest the bird stayed in the vicinity of the nest tree. The pair was also seen mating again.
The birds started breeding a second time. We hoped the best but feared the worst. There have been no reliable reports of Macaws breeding in the area since 1994. The pair is closely related, maybe 3th generation of inbreeding and therefore may only be partial fertile, if at all. They look like devoted parents though and we already made plans to offer them fertilized eggs if they would attempt to breed again next year.
At around the time the second clutch was due to hatch the people we knew living across the road of the Macaws went on holyday to France and we where asked to baby-sit their cats and rooster. A great opportunity for us to further study the Macaws. We again inspected the nest. This time with assistance of a camera of filmmaker Ivonne Wierink that was making a documentary on us and the Macaws that week.
We never expected anything but to our delight the camera registered one tiny little Macaw chick and an egg that looked like it could hatch any moment. We could not be more overjoyed.
These Scarlet Macaws are of the Central American subspecies Ara macao cyanoptera recognisable by the lack of green on the yellow wing parts. This subspecies is very rare in nature but has good representation in aviculture. If this population of Scarlets is to grow they can help foster new populations of Scarlet Macaws in their countries of origin. Until that day we keep enjoying these marvels of nature and practicing our photo skills on them.
Read more about Toos and Nape on www.araproject.nl