This past summer, while at the field station in Panama, I was contacted by a friend associated with Avifauna, an organization involved with avian biology. Avifauna, I was told, was working on a project on the Azuero Peninsula, along the Pacific Coast of Panama, that would involve working with the green macaw. Avifauna wanted to put up some artificial nesting “boxes” for the birds, and the project would require climbing into some cuipo trees in the mountainous region of Cerro Hoya National Park.
Cuipo trees can get really tall and climbs can be from one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet. The trees are like great big lollipops; long straight limbless trunks with first limbs branching out at the top of the stalk-like trunk. The reason for selecting the cuipo tree is because of the difficulty of climbing one. The macaws are in trouble because of local people who will rob the nests, then sell the birds on the black market. The local people are unable to climb the cuipo trees, so the trees make an ideal spot for nest placement.
My friend Carmela had climbed with me at the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center and felt that I would be able to “handle” climbing these trees. I immediately agreed, thinking “No big deal!”. Hah!
In late August, my friend David Zimmermajn and I arrived at the smallish Hotel Heliconia, near Mariato, and met the others involved in the project. We would be headed into Cerro Hoya the next morning to look things over and have a go at climbing a cuipo.
A local farmer, Juan, who lives along the edge of the park had already identified some trees that he felt would be suitable. Loading our gear onto horses ridden by Juan and his padre, Don Brevio, we started up into the mountains toward the first and closest tree. Juan and Don Brevio were both having themselves a chuckle, because they were saying the tree could not be climbed. David and I were having our own chuckle because we were sure we could climb it.
The tree was worthy of respect but looking upward I knew I had climbed bigger and higher and was sure I could make short work of this one. Four and a half hours later I gave up in defeat. The first limb was eighty-four feet (determined by a later measurement) but was hidden by a massive tangle of vines and the limbs of surrounding trees. There was only one small window through which the limb could even be seen. The tree was on a very steep slope. It was raining, as it almost always does in a rain forest, and the slope was very muddy and slippery. The limb was wet, the throwline was wet, I was wet, everybody else was wet, and every time I would try to fire the Sidewinder I would lose my balance and go sliding down the slope. Three times I got the line over the limb but the wet line and the wet bark precluded any chance that the bag and line would come back to the ground. I tried, Juan tried, Don Brevio tried, and several of the other locals gave it a try. We were all defeated. For the first time in my tree climbing career I had to walk away from a tree that I wanted to climb without being able to climb it. Between us we had made over forty shots at the limb.
That was the end of that. Better luck next time, as the saying goes. Juan and Don Brevio were having fun reminding us that they had said the trees couldn’t be climbed.
In early December, David and I returned. Back up the mountain to the tree we all went, gear on horses followed by a retinue of eager onlookers. In early December it’s the dry season. No rain. No mud. Dry limb. Dry throwline! Three shots and I had a line up, and within an hour of arrival at the base of the tree I was sitting on the limb, eighty-four feet up, having already set a second pitch. David, on the ground, gave Juan a quick primer on the RAD system and twenty minutes later I was joined in the tree by Juan who was having the moment of his life.
The next morning we returned with the first nest box, a forty pound contrivance made from metal. Macaws are big birds and the nests need to be big to accommodate them. The “box” was about three feet by three feet and stood four feet high. I went up first, then Juan and the rest of the ground crew hauled the box up to me by way of a longer rope placed over another limb next to me. Once I had the box secured, David came up and we completed the job of positioning and securing the thing.
That afternoon we moved along to the second tree, up a very steep and winding trail, to another big cuipo on another steep and slippery slope. No problem! We were in “The Zone” by then and with two shots I had a line up. Three hours later we had nest box number two in place with Juan, David, and myself having done the climbing.
The next day it was back to the city and the day after that I was over on the island at the field station, ready for our winter session to begin.
In late January, our winter session over at ITEC, David and I were back at Cerro Hoya and ready for the job of putting up nest box number three. This one was not going to be fun! The tree itself was up a very steep ridge and, once again, on a very steep slope. The nest box was a new “improved” model, made from cloth soaked in concrete and placed around a frame of chicken wire. The thing weighed about two hundred and forty-five pounds! It had taken Juan and three other local men the entire previous afternoon to carry the box up to the base of the tree. The problem to be solved: How to raise a two hundred and forty-five pound dead weight up to a limb a hundred feet above our heads while working in a wild tangle of jungle growth.
With two ropes up, me on one and a sliding PACT system on the other, we began to raise the box. Up ten feet, then tie off, then raise the sliding PACT. Then ten more feet and repeat. After ten more feet, I was whupped and I came down and let one of the locals, Justino, relieve me. Justino, with typical Latino machismo, raised the thing the rest of the way to the top, ten feet at a time. Then I went back up and with cable, clamps, and tools, was able to secure the thing in place. Awesome!
But then as I got ready to descend the box broke free on one corner and swung out of place. There was no danger of it falling, it was simply hanging awry, and that was unacceptable. So! That meant I would be back in the morning to fix the thing.
Finally, around lunchtime the next day, the job was complete and all three of the nest boxes were in place.
I can only hope that the macaws appreciate our efforts! I look forward to going back and seeing what has moved in when I go back.