The day I met Albizu was the day that I decided to come home. It was the summer of 2012 and it was my first real day working with the wild parrots of the Rio Abajo Forest. I had arrived at the Jose Vivaldi Aviary the day before and though I had already glimpsed my first wild parrots flying past, I had yet to see one for more than a few seconds. “We need to to hurry. We have to get to the nest before the parrots wake up,” Gustavo Olivieri urged me as we headed toward the ATVs. “Is it very far from here?” I asked as I clambered onto the mud-stained vehicle. “Nah. But its quicker if we ride”. We sped off through the Aviary gates down a paved road lined with trees covered in curling ferns. Thick twisted lianas hung from the canopy like giant living swings. The blue-grey light of dawn shone through the trees on a damp and chilly morning. Everything in the landscape was alive, lush, and velvety. I gazed dreamily at the scenery that rushed past as we rode deeper into the forest. This is, I thought, exactly where I want to be.
The thought surprised me considerably. Though I had been born and raised in Puerto Rico, I had been gone from the island for a long time. After high school I had moved to Florida to go to college and had spent the next few years living in the state. I had never planned on moving back. I ended up returning to Puerto Rico during the post bachelor's limbo period that sometimes precedes graduate study. So here I was, back in my homeland for the first time in almost a decade, planning to fill out my resume with a little more field work before returning to my regularly scheduled life.
We veered off from the narrow paved road onto a muddy rock-strewn trail. The ground sloped downward and made my position on the ATV more precarious. I hung on tightly as we continued our trek. Eventually we rounded a bend and emerged on the side of a steep slope covered in 70-foot mahoe trees. We dismounted our vehicles and continued on foot up the slope, panting by the time we reached the top. Gustavo swore quietly as he fixed his sight on a spot up in the canopy “This is why we’re supposed to head into the field earlier,” he said, chastising himself. I followed his gaze some 50 feet up a thick maria tree with warty protrusions all along its bark. Perched on a branch and looking their beaks down at us judgmentally were two Puerto Rican parrots. The pair was perched in front of a large structure made of interconnected PVC tubes and affixed to a hollowed-out wooden trunk segment. This entire thing was attached to the tree with long aluminum bars. The bizarre structure, which looked like some kind of tree-house plumbing, was actually an artificial nest cavity. It’s one of twenty or so cavities that are similarly attached to other trees in the Rio Abajo Forest and provide the parrots with a secure place to nest.
This nest belonged to Albizu and and his mate Laura. Albizu was one of the oldest parrots in the wild at Rio Abajo. He had been released from captivity in 2007 and was among the second group of parrots ever to be released in this forest. He was attacked by a hawk just a few months after being released. After the attack, Albizu was rescued and brought back to the Aviary for rehabilitation. Remarkably, he made a full recovery and was released again just a year later. Albizu had been thriving in the wild ever since.
This was his second year nesting with Laura and they had managed to hatch of clutch of two fat and hungry nestlings. “Come on, lets hide and see if they leave,” Gustavo said as he led the way to an observation blind. The blind resembled a beaten up wooden outhouse draped with camouflage cloth. A two-way mirror installed on one side allowed the observer to see without being seen. This last part was crucial. During the breeding season, parrots are extremely sensitive to disturbances around their nests. It doesn’t take much to upset them. Sometimes just the sound of a nearby branch falling is enough to send them into a screaming fit. Upset a parrot too much, and it might just decide its better off abandoning the nest altogether. When a species numbers less than few hundred and nests only once a year, every single nest is precious. During the breeding season biologists in Rio Abajo live by a golden rule: don’t disturb the birds. This means that we must do everything in our power to remain undetected when working with the nesting parrots.
Today, we had come to the nest with an important mission. Gustavo needed to place leg bands on one of the nestling parrots. Being new to the team, I was tagging along to observe and learn. Colored aluminum leg bands are a parrot’s social security card. They are a vital part of the population management aspect of this endangered species program. The bands give each bird a permanent form of identification and allow biologists to tell individuals apart. But they can only be attached when the babies are about two weeks old. Of course, the only way to attach leg bands to two week old baby parrots is by climbing those same nests that we are sworn not to disturb. So how do we manage to live by our golden rule in this situation?
“Keep your eye on the parrots and let me know if they take off,” Gustavo said as he checked the straps on his climbing gear. Gustavo is an unusually burly biologist. He’s the type of guy who looks like he’d be more comfortable oiling his biceps in the gym than calculating the intrinsic growth rate of an endangered population (I’m not saying that he doesn’t do the former but I can at least vouch that I’ve seen him doing the latter). The blind was cramped and barely big enough for two people. Let alone one body-building biologist and one tiny angry red-head (meaning me). The inside of the structure also had a distinctive aroma of mold and rat piss. It’s not the type of place you want to spend multiple hours in if you can avoid it. Unfortunately, the amount of time you spend in a parrot observation blind on any given day is entirely up to the parrots. During the breeding season, the nesting pair follows a very choreographed routine. The male arrives and calls; the female emerges from the nest; the pair takes off together, the male feeds the female; and finally, the female (and sometimes the male) returns to the nest to feed the nestlings. The entire exchange usually only lasts about 15-20 minutes and occurs no more than 3 or 4 times a day. This gives the biologists a fairly predictable but very short window of opportunity in which to climb the nest without detection. The first window occurs just after dawn. If you miss the window by only a few minutes then you have to wait several more hours until the next feeding session. Looking up at Albizu and Laura with my binoculars I had no idea if our window had already closed. Were they about to fly off to feed? Or had they just gotten back?
“There they go!” I cried as the parrots took off in a flash of green and turquoise feathers. Gustavo waited a few tense moments before emerging from the blind. Then, once he was sure the coast was clear, he darted for the nest tree. With the speed and dexterity of somebody who has clearly been doing this a while he climbed up a series of protruding metal spikes that ran up most of the tree. Once he reached the of top I heard the rusty creaking of hinges as Gustavo opened a small door built into the side of the nest. This was followed by the scratchy and hoarse cries of the indignant nestlings being disturbed from their comfortable slumber. From the ground, I could just make out the shape of one squishy featherless bird as it fidgeted in Gustavo’s grip. After about five minutes he returned the nestling to the company of its very perturbed sibling and made his way back down the tree. He made it back to the blind just in time as Albizu and Laura streaked past the canopy and landed at their nest entrance. Laura scanned the area suspiciously and moved a few steps over to the mouth of the nest. She peered inside and, after a few cautious moments, proceeded to climb down to comfort her hysterical children. Albizu stayed on his perch for a few minutes longer and surveyed the area before following Laura down into the cavity.
“Oh good, he’s feeding. He’s one of the best dads we have,” said Gustavo appreciatively as we looked at the little TV monitor that now displayed the image from inside the nest. Each of the nests is equipped with an infra-red camera attached to a cable that stretches all the way down into the blind. A heavy black 12-volt battery must be carried into the field to power this camera. I watched as first Laura and then Albizu clasped their beaks onto those of the gaping nestlings and began shaking their heads back and forth almost violently. As the parents regurgitated the food I could see each nestling’s crop fill up like an inflating balloon. After several minutes of this, both baby parrots lowered their heads and went back to sleep. Once there were no more mouths to feed, Laura climbed back on top of her brood and Albizu climbed out of the nest. He emerged from the cavity and once again surveyed the area for a short while before taking off into the morning sky. I was left staring at the image of a slumbering Laura sitting on top of two slightly twitchy but well-fed baby parrots. “Well, what did you think?” Gustavo asked with a grin. I think I never want to leave Puerto Rico again, I thought quietly to myself.