Looking South- Macaws return to Argentina’s Ibera

The Esteros del Ibera.

The Esteros del Ibera.

For the first time in nearly 200 years, Green-winged Macaws, an iconic bird of the Neotropics are flying free over Argentina’s Ibera Wetlands.

(This post may seem a bit out of character for this usually arctic-centric blog, but I have a strong affinity for the tropics. As we fall deeper into winter’s darkness and cold here in Fairbanks, you can count on seeing some more posts about the the warmer parts of our planet. Like a migrating bird, my thoughts tend to turn south during the northern winter.)

Three years ago Amy and I travelled across South America from Chile to Brazil. Our route took us across northern Argentina where we stopped for a few days at the Esteros del Ibera, or Ibera Wetlands, in the province of Corrientes.

The Esteros are an ancient system of oxbows of the Parana River which now makes up the border between Argentina and Paraguay, some miles north. It’s a mosaic landscape of tropical wetlands, small patches of forest, grasslands, and fens. For a naturalist fond of the tropics, it’s a playground.

A Black Caiman (Melanosuchus niger) lifts its eyes above the surface of the water in the Ibera wetlands.

A Black Caiman (Melanosuchus niger) lifts its eyes above the surface of the water in the Ibera wetlands.

A juvenile Rufescent Tiger-heron (Tigrisoma lineatum).

A juvenile Rufescent Tiger-heron (Tigrisoma lineatum).

But it isn’t an untouched wilderness. Since western colonization, the surrounding grasslands have been tilled for agriculture or put to pasture by introduced herds of cattle and other livestock. Just like any other place that has been subjected to agricultural influence and resident humans, the wildlife has taken a hit. Species like the Jaguar, Giant Anteater, and Tapirs were largely extirpated from the wetlands, and big flashy birds like Harpy Eagles and Green-winged Macaws were wiped out entirely.

Until last week, in fact, the closest population of wild macaws was some 300 miles to the north in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso.

Fortunately, the ecosystem and agricultural came to an unsteady balance when the ecotourism potential of the Esteros was realized. Small communities like Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, a farm and ranch village, have adjusted their economics toward tourism. Now lodges, and small eco-hotels are scattered around the periphery of the villages, catering to travelers from all over Argentina and the world.

Amy and I stayed at a lovely little mid-range place called the Ecoposada. We were the only non-Argentines in the place, a fact I found surprising, and awesome. The Ibera, it turned out, was not just a place for North American and European tourists, Argentines were appreciating it too.

Through a mix of public ownership and private conservation lands (the private reserves are thanks largely to Doug Tompkins, former CEO of The North Face), there are now expansive protected areas in the Ibera. The land acquisitions haven’t been without controversy, (and a smattering of wild conspiracy theories) but they have led to a sprawling network of protected lands, and a growing conservation ethic in the region.

Which brings me back around to the macaws. Green-winged Macaws are an icon of the tropics. Often mistaken for the closely related Scarlet Macaw, these big guys are flashy to the extreme. They were, and are, favored as cage-birds and their wild populations have taken a beating. Those in the Ibera, already at the extreme southern end of the species’ population, were exploited out of existence.

However, last week, thanks to a collaborative team of biologists and conservationists, seven Green-winged Macaws were released. For the first time in nearly two centuries, this wildly gaudy bird of the neotropics is flying over the Esteros del Ibera.

The process wasn’t as simple as opening the doors on some bird cages. The birds that were released had been trained in large aviaries to forage for the local fruits, and to be able to recognize them in the wild. The released birds came from a eco-parks and zoos, from all over Argentina. These are not birds that have ever lived in the wild. The training efforts on the edges of the Ibera must be successful for the macaws to survive for very long outside. I wish them the best.

Humans have an unparalleled ability to take a landscape and turn it into something else. Usually that translates into the natural world getting paved, drilled, burned, logged, planted, plowed, grazed, mined, roaded, or subdivided. Our impacts are staggering, and scary. But we are also capable of introspection, and occasionally we come together to put back something that was lost.

If the reintroduction effort in the Ibera is successful, it is one piece of a complicated ecosystem that has found it’s way home. More are still missing. Piece by piece, perhaps we can can put Humpty-Dumpty back together again, at least in the Ibera.

For some more information check out these pages:

http://www.proyectoibera.org/especiesamenazadas_guacamayo_rojo.htm (Spanish)

http://www.birdlife.org/americas/news/return-giant-green-winged-macaw-back-argentina

And some general info on the Ibera:

http://www.proyectoibera.org/eng/index.htm

A Great Egret (Ardea alba).

A Great Egret (Ardea alba).