If you ever find yourself in northeastern Brazil, go see Lear's Macaw, one of the wonders of the bird world. The sight of Lear's Macaws emerging by the hundreds from the crannies of a windswept cliff face is one not soon forgotten.
Thirty years ago this species seemed to be on the verge of extinction, with only 60 left in the wild. Now there are hundreds of Lear's Macaws, thanks to conservation programs launched by groups such as ABC and our Brazilian partner, Biodiversitas.
The only wild home of the Lear's Macaw is found near the town of Canudos, in the Brazilian state of Bahia. There, in an endless-looking red-dirt landscape called “caatinga country,” these birds nest and breed in wind-blown, dried-out, isolated cliffs.
Crops and cattle struggle here, but you'll still find lots of spindly corn, yucca, and licuri palm, the last the chief food of the Lear's Macaw.
Before you see the birds themselves, check into an isolated lodge run by Biodiversitas and built with the support of ABC's donors. Then you sleep, but not for long. Long before the sun comes up you rouse yourself and stagger to the car that takes you to the cliffs where these birds nest. If the skies aren't cloudy, you will see a brilliant sea of stars, and the curving edges of the Milky Way.
After that you wait in the dark under a tree, until just before the sun comes up. That's when you hear the first bird call, and then the second, and then several more.
Shadows moving on the cliff start to show their colors. Then, all at once, an enormous flock of Lear's Macaws explodes out of the cliff, rising as a group—no, several groups—circling above your head. One, then three, then 10 or more land on a sunlit cactus: large, bright blue, with golden eyes and cheeks. In the meantime, you see more flocks emerging from the pockmarked cliff face, circling and then landing in nearby trees. After a few minutes they will rise, some flying for more than 50 miles to find their food for the day.
In the car again, you drive for hours on rutted, bumpy roads so you can spy the feeding birds. Then, back at the lodge, you rest until you realize that you must see these birds again. With your guide, you take a long hot walk through the red rocks and red sand, crossing what appears to be a dried-out river bed with lots of twisted sandbars.
When you reach the cliffs, you wait for the returning flocks. In the waning sunlight everything about these cliffs looks beautiful—the way they tower overhead, the patterns of erosion, the deep shades of red. While waiting, you marvel at the way the Lear's Macaw digs nest holes in these cliffs, loosening the rocks with its saliva.
Just before the light fails you see flocks of birds you did not see that morning—first, small, green Cactus (or Caatinga) Parakeets, with squeaky high-pitched calls. They flash green across the cliffs before disappearing into foliage.
But by then you're focused on the fast-approaching flocks of Blue-crowned Parakeets, bigger and deeper voiced. Chattering and pecking, they fill up the cliff face on one side of the canyon, leaving the other side open. When something spooks them, 50 of these parakeets shoot up as one and then circle slowly downwards. Is that a Bat Falcon on the opposite cliff? How long has it been there?
Thirty minutes until nighttime now. At this point you're hoping that your guide knows the way back. Then, just as the fading light stops holding colors, you hear the returning Lear's Macaws. Big, loud voices call out as hundreds of broad shadows fly toward the cliff face left open by the parakeets. As they land you see the gold parts but you cannot see the blue. Bigger, louder flocks are coming after this one—do they use the same roosts every time?—and as darkness falls they start to settle in.
That's what I saw while traveling in Brazil. I think you should see it too—if only in your mind's eye. The Lear's Macaw is more than an incredibly beautiful and intelligent bird species. It is also part of an amazing spectacle that was once was nearly lost.
To learn more about the work that helped them back from the brink of extinction, check out the International Programs section on the ABC website. And if you are inspired to visit, see Conservation Birding.
David Younkman is Vice President of Conservation at American Bird Conservancy. He has more than 30 years' worth of senior management experience in the field of conservation and now manages our new Western Program in the United States.