I first read about the hundreds of macaws and other parrots that gathered at clay licks in the Peruvian Amazon in the January 1994 issue of National Geographic. Scientists were just beginning to locate these clay licks and speculate about why these birds gathered here to ingest clay when they normally eat fruit and other plants. I found it fascinating and what a spectacle it would be to see. I began reading anything I could find about the Madre de Dios region of Peru and the reserves there. In 2000, I was excited to find that an Earthwatch project was studying the macaws here, but the dates of the volunteer teams did not coincide with my work schedule.
Over the years I continued reading about the project and the growing ecotourism in the area, but it wasn’t until October of 2019 that I finally made this bucket list dream come true.
The best place to see macaws at a clay lick is at the Tambopata Research Center where Dr. Donald Brightsmith and his teams have the studied the macaws since 1999. The center is located deep in the Tambopata National Reserve in the Amazonian basin of Peru, and just reaching the lodge is an adventure.
I combined this trip with another bucket list location – a visit to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Incas. I carefully planned an itinerary with the help of Holbrook Travel and gathered a group of intrepid travelers to join me. Our journey to the lowlands of the Amazon basin was early in our trip. First, we flew from the capital city of Lima to the town of Puerto Maldonado. From the airport, we went to the Rainforest Expeditions headquarters to repack our bags with only the essential items needed for this part of the trip, and then took a 45 minute ride to the river port. From there, it was a journey by motorized canoe to Refugio Amazonas. After an hour or so on the river, we climbed the steep stairs (200+ stairs!) to reach the ecolodge where we spent our first night. We explored here the next day, and on the following morning we continued down the Tambopata River on a four-hour canoe ride to finally reach the Tambopata Research Center.
The following morning we departed at 4:30 a.m. for a short boat ride to a sand bar opposite the Collpa Colorado clay lick. We set up our stools, cameras and tripods and waited in the early dawn light.
Soon we saw (and heard) flocks of parrots assembling in the nearby trees. Gradually, more birds arrived, parrots, macaws and parakeets.
Then, at some pre-determined time, known only to the birds, they descended upon the clay wall with shrieks and caws and the flapping of wings. It was sensory overload, and I was mesmerized by the dazzling flashed of red, green, blue and yellow as the birds flew back and forth, squawking and calling any time they were not ingesting the clay.
Research has shown that the clay contained in certain riverside cliff faces contains salts and minerals essential to the birds’ diet. It was initially believed that parrots and macaws consume small quantities of clay in order to counteract the toxins present in the fruits and nuts in their diet. Although parrots around the globe eat foods with toxins such as tannins, it is only the birds in the southwestern Amazon basin that visit the clay licks, or collpas. (Collpa, from the Quechua language, means “salt land”) It is believed now that the parrots in this area visit the collpas because the soil in this area of the Amazon basin is lacking in sodium.
That morning, four different species of parrots and five different species of macaws, more than 200 birds in all, visited the clay lick. Red and green, scarlet, blue and yellow, red-bellied and chestnut-fronted macaws were joined by orange-cheeked, blue-headed, yellow-crowned and mealy parrots.
The next day we started back up the Tambopata River to Refugio Amazonas. As we approached another clay lick, Collpa Chuncho, we were surprised to see macaws gathering in the trees above. It was much later than the usual time that birds frequent the clay lick, but it seemed that the birds were just awaiting our arrival to put on their show. We had premium seats, as the view from our long canoe was much better than the viewing area on land, and while the blue and yellows were the predominant species the previous day, the red and greens, and scarlet macaws stole the show this time. In addition to the large macaw species, cobalt-winged and black-capped parakeets were also part of the act.
It was worth waiting 25 years to see!