CRUISING THE CARRIBBEAN WITH PARROT PEOPLE

(Originally published in the spring 2011 issue of Psittascene magazine)

By John Geary

“Ahoy, mateys!” called out our swashbuckling tour guide, as we gathered at the cruise ship terminal. “All aboard for the Second Annual World Parrot Trust Parrot Lovers Cruise!”

Well, I guess it really didn’t start out that way; although pirates and parrots seem to have an affinity for each other, and although some might want to argue that we were a pretty motley crew, the fact is, we were just a group of people from all over North America and the UK whose one common thread happens to be a shared passion for parrots.

Our passion was strong enough that we had all booked passage on a seven-day Caribbean cruise, with specific activities designed to help us enjoy those passions while also being educated about parrots in the wild, and through our travel dollars, donations and auctions held during the cruise, make a difference to parrots in the world.

This was the second annual such cruise. The first one took place in 2009.

Steve Milpacher, the director of the Canadian chapter of the World Parrot Trust, says the cruises are largely the result of U.S.-based travel agent Carol Cipriano’s desire to offer companion parrot lovers the opportunity to see wild parrots in their natural habitat, while also helping parrot conservation.

“She came up with this idea last year, when they went on a cruise to Panama,” says Milpacher. “This year, she looked at the different options, and chose to go to some Caribbean islands which were home to native parrot species, and that have parrot conservation programs running there.”

The tours operated within the scheduled cruises of the chosen cruise line. All the group members on this year’s tour have companion parrots in their homes. But many of the group’s members had never seen parrots in the wild, before.

That would change, during this trip.

Shore excursion 1: the Puerto Rican parrots

Before the ship even left harbour, we jump started the trip with our first opportunity to see wild parrots during a visit to Rio Abajo State Forest. Located in the island’s north central area, characterized by irregular limestone topography underlying the tropical rainforest, this is one of areas on Puerto Rico that host active conservation programs. The other, at El Yunque, is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whereas the Puerto Rican forest service oversees the project at Rio Abajo.

The Puerto Rican parrot, Amazonas vittata, is almost extinct in the wild. At last count, there were 86 living in the wild, split between El Yunque and Rio Abajo.

A bus ride of about an hour took us into the park, and the captive breeding facility, where we are met by Ricardo Valentin and Ivan Llerandi, the project leaders. After Valentin gave us an introductory talk about the project, we broke into two groups, one to see a smaller set of flight cages, the other to see the larger flights where the birds go prior to being radio-collared and released back into the wild.

We tramped along the trail toward the relief cages, listening for sounds and inhaling the scents of the surrounding rainforest. We’re shown feeding and nest boxes along the way, just off the trail at the end of the forest. Within a few minutes, we hear the raucous cries of the parrots just moments before we come out into a clearing and see the huge flights loom up before us.

An explanation about how the release procedures work, a quick question-and-answer session followed by a look at the radio tracking collars they use, then it’s the moment many of us have been waiting for: the chance to get inside the large cages to take photos of the birds without having to shoot through the screens.

After that, the second group joins us and our group heads back to the breeding area. But before we can get there, we’re treated to an incredible sight: a small group of wild parrots zooming through the forest near Valentin’s house.

Although I’ve been fortunate enough to view parrots in the wild on more than one occasion, some of them very close up, for many people in the group, this is the first time they’ve ever encountered wild, free-flying parrots in their rainforest habitat. But for any true parrot lover, whether it’s your first or 51 time seeing wild parrots, the thrill never seems to dissipate.

The moment did pass very quickly, though, and we continued on to the smaller breeding cages. While there, we the conservationists practise a unique approach to enhance the production of healthy chicks for release: Hispaniolan amazons, Amazona ventralis, which are very closely related to Puerto Rican amazons, raise the chicks. This allows the parents to mate and hatch baby birds at an increased rate.

All too soon, it’s time to go, and we drive back into San Juan, board the ship and set sail for our first island stop in two days’ time.

Learning about the Trust, and companion parrot behaviour

Our first day at sea saw us listening to a pair of very informative and entertaining speakers, Steve Milpacher of the World Parrot Trust and Steve Martin of Natural Encounters ( www.naturalencounters.com ). Many of the people on the cruise were not members of the Trust, so the morning spent listening to Milpacher talk about the Trust, its origin, goals, and current projects, proved to be very educational

In the afternoon, we spent several hours watching videos, asking questions and hearing about how we can better live with companion parrots at home, from Martin.

More excursions: unexpected treat

Our first scheduled island tour stop on the cruise that involved seeing wild parrots was supposed to be on Bonaire. But a few of us were really lucky, when, during a hiking tour through Aruba’s Arikok National Park, we happened to spot some brown-throated conures, Aratinga pertinax, perched on top of some cactus. We never got really close to them, though, at least not close enough to get any good photos.

That also proved to be the case on Bonaire. Touring around with Sam Williams, the head of the island’s Parrot Watch Project (http://www.parrotwatch.org/bonaire-project-info.html ) and our guide for the day, we did see several wild parrots, but never close enough or long enough for most of us to snap many good photos. We did learn quite a bit about the project and some of the conservation issues facing the project during our jaunt around the island, and Oscar, Sam’s yellow-shouldered amazon pal – and the project’s unofficial mascot – entertained us on the bus.

Final excursion: Into the green

Our next parrot tour stop, proved to be much different from Bonaire. While the latter island was very desert-like and dry, Dominica boasted lush tropical rainforests.

The island certainly takes the welfare of its parrots seriously – how many countries actually feature a parrot prominently on their national flag, as the Sisserou parrot is on Dominica’s?

There are two species endemic to the island: the Sisserou or Imperial amazon, Amazona imperialis, and the red-necked amazon, Amazona arausiaca. We spent several hours hiking through the lush, humid forest, and a few of us did manage to hear and briefly spot a few red-necked amazons while tramping down the trail, then again at a lookout, with the use of binoculars. But our best view came at end of our hike. As we exited the forest trail, one of the guides from the park headquarters pointed up into a grove of trees. There, perched up on a tree along the road, sat a pair of the parrots. A viewing scope helped us get a good luck at them among the foliage.

Isn’t that just like a parrot? You look all over the jungle for them, trying to get a good view – only to find they’re waiting back at the road for you…

We never did see an Imperial amazon, though…

Auction wraps up trip

The final full day of our cruise brought plenty of laughter, a few tears and some melancholy feelings as Carol Cipriano, the tour organizer ran an auction of donated parrot-related items, with the proceeds going to the Trust. While the itinerary was certainly set, there was talk of going to Mexico, Belize and Honduras for next year’s cruise.

But of course, many were already planning next year’s trip, looking forward to seeing more wild parrots on a different cruise…

John Geary is a full-time professional freelance writer/photographer based in Vancouver, where he lives with Congo African greys Nikki and Coco, and a yellow-headed Amazon named Einstein. His travels have taken him to see wild parrots in Ecuador, Peru, the Cayman Islands, Belize and the islands on this cruise.