Steer a boat down Peru's mighty Madre De Dios River or its tributaries in the western Amazon basin and you may notice the river banks are flecked with bright reds and blues: this is prime real estate for macaws. Along with other bird species, the rainbow-hued parrots flock to these slopes to sample the sodium-rich soil. It's a colourful spectacle that attracts droves of tourists – and one group of bird-watching visitors was treated to an extra-special sighting early last year.

While marvelling at the iridescent plumage of a red-and-green macaw (Ara chloropterus) from a concealed hide during a trip to the Banquillo clay lick, the group watched as an ocelot pounced on the parrot and hauled the flailing bird up the clay bank and into the dense jungle beyond.

Darwin Moscoso, a tour guide from Tambo Blanquillo Lodge on the outskirts of the region's famed Manu National Park, was lucky enough to capture footage of the encounter. Ocelots are widely distributed from northern Argentina and Uruguay to South Texas, but the cats are famously elusive, and catching sight of one on the hunt is a rare treat.

The Banquillo clay lick, though, is a good place to look. Ocelot and jaguar sightings have been on the rise in the area over the last few years, as conservation efforts to reduce deforestation and poaching have taken flight. Earlier this year, tourists reported seeing a jaguar hunting macaws at the clay lick, and just a day later, a different group of visitors spotted an ocelot with a similar penchant for parrot.

A jaguar was filmed a few years ago trying to hunt macaws at a clay lick near Tambo Blanquillo Lodge. Similar sightings have been reported more recently.

"The jaguars and ocelots wait until the macaws come down to the clay. If they get lucky, they will catch one," Stefano Raffo, co-owner and manager at Tambo Blanquillo, told National Geographic. And the macaws come down to the clay quite often. Like many other animals, the birds consume clay from the river banks to supplement their nutritional intake. The practice of eating soil (known as geophagy) has been observed in many species, but the exact reasons for the behaviour are not yet fully understood.

In the case of macaws, beakfuls of clay are thought to provide much-needed sodium that is otherwise missing from their diets. "Sodium in the rainforest is really rare, and the place on these clay licks most preferred by the birds also has the highest sodium content," explains Dr Elizabeth Hobson, who recently co-authored a study on the subject. The vital nutrient helps to support nerve function and muscle contraction, and plays a part in maintaining the balance between water and electrolytes. The macaws crank up their sodium intake during breeding season when nutritional demands are at their highest.

Of course, there are downsides to congregating in large numbers on exposed river banks – and the threat of ambush by hungry ocelots is one of them. Their predatory adaptability has helped the cats dominate in the felid mesopredator category across much of their range, and they'll readily snatch an avian meal if it's available.

A survey in the Peruvian Amazon east of Tambo Blanquillo recently revealed one of the densest populations of ocelots in the world, while Manu National Park to the west is thought to be home to as many as 80 of these cats per 100 square kilometres. Deforestation in the Amazon basin poses a major threat to ocelots, and ecotourism is valued for the contribution it could make to their conservation.

The team at Tambo Blanquillo is glad to see an increase in cat numbers: "We hope they become more frequent, as we wish all our visitors have the chance to really experience the wilderness of the Amazon Rainforest," they wrote on their blog.



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