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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
The 2003 Aplomado Hack Season Comes to an End
Erin Gott — in Aplomado Falcon Restoration    ShareAs our last Aplomado Falcon reaches independence, the 2003 hack season comes to an end.  Through hard work and diligence the 2003 season was a great success.  In south Texas 28 of the 32 (88%) young Aplomado Falcons released made it to independence, while west Texas successfully fledged 36 of their 48 (75%) falcons.  In total The Peregrine Fund enhanced the Northern Aplomado population with 64 falcons released from five locations (South Padre Island, Laguna Atascosa NWR, the Means Ranch, Miller Ranch, and McKnight Ranch.)  As always the numbers reflect the dedication of the Aplomado field team and hack site attendants. 

Being a hack site attendant is no easy task.  It demands staunch, focused, and dedicated individuals who are not afraid of adverse work conditions and extremely long days in the field.  Once again the 2003 hack season was blessed by a great group of people.  Although these individuals came from a variety of locations throughout the nation, their dissimilarities were transcended by a love and dedication to wildlife conservation. 

This year the group consisted of ten individuals.  They were Kelly Wicks, Lee Rindlisbacher, Joe Perry Etheridge, Kerry Hosken, Rachel Rabinovitz, Dianne Scherer, Chris Cattau, Rachel Richardson, Erica LaMare, and Hilary Huber.

Although hack season is often long, hot, and (at times) tedious, time in the field is hallmarked by unusual and often unexpected events. This season had its share of harrowing experiences ranging from stuck or broken vehicles, falcons blown off towers by hovering helicopters, and unexpected encounters with venomous wildlife.  The season also had a fair share of exciting moments defined by such examples as a young falcon lost on the first day of release (but returned four weeks later), the appearance of juvenile wild Aplomado Falcons (banded from local nests) at our hack sites in south Texas, and, as always, the first hunting observation of the young hack birds. 

The experience I will always remember from the 2003 season will be of Hurricane Claudette.  For about a week the south Texas crew followed Claudette’s erratic movements.  The storm was predicted to reach landfall at Brownsville on the same day the south Texas crew was to receive new release birds.  Over the next four days every prediction model brought the storm directly to our door.  Finally with no time left we aborted our original plans and sent the hack birds to west Texas.  As it happened, Claudette stalled less then 200 miles off of South Padre Island and then started tracking north towards Corpus Christi.  After days of evacuation planning all of us sighed a breath of relief.  As the storm tracked ever further north the Aplomado crew turned their attention back to our daily duties.  Claudette finally hit land north of Port Aransas giving south Texas nothing but blue skies and a refreshing northerly breeze.

The next morning I woke to a typical day of running errands and checking up on the hack sites when I noticed the bay had swelled due to storm surge.  Having grown up on the east coast as the son of a lobsterman and (over the past couple of years) observed the effects tidal change has on Padre’s tidal-wind flats, I understood the destructive potential of the situation.  I knew our South Padre attendants were sticking out their morning shift nine miles up the flats that (to my fear) were becoming inundated by the ocean at that very minute.  I hurried to the location of our ATVs and started the up island journey.  This trip under normal circumstances takes 20 minutes of hard driving.  The flats were flooding at such an increasing rate that large parts were already underwater.  After 50 minutes of crossing water and trying to cling to the vegetated edge I realized I had covered less then three miles.  I quickly created a "Plan B" and made my way east into the dunes.  At one point I was forced to climb a large dune in order to escape flooding water from both the beach and the flats.  From my sandy vantage point I finally observed the entire area.  To my right (east) the surf had built to a dangerous 10’-15’, driving water up the beach and into the dunes.  To my left (west) I could see a vale of water breaking the confines of the bay and racing across the flats.  At one point just ahead the two bodies of water met creating a small surging river.  I could see our hack site still high and dry to the north.  Without knowing we had appropriately placed the site in the driest area on the island.

A few minutes later I raced into the hack site, rallied the attendants, placed enough quail for three days on both towers and headed back to the safety of the dunes.  With the attendants safely in tow, we took our time getting home; often stopping to climb a large dune to observe the spectacle and talk about the day.  They explained that the morning drive had been fine, with the flats completely dry.  The only odd thing they observed that day was the lack of Aplomado Falcons at the site.  Out of 20 birds only four were observed. 

As we headed back to town I couldn’t help but worry about our young falcons.  During the release season you hope for good luck.  The young Aplomado Falcons always seem fragile and dependent on our care.  At that moment I imagined our little South Padre birds drowning in rising tides, or becoming disoriented by the changing landscape and slowly starving to death in some remote location far from the towers.  These fears (however irrational) grew over the next two days as the flats remained flooded and access to the site was denied. 

On the 3rd afternoon Kerry Hosken made it out to the site, replaced the food and observed nine falcons.  He reported that the mass amount of quail we placed a few days earlier was all but gone, a good sign.  The day after that Joe Etheridge reported observing all 20 falcons at the hack site.  It dawned on me that these little falcons with their limited experience in the wild world were better equipped for survival then I gave them credit.  Their endearing personalities and robust enthusiasm to play at the release site give them a false child-like appearance.  The truth is the Aplomado Falcon is a true survivor and given a chance should thrive in their natural habitat.

Our last wild Aplomado Falcon chick that fledged on Matagorda Island NWR revealed another example of the Aplomado Falcons’ durability.  The chick was from the Rocket Launcher pair.  Earlier in the breeding season the pair lost young chicks to a predator.  Being a young pair we didn’t expect them to re-nest and turned our attention to the successful breeding pairs.  The Aplomado breeding season was coming to an end when we noticed the Rocket Launcher pair acting peculiar.  It took little investigation to discover they had re-nested and were the proud parents of a healthy single chick.  On July 10th we entered the nest and banded the chick (a 397g female). 

It was on our return to the mainland that we first learned about Hurricane Claudette.  Because the storm was projected to hit Brownsville/Mexico I didn’t worry about our last little chick.  It wasn’t until July 14/15 that the storm turned and hit land a few miles north of Matagorda Island NWR that I feared the worst.  It wasn’t until July 20 that I returned to Matagorda Island NWR to try and document fledging. I found the Rocket Launcher pair along with their healthy juvenile chick together in the territory.  The storm destroyed three buildings and part of a road on the Island, but the Aplomado Falcons fared well. 

In total 37 juvenile Aplomado Falcons fledged from wild nests in south Texas this year.  Combined with the 32 successfully hacked, a total of 69 young falcons were added to the south Texas population.  This is an incredible achievement. 

This success is a direct result of the hard work and dedication from everyone involved.  If it wasn’t for those who give us access to land (both public and private), work in the offices/field, or donate their money/time, the Northern Aplomado Falcon would not be where it is today, back in its American range.  To everyone involved I want to say thank you.

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