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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
2001 Field Season Begins!
Amy Nicholas — in Aplomado Falcon Restoration    Share
In the pre-dawn hours of 27 March, Angel Montoya and I headed to the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.  Our goal was to survey for Aplomado Falcons on Unit 4, a remote section of the refuge accessible only by boat.  At Laguna headquarters Alfredo Salinas, refuge personnel, was waiting to ferry us and the two ATVs across a short section of the Arroyo Colorado.   While we loaded the ATVs onto the boat, we became aware that our prayers for good weather had not been answered; the rising sun illuminated a sky full of ominous dark clouds.  Obviously, it was going to be a very wet, muddy day. 

After our short boat ride, we were deposited on the southern end of the thousand acres that comprise Unit 4.  We began tying down our gear to the ATVs: scopes, tripods, binoculars, GPS units, water, food, snakebite kits, mosquito repellent, and of course, raincoats.   Unfortunately for me, I drew the short straw that morning and would be piloting a cantankerous old relic that had definitely seen better times, and could be relied upon to sputter and die when the throttle was not depressed.  Our plan was to head together to the north end of the unit, getting a feel for the terrain, then separate and slowly make our way south again.   

Neither Angel nor I had ever had the opportunity to survey this part of the refuge and we were immediately aware of its possibilities.  We both agreed that this was some of the best Aplomado habitat we’d encountered—wide-open grasslands and salt flats dotted with sparse stands of yucca and mesquite.   We were sure we were going to find Aplomados.  This optimism is still a relatively new way of thinking about Aplomado Falcon surveying.  For it was just a short seven years ago that only one Aplomado nest was known to exist in the entire United States, the first known nest in 45 years.  Last year we located and monitored an incredible 30 pairs of Aplomado Falcons! 

We were only halfway to the north end of the unit when we stopped for a short break.  Incredibly, luck was on our side.  We spotted an adult female perched atop a 10 foot tall yucca.  We waited in the distance hoping for a glimpse of her mate, to confirm that it was in fact a pair.  We didn’t have to wait long; he appeared shortly on a tall snag near the female.  This was a very lucky sighting indeed considering the inclement weather, as the falcons tend to stay low in bad weather making it nearly impossible to locate them in the dense brush.  A brief time later, we observed the pair returning with prey to the area.  This indicated that the pair is loyal to this territory and since both birds are adults it is highly likely they will nest in the area. 

Encouraged by this find, we continued north, eventually separating in order to cover more territory.  Unfortunately our luck did not hold.  The clouds opened up and a torrential rain descended upon us.   We had intended to rendezvous at a set point, but that proved to be more difficult than previously considered as the rain reduced visibility to near zero.  However, within time Angel caught a glimpse of my yellow raincoat through the rain and we began a hasty retreat to the boat.   

When we finally arrived at the boat we were both covered from head to toe in slick clay sludge.  The next three hours we would spend washing the corrosive salty clay from the now unrecognizable ATVs.    

We will be returning to the area soon, preferably on a sunny day, to check the status of the new pair and to hopefully locate more.  This pair brings our total for this year to 26.  However, it is still early in the breeding season and many of the pairs have just recently entered the egg-laying stage.  We are optimistic that by June, when the release season begins, we will have increased our totals.

As Aplomado Falcon releases continue in southern Texas, locating and monitoring the success of nesting pairs has become an increasingly essential part of the project.  Documenting the presence or absence of breeding pairs is the only means by which we can gauge the success of the reintroduction project.  To date, 578 Aplomado Falcon fledglings have been released in coastal Texas.  This may seem like a large number of released falcons to have only produced a maximum of 30 known breeding pairs so far.  However, because falcons in general have a high first year mortality, the actually number of birds that have made it to breeding age is significantly less than 578. Taking this factor into account, 30 known breeding pairs in 2000, and 26 so far this year indicates that the reintroduction effort is proceeding remarkably.  In the following days we are planning to survey the coast by airplane to help identify more potential nesting territories that can then be surveyed on the ground.

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