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Harpy Eagle Releases in Panama
Marta Curti — in Harpy Eagle Conservation and Research    ShareIt’s that time of year again on the Harpy Eagle project! Two more eaglets are once again ready to be released into Soberania National Park in Panama. I arrived at the hack site on a Wednesday ready for a mellow week of releases and all-day vigils at the blind. Instead, I experienced a week of day-long hiking in search of birds, some sadness and one or two surprises.

Yala Purba
Yala Purba
On my first night at the hack site, I was conducting a routine signal check from nearby the cabin. Everything seemed as it should be until I checked the signal of a young male that we call Yala Purba. The signal was faint and the normally slow beeping of his signal had switched to the rapid pulse of a mortality signal. While working on other projects, I have experienced “false mortality signals”– when the animal is quite healthy and active but the transmitter is faulty. This was the hope that I clung to. I kept telling myself, “This bird has been around for a while. He knows how to take care of himself. His transmitter must be malfunctioning.” After all, I had had the pleasure of working with this bird for a year and a half and I wasn’t prepared for him to be dead.

Despite all my wishing, however, I would soon find out that his transmitter was working just fine. At first light the following morning, volunteer Mario Guerrero and I set out in search of Yala Purba. We located him above the bank of the Agua Salud River, his body lying beside a fallen tree. We examined him closely for signs of bullet wounds – incidents of poaching in the park usually increase during the dry season and we have noticed a lot of hunting activity lately– but found nothing to indicate that he had been shot. That, at least, was a relief. If a bird has to die, it is much easier to take when its death is from natural causes and not at the hands of humans. Later, we were able to X-Ray his body and take some tissue samples. The best theory we have is that he was bit by a snake, but we will probably never really know. And the not knowing makes his death even harder to take.

Through the sadness and disappointment in this turn of events, however, we still had 11 other eagles to take care of, three of which were several hours’ hike from the cabin and needed to be checked on. A happy surprise came when we located Sulub, the oldest male Harpy Eagle in Soberania National Park. Sulub is quite a character and had been in the habit of hanging around his feeding tree waiting to be fed while other, younger birds had already begun to hunt for themselves (we place food for the birds at night so they can’t see us and won’t make the association between humans and food). Needless to say, we were quite pleased when, a few months ago, Sulub began to travel more extensively and often would not return to his feeding tree for many days in a row. By the time I arrived at the hack site, he had not been seen for a while so we decided to go look for him to make sure all was well.

Two-toed sloth
Two-toed sloth
After about five hours of hiking over hills and through dense vegetation, we received the first faint beeps of his signal. Jokingly, I offered to buy the volunteers dinner and a movie if we located him and if he was feeding on wild prey (I am sure I don’t have to tell you the ending to this story). After about another hour, we picked up a strong signal coming from the direction of a small stream below us. As we approached, we heard the familiar descending call of a Harpy Eagle. We found him perched on a low branch with his wings dropped to cover his feet. This was a sure sign he had something he was trying to protect. I slowly crept around some trees to get a better look. Through my binoculars I could clearly make out the body of a recently killed three-toed sloth clutched in Sulub’s talons! For us, this was an incredible sight. One of the first indications of the program’s success is when the birds begin hunting on their own and we were proud that Sulub had finally made this transition. We quickly left the area already planning our dinner and which movie we would see when we returned to the city.

The following day we released the two young Harpy Eagles and they are doing well. As I sat in the blind, watching these birds experience the wilds of the forest for the first time, I felt joy and some fear. After all, they have yet to learn about the hidden dangers and adventures that await them and there is only so much we can do to protect them. But, like the Harpies, we too never know, when working for wildlife conservation, what surprises we might encounter. At least we are in this adventure together.

Find more articles about Harpy Eagle, Neotropics

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