— 17 March 2003
— in Harpy Eagle Conservation and Research
As we sat huddled in the observation blind, quietly battling the mosquitoes and black flies, the first strokes of light set the forest ablaze with green, as the sun's rays began to peak from between the large Chicle trees that composed most of our view. In the distance, we heard howler monkeys greet the day with their typical guttural wails that echoed across the forest and sounded like a chorus of 20, when in reality only two or three were calling. The scent of rain lingered in the air. Amidst the hustle and bustle of a typical morning in the Belizean wilderness, something very atypical was about to happen. The forest was getting some new residents—two captive-bred Harpy Eagles being released into this Central American country for the first time ever. As we waited anxiously for the Harpy Eagles to emerge from the hack box, their home for the past three weeks, and venture out into the wild for the first time, I couldn't help but think of the long process that brought these birds here in the first place.
It began in the early morning hours of March 19, when Angel Muela, Nadia Sureda, Martin Gilbert, and I drove to the Panama City airport with three Harpy Eagles, four coolers of frozen rats, and three boxes full of gear in tow.
Two of the eagles, one male and one female, were headed to their future release site, Las Cuevas Research Station (LCRS), located in western Belize. The third Harpy, hatched blind in one eye and therefore un-releasable, was making the journey to his new home at the Belize Zoo, where his presence will help educate locals and tourists about the importance of Harpy Eagles and raptors in general.
Once we made sure the birds and gear were stowed safely on the plane, we said our goodbyes to Nadia and Martin. Then Angel and I boarded the plane. Everything was going smoothly until we reached San Salvador, where we missed our connecting flight by just under 10 minutes. Since there is only one flight to Belize from El Salvador each day, we had no choice but to spend the night. Meanwhile, back in Belize, throngs of reporters and government officials anxiously awaited the arrival of the plane that neither we nor the eagles were on. Members of the British Army had even made themselves available that day to shuttle the birds to their new home via helicopter. But, just about the time that the plane was landing, Angel and I were attempting to negotiate our stay in a San Salvadorian hotel, which shall remain nameless, whose policy does not allow pets. We quickly learned that they would not make an exception, even for an endangered species. All in all, it took us about five hours to collect the gear and the eagles, and find a hotel that would accommodate both live Harpy Eagles and about 200 frozen rats. Eventually, after a long ride past farm fields, jutting volcanoes, and fleeting glimpses of the sea, we arrived safe and sound for the night.
The following day we arrived in Belize City on time, though a bit wearier from the journey. Though we were tired, however, the reporters, politicians, and citizens of Belize that came to greet us were no less enthusiastic. After a brief reception and press conference, I accompanied the blind male to the Belize Zoo while Angel continued on with the other two eagles to the LCRS.
The LCRS is located in the heart of the Chiquibul Forest, and is inaccessible to all but the most serious four-wheel-drive vehicles, particularly in the rainy season. Living up to its name, the area is riddled with dark, deep caves that provide plenty of exploration opportunities for the not-so-faint of heart. An observation tower high up on a hill offers a literal birds-eye view of much of the country and neighboring Guatemala. To get there one must pass over the Macal River and through the Mountain Pine Ridge, a haven for raptors such as Laughing Falcons, and Swallow-tailed, White-tailed, and Plumbeous Kites. Flocks of Scarlet Macaws can be seen and heard passing overhead in the early morning hours, and, on one lucky day, a jaguar passed literally 20 feet from the observation blind. We have also spotted gray foxes, spider monkeys, coatimundis, and tayras near the release site. This area is teeming with wildlife and we knew the Harpy Eagles would fit right in!
Soon after their arrival and placement into the hack box, the eagles quickly adjusted to their new surroundings. Our intrepid volunteers, Jerod Clabaugh and Corrine Folsom, who are responsible for making sure that the eagles are healthy and feeding well, diligently looked after these birds for many hours each day. They were there to see the birds begin to exercise their wings and they watched as the birds first learned about spider monkeys. Though it certainly is enjoyable watching each bird’s development while in the hack box, we were all anxious to see these birds fly.
On April 12, 2003, release day finally arrived. We had been in the blind for only an hour when we were rewarded with a sight that I, for one, will never grow tired of: watching the birds take their first tentative steps towards freedom. The male was the first to emerge, and quickly began to feed on the rats we placed for them. A few minutes later, following the male's lead, the female walked out of the hack box and into the wild.
Though the birds still have a long way to go before reaching independence (seven months) and even longer to go until they reach sexual maturity (four to five years) the first and, perhaps, most important step has been taken to restore the Harpy Eagle to its former range within Belize. And on this day, The Peregrine Fund, the citizens of Belize and all those who made this day possible should feel proud of what we have accomplished together. Corrie, Jerod, and I certainly do!
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