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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
Harpy Releases in Belize
Phil Hannon — in Harpy Eagle Conservation and Research    ShareI have just recently finished my stay as a Harpy Eagle Hack Site volunteer in Belize. I arrived at the Las Cuevas Research Station in the Chiquibul Forest in May of this year and the time since has been the most amazing, gratifying experience I could have imagined. I was part of a team responsible for the hacking and care of four juvenile Harpy Eagles, two males and two females.

Unfortunately, in early July, we discovered one of the males dead near his feed tree. The causes behind his death have remained undetermined. A few weeks later, the female with band letters “LG,” who had been the most successful hunter of the bunch, began venturing west from the release site. We were able to catch up to her about once a week for about a month; each time she had moved further and further west. “LG” eventually went so far that we were unable to hike to her position in a day.

In August, Angel Muela and Marta Curti, of The Peregrine Fund, came to Belize to transfer the birds—and volunteers—to the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area. We first attempted to catch up with “LG,” but after hiking and camping we were unable to get reasonably close to her for trapping and transport. We were able to receive her radio signal for a few more weeks by traveling to the Mayan ruins of Caracol and getting her signal from atop the tallest temple at the site. Unfortunately, she remained at too great a distance to attempt to trap her and carry her back through the jungle. Eventually we had to settle on transferring the two harpies that remained near Las Cuevas.
In mid-August the male, “DM,” and female, “MX,” were released in their new home, Rio Bravo. We quickly noticed a huge difference between the Chiquibul Forest and Rio Bravo. The understory is more open and the wildlife much more prevalent; the endangered ocellated turkey, all three toucans that occur in Belize, white-tailed deer, and gray foxes are seen regularly (not to mention the several jaguar sightings we had in only three months!)

As expected, both birds have adapted to their new home quickly. “DM” settled into a particular spot and is doing well. “MX” has done more exploring than “DM.” We tried to find her about every five days to check on her and give her a meal of rats. When I left Belize, we had no evidence of her hunting successfully. However, I recently learned that Todd Gillen, Aaron Gallagher and Ryan Phillips, the current team of volunteers, found her on her first kill, a coati. Coatis are diurnal animals in the same family as raccoons; and weighing between 7 and 14 pounds, a good size meal for a Harpy!

In early September, Sharon Matola, director of The Belize Zoo and coordinator for the Harpy Eagle Restoration Program in Belize, arranged an over flight with the Belizean Defense Force to attempt to locate “LG’s” radio signal. After a second flight we remained unsuccessful, and after nearly two full months without getting her signal, we were beginning to wonder if we ever would hear from her again. Now back home in the States, I recently received an e-mail, saying that the third over flight was a charm and “LG’s” signal had been found about ten miles south of Caracol! This is great news as she is the first soft-released Harpy to reach independence in Belize! She is still too deep in the forest to access by foot. The Peregrine Fund, in cooperation with the Belize Defense Force, will continue to fly regularly to check her location in hopes that she will come to an area where she can be trapped and fitted with a satellite transmitter, so her position can be monitored more regularly.

Future plans are to transfer at least two independent Harpy Eagles that were soft-released in Panama to Rio Bravo, in mid-November. It is an exciting time for the Harpy Restoration Project in Belize, as the birds are on the road to becoming independent. I hope to be able to return to Belize in the near future to witness the birds and the project as they continue to mature.

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