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Harpy Eagle Release Program-Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area, Belize
Ryan Phillips — in Harpy Eagle Conservation and Research    ShareIn August of 2004, the Harpy Eagle Restoration Project was moved from the Las Cuevas Research Station in the Chiquibul National Forest in the southwestern part of the country to the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area (RBCMA) in the north. Since then, the birds have acclimated well and the restoration of the Harpy Eagle in Belize is proving to be a real success.

Harpy Eagle releases are done in two basic stages. The first stage, called a soft release, occurs when the birds are young and still dependent on people for food. Currently, The Peregrine Fund is doing all the soft releases in Panama. Once the birds are independent hunters and no longer dependent on humans for supplemental food, it is time for the second stage of the release process, called a hard release. These independent birds are then relocated and released in RBCMA. Since sloths are a large part of the Harpy Eagles’ diets when in Panama, and since sloths are not found in Belize, it is important to monitor the birds closely to determine if they can make the transition to faster moving prey. Preliminary observations suggest that this transition can be made.

Currently there are a total of five Harpy Eagles in Belize. One of the independent females, LG, is still located in the Chiquibul National Forest and due to her seclusion deep inside the forest we were unable to trap her when the project was moved. She is now monitored once a month by airplane to check her locale. If she comes within hiking distance then she will be trapped and relocated to RBCMA. LG is one and a half years of age, putting her on schedule as to what a wild Harpy Eagle her age would be doing; which is hunting independently without the guidance of her parents.

Harpy Eagle CZ with prey.
Harpy Eagle CZ with prey.
In the RBCMA there are three males and one female. MX, the only female in RBCMA, is still being monitored and provided with supplemental food because she has not yet begun to capture prey on a regular basis. However, on 30 October she was observed with a White-nosed Coati (Nasua narica). She moves on a daily basis, sometimes many kilometers, suggesting that she might begin to hunt with more frequency very soon.

DM, one of the original males from Las Cuevas, is still being fed on a regular basis. Until a few weeks ago, he did not show signs of attempting to hunt on his own. On 20 January, however, DM was observed with a full crop and blood around his talons meaning he made a kill, but we were unable to find any clues as to what type of prey he had taken. This was a major breakthrough and a relief. Then, on 25 January we observed DM with a Mexican Porcupine (Coendou mexicanus)—talk about a tough first prey item!

Released Harpy Eagle CZ with backpack satellite transmitter.
Released Harpy Eagle CZ with backpack satellite transmitter.
AC and CZ are the first two birds that have been hard released in Belize from Panama. We rang in the New Year with the release of CZ, a three-year-old male, who was released on 4 January. As soon as he was free, we began to closely monitor his movements in order to determine if and when he would be able to make the adjustment to a forest without sloths. Indeed he could. On 14 January we observed CZ with a Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). To our knowledge, this is the first record ever of a Harpy Eagle preying upon a Gray Fox. More importantly, we realized that Panama Harpy Eagles could transition quickly to the prey selection in Belize. Four days after CZ’s fox kill, he began to travel extensively. Within 13 days he was in Mexico, which was 18 kilometers from the Gray Fox kill. But he did not stop there. In four days CZ moved south 12 kilometers into Guatemala, where he is being monitored with the help of a satellite transmitter. Presently there is no reason to trap him and bring him back to Belize because he is in primary forest with little human interactions. If CZ gets in close proximity to any villages then trapping him may be necessary.

On 1 February Belize’s 5th Harpy Eagle, AC, a seven-year-old male, was released. AC is another bird that needs to be monitored very closely, so that we can determine what types of prey these hard released birds will be capturing and at what frequency. Future plans consist of releasing two more females and comparing male and female diets in the RBCMA.

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