Adventures with Stella: Relocating a Harpy Eagle, January 2006
Marta Curti— 6 February 2006 — in Harpy Eagle Conservation and Research ShareThe task seemed straightforward enough: travel to Belize, help two members of our field crew, Chris Hatten and Ryan Phillips, capture a female Harpy Eagle named Stella, and relocate her to a safer place. Stella is one of four captive reared Harpy Eagles that The Peregrine Fund released into the Chiquibul Forest in western Belize. However, when incursions into the area by poachers became a concern for the Harpy Eagles’ safety, we decided to relocate them into a safer expanse of forest in northern Belize. By this time, Stella had moved roughly 18 kilometers from the release site and was spending most of her time in a rugged, karstic limestone area of the forest that is very difficult to traverse on foot. To make matters more difficult, very little fresh water sources are found in the area, so all of the water needed for the journey, we had to carry.
Needless to say, our attempts to locate Stella did not work out. The most feasible plan was to wait for her to move to an area a little bit easier for us to access. So, in early January when Chris and Ryan told us that they had picked up her radio signal in an area accessible by road, Angel and I quickly made plans for me to travel to Belize. However, by the time I arrived, a few days later, Stella was already on the move again and nowhere to be found. Knowing that our best chance of picking up her radio signal would be from the air, we arranged for an aircraft and began by searching over the area in which her radio was last heard. Thankfully, after not too long, we picked up her radio signal near an area called Pima Camp, not far from the Guatemala border.
As soon as the plane landed, we piled into the car and drove out to Arenal, the closest road access to where Stella’s radio was last heard. We filled our packs with tents, clothes, field gear, enough food for four or five nights of camping, as much water as we could carry, and ten pounds of meat and fur to use as bait. We loaded our packs onto our backs and began the long trek into the forest. Six kilometers later, as night was setting in, we made camp at the edge of a small corn field.
The following morning we had a quick breakfast of oatmeal, flavored with some powdery orange substance that Chris and Ryan called “sugar” but I suspected was Tang (an orange flavored drink), and headed out with radio receivers in hand. Finally, about six hours later, having picked-up her radio signal, we located her high up in a tree. She looked beautiful! Her feet were bright yellow and her feathers seemed to be in great condition. We pulled the bait from our pack and she immediately showed interest and appeared to be very hungry. We dropped our bags and began to set up the trap to capture her. As we were doing so, though, we heard the fake hooting call that Xateros working in the area use. Xateros are people who often have crossed the border into Belize illegally to cut a native palm called Xate (pronounced sha-tay), which is used in the floral industry. Xateros are abundant in the area and often spend weeks at a time in the forest, in search of this plant. They have elaborate camps and trails set up and often rely on hunting wild game for food – something that could eventually prove hazardous to Stella if we did not manage to remove her from the area. And while most Xateros are probably not aggressive toward other people, we had heard stories of shoot-outs between them and the Belizean army trying to control their entry into the country, as well as instances when they had stolen field equipment, such as remote trip-line cameras, from researchers. Not wanting to take any chances, we grabbed our packs and scrambled up the mountain side and waited. Luckily, they left the area almost right away. By this time, it was getting dark so we set up camp.
The next morning, we awoke before first light hoping to find Stella before she had time to capture her own prey. If she managed to hunt something before we found her, she most likely would not be at all interested in the now two-day old meat we had to offer her. Luckily, we found her right away. We set the bait on a low perch and built a blind of palm leaves to hide in nearby. From inside the blind, I could hear Stella flying from tree to tree just above me. Approximately one hour later, she flew down to the bait. When I saw her there, I knew this could be our only chance – we had to capture her. I was so nervous, my heart started pounding and I was shaking so much that I could not hold my binoculars steady enough to get a good look at her. I waited about 10 minutes or so, and then tightened my grip around the trip line. Seconds later, I pulled the line as hard as I could. I felt a tug at first, and then… nothing. I peered from a small opening in the blind and my heart sank when I saw that the trap was empty. I had missed. That night I was feeling pretty disappointed and dejected, but all the more determined to capture her the following day. To complicate matters, we were quickly running out of water and knew that we would have to find a water source somewhere nearby. We were determined not to leave the area without Stella and a little thing like “no water” was not going to change our minds. As luck would have it, and much to our surprise and delight, it rained most of that night and into the next day. We were able to use the tent flaps to collect rainwater to last us for a little while longer.
The following morning, the third day of our adventure, we awoke once more before sunrise and quickly located Stella on the hill behind our camp. We set up another low perch and an excellent blind and once again I climbed inside. This time, I was resolute that I would not miss. Just like the day before, I could hear her flying around above me and tried to will myself to stay calm. Eventually, she came down to the bait. This time, I took several deep breaths and watched as she placed both feet onto the meat and began to feed. All the while, though, she kept looking around nervously, particularly toward the blind. I froze, hoping that she would not detect any movement from me. After 10 more minutes or so, she turned around so that her back was to me and resumed feeding. I gripped the line in my hand and waited for the right moment. Then, as she raised her head to swallow a piece of meat, I pulled the line with as much force as I could muster. Again I felt a tug and heard the whooshing of her wings as she tried to escape. When I looked out from the blind, she was caught!!
We quickly placed a hood on Stella to keep her calm and began the nine kilometer trek out of the forest. The going was slow and night had set in while we were still two kilometers away from the vehicle. Luckily, there was a bright full moon that lit up the night just enough for us to safely navigate the trail. We arrived at the car four hours later, exhausted but extremely happy. We placed Stella inside a kennel and began the long drive back.
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