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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
Installing Remote Camera at Orange-breasted Falcon Nest Proves Challenging
Marta Curti — in Orange-breasted Falcon Project    ShareThe Peregrine Fund has been studying the elusive Orange-breasted Falcon (OBF) throughout Central and South America since the mid 1970s. Despite all of our efforts, however, there is still much to be learned about the habitat needs, reproduction and diet preferences for this species. In an attempt to garner more information about their nesting behavior, we decided to place a camera into one of the wild nests in Belize. However, this would not be as easy as it sounds.

Like several other raptor species, OBFs tend to nest on ledges or fissures of large cliff faces. In order to successfully place the camera, we had to 1) make our way down to the nest, 2) connect the camera to the rock face, 3) rig up a system to power the camera, 4) connect the camera to a recording device, 5) prevent much of the system from getting wet, 6) find someone to recharge the battery and download the footage every few days, and 7) make much of this happen with nothing between us and a several hundred foot drop but a rope and some climbing gear.

Thanks to the ingenuity of the Program Coordinator, Angel Muela, all of the “technical” questions were quickly solved. Now, we just had to find a nest that was active and accessible. We made our first trip to Belize on 7 March and, after a few days spent gathering the equipment we would need including a car battery and many, many feet of cable, we headed out to the Sinkhole nest – one of the most successful OBF nests in Belize and our ideal spot for placing the camera.

OBF and camera
OBF and camera
With the help of one of our field biologists, Phil Hannon, we got everything set up at the top of the cliff. Then, Angel geared up, loaded down with the camera, drill, cables, and his climbing gear, and began to rappel down to the nest, which is more than 100 feet below the cliff face in a large sinkhole. It took us most of the morning and afternoon to get things set up, so Angel started his descent very late in the day. Due to the precarious nature of limestone cliffs, several large rocks came loose and fell very close to Angel as he was rappelling, so in the end, we decided to give up for the day and return early the following morning.

On his second attempt, Angel made it down to the nest and successfully installed the camera. At this time, the female was incubating three beautiful, mottled eggs. Phil and I, at the top of the cliff, could see her and the eggs clearly through the recording device. Though Angel was working only a few feet from her, she was completely undisturbed by his presence. After about an hour or so, Angel was ready to come back up. However, just as he was collecting his gear, we all heard the tell-tale sounds of bees swarming in the area. We had had some trouble with Africanized bees in the past and wisely, Angel did not want to risk the very real possibility of being attacked while hanging from a rope. The bees stayed in the area for five hours and all the while, Angel was waiting at the nest. By the time he made it back up, and we put away all the gear, it was late and we had to hike back to the car in the dark.

We went out to the site early the next morning, eager to check out the camera, however, when we turned it on, it did not work. It had somehow lost the connection! We fiddled with the recording device, the power connections, everything we could think of but to no avail. After all that effort, there was only one way to figure out for sure what was wrong with the camera – we had to rappel back down into the nest and check the cables and connections from that end!

By this time, however, Angel and I had to head back to Panama. A few days later, I returned to Belize, ready to try and repair the camera. This time, with the training that Angel had given me (both in climbing techniques and, for this occasion, camera repair), and the help of Ryan Phillips, one of our biologists, and a professional climbing guide from Belize to help me with securing the lines (something Angel normally does) and to belay me, I gathered the power tester, electric tape and new cables and was on my way. While descending down, I checked one connection and it was working fine. This meant that, most likely, the problem was at the nest.

Marta ascending the cliff
Marta ascending the cliff
I continued my descent until I was just a few feet above the nest. At this point, due to an overhanging ledge, I was several feet from the actual cliff face. The only way to actually get to the nest was by using a small tree growing out of the rocks to pull myself in. But first, I had to reach the tree. To do this, Angel invented a simple device that consists of a long rope with several large hooks welded together and tied at the end. You throw the rope and, in theory, the hook will catch on to a branch and you can use this to pull yourself in. Though Angel makes it look easy and seems to have no trouble at all with his aim, I was finding it much more difficult. Luckily, the camera cables were close enough for me to grab a hold of. I first pulled myself in closer using these. When I was close enough, I swung the hook and it caught! In this way, I was able to pull myself onto the cliff. Success! Well… almost. Angel had warned me about this difficult part of the rappel, and he was not kidding. Because now, though I was at the tree, I had to climb up and around it, all the while walking along a very steep, sandy decline to get close to the nest. If I had slipped or fallen, surely the ropes would save me, but I would end up swinging far out – a fairly scary prospect and one that I did not want to experience.

Luckily, all went well and I finally made it to the nest. I replaced one of the cables and immediately heard Ryan shouting from above that he could see the image. The camera was working again! After I packed up my things, I sat for a few moments, taking in the thrill of being this close to a wild Orange-breasted Falcon. As I watched the female calmly incubating her eggs, she shifted slightly and I noticed that, instead of three eggs, there were just two – and one tiny, day old chick!

When I arrived back to the cliff top, Ryan and I watched the female and her newly hatched chick on the video monitor – and looked forward to all the wonderful footage the camera would capture for roughly the next six weeks, or until the chick left the nest.

Find more articles about Orange-breasted Falcon, Neotropics

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