Released Harpy Eagles Disperse Throughout the Selva Maya
Marta Curti— 6 March 2007 — in Harpy Eagle Conservation and Research ShareThe Selva Maya – an expanse of forest that reaches into Belize, Guatemala and Mexico, is the largest contiguous forest in Central America. In the heart of this tropical jungle, at the Rio Bravo Management Area, Belize, The Peregrine Fund has been releasing independent, captive-bred Harpy Eagles since 2004, as part of our Harpy Eagle Conservation Program. Since the first bird was released from her kennel and took her first tentative flights into her new home, we have released 10 independent sub-adult Harpy Eagles into this area. All released birds are fitted with a PTT transmitter that allows us to track their movements via satellite.
While we expected that they would disperse from the immediate release site, we have been surprised at the distances that some of our birds have traveled. One, a female named Ophelia, has slowly been making her way north so that she is now in the Calakmul Nature Reserve in Mexico. Another, a male named Benito, also is in Mexico, just across the border from Belize. Three of our other birds — a male named DT; and two females, HS and Pannaba, have made their way into Guatemala, each having traveled over 300 kilometers and none showing any signs of slowing down just yet.
Recently, Angel Muela, Sean Davis, Chris Hatten, Ryan Phillips and I made a trans-national trip to track some of these birds and to conduct much-needed environmental education in those communities most likely to come into contact with the dispersing eagles (see Notes From the Field—Neotropical Environmental Education Program). After three weeks of visiting communities, conducting over flights and tracking birds from the ground, Sean returned to Panama and Angel made a visit to another remote site in Guatemala to evaluate its potential as a possible release site for Orange-breasted Falcons (see Notes From the Field—Orange-Breasted Falcon Project).
I stayed on in Tikal National Park, along with Chris and Ryan, in order to get things set up and to begin tracking one of the two birds that was in the area. Most likely Chris and Ryan, the biologists that have spent more than three years living in the forest studying the released Harpy Eagles, will be staying in the park for up to two months, tracking birds for a field study that we are conducting. They will be following each bird for one month, camping out and getting a visual on it once each day for four days in a row, then taking two days off to rest and re-supply before heading back into the forest once again. The idea is to get at least 20 visuals on the same bird over a one month period to learn more about their dispersal patterns, hunting behavior and prey preferences. So far, Chris and Ryan have seen some amazing prey items including porcupines, a young white-tailed deer, spider monkeys, and kinkajous.
So we focused our attention on one of the females, HS, an adult that we had released in Rio Bravo in 2005. It had been quite a while since we had a visual on her and all three of us were excited to get out and see her for what would be the first time in a long time. Different from the forests of Panama, the terrain around Tikal is mostly flat. Since telemetry works best when you check signals from a high point, we used the highest things around: the amazing Mayan temples that dot the Peten Forest and that bring in thousands of tourists from around the globe each year.
On the third morning of our stay in Tikal, we were able to get a good signal on HS from high up on the temples, so we immediately began hiking out to find her. A few hours later, after trudging our way through thick, “bajo” forest, we finally saw her, perched high up on a snag. She looked great. We stayed and watched her for a few minutes. At the time, she had no prey, so for the sake of the study, we would come out to find her the following day.
The second day, we found her in a tree covered with vines. All that we could see of her were her wings spread out and her tail feathers. She appeared to be mantling (covering prey with her wings to protect it) and at times, appeared to be lowering her head to feed, but we could never make out any prey item or determine for sure if she was feeding. It was late in the afternoon at this point and we decided to get up early the next morning to try and confirm if she had prey or not.
The following day we, again, located her quickly, but we never could determine if she had killed something the day before or not. We left her alone for the rest of the day so that she would be free to hunt without us around. The next day, the fourth and final day in this round of observations, we set out once again to find her. We checked in the early morning from the temples and received a very weak signal. We returned to the area where she had been the day before, set up the telemetry and… nothing. We used the compass bearing we took from her signal that morning and began to hike out after her. We stopped at several high points and hiked for many hours, with no luck. During our trek through the forest, we came across several unexcavated Mayan ruins, unfortunately each one of them carried the tell-tale signs of looters — a large chunk carved out of the temple from which bones, pottery and other artifacts were stolen. We even found a few shards of pottery ourselves, near one of the ruins, which we, of course, left where we had found them. By this time, it was getting late and it was time to head back, even though we were unsuccessful at finding HS. Later, through her PTT transmission, we determined that she had traveled over 10 km in just one day!
And that is how it goes when one is tracking Harpy Eagles; some days are easy, some are hard, and many are spent hiking for hours and hours in vain , but one thing is for sure — all of them are filled with adventure!
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