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First release of captive-bred Orange-breasted Falcons (Part 2)
Marta Curti — in Orange-breasted Falcon Project    ShareIndependence Day

On 4 July 2007, we released the first three captive-bred Orange-breasted Falcons (OBF) into the wild. The release site is located on George Headley’s “BullRun Farm” property in the Mountain Pine Ridge area of western Belize. This property, and the adjacent Hidden Valley Inn (which is generously providing us with room and board during the duration of the release period), are a raptor’s (and raptor-lover’s) paradise. Wild Orange-breasted Falcons, Stygian Owls, King Vultures, Laughing Falcons, Bat Falcons, Plumbeous Kites, Swallow-tailed Kites, Pygmy Owls and Roadside Hawks are all seen more often than not. Blanketed in scattered pine forests, which are currently on their way to recovery after a very damaging pine-bark beetle infestation a few years ago, and crisscrossed by crystal-clear streams and plunging waterfalls, the area is abundant in small birds and insects – perfect prey for young Orange-breasted Falcons just learning to hunt.

In 2005, we used this same area as a release site for two young OBFs that hatched from wild-laid eggs. Due to the success of this experimental release and the high quality and logistics of the site, we decided to conduct the releases in the same location this year. The three falcons that were placed in the hack box on 27 June were ready to be released by 4 July.

Volunteers Erin Strasser and Yeray Seminario and I woke up at dawn. We fed the three younger chicks in our care that would not go into the hack box for another week (see Notes from the Field, June 2007). Then we got everything packed up and headed out to the hack site. One of the Hidden Valley Inn managers, Flavian Daguise, also came out to witness the release.

At 0930, I opened the hack box door and placed a large piece of cardboard in front of it, to keep the birds from exiting before we were ready. While I was doing this, Erin placed the falcons’ food on the tower. I sprayed down the falcons with water, since having wet feathers calms them some and reduces the risk that they will fly off immediately. I was afraid that the birds would not like the experience of getting sprayed, but they loved it. As soon as I turned on the gentle mist, they all spread their wings out, flapping them vigorously, and bathed in the spray. After Erin finished placing the food, and securing the door open, I removed the cardboard and scrambled down the ladder behind her. We joined Yeray in the blind and waited.

Female Orange-breasted Falcon AD
Female Orange-breasted Falcon AD
A few moments later, Female AB, the oldest, appeared at the hack box door. She stuck her head out tentatively, and then quickly disappeared back into the box. It took her a few more tries before she actually came out. Once she did, however, she immediately began exploring the hack tower and the 360° view of open sky, pine trees, and mountains. By late afternoon the other two birds had also emerged from the hack box and were milling about on the tower. Though none of the birds fledged that day, it was thrilling to see them taking in their new surroundings. They spent much of the day flapping their wings and “cacking” at anything that happened to fly by, from large Turkey Vultures to the small Acorn Woodpeckers that are abundant in the area. As dusk set in, all three birds hopped back into the hack box to roost. We closed the hack box door, so that they would not be vulnerable to predators in the night, and returned to the Inn after a long, but truly wonderful day.

Though it would be one more week before all three birds fledged, each day was eventful and full of surprises. We watched as the falcons continued flapping their wings in preparation for the amazing flights they would soon be doing, or followed after Female AB, who fledged the day after release, and kept us on our toes as we tried not to lose sight of her as she flew from tree to tree. I even had to gently coax one of the younger falcons onto my hand and carry her back to the hack box, since she apparently flew before she was ready and was having a hard time making it to a high perch on her own.

Orange-breasted Falcons on the hack box.
Orange-breasted Falcons on the hack box.
Though it was a hectic time for us, this was all perfectly normal behavior for young falcons just learning to fly. But, as is also quite normal, after a few short days these falcons became experts at zipping between trees, or deftly turning upside down in the air. They became masters at flying low and plucking pine cones off the trees, then flying higher and higher with the pine cones, dropping them and then folding their wings to dive and catch them again. Watching them now, it is hard to believe these are the same falcons that, only a week ago, made tentative wobbly flights around the area. These are the same falcons that had the questionable flying skills and landings that were even worse. Sometimes, they would land sideways in a tree, clinging to the trunk so that they looked more like woodpeckers than falcons. They truly have come so far so fast. But, this is the life of a falcon. And I feel honored to be a part of it, if only for a very short while.

Female AB
Female AB
<<609|L|Female AB perched near the blind>>

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