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Harpy Eagle Release Program Update
Marta Curti — in Harpy Eagle Conservation and Research    ShareIn 2005 we released an independent male Harpy Eagle named DT into the Rio Bravo area of northern Belize. After several months, he began dispersing in a westerly direction. He crossed the Belize/Guatemala border and soon arrived at Tikal National Park (TNP). For the past few months, he has remained within the park boundaries, and, more recently, has begun to display the first signs of breeding behavior: defense of territory and rudimentary nest building.

In many ways, the park is an ideal place for a Harpy Eagle; it is a protected area; the forest is healthy; and there is a wide variety of prey to be found, including Coatimundis and Spider Monkeys. On the downside, at least where a Harpy Eagle is concerned, every year thousands upon thousands of tourists flock to the area to glimpse the Mayan temples that emerge out of the forest in an amazing display of stone and symmetry.

Male Harpy Eagle, DT
Male Harpy Eagle, DT
With most other raptors, this type of human presence would normally not be a problem, as tourists are limited to small areas within a very large tract of protected forest. However, due to the innate curiosity that Harpy Eagles seem to have, DT began spending more and more time in areas where tourists were. Fearing that he would become overly accustomed to people, which could prove dangerous any time he left the minimal boundaries of a protected area, we decided that the best solution would be to trap DT and release him into an area of the country that is relatively uninhabited by humans.

So, in mid October, Angel Muela and I headed to Guatemala. We arrived at TNP, where we were met by one of the park biologists. Using a radio telemetry unit, which is designed to pick up the frequency of a transmitter fixed to the eagle’s back, we were able to locate DT easily. He was perched low in a tree amid a group of wild and chattering Spider Monkeys. As we waited and watched, one of the park guards noticed another large raptor flying past. We did not see it and, at the time, assumed it to be a vulture or other common bird. We were soon proven wrong. A few minutes later, we saw this same bird gliding along in the distance. We caught only a brief glimpse of it, but it was certainly no vulture.

I stayed and kept an eye on DT while Angel ventured off to see if he could find the other bird. A few minutes later, he returned without having had any luck. Right about this time, the Spider Monkeys became very upset by DT’s proximity. They climbed down until they were right above him and began shaking branches and throwing sticks at him. DT immediately flew off and landed on a high branch about 50 meters away. We followed him and were waiting to see what would happen next, when the large raptor appeared again. This time, we were able to see it and positively identify it as a female Crested Eagle. As she flew in, she dropped her legs and made a swooping pass over DT’s head. Once again, DT was up and flying. We quickly lost sight of both birds. Though we never saw the Crested Eagle again, we were able to locate DT quite easily using our telemetry receiver. After all the excitement had passed, we successfully trapped him and brought him back to the park headquarters. We then modified a large enclosure with perches and a feeding platform, where he would be placed until we could make arrangements to transport him to his new release site. And, knowing he was safe for the time being, Angel and I returned to Panama, with plans for me to return in a few weeks’ time, once all the logistics for his release were in place.

In mid-November, Sean Davis and I returned to Guatemala to conduct some environmental education talks and to release DT. After much deliberation, we had all decided that the best place to release him is an area known as Rio Azul. It is located in the NE corner of Guatemala close to the borders with Mexico and Belize. Apart from a small research/patrol camp, very few people are found in the area and there would be little chance that DT could run into trouble with poachers. Now, the only problem was how to transport the bird to the site. In the dry season, the road is passable in vehicle, and takes about nine hours to drive, but according to the locals, this same road is virtually impassable when the roads are wet and muddy. Unfortunately, rainy season was in full swing. To travel with the bird by land it could take us up to three days to reach our destination.

The Peregrine Fund and Tikal National Park <br />crews with Guatemalan military personnel.
The Peregrine Fund and Tikal National Park
crews with Guatemalan military personnel.
Thankfully, the Guatemalan military agreed to transport us to the site in a helicopter. The entire, round trip flying time would be a little under two hours!

The morning of DT’s release, Sean Davis and I placed him in a small transport kennel and loaded him on to the helicopter, which was equipped with loaded guns and extra ammunition, but no seat belts or other safety equipment that was obvious at first glance. This was quite a different experience than flying in a military helicopter in Belize, where we were required to wear helmets, boots, flight suits, and our seat belts! On this flight, we were also accompanied by employees from TNP and a reporter. All in all there were six of us flying, so a few of us had to sit on the floor of the helicopter during the flight.

Carrying DT to the final release location.
Carrying DT to the final release location.
When we arrived at our destination, we unloaded DT’s kennel and hiked out into the forest. After a 30 minute walk, we found a nice open area in which to release him. We opened up the kennel and he walked out right away. He then ambled over to a branch that was sitting on the ground. He stayed on the branch, stretching his wings, for several minutes, before flying up to a higher tree limb. Once we knew he was in a safe location, we grabbed the kennel and headed back to the helicopter. When we got there, we realized that they had never turned off the helicopter engine and we had been gone close to an hour and a half. At the time, I assumed it was a safety regulation that required them to keep the helicopter running. However, when we asked about it later, we found out the battery in the helicopter was very old. If they had shut off the engine, we never would have got it started again!

As the helicopter lifted off and we flew low just above the canopy, I took a moment to take in the scenery. There was forest as far as the eye could see—different shades of green and brown expanding in what seemed to be a never-ending quilt of trees and vines. Despite all appearances, however, I knew that out there, just beyond the forest, were communities both big and small, and that in those communities, were people that could potentially come into contact with DT.

As I write this, it has been over 10 days since the release, and we continue to receive information about his location through his PTT Satellite Transmitter. For now, he has remained in the release area. For now, he is safe and doing well. Through our environmental education efforts, I hope that we can reach enough individuals to ensure the future safety of DT and the safety of all the other Harpy Eagles flying free in the forests of Guatemala and Belize.

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