Harpy Eagle Release Update-March 2009
Marta Curti— 10 March 2009 — in Harpy Eagle Conservation and Research ShareThe question: can we successfully release a captive-bred female Harpy Eagle into the territory of an adult wild male, who recently lost his mate? In order for the release to be considered a success, the female would have to remain in the male’s territory, with the idea that they would eventually form a pair bond and produce offspring. To increase the chances of the male and the female interacting, The Peregrine Fund field technicians working in the area constructed a specially designed aviary within the male’s territory, very close to the original nest tree. The idea would be to hold the female in the aviary for two to three weeks, while observing from a blind a few meters away. Biologists would make sure that the female was safe and eating, but also record any interaction between the two eagles: the male perching on or near the aviary; the male bringing the female food; or both of them vocalizing together would all be good signs that they may form a pair bond. If none of these behaviors are observed, then the female will not be released in that area.
The male’s territory is located in Darien, Panama, which shares a border with Colombia, and is still home to jaguars, macaws, and the last known healthy population of wild Harpy Eagles in Central America. Though more and more people are moving to the area, and the pressures of increased human populations, logging, and hunting are taking a toll on the natural landscape, Darien still remains one of the most intact forests in the region.
We checked the tide charts carefully, and on the day we were set to travel, high tide would occur at 2 p.m., giving us a window of about an hour or two. Our plan was to fly from Panama City to Darien’s capital, La Palma, then take a boat to La Marea, and walk the rest of the way into the forest with the eagle. The hour-long flight to La Palma was scheduled to leave at 10:30, so the timing was perfect. Or so we thought. The day before our scheduled flight, we received a call from the airline, one of the few that flies to La Palma. They had decided to change the departure time from 10:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. - exactly when the tide was high! Leaving at that hour, we would arrive too late. So, Angel spoke with the airline, explained the situation, and we were told that the flight would leave instead at 12:30. As it was, we would be cutting it close, but it was better than nothing.
As a side note, the changing of flight times is not as unusual as it may seem and happens much of the time with these small airlines, who handle things a bit more casually than one might be accustomed to. On this same airline, on a previous trip back from Darien, the plane was over-booked. That is to say, that folks just showed up at the airstrip hoping there was room. In order to accommodate one extra passenger, a cooler previously destined as luggage, was brought to the front and used as a makeshift seat! Needless to say, we were not feeling entirely confident that we would make it to La Palma on time, but in the worst case scenario, we would spend the night in La Palma and travel to La Marea the following day. Sometimes, a bit of flexibility goes a long way!
So, on Saturday 21 March, we loaded the Harpy Eagle into a large travel kennel and headed to the airport, prepared for our 12:30 departure. Unfortunately, (but not unexpectedly) the flight was delayed and we didn’t take off until an hour later. We arrived at the river junction a little bit after 3 p.m. The tide had already begun to drop. It was touch and go for a while – at several points along the way, the boat scraped the bottom of the river bed and we all had to jump out and help push it upstream - but we made it to the village by 5:30 p.m. that same day.
There was a lot of excitement in the community upon our arrival. Adults and children gathered around the kennel and talked animatedly about the bird and its potential release into the nearby forest. We spoke with the community members for a few moments, but it would be dark in less than an hour and we had a half hour’s walk just to get to the enclosure. We headed out quickly, with many of the community members following right behind us.
Over a week has passed since the female was placed in the kennel. She has adjusted to her enclosure and is eating well. Though the field technicians haven’t seen any interaction between the wild male and this female yet, there is still time. If the experiment works, KC could be one of the first captive-bred Harpy Eagles to find a mate and, hopefully, produce offspring.
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