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Orange-breasted Falcon Update
Yeray Seminario — in Orange-breasted Falcon Project    Share
Nak Chen
Nak Chen
The Las Cuevas Research Station is located in the heart of the Chiquibul National Park, the largest reserve in all of Belize. That is where I met up with Chapal – a local guide who would accompany me for the next few days during our trip to Nak Chen (which means “large hole” in Mayan). Nak Chen is one of the largest sinkholes in the area. We located it during an over flight conducted last year. From the air, these sinkholes appear enormous, and seem to be the perfect spot in which to find the rare Orange-breasted Falcon, our real motive for hiking into the deepest parts of the Chiquibul.

We left Las Cuevas at four o’clock in the morning to begin our long hike before daybreak. We arrived at the trail head at 5:30, after driving along a poorly maintained forest road for more than an hour. Fortunately, we are still in the dry season, so the road was passable.

During the first part of our long walk, we stayed mainly on trails used by “Xateros” – people who are in the forest to illegally harvest a plant known as xate, which is used in floral arrangements. The lack of work options and resources leaves these individuals with little choice but to enter the forest for months at a time searching for this plant. To survive out here, they often poach many different types of fauna. Their presence in the Chiquibul is evident – we heard gunshots and chainsaws, and saw trash left along the trails. We even stumbled upon a couple of abandoned camps. Although the majority of these folks are not dangerous and often flee at the first sign of someone else in the forest, it is necessary to be cautious, as some have shown aggression in the past at being discovered. As is often the case, environmental problems are caused by social issues and there are no easy solutions on either side, even when both try to work together.

After the first five kilometers, we stopped for breakfast. We were doing well – only two and half hours had passed. In a large clearing, we found a large feather that most likely belongs to a King Vulture. A few meters away, we found the remains of two peccaries and a coatimundi. It appears that this is an area used frequently by a large predator. The feather, the abundance of droppings in the nearby branches, and the remains of these prey animals that only a large predator would be capable of catching, appear as good omens and attest to the health and biodiversity still found in the Chiquibul.

After this initial stop, the going became much more difficult. We still used Xatero trails, but the terrain was now much steeper – and we were continually walking uphill and downhill, uphill and downhill. Since there are no natural sources of water in the area, we had to carry all the water we would need for these days in our backpacks – more than 10 liters for two days - which we drank continuously, due to the physical exertion and the heat. All of this, plus our field equipment, added a great weight which made the journey all the more difficult.

After five hours of hiking, we arrived at the most complicated part of the journey. The trail had ended so we had to bushwhack using machetes to open up a narrow trail among the thick vines and bushes. Here, the ticks don’t have any compassion, and they covered our clothes and skin by the dozens - certain entertainment for the entire night. By this time, it was almost noon and the heat was suffocating. We advanced very slowly on the last leg of our trip – a 700 meter rise to the edge of the sinkhole. The slope was steep and we had to stop on several occasions to rest. We arrived at the edge of Nak Chen at 15:30, ten hours after starting our hike.

I sat at the edge of the sinkhole to listen and look for the falcons. It was difficult to not become overwhelmed by its beauty and magnitude. It is probably close to 300 meters in diameter and the bottom is completely covered by large trees with far-reaching branches. On the east face, there was a small cave in which I could see large ceramic pots with my binoculars! I couldn’t help but spend a few moments wondering how the ancient Mayans could have lowered the pots down the vertical wall to place them inside the cave. Places like this, and particularly the caves, were sacred to the ancient Mayans, as they saw them as a primary source of life.

A group of about twelve spider monkeys passed in the trees just above me. A few began shaking the branches and screeching at me, but the majority of them ignored me and continued on their way making a lot of noise as they went. Inside the sinkhole, many birds were visible, such as the Slate-colored Solitaire, with its metallic, almost ethereal call, which echoed across the sinkhole. I knew that if falcons were present, it was certain that I would hear them.

Orange-breasted Falcon
Orange-breasted Falcon
I didn’t have to wait long. Only half an hour after I arrived, I heard the high-pitched call of the female. It was music to my ears. It took only a few minutes before I spotted her on the other end of the sinkhole, on a small ledge that may be her nest. However, it was certain that she was not incubating, and I could see that she was just finishing off the last few bites of prey. All that was left was to confirm the presence of a male in the area, to prove that a pair resides in Nak Chen. But apart from the female, I didn’t see any other activity. Night was setting in, so I decided to call it a day. I crawled inside my tent to sleep.

At 3:30 am it started to drizzle. Despite the fact that it is still dry season, this year has been especially humid. My tent couldn’t stand up to the rain and quickly became flooded. So, I left my tent and joined Chapal around the camp fire, beneath large leaves of the Guano tree. Fortunately, it was almost day light. At 5:30 it stopped raining and I returned to the edge of the sinkhole, only 30 meters from where we camped. Almost immediately, I saw the female perched on a branch. There wasn’t a lot of visibility, despite the little vegetation growing around the sinkhole, but I caught glimpses of another falcon flying over – the male. A smile crossed my face. There aren’t many confirmed pairs of Orange-breasted Falcons in Belize and Guatemala – a population isolated from its southern counterpart. So each pair that we find is a cause for great celebration.

At 9:30 we broke camp and headed back to Las Cuevas. With much less water and food to carry and the satisfaction of finding a new pair, our backpacks felt much lighter. This fact, along with the rain, made our return trip much easier. It only took us seven hours to make the return journey. Just as we were arriving at the pick up point, where someone was waiting to meet us, we heard a great guttural cacophony which was unmistakable. A pair of Scarlet Macaws flew over us, high above the forest canopy. This is a definite sign that there is still hope for the Chiquibul forest and its inhabitants.

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