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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
Orange-breasted Falcon Release 2009 – Update
Jenn Sinasac — in Orange-breasted Falcon Project    ShareBelize is truly an amazing country – not only does it have the second largest barrier reef in the world, but it also boasts some of the most beautiful and expansive forest in Central America where Scarlet Macaws still paint the sky with their beautiful colours. It is also home to one of the only populations of Orange-breasted Falcons in Central America. Upon my arrival to Belize, I was greeted by Marta Curti and Yeray Seminario, who were already getting things set up for this year’s release. After a quick stop for some supplies, we were on our way up a bumpy hill into the vast Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve, to the site where the birds would be released. The site, named Hidden Valley, is one of the highest points in the Mountain Pine Ridge and is located on an eastward-facing peninsula with a clear view to Belmopan, Belize’s capitol. A beautiful cascade waterfall off in the distance was only a small element of this release site.

On 7 July 2009, three captive-bred Orange-breasted Falcon nestlings were flown down from the breeding facility in the northern United States. Upon their arrival, they were placed in a hack box on a caged-in platform overlooking the Hidden Valley, so that the birds could remain in the box or wander out onto the platform freely and become used to their new home as quickly as possible. We observed the falcons from a nearby screened-in observation blind which allowed us to view the birds while keeping us protected from the heat, rain, and insects.

As we got to know the birds day by day, their personalities began to show almost immediately. The youngest female, affectionately named “Jabba,” seemed to go through a phase where food was the most important thing to her. She would often steal food away from the other two birds. One day, the other two birds had been eating on the platform, and dropped a piece of food down the slats. Jabba was not impressed! She poked her head out of the door, and started cacking loudly as if to say, “What happened to the food!” The next day we noticed her sneak a pinecone into the hack box, quite mischievously, after seeing the other falcons playing with them earlier in the day. She was truly a unique individual!

On release day, 17 July, the door to the box was opened and the oldest falcon, a female named “Princess Leia,” hopped out of the box, sporting a radio transmitter attached to her leg. The male, “Darth,” soon followed. Both birds spent the day exploring the platform, taking short ‘flights’ across the platform, playing with pine needles and exercising their wings by flapping in the wind. They spent the whole day on the platform, but did not seem too keen on flying just yet.

Two days later, at 51 days old, Princess Leia flew nicely for the first time from the platform and landed in a nearby tree. She did a couple test flights, had a couple good landings, and spent the night roosting in a tree close to the nest box. The next day, she continued to fly from tree to tree in the morning, and then gracefully flew back down to the platform for her daily meal. She stayed on the platform for the remainder of the day. A couple of days later, the male also fledged, making a nice flight in the late afternoon and spending the night in the tree that supported the platform. So far, two had flown nicely, it was just one more falcon that needed to fledge.

Ten days after the door to the box was open and the birds were free to fly, Jabba took her first flight, after spending much time in the box and relatively little time on the platform. Her first flight was a little shaky, but she made it successfully down to a nearby tree, and to our surprise, flew to the platform nicely later that afternoon. All the birds were out and flying well, increasing their flight skills with each flight they made. At this time, the birds were sporting radio transmitters. We would check for their signals every hour and could ensure they were close even if they were out of sight. The transmitters stayed on their legs for the first few weeks after the release. However, once the transmitters were removed, they could no longer be tracked and we could only hope that they would return to the hack site every day to feed.

Almost immediately after fledging, the birds began to fly with each other, chase each other around the hack site, pull pinecones off the trees, and catch grasshoppers in mid-air. Only a week or so after release a wild pair of Orange-breasted Falcons from a nearby eyrie became regular visitors to the hack site. At first, they began chasing the young falcons, somewhat aggressively. For a period of a couple weeks, the adults would visit the site almost every day, either individually or as a pair, to interact with the young falcons. The aggressiveness initially shown by the adults gradually lessened, and occasionally we saw the adults soaring and interacting positively with the falcons, as if they were their own offspring, possibly helping the young falcons to develop their flight skills.

The beginning of August brought with it the good and the bad. The falcons continued with their aerobatic displays, and constant interactions with each other. Unfortunately, on 10 August, the oldest and most independent falcon, Princess Leia, did not come in for her food. We had prepared ourselves for a day when a falcon would not return to the site, as it is fine for a bird not to return for a day or two as they begin to explore the area more and more. Unfortunately, we did not see Leia again for the remainder of the release. She was a little too young for dispersal when she disappeared. Since she no longer had a transmitter at this time, the fate of our bold role model is unknown.

Other raptors were in abundance at the hack site—Swallow-tailed and Plumbeous Kites would gracefully soar by, intriguing the young falcons by their aerial display. Three species of vultures would entice the falcons into a chase, while occasional observations of Black, Ornate, and Black-and-white Hawk-eagles would remind us that the area these falcons choose to live in is truly a natural gem, and its protection is crucial.

The two younger falcons, Darth and Jabba, gracefully soared over the skies above the Hidden Valley throughout August and September, and by the beginning of October, they were ready for their turn at independence. They initially started returning to the hack site less frequently for food. They began to cache their food in hiding places and go back to it at another time. These behaviours indicate the beginning of independence for these young birds, and it was a great transition for all of us to see. Only a few weeks after these clues to independence began, the two falcons stopped coming to the hack site for their food, and dispersed into the Mountain Pine Ridge.
Even though this release season was not without its challenges, the innate survival of this species pulled through. We can only hope that these young falcons continue to develop the skills they need in hunting and hope that we may one day see them reproducing and thriving in the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve of Belize.

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