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Banding the Orange-breasted Falcon in Belize
Yeray Seminario — in Orange-breasted Falcon Project    Share

I still don’t understand how some of the places we visit once and again in Belize, are not more popular and better known to the average tourist. In this globalized, fast communicating, social network world, we receive on our backlit screens, the very same pictures taken from millions of different people - the same picture, the same landscape, the same feature time after time. It seems we tend to replicate that mental image, that stereotypic picture, that for some reason has captivated our collective imagination. Thousand Foot Falls or King Vulture Falls in Belize, could easily fit in this category of iconic images, as an example of real wilderness and pristine paradise.

A male Orange-breasted Falcon
A male Orange-breasted Falcon

Maybe coincidentally or maybe not, these are probably the two best spots in the world to see the Orange-breasted Falcon. Many birders come to the Mountain Pine Ridge in Belize just to see the falcons, but in doing so, they find themselves in some beautiful and unique scenery, which makes their sighting much more valuable than the simple act of adding another species to their life list.

Today, we are at King Vulture Falls to band the chicks of the Orange-breasted Falcon pair that nests nearby. Banding these falcons is going to give us important insight into the natural history of this species, as we’ll get to learn much more about dispersion of the juveniles, survival and population size.

My co-worker and friend, Angel Muela is the expert climber on our expedition. He is the one who has most of the responsibility in carrying out this task. Marta Curti and I will try to assist him in every way possible so he can get to the nest, band the chicks and get back to the top of the cliff safely. In addition to the usual precautions when rappelling down a cliff, we must be aware and ready for bees. Africanized bees have expanded all over the region in the last decades. They sometimes build their beehives on the same cliffs that the falcons use for nesting, which adds a considerable risk when descending to the falcons’ nest. These bees are extremely defensive of their beehive and will mercilessly attack anything that gets relatively close to it. Angel himself was attacked by these bees a few years ago, and he probably survived thanks to his climbing experience, quickly responding to the attack by rappelling close to the ground, cutting the rope, jumping a considerable distance to the ground and finally running to the river nearby. He was stung more than 100 times and needed medical attention.

With all this in mind, Marta and Angel set ropes and gear on the top of the cliff while I hiked to the top of the King Vulture Falls accompanied by Flavien Daguise, manager of the Hidden Valley Inn, which has been greatly supporting our work in Belize for almost a decade now. From my position across from the cliff, I can see the nest perfectly. Communicating by radio it is my job to tell them where the nest is so they can position the ropes correctly which will guide Angel as he descends. It takes a while until everything is ready.

Angel Muela descends to the nest
Angel Muela descends to the nest
“Voy a empezar a bajar” he says in Spanish, letting me know that he is starting to go down. I can see him with my binoculars, struggling with the branches around him so he doesn’t get entangled those first meters down. Then the cliff gets steeper but he can descend faster now.

As he approaches to the nest, there is a little bit of an overhang, so he has to pull himself in to the wall to take his first step on the ledge where the falcons are nesting. I can see he is uncomfortable, but he somehow manages to stand on the ledge. The adult female falcon is not happy. Not even a second passes before she is diving and stooping at Angel, trying to intimidate what she surely thinks is a predator going for her chicks. It’s a stressful time, both for us and for the falcons. We want to be done with it as fast as possible, so the falcons don’t suffer much, but at the same time Angel needs to take his time so everything is done properly and there are no mistakes in the process. He can barely sit on the ledge, exposing most of his right side to the female who is now constantly hitting him with her talons. On one occasion the female grabbed the bee mask that Angel has to wear on top of his head at all times in case of a bee attack, and almost took off with it. While trying to avoid being scratched by the female, Angel got a hold of the chicks, so they would be secure and wouldn’t fall from the ledge. While Angel banded the chicks he relayed the codes to me over the radio so I could write them down. We were almost done.

After setting the chicks back on the nest ledge, Angel made his way slowly back up the cliff. After he was a good distance away from the nest, the female left him in peace to climb the last few feet to the top. I pick up the scope and start to hike up the fall to join them at the top of cliff.

In the end, the banding of the chicks was uneventful. Surely proper planning and experience are key to success. Everything went well and we could celebrate that we had two more banded falcons that we hope have a long, prosperous life in the tropical forests of Belize.

Find more articles about Orange-breasted Falcon, Neotropics

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