The Peregrine Fund Home
Sign In
The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
Searching for the Orange-breasted Falcon in Southern Guatemala
Marta Curti — in Orange-breasted Falcon Project    Share

Despite the noise-cancelling head phones, the thump-thump-thump of the helicopter blades sounded in my ears. From the empty space where the door should have been (it was removed to give us better visibility) a blast of cool air rushed past my face as I peered down into the thick green tangle of trees just below us. Their ragged branches and verdant leaves were so close I expected them to scrape the bottom of the helicopter at any moment. Suddenly, to our left, we saw a large white cliff jutting out from the forest floor. We banked toward it, and then approached slowly. When we were directly in front of it, the pilot slowed the helicopter even further so that we were literally hovering what seemed like just a few feet from the actual cliff face, as my co-worker Angel Muela and I scanned the area. After only a few minutes, Angel pointed to a dark shape flying swiftly above the canopy – its pointed wings beating the air furiously. It was a falcon for sure, but we weren’t sure yet if it was the species we were looking for. Our mission that day was to find Orange-breasted Falcons - a rare raptor that The Peregrine Fund has been studying since the 1980s.

Based on surveys The Peregrine Fund biologists have done over the decades, both by land and by air, it appears that the Orange-breasted Falcon’s (OBF) distribution within Central America is mainly limited to a small area in central Belize and the Peten region of Guatemala. Despite the availability of seemingly good habitat in other countries such as Honduras and Nicaragua, we have not located even a single pair of OBFs outside of the two above-mentioned countries, save for four nests found in western Panama close to the border of Colombia.

Orange-breasted falcon

Adult Orange-breasted Falcon

However, our discovery of a pair of OBFs in the southern-most tip of Belize in 2008, raised our hopes - perhaps these falcons could be once again repopulating areas from which they had been absent in the recent past. To find out, we began conducting more frequent helicopter surveys in areas with suitable habitat. This year, Angel Muela and another co-worker, Yeray Seminario spent about a week searching the remote forests of Honduras by air but, unfortunately, they came up empty handed.

We were hoping to have better luck last week as we surveyed some cliffs in southern Guatemala – another promising area with large limestone cliffs and even larger tracts of mostly intact forest. So when we spotted the falcon flying above the cliff, our hearts began to race. We watched it intently as it sped between the trees and looped around behind us, flying quickly out of sight. We made a wide arc over the forest and circled back to the cliff to get another look. Luckily, the falcon was still there. It flew past us one more time and then landed on a large snag above the cliff. Asking the pilot to hover the aircraft so we could get a better look at the falcon, we raised our binoculars. Instantly, we knew that this bird was a Bat Falcon, a very similar but much smaller and much more common falcon than the OBF. Our hearts sank. But we still had miles of cliff to cover and it was too soon to give up hope yet.

Thanks to a generous donation by the Global Heritage Fund,Angel and I were able to fly for over 5 hours in our search for this little known raptor. But despite surveying several more cliffs, and seeing a variety of other raptor species, including Barn Owls who roost and nest in these cliffs, we didn’t find any new Orange-breasted Falcon pairs that day. Though it might seem strange to write about what we didn’t find, the truth is, more often than not, this is a common occurrence in the life of a field biologist. And when you are studying a species to learn about its distributional range, sometimes not finding anything can be just as telling.

In some good news, Angel and Yeray were able to do another helicopter survey in a remote, inaccessible region of Belize and on that trip they located five new pairs of OBFs – a significant number for a rare species such as this. Which begs the question: why is the Orange-breasted Falcon absent from so many other areas that seem to contain very suitable habitat? This is a mystery that we hope to one day solve.

Find more articles about Orange-breasted Falcon, Neotropics

Most Recent Entries Atom feedshow-hide

Our Authorsshow-hide

Our Conservation Projectsshow-hide

Species we work withshow-hide

Where we workshow-hide

Unknown column 'Hits' in 'field list'
Support our work - Donate