Emergency Search for a Harpy Eagle and Orange-breasted Falcon Update
Marta Curti— 20 August 2010 — in Orange-breasted Falcon Project Share
Almost since its inception, The Peregrine Fund has enlisted the help of volunteers to assist in a wide variety of projects. Today, we continue to rely on the passion and commitment our volunteers possess. Through the Harpy Eagle and Orange-breasted Falcon Conservation projects alone, we have trained almost 90 volunteers from 16 different countries. Volunteers spend anywhere from 3 months to several years tracking eagles through the forest, gathering nesting data on wild falcons, or observing and caring for young birds after their release.
This year, we had two volunteers, Carlos Cruz and Camille Meyers, working as hack site attendants on the Orange-breasted Falcon release project taking place in Belize. Since the field season is winding down, Carlos has now returned to his home in Mexico, but Camille has stayed on to monitor the released falcons for the last few weeks before they disperse.
What follows is a narrative written by Camille telling about when both she and Carlos were lucky enough to see both a Harpy Eagle and Orange-breasted Falcons in the wild on the same day! I hope you enjoy her story.
Emergency Search for a Harpy Eagle and Orange-breasted Falcon Update
by Camille Meyers
Orange-breasted Falcon Project Field Biologist, Marta Curti, fellow volunteer Carlos Cruz González, and I planned to check two known wild Orange-breasted Falcon (OBF) nests for an update on the status of this year’s fledglings. Meanwhile, OBF project field biologist, Yeray Seminario, would fulfill our main task of caring for and observing five young Orange-breasted Falcons being soft released into the Mountain Pine Ridge area of Belize. Plans changed when we received news from Angel Muela at The Peregrine Fund’s Neotropical headquarters in Panama. GPS coordinates from one of the Fund's wild released Harpy Eagles were picked up in the middle of Belizean Mennonite farmland. It was an emergency call. The people of this community are sometimes known to shoot wildlife and the eagle’s signal had not moved in several days.
We decided to hold off on the wild OBFs and search for the Harpy Eagle. Worst case scenario we would find a dead bird, best he would be far away from people in a large swath of forest. As Marta, Carlos and I approached the site of his last transmitted coordinates, I held the radio telemetry receiver out the truck window listening for the tell-tale blips from the eagle’s transmitter, which would indicate that it was nearby. Whenever we reached a high point in the terrain Marta got out, took the telemetry, placed it to her ear, and slowly rotated, searching for the signal in all directions. During one of these stops, a young man in a black truck pulled over next to us and asked if we were with the petroleum companies, because he was the representative of the petroleum companies in this area (Spanish Lookout). Marta explained that no, we were not with the petroleum companies, but instead looking for birds. He seemed friendlier after that and wished us luck before driving away.
Following the GPS point Angel had provided with the eagle´s last known coordinates, we soon arrived in the area. After parking in a Mennonite family's driveway we heard the signal. A faint, but clear blip blip. The lady of the house came out to greet us. Marta explained to her our mission and she was very accommodating saying that her family really liked wildlife, especially birds. She pointed us to a trail through their small patch of jungle to begin our search. After going over and under two electric fences and passing through a cow pasture, we took turns holding apart a barb wire fence so we could squeeze through one at a time.
Following the blips we entered the jungle. Immediately, mosquitoes descended in droves. Not too far along the path a group of monkeys started hollering. We did not see them, but heard them clear enough. We kept walking, but soon the signal grew fainter. We had passed the Harpy Eagle. Retracing our steps we ended up near the monkeys again and plunged into the uncut forest with their calling at our backs. Several meters in Carlos and Marta caught a flash of our query, the Harpy Eagle, as it leapt from a branch above us and flew further into the woods. Success! We found it! Still alive and breathing! But we wanted a closer look.
The eagle may have actually been hunting the monkeys when we came by and startled it. Harpy Eagles hunt canopy climbers such as monkeys, iguanas, raccoons, and coati. As the largest bird of prey in the Americas, the Harpy Eagle does not usually soar, but instead sticks to the treetops. Rarely will they eat on the ground since doing so exposes them to predators such as jaguars. Other than big cats, humans are the only other thing that could conceivably harm a Harpy Eagle whether through deforestation or direct shooting.
We descended further into the jungle. Neon orange centipedes crawled along the rotting leaves of the forest floor. Mannequin birds called around us. Cicadas buzzed. We ducked under and sidestepped trees covered in black thorns like a hedgehog rolled in sewing needles. We followed the signal, growing stronger now. Blip...BLIP! We looked up. Our Harpy Eagle gazed down at us from his perch, looked around, preened a little. Quietly holding binoculars and cameras, the mosquitoes took advantage of our stillness. In the middle of the forest Marta phoned Angel to give him the news. Harpy Eagle found safe and sound.
We spent some time observing the bird then retraced our steps past the thorns, monkeys, barbwire, and electric fence. Our clothes were literally drenched with sweat from hiking in the 30o C humidity. As we neared the farmstead the lady of the house emerged with her five blond children, their kittens, dog, and a plate of freshly peeled mangoes. I have never tasted a better mango. We ate them "monkey style" holding the mango in our hands and devouring the sweet fruit while yellow juices threatened to overflow our mouths.
As we savored our hostess' generosity we informed her of our success. She seemed very pleased. She said that during church someone had mentioned seeing a Harpy Eagle in the area and told everyone not to shoot it. Through the Peregrine Fund and the Belize Zoo’s combined efforts, the community education and outreach on Harpy Eagles seems to be working. We thanked our hostess again, and told her to call the Belize Zoo if anything came up. We drove to every farmstead surrounding the Harpy Eagle's patch of forest to tell anyone we could find about the bird, how it is harmless to humans and should not be shot. After about seven or eight houses we left Spanish Lookout.
The Harpy Eagle adventure filled the morning, but left us with the afternoon to spare. So, after refueling with some Chinese food we journeyed to our next destination: an orange orchard. We came not for the fruit, but for a different type of orange – Orange-breasted Falcons.
A wild OBF pair nested in the nearby cliff face and our job was to check the progress of their fledglings. Barely
half an hour after our arrival, Marta spotted three falcons silhouetted in the sky. Two of the falcons chased and played with soaring turkey vultures. Were they the two juveniles? Had they survived? Sure enough, we identified a young falcon eating a bird its parent passed to him on the wing. The other suspected fledgling flew by loudly food begging and flashed his orange juvenile undersides. Another success! Although the day started out tense, we found a healthy Harpy Eagle, saw positive results from our education programs, and witnessed the encouraging progress of Orange-breasted Falcons in the wild.
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