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This Year's Release Season Comes to an End
Marta Curti — in Orange-breasted Falcon Project    Share

Adult male Orange-breasted Falcon

This is the last time I will stand on this spot in the Mountain Pine Ridge, Belize watching these particular Orange-breasted Falcons chase and dive after each other across a grayish sky. It is the last time I will watch these five birds land deftly in the pine trees that surround the hack site, or hear them utter their loud, rapid fire calls - cack, cack, cack - as a vulture lazily glides over the hack site, unwittingly entering into a “no fly zone” – at least in the eyes of the falcons who will be off in an instant, diving and stooping at this “intruder” until it clears an acceptable distance understood only by those blessed with wings.

As I pack up the vehicle with this year’s equipment (spotting scopes and tripods, lawn chairs, notebooks, and lots of insect repellent) to be stored until next season, I think about how far these birds have come since their first day of release – going from awkward fliers to feathered rockets - and how great the releases went, overall. But, as is to be expected, there were some difficulties along the way. Only a few days after the young falcons had their first taste of real freedom, a wild adult pair of Orange-breasted Falcons showed up, racing after the young falcons, chasing them away from the safety of the release site. And if anyone can attest to the persistence of OBFs in “attack mode” it is my co-worker Angel Muela. This year, he rappelled down to a wild nest to band the two young chicks. The entire time he was there, hanging from a rope, the adult female, like any good mother would, continually swooped in, occassionally skimming his head, back and legs, making slight tears in his shirt and pants in the process. After about an hour of this, Angel managed to band the young falcons and climb back up to the top of the cliff. Months later, we returned to the nest site and saw the two young chicks. They were healthy and doing great. The same could not be said for Angel’s wardrobe!

So when the adults began chasing after the released falcons we were a bit concerned. Not so much that the adults would physically hurt our birds, but that they would chase them so far off that they would become lost. In fact one of the young birds, B1, spent three days without eating (a long time for a falcon – another day or two and he was at great risk of starving to death) because he could not return to the hack box for food. Each time he tried, the adults came in and chased him off. At one point, things became even more stressful when we thought that B1 had flown to the ground and might be too weak to make it back up to a safe spot. We spent about three hours looking for him, trekking through tiger fern - a tangled mess of stems, roots and branches that grows about chest high – before Camille spotted him perched safely in a tree.

Released Falcon with wild prey

Needless to say, B1 eventually made it to the box to feed (with some help from Yeray who ended up lowering the falcon down to the box after getting him to perch on a long pole topped with a nice piece of meat) and the rest of the season went pretty smoothly. In fact this year, for the first time, we were able to document the released falcons catching avian prey including Barn and Cliff Swallows and even a Red-legged Honeycreeper. This is also the first year that all of the released falcons survived to dispersal - a huge accomplishment for a small falcon in a world full of large predators.

Iam back in the U.S. now. As I write this, looking back on the field season, I recall what an incredible year Angel, Yeray and I have had! We conducted helicopter surveys, forged rivers, and saw some amazing wildlife – including a puma. But most importantly, we helped to increase our understanding of this rare falcon. And, as always, I am awed and humbled by my co-workers' dedication and passion and how their conservation efforts help make this world a little bit better for all of us and a little bit safer for raptors!

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