Solitary Eagle’s Nest Discovered in Belize:Part 1

August 13, 2012 by  
Filed under Features

On the 30th of June, 2011, a startling discovery was made: the bulky, stick nest of a Solitary Eagle (Buteogallus solitarius) was found in picturesque, mountainous terrain of the Mountain Pine Ridge, Cayo District, Belize. The nest was sighted after a 52-year lapse in any documented breeding records on the species and is only the third nest ever located in the world. At the time of this writing, it is the only nest known to exist of this rare species in its entire range from Mexico to South America. The nest was situated in a pine tree on a steep hillside, overlooking valleys of thick, broadleafed vegetation. A single, nearly fledged eaglet, dark brown above with golden colored eyebrows, cheeks and throat was in the nest at the time of discovery. An adult Solitary Eagle, presumably the female, stood guard at the edge of the nest while its mate was hunting. The eaglet often stayed low in the nest, in the shadow of the adult, protected from direct sunlight.

For decades, birdwatchers, tourists and wildlife enthusiasts noted the presence of Solitary Eagles in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, and the species was undoubtedly breeding there, but no definitive nests were ever located. The 1995 A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America by Howell & Webb noted that many reports of Solitary Eagles had come from Belize, but that none had confirmed it as a breeding species. Jack Clinton-Eitniear, Director of The Center for the Study of Tropical Birds, documented in a 1991 bulletin that Solitary Eagles had been observed in the Mountain Pine Ridge as far back as 1969. One of the references Clinton-Eitniear listed to validate the existence of this rare species in the Guatemala – Belize region was the 1989 Maya Project: Progress Report 2, produced by the late Bill Burnham, Pete Jenny and C. Turley of The World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. Tikal National Park, Guatemala–where the observations were made–is no more than a “stone’s throw away” from the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve in Belize.

The elusive nest was discovered after a month-long, collaborative effort among six staff members employed by The Peregrine Fund. Five individuals: Stacia Novy, Camille Meyers, Jon Urbina, Audrey Martin and Matt Allshouse were hired to monitor and coordinate an Orange-breasted Falcon (Falco deiroleucus) release site in the summer of 2011. Dr. Scott Newbold was the acting field supervisor to the five attendants while on location. The sixth person, Roni Martinez of Belize, was paid by The Peregrine Fund as an intermittent consult to the project. A breeding pair of Solitary Eagles was regularly observed in the vicinity of the Orange-breasted Falcon release site and the five hack site attendants kept detailed observations on the eagles whenever one was sighted. Data collected included flight patterns, direction of movement, prey items, vocalizations and interactions with other raptorial birds. All sightings were reported to Roni, as he was a local ecotourism guide and familiar with the geography of the area. Although Roni was a Peregrine Fund employee, he worked fulltime at another locality and, consequently, was not present on the days the eagles were sighted at the hack site in June 2011. Stacia, the lead coordinator of the search, emailed sightings and data to keep him informed of any new developments.

As a licensed falconer and biologist, the author knew that breeding birds-of-prey will fly directly to the nest to feed eyasses while carrying prey items. She instructed her coworkers to closely follow the Solitary Eagle with optics anytime the eagle was spotted carrying prey. Unlike members of the genus Accipiter that utilize powered, flapping flight to navigate across the landscape, the Solitary Eagle is a large soaring bird, much like a Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus). Observations suggest it is a static soarer, using both convection currents (thermals) and obstruction currents (created by slopes and ridges) for movement. Knowing these subtle differences in raptor flight patterns and movement strategies proved critical in determining the location of the nest site. So, too, were traditional tracking skills possessed by the author. Stacia flew trained falconry birds for the first dozen years of her falconry career without radio telemetry. The knowledge she refined in tracking wild birds by sight alone, without the aid of modern technology, proved crucial to the nest discovery. The author relied on additional environmental cues, such as wind direction, mobbing behavior of other birds, alarm calls and raptor behavior to narrow down the nesting area.

Continued in Part 2

Article contributed by Stacia A. Novy

Photo: Solitary Eagle Nest

Caption: A female Solitary Eagle stands guard over the nest with a single
chick in the Mountain Pine Ridge, Belize

Solitary Eagle’s Nest Discovered in Belize:Part 2

August 13, 2012 by  
Filed under Features

To travel horizontally, a static soaring bird must descend and subsequently ascend using convective currents as an elevator, often in a slow cyclic pattern. The bird will enter a rising column of air at the bottom, ascend to the upper limits of the thermal, and then set its wings in a shallow, descending glide slope to move a linear distance. When the bird exhausts the momentum of its descent or nears the ground, it must intersect the bottom of another thermal to gain height and repeat the process. A bird that travels in this manner may have to work many thermals in succession in order to travel great distances across the landscape. Thus, soaring birds are keenly aware of the location, timing and prospect of air currents in their home territories; they will often use the same geological features or localities known to produce such currents and exploit them as “aerial highways”.

Two primary air currents used by the male Solitary Eagle–one an updraft and the other a downdraft–straddled the Orange-breasted Falcon hack site on opposite sides. The hack site was positioned on a peninsular, highland ridge, directly overlooking an unnamed river at the height of 2,000+ vertical feet, not far from Thousand Foot Falls, a popular tourist attraction. The eagle would ascend from the north, often carrying prey, soar directly over the hack site, and then descend the opposite side to the south in order to intersect another thermal further down the river valley. This initial descent, so near to the observation blind, gave one the impression that the eagle was “landing” in the forest directly below the hack site. Such a conclusion would be a mistake and is precisely the reason this particular Solitary Eagle’s nest went undiscovered for nearly a decade. Previous raptor biologists had erroneously searched for the nest in the forested slopes of this southern drop zone.

Only a person who could correctly interpret the eagle’s flight patterns would be able to ascertain a final descending glide into a nest. When a soaring bird is truly landing, it will stiffly set its wings, rotate the feet forward, angle the head and body toward the intended perch and glide in a fast, direct fashion. It will not ascend lazily into the air again. Once the general landing area of the food-carrying male eagle was defined, it was a simple matter of setting up surveillance points along its route of travel to pinpoint the nest location. The Peregrine Fund attendants manned three observation points that intercepted the eagle’s trajectory for four days before locating the actual nest tree.

The male Solitary Eagle was first seen at the hack site on 7 June 2011, the day the attendants arrived to prepare the hack tower for the Orange-breasted Falcon release. Regular sightings occurred at the hack site every two- three days thereafter between 1000 and 1500 hours, when wind and thermal activity was at its peak. After two weeks of continuous observation, surveillance points were marked along the eagle’s known flight path by 27 June 2011, and sightings began to occur daily, as the attendants drew closer and closer to the nest. Roni Martinez was invited by the author at that time to assist in the search–after the general nest location and flight path were known–to help the hack site attendants monitor surveillance points with an “extra set of eyes”. As a native conservation officer, Roni was also needed to negotiate passage through a military weapons training area adjacent to the suspected nest site, as it was decidedly foolish for American foreigners to be caught trespassing across this dangerous, and possibly restricted, zone without permission.

Continued in Part 3

Article contributed by Stacia A. Novy

Photo: The Peregrine Fund Crew

Caption: The “Solitary Eagle Search Team” employed by The Peregrine Fund,
Boise, Idaho

Solitary Eagle’s Nest Discovered in Belize:Part 3

August 13, 2012 by  
Filed under Features

On the morning of discovery, Stacia, Matt, Audrey and Roni hiked across the military exercise area, northwest of Baldy Beacon, to access a new observation point that was closest to the predicted nest location. Roni brought along a spotting scope, while Stacia draped a trusted, high-powered 10 X 50 Swarovski binocular about her neck. The Peregrine Fund owned a Zeiss spotting scope, but theirs was needed for observations back at the Orange-breasted Falcon release site, which Camille and Jon were scheduled to manage that day. Therefore, Roni had to bring his own scope for use in the field, as the attendants’ scope was not available. The three hack site attendants indicated the hillside of greatest interest to Roni: a thickly forested slope that had shown the greatest amount of eagle activity while under observation and, thus, most likely to contain the nest. Roni scanned the slope with the spotting scope and just happened to see the male Solitary Eagle swoop in carrying a yellow snake at that precise moment. Roni later exclaimed that he “never would have seen the eagle against the dark backdrop of trees if the snake hadn’t been so brightly colored”.

However, the scope had so narrow an angle of view that the position of any tree on such a distant hillside could not be determined. All Roni could see was the tree, and the tree was so far away that it could not be seen with the naked eye. Roni wrung his hands and nervously paced back and forth in the field, shouting, “Don’t touch the scope! Nobody touch the scope!” Even the slightest tilt of the lens would have offset the view and the marked tree would have been lost in a fuzzy sea of green. So, the author performed an old falconry trick: she calmly placed her wide-angled binocular on top of the telescope lens barrel to view the nest tree with all the distinctive landmarks around it. With those features in mind, the author was able to lead Matt and Roni through the rough, forested terrain until they got close enough to see the actual nest.

This same method works with trained falconry birds as they will tighten their body conformation and fixate their eyes on quarry before launching an attack, most likely to triangulate a position. Before the hunting hawk flies off the fist, the falconer can place a binocular on the bird’s head to see what it is looking at. Since birds-of-prey possess binocular vision–as do humans and manufactured optics–the technique works. It is commonly used throughout the falconry community both in North America and abroad. Audrey remained behind at the final observation point, but watched the three others progress to the nest tree through the spotting scope. When the nest was finally found, the good news was radioed back to Jon and Camille, as they were a part of the original “Peregrine Fund Solitary Eagle Search Team”, but could not participate on the day of discovery.

As The Peregrine Fund/World Center for Birds of Prey was the first organization to document the presence of Solitary Eagles in the region so long ago, it seems a fitting conclusion that subsequent employees of that same organization confirmed the first breeding record for the country of Belize 22 years later. Following on the heels of this phenomenal find, the South American and North American classification committees of the American Ornithologists’ Union recently agreed to subsume the Solitary Eagle’s old genus Harpyhaliaetus, into the genus Buteogallus. Recent DNA studies have confirmed that the Solitary Eagle is so closely related to the Common Black Hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus) and Great Black Hawk (Buteogallus urubitinga) that reclassification is warranted.

Editor’s Note: This is not the first time the author has located a rare raptor. In 1996, while working for The Peregrine Fund on an Aplomado Falcon repatriation project in Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Texas, she discovered a Collared Forest-Falcon (Micrastur semitorquatus). It was the first record of that tropical species for Laguna Atascosa NWR and was documented in their archives.

Article contributed by Stacia A. Novy

Photo Title: Peregrine Fund Vehicle
Caption: “The author returns after a successful day of searching for the
Solitary Eagle’s nest”

Birding Along the Great Rift Valley Flyway in Israel

July 31, 2012 by  
Filed under Features

Located at the point where three continents meet, Israel has reported sightings of more than 500 species of birds, many of which stop-over during their migration between Europe/Western Asia to Africa along the Great Rift Valley flyway. So, a recent announcement by the Israeli government that it will be investing NIS 37 million (US$10 million) in developing a network of centers along the migration route is welcome news for birding enthusiasts. Three existing bird watching centers are to be upgraded – Kfar Rupin, Eilat and Ma’agan – with four new centers planned for Ein Gedi, Hatzeva, Lotan and Sde Boker, as per the proposal put together by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and Tel Aviv University. The project, which will include a web-accessible computerized bird monitoring database, aims to attract up to 100,000 bird watchers to the region annually, while raising environmental awareness and promoting education and research.

An estimated 500 million birds stop-over in Israel during their autumn and spring migrations, between mid-March and mid-May and November to December. The area of Galilee, with its kibbutz farms and fishponds located on the banks of the Jordan River, hosts migratory birds that take a rest period of several days before completing the last stretch of their trip which spans three continents and covers thousands of kilometers. During this time bird watchers can expect to see vast flocks of pelicans, storks (up to 85 percent of the world’s stork population) and other birds setting up temporary rest-stops.

The Hula Valley Nature Reserve is one of the country’s most famous birding sites and well worth visiting if you plan to go birding in Israel. The reserve, which is listed by BBC Wildlife magazine as one of the world’s most important wildlife observation sites, has an interesting history. In the 1950s most of the lake was drained to make way for farming, with devastating results on the ecosystem and endemic plant and animal life. In 1994, in an effort to restore the balance, part of the lake was re-flooded and soon attracted birds again. Today the reserve is home to tens of thousands of aquatic birds representing more than 200 species and welcomes birders with an informative visitors’ center and a floating bridge with blinds from which birds can be viewed. Hula Nature Reserve stands as testimony to nature’s ability to recover when given the opportunity to do so.

Montecasino Bird Gardens in South Africa

July 17, 2012 by  
Filed under Features

Situated in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Johannesburg, South Africa, Montecasino Bird Gardens is home to more than sixty species of birds, along with a variety of small mammals, amphibians and reptiles from around the world. With pathways winding through lush gardens and a huge walk-through aviary, visitors can enjoy a tropical paradise and get back to nature without leaving the city.

One of the highlights of a visit to this award winning attraction is the Flight of Fantasy show which take place weekdays at 11h00 and 15h00, with an extra show at 13h00 on weekends and public holidays. Staged at the beautifully crafted Tuscan amphitheater, trainers guide talented and colorful birds through a forty minute performance that is both educational and entertaining, with (quite literally) the biggest star of the show being Oliver, the Southern White Pelican.

Features of Montecasino Bird Gardens include the largest collection of South African Cycads in the world, with 37 different species and over 750 plants, the oldest of which is estimated to be older than 2,500 years. The Lorikeet aviary offers visitors the opportunity to feed these colorful birds their favorite treat of nectar, while Macaws and Cockatoos roam freely in the park’s Parrot Gallery. In addition to a variety of frogs, the Frog Room features scorpions and spiders. Reptiles at Montecasino include a six-meter Reticulated Python as well as all of Southern Africa’s most venomous snakes, including the Black Mamba and Puff Adder. Resident mammals include Lemurs, Meerkats, Sloths and Blue Duikers.

Among the latest arrivals at Montecasino Bird Gardens are Laughing Kookaburras and Blue-Wing Kookaburras, Caribbean Flamingoes, Green-Naped Pheasant Pigeons and Keel-Billed Toucans. One of Montecasino’s ambassadors for conservation is Moholoholo the Cape Vulture. Named for the rehabilitation center in Hoedspruit which nursed him back to health after being poisoned by farmers who were attempting to eradicate predatory jackals. Moholoholo was the only survivor of his eighteen member family. Through the dedication of the staff at Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center, the bird was taught to walk and fly again and now helps to educate the public on the necessity of conservation.

Enjoy a Day at Birdworld in Surrey

June 5, 2012 by  
Filed under Features

Located on 26 acres in Surrey’s Alice Holt Forest, Birdworld offers the perfect setting for a family outing. As one of the largest bird parks in England, Birdworld is home to an extensive collection of bird species, housed in conditions which keep the birds happy while allowing visitors to view them up close. In addition to viewing the birds, which include everything from the tiniest Sunbird to the impressive Maribou stork, the park offers a daily program of events and activities that will keep the family busy all day.

Birdworld includes the Jenny Wren Farm with a wide range of domestic animals such as goats, pigs, ponies, chickens and a cow which visitors can pet. The pet shop at the farm has rabbits, guinea pigs, mice, ferrets, chipmunks, finches, rats and poultry. If the kids manage to persuade mom and dad that they really will look after one of these cute little creatures, the pet shop has all the housing, bedding and other paraphernalia needed to take the new member of the family home. Bird lovers will find that finches make good pets, but need to keep in mind that while they are not demanding on their owner’s time, they do need a mate, so be prepared to get two.

Daily events at Birdworld include feeding the Humboldt Penguins twice a day (11am and 3:30 pm). The keepers doing the feeding will offer interesting facts on these comical birds as they dive into the glass-sided pool for their food. Depending on weather conditions, each day between Easter and the end of October, the park has an outdoor flying display featuring a range of birds, including owls, kookaburras and parrots. The indoor Heron Theater Show stars a range of birds displaying their natural behavior while the presenter details a number of fascinating facts about these indigenous birds. Visitors can join the keepers as they feed the Owls and Bird of Prey, all the while sharing interesting facts about the birds and answering questions. The Safari Road Train takes visitors to see some of Birdworld’s larger inhabitants, including Emus, Cranes, Storks and Ostriches. Be sure to ask about the conservation projects Birdworld is involved in.

With so much to do at Birdworld, plan to spend the day at the park. You may want to try and include some of the special events, such as Art in the Park, Teddy Bear’s Picnic, or Mini Beast Safari Day, so be sure to check in with Birdworld on what’s happening when you make your plans to visit.

Feathers, Fashion and Conservation

May 8, 2012 by  
Filed under Features

Chosen in 1953 as the symbol of the National Audubon Society in the United States, the Great Egret (Ardea Alba) represents an inspiring conservation success story. Had it not been for the dedicated efforts of bird-lovers, this majestic bird would have been hunted to extinction – all in the name of fashion. In the 19th century, the snowy white plumage of the Great Egret made the bird a target for hunters who were supplying the fashion industry in North America. Records indicate that their populations plummeted by up to 95 percent before action was taken to prevent their extinction. Today, they are protected by legislation in the United States and are among the birds listed under the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA). The Great Egret’s conservation status is now listed as ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN Red List.

This elegant long-legged, startlingly white bird with its S-shaped neck is found throughout North and South America, as well as in many other parts of the world. They are typically found near both fresh and salt water as they feed in wetlands, tidal flats, streams and ponds. They stand still for long periods of time waiting for their prey to come to them, whereupon they snap it up and swallow it whole. Although they primarily feed on fish, they will also eat amphibians, mice and reptiles. These monogamous birds nest in trees near water, where both parents take responsibility for incubating and raising their young.

Feathers have long been used by humans as a fashion statement, features of traditional dress or in tribal customs. While examining the remains of a Neanderthal dwelling in the Fumane Cave in the region of Verona, Northern Italy, paleontologists discovered more than 600 bones of birds dating back some 44,000 years, neatly laid out in layers. Thorough examination of the bones revealed that they belonged to twenty-two species of birds, with clear evidence that the feathers had been cut off in a manner that would preserve them intact. While it may be easy to conclude that they had killed the birds as a food source, research reveals that the birds from which the remiges (flight feathers) had been cut, were poor food sources, and considering that feathered arrows had not yet been invented, it was concluded that the feathers had been used for decorative purposes. It’s a sobering thought that when killing or maiming birds simply for the purpose of using their feathers, humans today are displaying behavior in keeping with our Neanderthal ancestors.

Bird-lovers who want to make a positive contribution to the conservation of our feathered friends should contact their local Audubon Society.

Avian Edutainment at Weltvogelpark Walsrode

April 10, 2012 by  
Filed under Features

Covering more than 24 hectares, with more than four thousand birds representing 675 species from all around the world, Weltvogelpark Walsrode is a birding enthusiast’s paradise. Promoted as the largest bird park in the world, both in land area and number of species, Weltvogelpark is located near the town of Walsrode in Lower Saxony, Germany. The park is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2012 with a host of events and special displays, one of which is more than three million spring flowers – a picturesque palette of vibrant color.

With special emphasis on conservation, Weltvogelpark offers an outing that is both entertaining and educational. The walk-in free-flight aviaries allow visitors to observe the birds in their natural habitat, while flight demonstrations demonstrate the amazing skills of birds, and feeding times provide insight into the needs of various species, including pelicans, penguins, vultures and flamingoes. The park offers special events and classes for school groups, while ensuring that visitors of all ages and levels of mobility have access to the features of the park. Experienced rangers are on hand for guided tours, and boards detailing interesting facts about the Weltvogelpark’s feathered residents are placed throughout the spacious reserve.

The park is also involved in research and conservation projects, and has had a measure of success in breeding some endangered species, including the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), and Shoebill stork (Balaeniceps rex). While breeding is generally allowed to take its natural course at Weltvogelpark, sometimes it is necessary to intervene, particularly with rare and endangered species. In these cases the eggs are artificially incubated and the birds are hand-raised, ensuring that they bond with their own species as soon as possible to avoid being imprinted by humans. In 2011 more than 600 young birds hatched out – clearly they are happy in their environment.

In addition to the outstanding facilities for the park’s birds, Weltvogelpark Walsrode boasts one of the largest botanical gardens to be found in Northern Germany. More than 70 species of roses and 120 different species of rhododendron are features of the botanical gardens, with hundreds of different trees, flowers and shrubs, both indigenous and exotic, providing color throughout the year.

Rescue and Rehabilitation at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary

February 28, 2012 by  
Filed under Features

Established in 1971 by zoologist Ralph Heath, the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary is the largest hospital and rehabilitation reserve for wild birds in the United States, and is considered to be one of the world’s top avian rehabilitation centers. Located on the Gulf Coast of Florida, and run as a nonprofit organization, the sanctuary takes in and treats up to 10,000 birds each year, relying on the generosity and compassion of the public to continue providing this essential service.

Up to ninety percent of the birds brought to the sanctuary have been incapacitated in some way as a direct, or indirect, result of human activities. Of the birds that survive the critical first 24-hours following their rescue, up to eighty percent are successfully reintroduced to the wild. However, some are unable to return to the wild, and these remain at the sanctuary where visitors can view them and find out more about how and why they landed up at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary. There are a wide range of bird species that are permanent residents at the sanctuary and if they breed successfully, their offspring are released into the wild.

Birds brought to the sanctuary will immediately undergo a thorough examination, diagnosis and medical treatment, with a feeding chart and medical record kept for each bird. Birds are then placed in an indoor recovery room and closely observed until deemed fit enough to move to the outdoor rehabilitation aviary with others of their species. Thereafter, the rescued birds will either be released into the wild, or remain as permanent residents at the sanctuary or another suitable rehabilitation center or zoo.

In addition to viewing the birds housed at the sanctuary, visitors can find out what they can do to promote conservation, and what to do if they find an injured or baby bird. With man continually encroaching on the territory of wild birds, this type of information is invaluable, and with more than 100,000 visitors each year, the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary continues to make a significant contribution to educating the public on bird conservation.

Macaw Mountain Bird Park – A Haven in Honduras

January 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Birding Tips, Features

Consisting of nine-acres of old growth forest, the Macaw Mountain Bird Park & Nature Reserve offers visitors the opportunity of viewing a wide variety of tropical birds in their natural environment. Located near the town of Copan Ruinas in Honduras, the large flight aviary is home to just about all the species of parrots and toucans to be found in this beautiful South American country, and many of its feathered inhabitants are so tame that visitors are able to interact with them at leisure.

While providing a haven for rescued, abandoned and endangered birds, the Macaw Mountain Bird Park is dedicated to educating the public about these beautiful animals and their vulnerability caused mainly the by destruction of their natural habitat. In a region known for its excellent birding opportunities, the Macaw Mountain Bird Park offers an unforgettable bird watching experience. Visitors to the park will enjoy strolling along the network of pathways which allow easy access to the entire area throughout the year. Interaction with the park’s birds allows visitors to appreciate their beauty and intelligence, while at the same time being made aware of the obstacles and dangers they face in the wild, which have brought many species to the brink of extinction.

Quite a number of the parrots and macaws found in the park were at one time household pets, but oftentimes people who buy these birds have no idea how long they live – parrots have a lifespan or 50 to 60 years and macaws can live for a century – or that because of their intelligence they require a lot of attention. So, when the birds become too much to handle at home, they are donated to sanctuaries such as the Macaw Mountain Bird Park & Nature Reserve. Birds to be seen in the park include the scarlet macaw, buffon’s macaw, green-winged macaw, yellow-lored Amazon, white-fronted parrot, red-lored parrot, mealy Amazon, yellow-crowned Amazon, white-crowned parrot, olive-throated conure, red-throated parakeet, keel-billed toucan, chestnut-mandibled toucan, grey hawk and great-horned owl.

The Copan region of Honduras is home to more than 330 species of birds representing 51 families, and has become a popular destination for keen birders from around the world. Although birds can be seen in the wild in the vicinity of the park, bird watchers should include Macaw Mountain Bird Park in their itinerary to experience up-close interaction with the birds of Honduras.

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