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Inside the search for a rare bird in Honduras

The juvenile harpy eagle spotted deep in the Patuca National Park. Credit: Herbert Dohlen

Although much of LightHawk's conservation flying in Central America is scheduled well in advance, unexpected opportunities sometimes arise that warrant a change in the flights calendar. Here is one such story.

While hiking through the Honduran jungle on a break from his humanitarian work for Gespa e.V, something in the trees caught Herbert Dohlen’s attention. When he trained his camera on the canopy, he spotted something incredible. It was a juvenile harpy eagle perched high in the canopy.

This was big news in Honduras. Harpy eagles (Harpia harpyja) had been almost wiped out in most of Central America and a young eagle could mean there was a nesting pair living somewhere in the country. Were harpy eagles gaining a foothold in the remote jungles of Patuca National Park in eastern Honduras?

Inmediatamente se envió a un equipo a investigar y confirmar el avistamiento del juvenil de águila harpía en el Parque Nacional Patuca.  Foto: Asociación Patuca

 After seeing the photograph, Franklin Castañeda grabbed his hiking boots. Franklin, a lifelong conservationist and Country Director for Panthera’s Jaguar Program, set out on foot with Nelly Paz and David Medina, colleagues from Asociación Patuca, to search for the young eagle and confirm the sighting.

The team of researchers discovered an active nesting site, the first harpy eagle's nest ever detected in Honduras. This was a more significant finding than they had dared to imagine, and gave hope to harpy eagles thriving in the wild. It also put the spotlight on how Hondurans could choose to manage their public lands in the future.

One half of the breeding pair perches on a limb near the only known location in Honduras where a harpy eagle nest has been ever reported. This is thought to be one of only two harpy eagle nests documented in Mesoamerica. Credit: Javier Maradiaga/Comité Hondureño para la Conservación del Águila Haría (Committee for the Conservation of the Harpy Eagle)

Harpy eagles are the largest and most powerful bird of prey in the Americas. Their legs can be as thick as a child's wrist and their curved talons as large as grizzly bear claws. They were once found from Mexico to Argentina, however habitat destruction and hunting have reduced their numbers in Central America.

Panthera's Franklin Castañeda spoke about the nest discovery. “In November, we were able to see and photograph a pair of adult harpy eagles and their nest in the same location where the juvenile had been seen. We found bones and skulls from sloths and monkeys littered around the base of the nesting tree. And the eagles were seen carrying nesting material to improve their nest.” 

Franklin and his colleagues were particularly excited because of the rarity of this find. According to Franklin, “This is the only known location in Honduras where a harpy eagle nest has been ever reported, and probably one of the only two harpy eagle nests recently documented in Mesoamerica.”

Panthera camera traps in eastern Honduras have captured images of many animals including the margay (Leopardus wiedii) illustrating the area's diversity of wildlife. credit: www.inriodulce.comPanthera and Asociación Patuca had been working together to study jaguars in Patuca National Park. Their camera traps were capturing images of jaguars, cougars, ocelots, margays and tapirs. But they also saw that the area was under a lot of pressure.

Deforestation for cattle ranching was taking place throughout the Patuca National Park,” Franklin explains, “and harpy eagles require large territories of pristine habitat to thrive. We decided a flight over the area would be most instrumental to achieve a quick and efficient overview of the habitat quality.”

Volunteer pilot Chuck Heywood (left) and Franklin Castañeda (right) with project partners before the flight over the harpy eagle habitat. Credit: Franklin Castañeda/ Panthera/LightHawk

As luck would have it, LightHawk's Cessna 206 was already in Honduras for the week. Unfortunately, its time was booked. Because of the importance of the nest discovery, Mesoamerican program manager Armando Ubeda quickly arranged another flight to accommodate Panthera's request.

When Franklin arrived at the airport for the LightHawk flight, volunteer pilot Chuck Heywood (Ridgway, CO) was not optimistic. The forecast called for scattered showers over the Patuca National Park, and it was possible that clouds would obscure the area the researchers needed to monitor.

Approaching the harpy eagle territory. credit: Franklin Castañeda/ Panthera/LightHawk

 

It took almost two hours flying time to reach the area from the airport in Tegucigalpa. Franklin reported, “finally we saw the highest point of the Cordillera Entre Rios mountains rising in front of us, and a sunny clear sky around it. We knew our efforts were going to pay off. Sure enough, our GPS alerted us that we were nearing the harpy eagle territory, and I was able to recognize terrain elements I saw during our ground field trip."

Harpy eagles need about 150 square miles of rainforest with little human interaction to establish territories and survive. As an apex predator, they can be a key indicator of the health of the forest ecosystem. Where there are healthy numbers of harpy eagles, there are healthy numbers of other species and a well-functioning ecosystem.

Patches of bright green indicate forestland recently cleared for farming or cattle grazing. This activity is a serious threat to maintaining a breeding pair of harpy eagles. credit: Franklin Castañeda/ Panthera/LightHawk

 “Flying the 200 sq. kilometers (77 sq. miles) around the nest area, at a considerable elevation so as not to disturb wildlife, gave us a rapid and efficient understanding of the potential threats to the harpy eagle habitat in this particular locality,” said Franklin.

“As we suspected recent clear cuts and pasture lands were observed. We knew human alterations were closing in on the nest area from the south, but now the flight has also turned our attention to a village located north from the nest area. If we are to save this nest, we need to reach out to these people with our community conservation efforts.”

Navigating the Rio Patuca in northeastern Honduras. credit: www.day251.com

 Information and images from the flight are now in the hands of Honduran wildlife officials, local conservation groups and members of the Comité Hondureño para la Conservación del Águila Harpía (Honduran Committee for the Conservation of the Harpy Eagle). “A conservation strategy for the nest is being organized,” says Franklin “and the data obtained during the flight will be very useful in the process.”

In the end, this story is about more than protecting a pair of rare birds. The presence of the harpy eagle nest represents a watershed moment for how Honduras manages its natural resources. Highlighting this rare occurrence gives Hondurans new motivation to recognize the critical role of forests in providing carbon storage, fresh water, clean air, medicines, soil and watershed protection, and of course food, shelter, and products for communities.

“We believe this is a decisive moment for the history of conservation in Honduras,” says Franklin. “The world will be looking at this small country to see what measures it takes to preserve the harpy eagle nest.” 

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