Bird in the hand: At Laguna Atascosa, biologists celebrate falcon No. 500

At Laguna Atascosa, biologists celebrate falcon No. 500

HARLINGEN — Number 500 looks just like the ones which preceded him, or maybe her, a befuddled-looking white fuzz ball with dark brown and tan markings.

Conservationists working at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge held the young bird and placed a small metal band on the aplomado falcon’s leg, an identifying record the nestling will keep for life.

Beginning in 1995, the aplomado falcon restoration project at the refuge has built nesting platforms for the medium-sized falcons, which at the northern extreme of their range, were virtually extinct.

Prior to 1995, no wild aplomados had hatched in the United States since at least the 1950s.

Once widespread throughout the American Southwest, two remaining pairs of aplomado falcons were known to exist in the 1940s and 1950s — one near Brownsville in 1946 and the other outside Deming, New Mexico, in 1952.

The theory regarding the raptors’ demise in Texas is attributed to over-harvesting of eggs by humans, according to biologists.

But it wasn’t necessarily to eat them. Collecting wild birds’ eggs was once a common ornithological hobby dating to the 17th Century, and a rare aplomado falcon egg would have been a prize.

“Historic records indicate the bird was found primarily on the salt prairie between Brownsville and Port Isabel, a popular location for egg-collecting in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” is the verdict on the Laguna Atascosa website.

A new dawn

The recovery effort at Laguna Atascosa is a proper team effort, and includes The Peregrine Fund, which began the reintroduction of the falcons back into South Texas in 1995 by releasing juvenile birds bred at the organization’s headquarters in Boise, Idaho.

Other partners include U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Private Stewardship Program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Coastal Bays and Estuaries Program, U.S. National Park Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Laguna Atascosa refuge, Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuge and the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site.

“The banding of this 500th nestling demonstrates that persistence and commitment lead to progress in achieving goals, not just our goals, but the shared goals of those who, in the words of The Peregrine Fund’s late founder Tom Cade, ‘strive to keep the earth fit for life in all its many splendored forms,’” said Chris Parish, director of global conservation for The Peregrine Fund, in a statement.

“One of the biggest challenges in all conservation is keeping the eye on the prize and keeping that vision clear for all,” added Peregrine biologist Brian Mutch. “These efforts take time, and even the smallest steps can seem insurmountable. That’s why we celebrate days like these.”

Population status

The aplomado falcon received its name from its slate-gray back which is similar to the color of lead, or “plomo” in Spanish.

The bird ranges from the American Southwest through Central America and all the way to Tierra del Fuego at the very tip of South America. The only place the bird isn’t found in South America is in the Amazon Basin.

The species, although decreasing in number overall, is robust enough to be listed as “least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

It is the northern subspecies which is being reintroduced at Laguna Atascosa that is under threat.

The status of the northern aplomado falcon actually is similar to that of the Texas ocelot, which also is a species listed as of “least concern” worldwide due to being relatively common in its Central and South American range.

It is the Texas subspecies of ocelot which is critically endangered.

Where to see them

To view one of these rare falcons in the wild, Laguna Atascosa refuge officials have some tips.

In order to protect the aplomado falcon, we cannot release locations on where to find nesting sites, however the falcons can be spotted while hunting at locations such as Bahia Grande and Lakeside Drive,” said Chris Quezada, visitor services park ranger at the refuge.

“A parking lot approximately 2.5 miles west of Laguna Vista (FM 100 and 510) is a great wildlife viewing area for aplomado and nilgai on Bahia Grande,” he added via email. At the Laguna Atascosa unit (headquarters), Lakeside Drive is another great location. It consists of a 17-mile trail that is accessible to biking from February to October.”

Perhaps the best way to see one of these falcons, and by far the least strenuous of the available avenues, is one of the refuge’s fall and winter tram tours which run from October to February. Riders pay a small fee to view remote parts of the refuge on these guided, motorized trips.

“I’ve personally observed aplomado falcons from the refuge parking/viewing area off FM 100 that Chris mentioned (at 26°05’30.2”N 97°19’39.1”W),” Sara Miller, a wildlife biologist with Fish and Wildlife who works at the refuge, said via email. “Prime aplomado falcon habitat on Laguna Atascosa NWR largely consists of coastal prairie with a sprinkling of yuccas; so if I were trying to find aplomados on the refuge, I’d head to the places Chris mentioned, and focus on this habitat type.”

What’s in store 

The future of the aplomado falcon in Texas today looks a little brighter.

“Habitat is key,” said Peregrine Fund biologist Paul Juergens. “For this species to succeed, we have to manage the landscapes in a way that gives them the best shot at success in a time of rapid and sometimes devastating change.

“To do so we use what we learn, the resulting science produced by studying the species, and share that with landowners and land managers who then join us to make the project a success,” he added. “Tagging this 500th chick suggests it can work.”

Identifying an aplomado

SIZE — Medium-sized falcon, 15-18 inches in length, three-foot wingspan

COLOR — Slate blue-gray on back, white breast, cinnamon-buff leggings, gray crown with white eyebrow on head

TAIL — Long, barred and rounded

SOUNDS — “Ki-ki-ki-ki” calls, often heard during aggressive encounters

Aplomado history

Once widespread throughout the American Southwest, two remaining pairs of aplomado falcons were known to exist in the 1940s and 50s — one near Brownsville in 1946 and another Deming, New Mexico, in 1952. A plausible theory regarding the decline of the aplomado in Texas is over-harvesting of eggs. Historic records indicate the bird was found primarily on the salt prairie between Brownsville and Port Isabel, a popular location for egg-collecting in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It is thought the original decline of this falcon species in the Valley was most likely due to over-collection rather than habitat degradation, a problem the species faced in other parts of its United States range. In 1986 the northern subspecies of aplomado falcon was listed as endangered due to its extirpation in the United States and evidence of pesticide contamination and population declines in eastern Mexico.

Source: Laguna Atascosa NWR