by Susan A. Heath
Photos by Sandra Kroeger
We got word a few weeks ago about an unusual visitor to our area. Apparently a young Aplomado Falcon has decided to spend at least part of the winter at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). The Aplomado Falcon has a large range extending all the way to the southern tip of South America but the northernmost part of its range just reaches southern Texas and New Mexico. This species utilizes savanna, coastal prairie, and high-elevation grasslands and with the conversion of much of this habitat to agriculture, the Aplomado Falcon lost much of its native habitat in the U.S. by the 1950s. Eggshell thinning and pesticide contamination was the final blow which led to the listing of the northern subspecies of Aplomado Falcon as endangered in 1986. At this time, the Aplomado Falcon had all but disappeared from the U.S.
In the early 1980s, The Peregrine Fund began a captive rearing program for this species and used a process known as hacking to release these birds into the wild. Hacking allows the young birds to become accustomed to their new environment before they are able to fly and involves placing the young birds in a hack box on an artificial nest structure for about a week before they are released. The birds are fed by biologists during this time and once they are released, biologists will continue to provide food at the hack sight for a month or two until they are independent enough to survive on their own.
The Peregrine Fund has released over 1,500 Aplomado Falcon chicks to the wild at sites in Texas and New Mexico. The primary sites in Texas are Laguna Atascosa NWR on the Laguna Madre and Matagorda Island on the central Texas coast but some birds have been hacked in west Texas as well. To counteract the loss of nesting habitat and to combat nest predators, biologists have placed specially adapted falcon nesting structures in prime habitat. These have proven to be very popular with the birds and most pairs now nest on these artificial structures rather than their traditional nesting sites.
Because of the work of The Peregrine Fund, there are now Aplomado Falcon pairs once again nesting in Texas and the young bird at Brazoria NWR this winter is likely the result of one of the pairs nesting on Matagorda Island. Aplomado Falcons primarily eat birds and insects and I had the pleasure of watching the Brazoria NWR bird capture dragonflies one evening just before dusk. It would launch itself from a pole and zoom up and out to grab a dragonfly with its talons. On its flight back to the pole to re-perch it would transfer the dragonfly from its talons to its mouth and chow down. It was really a pleasure to be able to watch this aerobatic little falcon in action. Although this bird still has the brown plumage of a youngster, adult Aplomado Falcons are beautiful with black and white striped heads, an orange underbelly and a lead colored back. I hope that soon we will be able to see more of these birds in our area. If you would like to see photos of the Brazoria NWR bird, please check the GCBO Facebook page or our blog.