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Harpy eagles nest in Belize for the first time in over 60 years (pictures)

Scientists have confirmed the presence of a harpy eagle nest in the Maya Mountains of Belize. The discovery represents the most northerly breeding pair in the Americas, and signals a comeback for a species which has become locally extinct in much of Central America due to human activity.

With wingspans seven feet long and the capability to take down prey as large as monkeys and sloths, harpy eagles are one of the largest and most powerful birds in the Americas. Once present in lowland neotropical forests ranging from southern Mexico to northern Argentina, harpy eagles became largely extirpated in much of Central America during the last century due to forest fragmentation and hunting. Prior to the previous decade, the last confirmed sighting of a harpy eagle in Belize occurred in 1958. However, their presence in Belize was again confirmed in 2000 and there have been ten confirmed sightings since 2005 by scientists from the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE). Nine of these sightings were in Bladen Nature Reserve, with the other occurring in Mountain Pine Ridge.

“We had just started hiking that morning when someone said, ‘look at that huge bird’. I looked through my binoculars to see a large, gray and white eagle with a double crest. It was magnificent, and I was speechless. I told my colleagues that it looked like a Harpy Eagle, but that they weren’t supposed to be here (in Belize) any more”, said Jamie Rotenberg, an ornithologist at the University of North Carolina Wilmington who was part of a survey team which observed a juvenile in 2005.

Since then, the total confirmed eagle presence in Bladen Nature Reserve has been upped to four individuals.

From top to bottom: A pair of adult harpy eagles in 2010, by Sharna Tolfree (BFREE); a juvenile harpy in 2007, by Steven Brewer (BFREE); the newly discovered nest in 2010, by William Garcia (BFREE)

Make that five.

“We were out doing our regular counts and observations when we heard a Harpy Eagle calling”, said William Garcia, technician project leader of the BFREE team which made this latest discovery. “It seemed to be fixed in one location, flying occasionally but returning to the same tree.”

The team climbed an adjacent tree from where they were able to see a nest.

“It was an incredible sight to see the small, white nestling Harpy Eagle chick in the nest,” said Garcia.

The nest is located within the Bladen Nature Reserve which is co-managed by the Belize Forest Department and Ya’axché Conservation Trust, a community oriented NGO based in Punta Gorda. The nest is under continual monitoring to record the birds’ behavior and protect the nest from human disturbance.

“The return of breeding Harpy’s suggests that effective protection of core Harpy habitat in Belize is having tangible benefits and represents a rare victory for conservation in Belize.” said Lee Mcloughlin, Protected Areas Manager for Ya’axché, “We are committed to partnering with BFREE to carry out whatever measures are necessary to ensure the Harpy Eagle population in this area is maintained into the future for all of Belize.”

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