Feb. 16, 2011 Jamie Rotenberg, UNC Wilmington assistant professor of environmental studies, along with researchers at the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE), is studying what is thought to be the first active Harpy Eagle nest ever recorded in Belize, where the predatory birds were previously thought to be extinct.
Two adult Harpies and one five-week old nestling were discovered in November, when Belizean technicians were patrolling the Bladen Nature Reserve in the Mayan Mountains of Belize. The area is rugged and remote, but scientists have searched for signs of the bird there since 2005, when an adult was first spotted.
Harpy Eagles are known as the most powerful raptor in the Americas, weighing up to 20 pounds and reaching a seven-foot wingspan. They hunt prey as large as monkeys and sloths for food. However, due to deforestation and hunting, Harpy Eagles are typically missing from most of Central America's rainforests, where they once freely ranged. They are designated as "Near Threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and considered "Critically Endangered" in Belize.
It's currently unclear how or why the birds managed to nest in the area. According to Rotenberg, the active nesting site is a sign that the reserve is functioning to keep wildlife safe from dangers associated with human interference.
"Biologically, the presence of the Harpy pair and chick signifies an in-tact eco-system that extends to the highest predator," Rotenberg says.
Following the spotting in 2005, BFREE, in conjunction with Rotenberg, submitted a grant proposal to The Nature Conservancy Belize Program, proposing an innovative science-based program that would focus on avian conservation and awareness. Funded in 2006, the Integrated Community-Based Harpy Eagle and Avian Conservation Program links Belizeans to the protected areas of land adjacent to their homes through specific environmental awareness projects. Belize is a small, English-speaking country about the size of Massachusetts, with approximately 40 percent of its lands protected in reserves and parks.
Recently, the program has grown to include collaboration with The Institute for Bird Populations in California, BioDiversity Research Institute in Maine, and York University in Canada. Rotenberg has taken approximately 50 UNC Wilmington students to Belize to work with BFREE as part of the study abroad program he offers. Undertaking undergraduate internships as well as master's level projects, students have worked closely with the bird study site and the community awareness program.
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