Golden eagles in Mexico, new research

Coat of arms of Mexico, with golden eagle

This is a picture of the coat of arms of Mexico, with a golden eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus devouring a rattlesnake.

From BirdLife:

Golden Eagles’ Mexican romantic getaways

By Shaun Hurrell, 15 Sep 2016

New tracking project reveals crucial information for the conservation of Mexico’s national bird, including five new breeding territories near a quarry in Sonora. The majestic predator loves places that are hard to reach.

Careful footsteps shuffle forwards in the night. It’s a few hours before sunrise and an intense rainstorm threatens. A flash of lightning freezes the wincing face of a conservationist, who hopes his creaking backpack is not making too much noise. His colleague stumbles, so he quickly shines a red light to make sure she doesn’t collide with a prickly cactus.

They are in the remote Sonoran desert of north-west Mexico, on a special mission for a special bird. “Fear coupled with an adrenaline rush. Because if you make a mistake, they can maim you.” This is how Javier Cruz, Field Technician from Pronatura Noroeste (BirdLife in Mexico), describes fitting a radio transmitter to a Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos.

The team has scaled cliffs and camped wild in mountains to locate the Golden Eagle nests, as part of a joint project between Pronatura Noroeste and the global cement and aggregates company, CEMEX.

The project is centred on CEMEX’s nearby Cerrito Blanco quarry, set deep in the biodiverse Sonoran desert, where the partnership – which began in 2012 – has undertaken field surveys for birds, mammals, plants, reptiles and amphibians and assessed the potential impacts of human activities in the area. As part of this ‘Biodiversity Action Plan’ to ensure good management of this sensitive area, Pronatura Noroeste and CEMEX studied the abundance and distribution of Golden Eagles and organised a national workshop to find out more, but this process unearthed important information for the team: the population is poorly understood nationally, let alone in the area around the quarry.

Despite a stable population trend when averaged out globally, the Golden Eagle is threatened in Mexico having been extirpated from most of its original range. The study found that over-grazing of native flora by cattle ranching is a factor, as it likely inhibits the abundance of prey availability for Golden Eagle and other top predators in the area like Mountain Lion.

Golden Eagle is a priority species for conservation nationally. “They are Mexico’s national bird” …

With surveys revealing at least two pairs of Golden Eagle nesting not far from main quarrying operations, Pronatura Noroeste’s project with CEMEX provided a unique opportunity to find out more – a chance not to be missed. The team set out to tag juvenile birds with radio-transmitters to better understand their range and dispersal, working with the Mexican Environment Agency (CONANP). “It was a unique experience,” says Javier Cruz. “And we never thought that it would yield so much information, from the daily movements, where they perch, where they fly to and above all, where they sleep.”

The transmitter-backed eagles have produced maps of the birds’ movements and now a picture is emerging of their post-natal dispersal. According to Francelia Torres, Field Technician, Pronatura Noroeste: “Now we know that their distribution can often include many municipalities, including an individual crossing the US border. As well as places very difficult to access, what surprised us the most was that Golden Eagles frequent places often with very little human disturbance.”

The project is showing that this region is very important for the conservation of Golden Eagle, and giving a real insight into their lives. After a year of having fitted transmitters, five new breeding territories have been confirmed in Sonora in 2016. The project’s workshop also enabled the training of a skilled local Golden Eagle conservation team. Miguel Cruz, Project Coordinator, Pronatura Noroeste is excited for what they can continue to find: “The team continues to strengthen, in a region where it was unknown that they could be nesting.”

One very special bird

Slap-bang in the middle of the Mexican flag, clutching a snake in its talon, perched on top of a prickly pear cactus, is a Golden Eagle. With an impressive wingspan of over two metres, the Águila Real (Royal Eagle in Spanish) is a great choice for a national emblem. But as a top predator, it is also a good indicator for the health of the Mexican environment, as it relies on abundant prey.

This is why the next phases of the project include restoration of Sonoran grassland habitat, especially focussing on a tree-like cactus that reaches over 20 metres: the Saguaro. This cactus is recognised as a keystone species in the ecosystem, meaning it supports a wide variety of other life; particularly bats and birds, which use them to nest. Other current plans include engaging landowners since changes in cattle ranching are needed to benefit the whole ecosystem, including Golden Eagle. …

Pronatura Noroeste have also begun outreach work to prevent the persecution of Golden Eagles. But surprisingly for the most part, despite their size, they are not well known by local villagers. “This is a very cautious bird,” according to Francelia. “They are even overlooked by the locals”.

The team hopes to restore local Sonoran attachment to the Golden Eagle, as their project uncovers more conservation secrets. Javier knows what this feels like, already: “After fitting the radio transmitter, freeing the eagle I felt the most immense satisfaction and sense of peace.”

Last week the Mexican Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat) announced the winners of the 2016 Ecological Merit Awards. Pronatura (BirdLife Mexico) was awarded for the social impact of its environmental work, winning the award in the ‘Community’ category. Read how their impact goes beyond saving birds.

21 thoughts on “Golden eagles in Mexico, new research

  1. The Eagle Huntress is about real people—Rules Don’t Apply and Nocturnal Animals are about something else
    By Joanne Laurier
    3 December 2016

    The Eagle Huntress, directed by Otto Bell; Rules Don’t Apply, directed, written and co-produced by Warren Beatty; Nocturnal Animals, directed by Tom Ford, based on the 1993 novel by Austin Wright

    The Eagle Huntress

    Eagle hunting (falconry), a centuries-old tradition, is currently practiced by Kazakhs in Bayon-Ölgii, Mongolia, as well as in Kazakhstan, and the Saur and Altai ranges in Xinjiang, China. This ancient form of hunting is also employed in Kyrgyzstan and Akqi, Xinjiang in western China, and in Turkmenistan.

    Golden eagles, capable of speeds of up to 190 miles per hour, weigh up to 15 pounds and average about three feet tall with wings that span over six feet. They kill with their talons, sharp and powerful enough to pulverize the bones of their prey, which is then used by their owners for meat and fur.

    The documentary, The Eagle Huntress, directed by Otto Bell, follows apple-cheeked, 13-year-old Aisholpan, a member of a tribe of Kazakh semi-nomads, as she learns the art of eagle hunting from her father Nurgaiv. She is destined to become a member of her family’s 12th generation of hunters. While Nurgaiv and his wife believe in the equality of sexes, many of the tribal elders are vehemently opposed to the training of female hunters. (In 1924, when Mongolia became part of the Soviet Union, the constitution mandated gender equality.)
    The Eagle Huntress

    Aisholpan divides her time between boarding school and her family’s encampment. The latter is elemental but adorned with exquisite, hand-embroidered tapestries, the same stunning handicrafts that ornament the family’s clothing.

    Under the tutelage of her patient and loving father, Aisholpan will capture her own three-month-old eaglet, which must be female, due to a larger body and more ferocious nature. Drone cameras swoop over sparse steppes and snow-capped mountains as the young steady-footed bürkitshi (eagle hunter), is lowered down a steep cliff by her nervous father to the nest. It is a visually arresting and tension-filled sequence, which skillfully mixes live footage with re-enactments.

    Despite her age and relative inexperience, Aisholpan enters the Golden Eagle Festival in Olgii to compete against 70 of the greatest eagle hunters––as old as 80––in Mongolia. This and other arduous challenges in the frigid mountains must be endured before Aisholpan can take her place as the youngest and one of the first eagle huntresses.

    The Eagle Huntress is a lively and unusual encounter with a remote population and their customs. Aisholpan and her family are endearing and profoundly humane. When the courageous huntress extends her small, leather-covered arm to serve as the landing pad for an imposing raptor approaching at race car speeds, it takes one’s breath away. In an interesting scene at Aisholpan’s school, classmates––who are gathered around listening to her recount her exploits––exclaim: “We too want to be eagle hunters, but we’re afraid of eagles.” They are rightfully in awe of a girl who is taking the eagle hunting world by storm. (At one point, Aisholpan also reveals she wants to be a doctor.)

    Girls will be girls, and Aisholpan prepares for the festival by applying nail polish with less skill than she handles her beast of prey. She also helps her younger sibling brighten up her digits.

    The Eagle Festival is another of the movie’s highpoints. Eagle-hunting regalia for hunters and their horses are judged, as well as the skill of the eagles at hunting and locating their owners from a distance.

    In an interview with National Geographic, director Bell explains some of the factors responsible for the young girl’s extraordinary talents and the equally extraordinary acceptance of these by her parents: “I think her parents’ support is born from a combination of factors. Firstly, they saw this coming. Aisholpan’s mother, Alma, told me that her daughter was always transfixed by her father’s eagles—since she was a baby she’d exhibited an almost preternatural fascination with the birds.

    “Secondly, there’s circumstance. When her older brother left to join the Mongolian Army, Aisholpan took on the bulk of his chores. These were often physical farm tasks, typically undertaken by the men of the tribe. From what I understand, Aisholpan parlayed these new responsibilities into time on the mountain with her dad’s eagle. He’s a fair man and a champion eagle hunter.”

    After describing the “quiet steel that underpins her determination,” Bell goes on to say that he and his “little crew of three would be freezing in minus-50 conditions and she would just plow through knee-high drifts, carrying her 15-pound eagle like it was a walk in the park.”

    The Eagle Huntress dazzles as much for its images as for the love and respect it holds for its subjects.


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