ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Biologists who have been working for years to reintroduce the endangered northern aplomado falcon to its historic range across the Southwest said they have spotted baby birds in a trio of nests in southern New Mexico and West Texas.
The chicks hatched in New Mexico are the first here under a restoration effort that began last summer when 11 captive-bred falcons were released on media mogul Ted Turner's Armendaris Ranch east of Truth or Consequences.
"Even under natural circumstances, a lot of young birds that fledge don't make it. So to have so many continuing to be seen and to have a nesting pair in the first year, it is beyond what we had hoped for," Patricia Zenone, a senior biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told The Associated Press Thursday.
The aplomado falcon, identified by a white stripe above the eye and a brown vest, was listed as endangered in 1986. New Mexico's last known nesting pair was near Deming more than 50 years ago.
The development in southern New Mexico is just one measure of success for the reintroduction project, which also has released birds on numerous private ranches in West Texas since 2002.
Food for young
After successful reintroduction efforts in South Texas, the nonprofit Peregrine Fund, Turner's Endangered Species Fund and the Fish and Wildlife Service began work to restore the birds in New Mexico with the August 2006 release on the Armendaris.
Angel Montoya, a biologist with The Peregrine Fund, said two of those birds began courting in March and took over an abandoned raven nest atop a 65-foot power pole on the ranch (aplomados don't make their own nests). Within weeks, they were bringing food back to the nest for their young.
It was Montoya and ranch manager Tom Waddell who first spotted the bustling nest.
"We gave each other a high five," Montoya recalled.
Bill Heinrich, another biologist with The Fund, said the chicks were a surprise since the parents are barely approaching a year old.
"It's rare for two juvenile birds to successfully lay eggs and produce chicks," he said. "We weren't expecting this to happen for another year or two when they are a bit more mature."
Babies to leave nest
The babies — between 12 and 15 days old — will likely leave the nest in the next few weeks. Montoya said they're about the size of a dove right now.
The Peregrine Fund said two nests with chicks also were spotted on a ranch south of Van Horn, Texas, marking the first known nests in that area in a century.
Of the three nests, Montoya said: "It says a lot about the potential for the reintroduction project."
The Peregrine Fund is preparing to release about 125 falcons in New Mexico and West Texas later this year. In New Mexico, birds are scheduled for release this summer on the Armendaris and on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, state of New Mexico and White Sands Missile Range.
The 360,000-acre Armendaris offers grama grass, yucca, mesquite and insects — perfect for the falcons. Another plus is the lack of predators such as raccoons, owls and coyotes.
The falcons released there last year were born in captivity at The Peregrine Fund's breeding facility in Idaho. They fall under a special provision of the Endangered Species Act.
Under the 10-J rule, the Fish and Wildlife Service classifies the birds released under the program as a nonessential experimental population. That means any aplomados in New Mexico are no longer considered endangered but continue to have some protections. For example, it's illegal to shoot or harass the birds or to take their eggs.
Biologists with the project say the rule gives them flexibility in managing the birds, but some environmentalists argue the falcons should have all the protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act.
Aplomados were once widespread in the Southwest. Numerous reasons have been offered for the falcon's decline, but experts agree that habitat changes that followed Spanish settlement and grazing in the late 1800s played important roles.