Biology graduate student discovers solitary eagle nest

SIUE biology graduate student Stacia Novy was part of a five-member team that located the only known solitary eagle nest in Belize. And the team would not have been able to do so without her archaic falconry skills.

Photo courtesy of Stacia Novy

“They’ve been looking for this bird for decades, and I kind of fell into it. I was the missing part… I had the ornithology and falconry knowledge that could put it all together,” said Novy, who had an article published about the discovery in a recent issue of The Journal of the North American Falconer’s Association.

The Peregrine Fund, a non-profit that works to save birds of prey from becoming extinct, hired Novy in summer 2011 to lead a team that watched over young orange-breasted falcons as they learned to fly.

“For that month, the pair of eagles happened to be breeding in that area…,” Novy said. “[Our boss] encouraged us to find the nest because so few of them had been located. I took it as a personal goal.”

However, Novy said it was not just about her, “it was about everybody.”

Only three nests have been documented by this species of bird, Novy said. The first two were located in Mexico more than 50 years ago and were of a different subspecies than the nest Novy located.

“The nest I discovered was found after a 52-year lapse…,” Novy said. “It’s the only nest of that subspecies that has ever been located and in Belize.”

This species is critically endangered in Belize, according to Novy.

To track the birds and locate the nest, one needs to understand raptorial bird breeding behavior and avian flight patterns and have “archaic wildlife tracking skills,” also known as falconry skills, according to Novy.

Novy said falconry skills are “almost lost today” because people use radio telemetry, which transmits information and records measurements electronically.

“Almost nobody knows how to track wildlife anymore without GPS or telemetry…,” Novy said, “but that’s how they used to do it for hundreds of years.”

Falconry includes studying wing patterns and aspects that could predict flight patterns. From that information, spotters could be set up along the bird’s flight path to intercept and follow the bird.

To locate the nest, Novy said the team had to know the birds were in breeding condition. Birds respond in certain, predictable ways when in breeding condition, according to Novy. Males are typically the primary food provider. Females, which are larger, stay on the nest to protect it.

A critical point is that soaring birds do not fly directly back to the nest, they fly in “zig-zag patterns,” Novy said.

“It could not fly in a straight line back to the nest. That was key,” Novy said. “The eagle could only fly a circuitous route using thermals for lift.”

Once the group knew the eagle was breeding and caught food, the male had to be followed with the understanding that it would not fly in a straight line.

“[We] had to know when it was nearing the nest and was going to land,” Novy said. “…We isolated that post. We knew its route now… [and] set up a surveillance point… We could narrow down the nest site closer and closer every time.”

Novy said she knew she had the ability to track the nest, but there is a lot of pressure to use new technology in science. She said she was considered a “nonconformist” because for the first 12 years of her falconry career, she refused to use radio telemetry.

“I made it deliberately hard on myself to learn falconry and birdwatching skills because I wanted to gain extra knowledge,” Novy said. “I knew I felt like I was getting a better education by being harder on myself.”

Novy, who studies with biology professor Rick Essner, said she always wanted to go to graduate school and discovering the nest prompted her interest to study the species.

Novy will present her discovery of the solitary eagle nest at the Illinois State Academy of Sciences conference in Springfield, which runs from April 5-6.

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