On May 16, researchers banded two females and one male 26-day-old northern aplomado falcon chicks at Mustang Island State Park. This banding is part of ongoing restoration efforts by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the nonprofit The Peregrine Fund and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Aplomado falcons are rare in Texas.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, The Peregrine Fund, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began the Mustang Island project in 2012, when 15 n. aplomado chicks were released there. Controlled burning and other work to restore native coastal prairie have been essential to pave the way for reintroduction. The most recent chicks were hatched to a pair of falcons that nest on Mustang Island in one of 65 artificial nests along the Texas coast maintained by The Peregrine Fund.
The Mustang Island project is part of broader restoration work in Texas, in which 997 birds were released into the wild at 27 Texas sites, including many private ranches, from 1993 to 2013. Since then, over 500 n. aplomado falcons have been banded in Coastal Texas.
The n. aplomado chicks at Mustang Island State Park will fledge (grow flight feathers) in about 10 days. After they fledge, they will stay close to the area where they hatched for a few months and then begin searching for their own territory in the fall. The chicks may stay on Mustang Island if habitat is available or they could disperse some 100 miles in search of a new home.
“A few years ago, an aplomado that fledged on the Boswell-Jenkins tract, now part of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, was sighted around Bob Hall Pier on North Padre Island in Corpus Christi,” Tim Anderson said, a Southwest Region Coastal Program Manager with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Another aplomado that fledged on Matagorda Island was sighted on the Nature Conservancy’s Texas City Prairie Preserve on Galveston Bay.”
Mustang Island State Park visitors could catch a glimpse of the adult falcon pair along State Highway 361 but it won’t be easy. Northern aplomado falcons are some of the world’s fastest and more agile fliers.
“They wait for smaller birds or large insects like big grasshoppers to fly by, then they swoop down and catch them in mid-air,” said Eric Ehrlich, Mustang Island State Park interpreter.
Ehrlich says that the birds are relatively shy and flush easily
The northern aplomado falcon (Falco femoralis) was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1986, primarily due to habitat loss and fragmentation. In the Texas portion of this subspecies’ range, the falcons require a nearly treeless expanse of yucca-studded coastal prairies and saltmarsh. A nesting pair requires roughly 2,000 acres of that type of habitat and such an expanse is hard to come by. Much of this coastal prairie and saltmarsh have been lost due to invading brush, the absence of the naturally occurring fires that would have eradicated such brush, extensive ditching that causes marshes to quickly drain and residential and industrial development.
“Northern aplomado falcons are important because they’re a characteristic part of Texas natural heritage. As such, their habitat requirements give us insights into what coastal prairies and marshes need to look like, how expansive they should be and how they need to be distributed if they are to support all the species and processes that characterize Texas’ coastal prairies and marshes,” Anderson said. “Coastal Texas is a great place to live, work and play. Protecting and maintaining enough coastal prairie and marsh to support viable northern aplomado falcon and associated species populations will go a long way towards keeping it that way.”
Photos of the n. aplomado falcon chicks recently banded at Mustang Island State Park can be found on the TPWD Flickr page.