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The Return of the Leaden Falcon

December 22, 2011
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The word aplomado is spanish for lead-colored.

The falcon Aplomado is birder for reborn.

There was a time, in the not too distant past, when Aplomado Falcons, the lanky, lead-colored racers of the American southwest, ranged from the coastal plain of Texas all the way across the southern US into Arizona.  Then they were gone, more or less mysteriously disappearing from their northern reaches in the early part of the 20th Century due to reasons not well understood.  Intensive cattle ranching, and its effect on falcon prey specoies, may have played a role, or an ongoing century long drought in the southwest that has made parts of the region wildly different than it was 100 years prior.  Whatever the cause, the last known breeding pair, in New Mexico, failed to fledge young in the 1950s and after that the only Aplomado Falcons north of the Rio Grande were the occasional vagrant, as noteworthy then as Crimson-collared Grosbeak or Ruddy Ground-Dove is now.

That all changed when in 1987 hacked individuals were released in the area around Laguna Atascosa NWR in coastal Texas, historically a stronghold for the species.  I actually saw one of these birds in 1995, an adult perched on a fencepost next to the road in the late afternoon sun.  I don’t remember much about it, the fog of time conspires to recreate the memory for me now as nearly dream-like,  except that the extensive jewelry the bird wore on both legs marked it as one of these reintroduced birds.  Notably, 1995 was the first year the introduced Aplomados bred on their own, and since then nearly 100 captive-bred birds have been released in and around Atascosa resulting in 37 pairs and 92 wild raised fledglings, making the coastal plain of Cameron County, Texas, the best place north of Mexico to find these unspeakably beautiful raptors.

When I was in Texas for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, I admit I didn’t even have Aplomado Falcon on my radar.  I guess I assumed that the 200-odd birds flying free around south tecas would just be too difficult to find.  Everything, as the Texas Tourism Board is wont to say, is, in fact, bigger in Texas, especially the open country in which a foot long falcon can disappear.  But it serves me right for underestimating the combined birding knowledge available there in the RGV that week in November, because the place to be is apparently a stretch of dirt road just south of Atascosa called old Port Isabel Road.  There we, Christopher of Picus Blog, his wife Pamela, and myself, were directed if Aplomados we wanted to see.  Christopher wanted some photos, and I’m an easy sell when the quarry is falcon.

Old Port Isabel Road offers some pretty great non-falcon birding as well.  I managed to flush up a Cassin’s Sparrow (in an appropriate location, this time) and the only Cactus Wrens I’d see on the entire trip.  A big female Merlin had us jumping out and grabbing at scopes as it perched atop a power pole, but once the real deal Aplomados were spotted, the Merlin was all but forgotten.

We saw three in all, all fairly distant but within range for decent scope views.  It’s truly a remarkable bird, and while all falcons are worth a close look, this species, with its stylish creamy bands and relative rarity north of the border, is arguably the sexiest falcon in the ABA-area.

As cool as this bird is, though, the question of countability is one that raises an ugly specter over this otherwise gorgeous bird.  When the last unequivocally wild Aplomado Falco left the United States, the species was denied its official status as a self-sufficiant population of birds in the ABA Area and, therefore, it was deemed uncountable by the powers that be. Those early birds, like the one I saw in 1995, were clearly from a reintroduced population, and by even the most liberal interpretation of the rules would deem them unlistable for any ABA sanctioned list.  I couldn’t tell whether the birds I saw this past month were banded or not, and many of the wild-raised individuals are not anymore.  This success has led birders to petition the ABA for the ability to officially count the species once again on their life lists and rumor has it, the Texas Bird Record Committee is planning to take up the gauntlet look at the data to determine whether the population is sufficiently sufficient.  My hunch is that they will accept the population, leaving the decision to the ABA committee to hopefully follow suit.  In any case, it’s a bird I’ve got in my pocket.

The question of whether a species is “countable” or not seems like the very definition of inside baseball esoterica.  But “countable” means more than just a tick on the list, it’s a real milestone in the natural history of this species north of the Rio Grande.  Sure, you can tick it, but more than that, it means that a group of experts believes that the Aplomado Falcons of south Texas have recovered enough, that their population is strong and stable.

Being able to put it on my list will be a cool thing, no doubt, but better, I’m glad to see the little leaden falcon back where it belongs, coursing over the southwestern prairies on sickle wings.  Subject to an enthusiastic welcome back.

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