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  • Writer's pictureMaia Monell

Hard work puts Aplomado Falcons on the road to recovery after Hurricane Harvey

Brian Mutch and Paul Juergens are biologists with a mission. They have been working diligently for the past 30 years to bring a species back to Texas after an absence of at least 40 years. Brian and Paul are quintessential models of The Peregrine Fund’s passion and tenacity. And together with an incredible number of partners, they are succeeding.

However, success does not come without struggle, and this year, Brian and Paul experienced that first-hand as they approached the season so soon after Hurricane Harvey struck the coastal Aplomado Falcon population at full-force.

Brian recalls, “The storm was in my thoughts daily right up to the point Paul and I were making our first, post storm boat ride across the bay to the barrier islands of Matagorda Island, San Jose Island, and Mustang and North Padre Islands. It was February and we needed to survey the damage to prepare for the breeding season ahead. I tend to figure on the worst so as not to be crushed if in fact it becomes reality. So many have put so much into the recovery effort that it was frustrating to have to wait to see how big of a hit we took.”

Paul remembers being cautiously optimistic. “The population had endured hurricanes in the past, but they were never as powerful as Harvey,” he trails off as he remembers the moment they drove across Matagorda and San Jose Islands. They drove by vacant territory after vacant territory. “Knowing those falcons likely perished in the storm was a tough pill to swallow.”

In all, Hurricane Harvey reduced the nesting population from 39 pairs to 26, a 33% reduction of the breeding population. However, overall productivity this year was 1.7 young per pair which is slightly higher than last year with 1.5 young per pair.

The dawn after the dark came quickly. Brian and Paul got to work, slowly putting the pieces back together, and knowing they could have an immediate impact felt great. A number of the specially designed nesting platforms had been damaged in the storms, but generous donors provided enough support to ensure that the platforms could be rebuilt. Not only did Paul and Brian get to work rebuilding the platforms, but with the help of our Director of Global Conservation and California Condor programs, Chris Parish, and friends of his, Lee Banning and Rick Graf of Banning Motorsports, they designed an innovative new aluminum nest structure with better longevity in costal salt, moisture, and sun than the older wooden models.

Brian chuckled as he recounts, “It’s like the pairs of Aplomado Falcons were just hoping, waiting for us to show up and rebuild.” He added, “We always do. It felt rewarding to realize that you can tear us down all day long, but we’ll be back to rebuild.” With the nest replacement and additional nests placed this year, we are reasonably confident the population will recover in a few years. In the meantime, we will continue our work with partners to increase availability of suitable habitat so the population can grow. The falcons can count on The Peregrine Fund.

What appeared to be a challenging year going into the field season, ended up to be a rewarding experience. Both Paul and Brian were pleased with their accomplishments this season. “So many folks rallied to help support the building process,” says Brian. “I was sent the list of people who donated to the project and was incredibly impressed. Even one of my best friends from grade school, who I lost contact with over 30 years ago, gave to the cause.”

The other take-home message? The work The Peregrine Fund, through Paul, Brian, and many critically valuable partners, had been doing up to the point of the storm was working. There were still falcons nesting successfully on all three barrier islands this season. The team will not be starting from zero at any of the locations.

Brian and Paul are both looking forward to next season. “I’m anxious to see how many of the falcon territories, left vacant after the hurricane, are re-occupied by new pairs in the coming years,” says Paul. Both biologists are interested in how quickly the population rebounds. Brian adds, “There is much to be learned now as we document the birds’ resilience after a traumatic event. These falcons face their own unique challenges in a world changing around them, but it is evident the Aplomado Falcon in Texas has a strong support group – coast to coast and border to border.”

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