The Orange-breasted falcons of Tikal


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As I promised in an earlier Belize thread, here are some pics from an amazing encounter with a rare bird in Tikal, Guatemala.

Orange-breasted falcons (Falco deiroleucus) are striking birds. They nest on sheer cliffs. They may be faster than peregrine falcons. With their large-for-their-size feet, they capture small birds on the wing above the forest canopy. The historical range of orange-breasted falcons extended from southern Mexico to northern Argentina, but their numbers have declined dramatically and perhaps fewer than 40 pairs now live in Central America. Like other birds, they have had problems with anthropogenic habitat loss especially mature forest, but another challenge is encroachment by other cliff nesters, such as black vultures, and by Africanized honeybees.

There have been active efforts to enhance their numbers; the Peregrine Fund has been breeding orange-breasted falcons in captivity in their facility in Wyoming and re-introducing them into appropriate habitat in Belize (see and elsewhere. Our Belizean bird guide, the sharp-eyed and sharp-eared Jonathan Urbina, had worked on the Peregrine Fund’s restoration project for five years. So, if anyone could show us orange-breasted falcons in Belize, Jonathan could. After all, he had already shown us white hawks, bat falcons, and aplomado falcons.

Jonathan brought us to the right site, 1000 Foot Falls, in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Preserve in the Mayan Mountains of western Belize. This is close to the area where the captive-raised young falcons are released and supported for a few months after arriving from Wyoming. We scanned the cliff faces and canopy trees but there were no falcons visible. Strike 1.

Fast forward to 48 hours later. We’re now in Tikal, Guatemala. We had to leave Jonathan back in Belize and we now had a Guatemalan guide, Vinnie. He is also a very accomplished birder and did a great job explaining the history of the Mayan people and the ruins at Tikal during our 2 days at Tikal.

These two threads, great birding and Mayan ruins, come together at the Grand Plaza in Tikal. Roll back the clock 1000 to 2000 years, the city of Tikal was one of the major centers of Mayan culture in Central America. But after the widespread collapse of classical Mayan civilization about 800-900AD, Tikal was largely abandoned. The tropical rainforest returned and buried the monuments that had been built during the height of its power. The ruins were rediscovered by Westerners (the local Maya always knew it was there) in the 1850’s. Part of the complex has been excavated and restored (and too much looted unfortunately or destroyed by time and the elements).

The Grand Plaza is the best-restored site at Tikal. At the west end, Temple I (Temple of the Great Jaguar) rises over nine steep levels to a height of 154 feet. It was built in the 8th century and is the final resting place of Jasaw Chan K’awiil I, leader of the city-state of Tikal. Across the plaza at the east side, Temple II (Temple of the Masks) rises 125 feet above the plaza. It is the burial site for the wife of the resident of Temple I, Kalajuun Une’ Mo’. Forming the northern edge of the Grand Plaza is the North Acropolis; it had been used for several hundred years as the necropolis for Tikal’s rulers until the construction of Temples I and II. The North Acropolis rises in a series of platforms with small burial temples at different levels. The Central Acropolis forms the southern border of the plaza. While there are a few burials here, it primarily served as lodging for the ruling families. Arrayed in front of Temple I and the North Acropolis are standing stones (stellae) and circular stones (altars) that have/had carvings that record major ceremonial landmarks (victories of the ruler, births, and deaths).

In this 360 degree image:, the bright pyramid still in the sunlight and with two stellae/altars at the front is Temple I. To its left and still in the sun is the North Acropolis with a line of stellae/altars along its front. Temple II is in shadow, but you can see the white summit shrine at the top. The Central Acropolis is largely in shadow behind the trees.

And what about the orange-breasted falcon? Well, if you look carefully between the right edge of Temple II and the North Acropolis, you will see some tall rainforest trees and there is a female orange-breasted falcon perched on one of the branches. Yeah, it is a bit hard to see her from here. Let’s climb the wooden stairs and walkway that lead up to a platform (the upper dark level) below the white summit shrine. Now, we can have a better view.


There she is. Females are larger than males, as is true for most raptors. We watched her for a while. The male flew in and perched at the top of Temple II.


He had something in his talons. Shortly thereafter, the female lifted off from her perch and zoomed around Temple II and disappeared from sight at the top of the temple near the male. After a minute or two, she flew back to her perch with something in her talons. A closer look showed that she was removing the feathers from a small bird, probably a warbler, that the male had captured. The male then joined her on her limb and proceeded to mount her – falcon porn.


In a matter of seconds, the male was done and flew off. The female returned to her meal which you can see as that tiny red mass by her talon.


We were back in the park the next afternoon and she was perched in the same stand of trees.


It was a great insight into the reproductive biology of these birds. Better to be lucky than good....


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