Local team is watching the hawks

Local team is watching the hawks

Michele Ellson
Cooper's Hawk

Photo courtesy of Alameda Raptor Monitoring team.

Lydia Bird’s introduction to the Alameda Raptor Monitoring team came six years ago, when its coordinator knocked on her door in search of Cooper’s Hawks. Bird had been noticing the raptors in her neighborhood for years, but didn’t know that much about them.

Three years later she saw some of the medium-size hawks strolling on her sidewalk, so she got in touch with the coordinator, Harv Wilson, and was pulled into the team, which scans thousands of tall trees each year in search of a handful of nests in an effort to protect the hawks and their young fledglings.

“It’s this amazing world going on over our heads,” Bird said. “There’s this whole little wild kingdom going on four stories up.”

The list of birds the team monitors and protects includes peregrine falcons on the Fruitvale Bridge, egrets on Bay Farm Island and an osprey nest at Alameda Point – one of the first spotted on San Francisco Bay in more than 100 years.

“Lotsa cool birds in Alameda,” she said.

Photo courtesy of Lydia Bird and Alameda Raptor Monitoring team.

Wilson’s local monitoring efforts began in 2007, undertaken to join a planned study of Cooper’s Hawks in Berkeley. A birder since childhood who said he would have grown up to become an ornithologist if his practical side hadn’t intervened, Wilson has embraced his passion for birds in retirement, doing volunteer field work for the East Bay Regional Park District and providing data for city government and other entities that helps them avoid disturbing hawk and other nests during breeding season.

Most of Wilson’s volunteer work involves monitoring the golden eagle – Alameda County has one of the world’s largest golden eagle populations – and trying to figure out the eagle’s attraction to windmill farms, which kill an estimated 50 to 70 each year.

Wilson said he’s among the growing ranks of volunteers conducting citizen science by collecting data that aids professional conservation efforts. And science, he said, is beginning to embrace the availability of a burgeoning group of retired people who are healthy, educated and skilled – and eager for something useful to do.

“The scientific community is waking up to the idea that there’s an enormous resource here,” he said.

The East Bay Regional Park District’s wildlife program manager, Doug Bell, is appreciative of the work performed by Wilson and his team. Part of the park district’s mission is to preserve the parks’ plant and animal resources, but with 113,000 acres to manage, it’s more work than the parks district’s team can do on its own.

“It’s been very important work to the district because it helps fill in a lot of the information gaps that we ourselves cannot go out and (fill),” Bell said, adding that the work takes a great deal of time – and sensitivity to the birds’ tolerance for disturbance.

Raptors are particularly important, he said, because status as predators make them a key indicator of the health of any given area’s entire ecosystem.

“We have a key interest in raptor populations because they do serve as such a direct indicator of problems in the environment,” Bell said. “Getting a heads up on how their numbers are doing is a key to identifying any environmental problems.”

Until a few years ago, the Cooper’s Hawk was listed in California as a species of concern, its numbers believed to have been depleted by the destruction of its habitat and the pesticide DDT. The pesticide was banned in the 1970s and the medium-sized hawk has adapted to a more urban lifestyle, moving from its woodland range into developed areas where it feasts on smaller birds and squirrels which it swoops out of the sky to capture.

Alameda is a particularly attractive spot for the birds because the Island has an abundance of the tall trees the hawks like to nest in, Wilson and Bird said; Wilson said they like to nest about 60 feet from the ground.

“We here in the city have created this very attractive environment for wildlife. So there’s a special need that we be responsible about protecting it,” Wilson said.

While many conservation efforts focus on wild places, Wilson said, people don’t realize that places like Alameda – mature cities with big trees – attract wildlife “because this is where the food is.” And the Bay Area is part of a wider biodiversity zone across much of California that contains a broader array of native plant and animal species than all but a few dozen places in the world.

“Everything we do has a greater than normal impact. People who are concerned about the environment and want to make a contribution have the opportunity to make an unusually important contribution,” he said.

Here in Alameda, Wilson’s group worked closely with the city to make sure its massive master street tree plan included trees that would grow tall enough to accommodate the hawks. The plan also contains policies that ensure that tree trimmers and street maintenance crews steer clear during nesting season. And Wilson’s team sends the city’s public works and parks departments, Alameda Municipal Power and others maps of the nests so they can steer clear of the birds’ nests.

Bird said the team has been watching Alameda’s hawks since January, and members – about 10 people are active at any one time – conduct a nest tour in February. The male comes out first to get the nest ready, calling to the female when he’s done. Chicks typically hatch in May – anywhere between one and five of them, Wilson said – and by the end of June, they’re flying.

The nest near Bird’s house produced three chicks this year, according to an e-mail Wilson sent to team members; hawks occupying the six nests the team monitored produced 21 chicks.

“They were like a little bundle of fluff two months ago,” Bird said of the chicks in her neighborhood nest. “And they’re active raptors now.”

Dangers for the hawks include crows and cars, unleashed dogs and windows, which some young hawks smash into when they mistake their reflection for a sibling; injured birds are brought to the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, which operates a wildlife hospital and rehabilitation center.

Bird posted a flyer letting neighbors know what they could do to help protect the hawks; techniques include lowering shades, placing Mylar decals on windows and leashing dogs within 10 blocks of a nest.

Wilson told team members that this year’s nesting season, which should be completed on August 1, was a successful one. There were no reports of fatalities, injuries or disturbances caused by people.

The peregrine falcons on the Fruitvale Bridge had four chicks, he wrote, while a colony of great egrets and snowy egrets on Harbor Bay had an estimated total of 28. But the osprey nest, set up on a king post aboard a Maritime Administration ship, produced no chicks, despite MARAD’s help; an interloping female osprey may have been to blame.

In addition to tracking and monitoring the hawks, team members work to build community awareness of the wild kingdom over their heads, Bird said; she and Wilson said people are excited about the work they’re doing in Alameda. The hawks can be tracked by following what team members call “whitewash” – “distinctively thick” bird droppings – and Bird let the neighborhood kids look through her spotting scope as the chicks were hatching.

“When people get excited about things, they’re invested in protecting them,” she said.

Anyone interested in joining or learning more about the team can contact Wilson at harvmon@comcast.net.

EXTRA: Here’s the sound of the Cooper’s call, recorded in Alameda.


Submitted by frank on Thu, Jul 18, 2013

I am fortunate to have these birds as my neighbors in Jackson Park. Awareness of their nesting sites is vital. Some years back tree pruners contracted by the City cut down a limb with a nest of Copper Hawk eggs. Although everyone 'expressed regret' the practice of trimming still occurs today during nesting season.

Submitted by Timberdoll on Thu, Jul 18, 2013

Do they still have shooters at Alameda Point? When I lived there we found beautiful raptors that had been shot quite frequently, protecting the Least Terns.