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News from the field: Studying impact of wind turbines on raptors

Introduction posted by: Gretchen Albrecht, Raptor Keeper
Field notes posted by: Joanna Bojarski, Raptor Keeper

Woodland Park Zoo collaborates with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to study and protect the state threatened ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis) and other raptors in Washington through the Raptor Ecology of the Shrub Steppe project, one of WPZ’s Partners for Wildlife conservation programs.

As raptor keepers we play an active role in the project by educating zoo visitors about the plight of the fragile and beautiful shrub steppe habitat on which these birds depend. We also get to assist with field work through the study which allows us to see first hand the challenges these raptors face in the wild.

This year, fellow raptor keepers Joanna Bojarski, Susan Burchardt and Jean Ragland joined the project in the field to collect data on how wind farms in the region impact raptor behavior. These are Joanna’s notes from the field…

6:30 a.m. - I arrive at the first wind farm. Driving on the dusty gravel road I see that the cows are up. They stop and stare at me as I drive by. The landscape is hilly and covered with small shrubs that look like tumble weeds. The soil is light colored, the vegetation is low, and everything is muted shades of brown, green, yellow and white. There are occasional bursts of pink, but they are few and far between. I have to drive through a couple of herds up to the top of the hill where the turbines are located. The mama cows stare at me and the calves freeze, waiting to see if they need to run or if it is safe to stay at mama's side. I get to the site and park at the foot of a wind turbine.

It is about 50 degrees out and the wind is about 7 km/hour. The turbines are all turning, about 5 seconds for a full rotation of the blades. It is chilly, but I have lots of layers on. I do a quick scan of the area with my binoculars (no birds flying), grab my gear and start walking in the soft soil towards the observation area. I set up my spotting scope, weather meter, and get my observation sheets ready. I am standing in an area of small shrubs and there are a few low plants with small flowers on them.

Within minutes the male ferruginous hawk flies off the nest—he is heading north, northeast. I observe him flying around north of the turbines, occasionally flying along the string of turbines heading south. I know it is him because of the flash of his white tail. The swainson's hawks are much darker in coloration. He weaves in and out of the turbines and eventually heads east, a direction where I cannot see any turbines beyond the ones that are 500 meters in front of me.

It is so amazing to be here observing these birds. They are the largest hawk in North America and they are threatened in our state. Trying to go out and find them to watch them is very difficult because there are not a lot of them around. The locations of their nests and territories are sometimes kept from casual birders because people want to protect them as much as possible and minimize any disturbances in their lives. I not only get to watch a pair of ferruginous hawks, I know where their nest is and have a spotting scope on it to see what they are doing. I am hopeful this project will gather important data to help these birds out.

8:30 a.m. - I have seen the male ferruginous hawk once since he went east this morning. He was south and didn't stay very long. He went east again. I turn in a slow circle as I scan the horizon looking for more Buteo and turbine interactions. I try to stay in the small area near the spotting scope so that I don’t trample too many plants. This habitat is so delicate that I try to have as little an impact as possible.

10:30 a.m. - The male ferruginous comes back. I spot him in the south and he lands in a field. I put the spotting scope on him and he stays there for about 20 minutes. I am surprised at how long he sits there. He is just hanging out, preening his feathers a bit, but he is not hunting and seems very comfortable there. These birds eat a lot of ground mammals and they spend a lot of time on the ground hunting them, so it makes sense he would be comfortable there. He finally takes off and heads east again.

11:15 a.m. - I spot what looks to be a prairie falcon flying low near the base of a turbine. It has a constant wing beat unlike the soaring and gliding that the hawks do. It is close to the turbine, but only about 20-30 feet off the ground, nowhere near the blades. I watch it for about 2 minutes then it disappears in a gully. How cool to see a falcon out here too!

12:10 p.m. - There is still no wind and the turbines are still. I haven't seen much activity at all this morning. I decide to pack up and drive over to the other site.

It takes about 45 minutes to get to the next wind farm and I have to drive on a gravel road most of the way. It is very dusty and I can see my trail in the rear view mirror. I travel through more shrub steppe habitat. It is so beautiful out here! On my way I stop to check out a golden eagle nest. The nest is in a power line tower about 30 feet off the ground. The two chicks are in the nest and very visible, they are about the size of the parents and getting ready to fledge. They are just sitting there and preening themselves once in a while. I don't see any adults come in to drop off food, but watching the young is interesting enough. The golden eagles are a personal favorite of mine and being able to observe the nest is a real treat.
Abandoned swainson’s hawk nest. Sadly, the male was killed by a wind turbine.

1:20 p.m. - I get to the second site. There are three observation sites to get to this afternoon. The first one is near an agricultural field. The field has knee high, beautiful green vegetation in it. The bright green is such a contrast to the soft colors of the surrounding hills. The field sits low below a small hill that has a small house on it and turbines all along the top ridge. The turbines are turning here, but slowly, about 5 seconds to do a full rotation of the blades. The sun has come out a little bit and it is about 65 degrees out.
Male northern harrier

The only activity I see is a pair of harriers. These are interesting raptors as they are one of the few raptors where the males, all shades of gray and white, have different plumage from the females who are shades of brown. The male seems to be hunting and the female is building a nest in the middle of the field. I hope they do well this season.

The swainson’s hawks are nowhere to be found. I check the nest tree with the spotting scope, but cannot see anything. I watch for about 20 minutes then decide it is time for a quick lunch then off to the next site.
Swainson’s hawk

2:30 p.m. - The next site is up on the hill and to the north, about a ten minute drive from the first. There is a ferruginous hawk nest here in the shadow of a turbine. The nest is in a juniper bush. I have to set up at the base of a turbine and the turning blades over my head are intimidating. I don't see any ferruginous hawks, but I can see a swainson’s hawk flying in and around a couple of strings of turbines to the south. This must be the male from the first observation site near the fields of green (a little southeast of where I am now). He is staying relatively low, but definitely weaving between turbines and occasionally going up to the height of the tip of the blades, about 40 meters off the ground. I keep an eye out for the ferruginous hawks, but get most of my data from the swainson’s hawk.

3:45 p.m. - I head to the third observation site here. There is another swainson’s hawk nest at the foot of a turbine. It takes about 20 minutes, but I finally see a swainson’s hawk. It is coming from the north, an area without turbines. It flies along the string of turbines I am closest to, but then heads out due west into an area without turbines. Far in the distance there are turbines, but the immediate area is clear, open land. Seeing the land covered with turbines causes me to pause. There are so many turbines and so little open land.

5:00 p.m. - It is still kind of cold in the wind and the sun has not been out much today. I eat another snack and then head back towards the site I went to this morning.

6:00 p.m. - I get to the site and notice there are a lot of cows on the road. They are very active, eating, walking, and then freezing to check me out as I drive by. Wow, they are big! I drive up the hill and then over the cattle grate and park at the foot of the turbine. I get my stuff and walk along a dirt road in the shrubby landscape to the observation site overlooking the ferruginous hawk nest. I know exactly where it is because I have stomped down a little area from my observations this morning. I can see the female sitting on the nest. I do not see the male. As I wait and scan the horizon I notice some of the cows are up and grazing.

6:30 p.m. - I still have not seen the male ferruginous hawk. I do another circle looking at the horizon and I am startled to see a large red cow with a white face about 60 feet away from me. It is full on facing me and staring at me. Geez, they are quiet. I don't know what to make of this, but figure if I stay in one spot and don't disturb it, I'll be okay. I slowly turn my back on the cow and a little voice starts in my head: I hope that the cow will just move on and leave me alone…Are cows aggressive? Will it charge me?

6:45 p.m. - The voice in my head is making me nervous. I check on the cow. It has moved on, but it is moving towards my car, along with all of the other cows that are up and grazing. Yikes! What do I do if I cannot get to my car?

7:00 p.m. - I am really cold at this point. I have not seen much of the male ferruginous hawk and the cows have surrounded my car. I am trying not to panic. No one really knows where I am. I do have cell phone coverage, but that is not much consolation to me now. I pack up all my gear and start to slowly walk towards my car. Most of the cows have moved beyond my car, but a few remain. As I am walking I glance towards the red cow. It has turned to face me and stare at me again. There is also another cow turned around to face me and stare at me. This makes me really nervous. I stop in my tracks and wait for them to move on. They finally start to walk, but keep me in their sights. I start walking again. As I get closer to my car I see a very large black steer right next to my car. He spots me too! He turns around to face me head on. The other cows notice this and now I have three cows staring me down.

Okay, I am panicking now. I crawl under the barbed wire fence that I am walking parallel to. I figure some sort of fence is better than nothing. Not that it will stop a charging cow. I get on the phone and call all three numbers I have for the researchers in the area. I leave a voicemail on all three phones. I don't really know what to do. I stand and think a minute and watch the cows. They are slowly moving again, towards and beyond my car. Oh thank goodness! I start to walk again and they notice me right away, but they keep moving. I am still very nervous about the steer near my car. He is not moving much, but he is watching me and he seems nervous. He turns to walk past my car. I am so grateful! If they keep going, even if it is just 40 feet beyond my car, I figure I can make a run for the car and get in on the passenger side. At least that would put a car between us!

I am watching the cows, they are watching me. We all keep walking south, the cows beyond the car and me towards it. I have to find a bit of courage to cross the cattle grate and run to my car. Here goes nothing! I get my lock remote out, balance on the beams of the grate and then dash to the car, unlocking it as I go. The cows all stop and stare, but they are a safe distance away and on the other side of my car. I throw the gear in the back seat and get in the passenger side. I lock my doors then crawl over to the driver seat. I haven't ever been so happy to hear the roar of my car engine before. I put the car in gear and get out of there. As I drive on the road beside the grazing area, the cows all stare at me. I think they are giving me the stink eye, but they are probably just laughing at me!

I drive through a couple of herds of cattle on my way out of the farm. I stop outside of the farm and I call my three contacts and tell them I made it to my car and they do not need to call me back. I am embarrassed, but would rather be safe than sorry. I also imagine them all the next time they see each other laughing over the phone calls they got from a city girl who is afraid of cows.

I am cold and hungry and tired.

8:15 p.m. - Pizza and a large glass of hot water has never been so welcome or appreciated! It was a good day—a very different day from a day at the raptor unit at the zoo—but a very good day indeed.

Photos by Gretchen Albrecht/Woodland Park Zoo and Joanna Bojarski/Woodland Park Zoo.


Anonymous said…
Amazing that you saw such a variety of birds during your observation! Thanks for the interesting (and also funny) account.