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Observing raptors in the shrub-steppe

Posted by: Susan Burchardt, Zookeeper

A raptor flies over a wind turbine. Photo by Gretchen Albrecht/Woodland Park Zoo.

As part of our wildlife conservation efforts in the Pacific Northwest, Woodland Park Zoo collaborates with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on the Raptor Ecology of the Shrub-Steppe conservation program. This spring, zookeepers Gretchen Albrecht, Ros Bass-Fournier, Jean Ragland and I returned to eastern Oregon for three weeks to continue research begun last year. We recorded data on how nesting hawks interact with wind turbines. Hours of observation gives us important insight into how raptors are adapting to this new change to the shrub-steppe habitat.

Lupine in a field of turbines. Photo by Gretchen Albrecht/Woodland Park Zoo.

Shrub-steppe is a grassland habitat that occurs in western North America. Grasses and shrubs make up the shrub-steppe landscape. The most common shrub, or woody plant, is sage brush. There are many birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians that are unique to the shrub-steppe eco-region. Expanded human development has greatly altered this fragile ecosystem through much of its historic range, and as a result, many animal habitats have been reduced or eliminated.

Red-tailed hawk in flight. Photo by Gretchen Albrecht/Woodland Park Zoo.

This year, we observed a pair of red-tailed hawks with a large chick about to fledge and two pairs of Swainson’s hawks, both with eggs in the nest. The females spend most of their time on the nest, tending the eggs, while the males perch nearby or venture further afield in search of prey. The red-tailed hawks in particular were in a hurry to find lots of food for their ravenous, almost full-grown chick. Sometimes they would soar up high, above the 400-ft tall turbines, and sometimes they would hug the ground, coursing low to the sage and blooming lupines.

Meadowlark. Photo by Gretchen Albrecht/Woodland Park Zoo.

Besides the hawks, which we watched in four-hour intervals, we also got to see some other birds, like the abundant horned larks and western meadowlarks, and a large colony of long-billed curlews nesting nearby. It was always fun to see a bird soaring by and realize it had such a long, curved beak in the lead. 

Long-billed curlew flies over turbines. Photo by Gretchen Albrecht/Woodland Park Zoo.

On the drive from the motel to the wind project, we were able to see a nesting pair of golden eagles. 

Eagle with chick in a nest. Photo by Gretchen Albrecht/Woodland Park Zoo.

We also saw some mammals, including pronghorn antelope and many cattle.

Pronghorn antelope. Photo by Gretchen Albrecht/Woodland Park Zoo.

You’ll have the opportunity to help out the raptors yourself on your next visit to the zoo. Just stop by our Quarters for Conservation kiosk and look for the photograph of Ranger, our golden eagle, on the kiosk to cast your vote to support the Raptor Ecology of the Shrub-Steppe Project!

Find our Quarters for Conservation voting kiosk in the West and South Entrances. Photo by Sarah Lovrien/Woodland Park Zoo.

With Quarters for Conservation, 25 cents from your zoo admission goes directly to wildlife conservation, so you can make your day and a difference!