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Sunday, January 29, 2006Hawk Watch in Ramona


Protecting Ramona's Grasslands at heart of annual "Hawk Watch"
By E.A. Barrera January 29, 2006
On a brisk, winter's Saturday morning, you'll see them gathered together - eager and avid - with eyes sharply gazing over the landscape of the Ramona Grasslands. Their eyes follow the sky - follow the currents of the sky they have come to know almost as well as the prey they hunt. On this cold morning, with the mist rising from the ground as the sun slowly warms the day, there are more than fifty of them. A well heeled heard of birders out to spot some of nature's most majestic treasures. Armed with telescopes, high-powered binoculars and expensive cameras, they are followers of the Osprey; the American kestrel; the Merlin.
"Merlin!" shouts 12-year Wildlife Research Institute (WRI) scientist Fred Sproul, as the enthusiastic group turns in unison to spot the smallish falcon cresting the horizon. "The merlin is the Lamborghini of falcons," jokes Sproul.
Called "birders" because they would spare no expense to catch site of a particular species of bird, the folks gathered together on this Saturday morning are more formally known as observers of the Raptors (hawks, eagles and falcons to the rest of us). And they are as serious about the science, observation and preservation of these winged citizens of North America as any banker is about the American economy, or any politician about the next election. Located at 18030 Highland Valley Road in the center of Ramona, the WRI is a non-profit corporation and land trust formed in 1990 and incorporated in 1997. Their self-described mission is to conduct wildlife research, provide education in wildlife conservation, and conserve wildlife by habitat protection and land preservation.
"We utilize our wildlife expertise to inform public officials of potential consequences of their actions that might adversely affect wildlife,” states the WRI. The WRI has contracted with the State Natural Community Conservation Plan to monitor and study Raptors for the San Diego area. One of the methods the organization uses to raise awareness about their work is through their annual "Hawk Watch", which they operate from the end of December through February in Ramona.
"We want people to come out here and see the beauty that exists in their own community," says Sproul.
Raptors are defined as birds that have evolved with three specific anatomical features distinct from other species of birds. To begin with, they are birds that have strong grasping feet with sharp talons. This enables them to capture, lift and carry prey such as field mice, tree squirrels and other forms of rodents and smaller animals. The next distinction is their hooked upper beaks, which act as powerful cutting tools to help them get through cartilage and bone. It also helps them to pluck away feathers. Finally and perhaps most important, are the raptors superb vision.
"They have anywhere from eight to ten times better vision than human Beings," notes professional falconer and Wildlife Research Institute member Tom Stephan. "It's been estimated that a raptor can read the fine print of a newspaper from 70 feet in the air - and read the headline from a quarter mile away. They have telescopic vision with high resolution - they can zoom in on the tiniest prey."
According to studies done by zoologists in North Dakota and Arizona, because of these special evolutionary adaptations, raptors are not only excellent predators, but also especially efficient and ecologically sound members of the animal kingdom.
"Although rodents and insects make up the bulk of a raptor's diet, many people have mistakenly blamed raptors for declines in game bird populations. Raptors concentrate on prey that is abundant and relatively easy to catch. Also, raptors will not kill without being hungry because of the risk of injury," said Scott Gomes of the Prairie Wildlife Research Center.
During "Hawk Watch", the most commonly observed hawks are the Red-Tailed hawk, Swainson's hawk, Ferruginous hawk, Rough-Legged hawk, and Broad-Winged hawk. They are often seen soaring high above grasslands and agricultural areas such as in Ramona - taking advantage of rising air currents as they hunt. It is also common to see them perched on utility poles, fence posts, and hay bales.
"Man's given them something of an advantage," said Stephan. "We've given them telephone poles to perch on. Before that they used to walk on the ground."
Other varieties of hawks found in the Ramona area include the Sharp-Shinned hawk, Cooper's hawk, and the Northern Goshawk. Gomes says the way to distinguish raptors when observing them in their native habitats, is to observe both their body size and shape, as well their movement - both in flight and when on the attack.
"The soaring hawks (i.e.: Red-Tails) have blocky bodies, broad wings and short tails. Their characteristic hunting strategy involves soaring high over open country, then dropping to the ground to seize prey," said Gomes. "The woodland hawks (i.e.: Cooper's hawk), have short, rounded wings and long tails.
These adaptations allow them to maneuver quickly among trees after birds and small mammals. Their tails usually have light and dark bars.
“Falcons have long, slim wings which taper to pointed tips," notes Gomes.

In flight the wings angle back at the wrists and wing beats are rapid. Falcon bodies are sleek; they have very round heads and long, narrow tails. Most falcons have noticeable patterns on their faces, such as the two cheek "sideburns" of the kestrel.
"Eagles are very large and can be distinguished from other raptors by their size and proportionately large, broad wings. They soar, often at great heights, and have slow, deliberate wing beats," adds Gomes.
Because the Ramona Grasslands offer such a unique environment for so many of these birds of prey, the WRI also emphasizes the need to preserve the grasslands. They regard their primary mission as three-fold, with protection of the grasslands on equal footing with protection and study of the birds, as well as educating the public about the full ecological picture offered within the grasslands.
"This grassland area is a Mecca for these magnificent birds because of all the different forms of life living within," said Sproul, who is a trained botanist. "More than 90 percent of California's grasslands are gone because of development. The grassland here is natural. Sometimes when I'm walking out here, I feel like I'm back in the times of Lewis and Clark. Most of this land has never been plowed. The ground is covered with native grasses, such as salt grass."
According to the WRI, San Diego County is the most biologically diverse county in the continental United States. The institute says that historically, coastal San Diego County was a "dynamic mosaic of grasslands, coastal sage scrub, chaparral, and oak and riparian woodland habitats.
"Today, much of that vast mosaic of habitats has been destroyed, fragmented, or degraded, primarily due to urban development," states the WRI. "As a consequence, San Diego County now contains more species that are threatened, endangered or of conservation concern than any other county in the continental United States. The grasslands, west of Ramona, represent one of the last remnants of extensive grassland habitat in coastal Southern California."
The WRI asserts that surrounding and embedded within the Ramona Grasslands are a wide variety of other rare habitat types, including vernal pools, Diegan coastal sage scrub, oak woodland, and riparian forests.
"This mosaic of grassland and associated habitats supports numerous species of conservation concern, including the Stephens’ kangaroo rat, San Diego fairy shrimp, spreading navarretia, arroyo southwestern toad, neotropical migrant songbirds, and numerous raptors," states the WRI.
The WRI has worked with the California Nature Conservancy to protect the Ramona Grasslands. Last June, the Nature Conservancy purchased 417 acres in the Ramona Grasslands. William J. Cagney, brother of the late movie star James Cagney, owned the property.
"The Cagney property is a small part of the 8,000-acre Ramona Grasslands area the Conservancy is striving to protect," states the Nature Conservancy. Regina Wilson says the Ramona Grasslands are important because they create large stretches of land linkages, wildlife corridors, and breeding grounds for many migratory animals. She worries that encroaching development in the areas surrounding the Ramona Grasslands could be as harmful to the wildlife in the area as direct development on the property itself. "
It's not just the grasslands the birds use, it's the paths they take to get here. Alter those paths and you eventually lose the populations migrating here," said Wilson.
According to the Wildlife Research Institute, bobcats and deer travel between Poway and the Palomar Mountains, and golden eagles forage and breed in the grasslands.
"Santa Maria Creek, which runs through the Cagney land, is home to endangered arroyo southwestern toads, and the forest canopy over the stream provides a breeding habitat for neotropcial songbirds," states the WRI.
According to the Nature Conservancy, typically flat and treeless, native grasslands have largely disappeared from the Southern California landscape.
"As a result of urban growth, agricultural development, and the spread of invasive non-native grasses, less than 10 percent of the historic native grasslands of San Diego County remain. With San Diego's rural population expected to grow by 80% in the next 15 years, the pressure to sell, subdivide, or develop ranches is rapidly mounting," states the Nature Conservancy.
The Wildlife Research Institute and the Nature Conservancy have established the goal of preserving the entire 8,000-acre Ramona Grasslands - either through direct purchase of the land, or some form of preservation agreement with the property owners. They are hoping to create what they believe would be a natural habitat linkage with partner conservation lands to the south and north. They also hope to re-introduce species into the grasslands, including Pronghorn deer - a species native to the western United States that resemble antelope, with their curved antlers.
"The Ramona Grasslands also present a unique opportunity to reestablish, with help from the San Diego Zoological Society, a population of pronghorn. Many grassland plants native to southern California co-evolved with pronghorn and are likely adapted to its particular grazing regime," states the Nature Conservancy.
Ultimately, for the people who work on a daily basis with the WRI, or the folks who take a Saturday morning to observe the raptors and the huge expanse of open space in the center of Ramona, "Hawk Watch" has become a fun, annual event - taking them out of their weekly routine for a few hours and allowing them to observe a rare bit of actual nature. They revel in the chance to spot a Peregrine Falcon, or a Northern Goshawk. Mostly, they revel in the ability to be free of the stresses of modern life ... if only for a little while.
"Fresh air. The sounds of wildlife. God, I love it!" shouts Thomas Stephan as he walks among his fellow birders.
He is not alone.