With Eyes on the Sky, Raptor Monitors Help Protect the Ecosystem
Were you one of more than 14 million visitors to a Colorado State Park in 2017? People have been flocking to our parks in record numbers over the last few years. And there are good reasons. Our state parks are located in some of Colorado’s most spectacular landscapes and they host a plethora of recreational activities, ranging from fishing and hunting to hiking, biking, kayaking and climbing. The increased popularity is a reassuring sign of people’s interest in the outdoors; however, the popularity brings with it the dynamic challenge of balancing recreation and the human impact on the ecosystem. Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff is tasked with identifying methods to monitor and strike a balance between nature and human interaction so that the park system remains healthy and available for generations to come.
CPW’s Resource Stewardship Program plays a vital role in monitoring and managing the parks system. The program keeps focus on the fragile balance between sustainable outdoor recreation and improving and sustaining the ecological, scenic, and scientific resources. The program staff and volunteers work with park managers to perform inventories of natural resources, advise on planning processes, and provide appropriate tools to effectively conserve and manage the natural and cultural resources of each park.
One of the Resource Stewardship Program’s utilizes a volunteer workforce to monitor some of the parks most sensitive residents – the amazing raptors! Raptors are a keystone predator and indicator species. This means that their presence or absence in a park can serve as a barometer for ecosystems health. These top-level carnivore’s food base is comprised of fish, mammals, reptiles, insects and in some cases other birds. So monitoring raptor behavior can help provide insights into the health and functioning of small animal populations and the habitats on which they depend. A lack of or decline in raptor population may indicate a lack of or decline in prey species or changes to their habitats.
Some raptors have specific breeding and nesting habitat needs and their use or lack of use of these habitats can lend additional information about the functioning of the larger ecosystem puzzle.The absence of sensitive raptor species in traditionally used areas may be a reflection of that habitat experiencing an excess of disturbance. And finally, raptor nest monitors contribute directly to the preservation of birds of prey in Colorado. By identifying nest sites, monitoring them for disturbance and observing the behavior of nesting birds, nest monitors provide valuable information to land managers.
Hitting the Trails
To get more insight into the raptor monitor world, I recently spent a day trying to keep up with volunteer and raptor nest monitor Dick Prickett on the trails of Staunton State Park. Staunton opened their gates to the public on May 18, 2013, after years of careful planning and development. One year before the opening, the park manager wisely organized a group of volunteers, of which Dick was a founding member of the first raptor monitoring team. And he has been at the heart of every raptor report since.
As an avid outdoorsman and big-game hunter who served for several decades as a veterinarian in the Evergreen/Pine area of Colorado, Dick is well suited to the role of lead raptor monitor at Staunton. He had logged hours of volunteer time at Roxborough State Park, including time spent with the raptor monitoring team. So he had a general sense of what he would be getting into at Staunton. But as Dick learned, each park participating in the program has its own unique raptor story.
Some of Dick’s first words to me were, “You’ve come to Staunton to bird watch?” He was joking… kind of. He explained the extreme difference between the monitoring program in Roxborough and the program at Staunton. Roxborough has a long history of monitoring well-identified nesting spots and historical knowledge of raptor behavior. Much of the habitat can be reached with a fairly short hike and good set of binoculars or spotting scope. In contrast, in 2012, much of the raptor behavior at Staunton was unknown. There was little to no knowledge of existing nests and much of the information on raptor activity was anecdotal. The good news was the park had identified an individual with a passion for nature and the outdoors experience to start laying a foundation for scientific inquiry into the bird behavior at Staunton. Dick could lead the team to collect a body of knowledge that would provide a solid baseline for raptor behavior before the full influx of the public.
Dick assisted in developing the Staunton specific zone system that divides the park through a gridlike system and allows monitors to standardize their reporting. The zones are created in an effort to try to isolate a good range of habitat types along the monitoring routes. Staunton’s observation zones are accessed along two arduous 9-mile routes that would put most hikers to task just to complete. And Dick and his fellow volunteers do not just hike these routes. With birding binoculars in hand, they conduct a scheduled march from location to location making a timed observation of raptor activity from specific observation points. They visit each zone’s observation point once every two weeks. And they only count raptors within at most a ½ mile of each observation point or the distance that identification is easily confirmed. They monitor each point for raptors for 5-10 minutes total. While they can move slightly to improve gathering details during a sighting, there is a strict goal of replicating a consistent approach for reporting. And depending on the time of the year, observations at a park like Staunton can be few and far between.
Dick shared that one of the greatest challenges for Staunton’s raptor monitoring program is the difficulty in identifying critical nesting areas. Nests play a central role in monitoring raptor behavior and while Staunton’s heavily wooded hillsides provide outstanding nesting opportunities and protection for the raptors, the terrain poses a significant challenge to the two-legged landbound creatures tasked with locating and monitoring the nests.
Locating and monitoring nests are accomplished through strict search and nest monitoring protocols. All volunteers make a dedicated effort to limit disturbance to nesting raptors and other wildlife. Identified nests are monitored from safe species-specific buffer distances of up to 800 meters while the monitors make every attempt to hide behind cover and stay low to the ground. With a program requirement that includes visiting nest sites every two weeks for 2-3 hours and supplementing on weekends to monitor nests for any disturbance. Dick and his team took this process very seriously as they began to check and identify historic and potential nest sites. As Dick made clear to me, this activity is not about birdwatching or photography; his is a position of great responsibility and requires adhering to a monitoring code of ethics to be successful. Collecting data is of highest priority.
To build a list of nesting sites, Dick and his platoon of volunteers spent weeks systematically combing through the dark timbered areas of the park. Identifying one of their earliest recorded nest sites occurred only by the off chance that a team member caught a glimpse of a red-tailed hawk flying overhead with some nesting materials. Using the hawks general direction and a tireless “needle-in-a-haystack” search effort, which was conducted over a series of days, the team was able to pinpoint a nest location. The location of the first nest provided the team with a key piece of the raptor-based ecosystem monitoring puzzle.
Staunton is fortunate to host a wide variety of raptors, including golden and bald eagles and the American peregrine falcon, all of which have been identified in CPW’s State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP) as Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN). The SWAP outlines and prioritizes each of Colorado’s SCGNs by identifying threats, information needs and conservation actions, process that allows CPW to stay consistent in our conservation efforts and coordinate with other members of Colorado’s wildlife conservation community and stakeholders.
Raptor Reports Produce Results
Observations by the raptor monitoring team have helped inform critical management decisions around the park. Dick and his team observed a human impact issue, where normal peregrine falcon behavior was being disrupted during the nesting season by hikers using the popular Lions Head trail. While hiking appeared to be a relatively benign activity, trails end placed hikers at a scenic overlook and above potential nesting birds. Peregrine falcons were cruising along the rockface, more than 100 feet below hikers, in search of potential nesting sights. This uncomfortable position for the falcons ultimately resulted in the raptors abandoning their search. To strike a compromise, park managers used raptor reports to institute a seasonal trail closure from March 15 to July 31. The closure would allow raptors uninterrupted access during this critical nesting period. And hikers could reach other scenic outlooks that did not impact raptor behavior, successfully striking a balance in park activity.
Monitoring efforts have also helped to inform rock climbing closures, by allowing birds access to the prime habitat and also allowing for reopening of access once it has been determined that raptors have not taken advantage of the nesting areas. Over the years, Dick has witnessed a range of interesting behavior from both raptors and park visitors. And miles of trails and hundreds of hour of observations have helped him feel confident that Staunton is adapting and managing to keep all of its visitors happy.
Trusted Guardians of Information
Much like the Vegas slogan, what happens in the monitor group stays in the monitor group. Often approached by curious photographers and birdwatchers in search of bucket list photos, raptor monitors proudly protect the nesting locations of many sensitive and protected species. All reported nesting activity and locations are not to be shared with anyone outside CPW or the monitoring program. And sightings of raptors, especially of nesting raptors, are not to be shared on websites, listservs, Ebird, social media or any other public format.
Raptor monitors make up a small, but indispensable part of CPW’s Volunteer workforce. In 2017, volunteers contributed more than 275,000 hours of support to essential CPW programs that could not run without their assistance. Their dedicated support produced the equivalence of adding more than 140 full-time staff members. Our volunteers are unsung heroes that protect what we all value most about Colorado.
Interested in becoming a raptor monitor? Visit the CPW website to learn about what it takes to join the growing ranks of citizen scientists that are helping to keep Colorado wild.
Written by Doug Skinner. Skinner is an editor for Colorado Outdoors Online and is a media specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.