If you see two guys in a silver Ford truck cruising slowly through your neighborhood, pulling u-turns and jumping out to peer into the trees above your house with binoculars, it could be trouble, or it could be Justin White and Trent Parks of the Reno Hawk Project — and they’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t call the cops.
On Saturday morning, with light snow falling, I rode along with White and Parks as they searched for hawks and nests in the Damonte Ranch area of South Reno. White, a second-year PhD student at the University of Nevada, Reno, is studying the hawks that live in urban areas of the Truckee Meadows region. He is currently working with a team of six interns, under the direction of Dr. Scott Bassett, to locate nests of Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) and Cooper’s Hawks (Accipiter cooperii) in Reno and Sparks. Parks, White’s co-pilot for today’s nest-searching mission, is a new intern for the Reno Hawk Project and an undergraduate studying conservation ecology at UNR.
As we looped through neighborhoods and commercial areas in South Reno scanning the trees for hawk nests, White explained more about the project. “In our area, hawks start building nests during February, and will lay their first eggs very soon”, said White. Most hawk nests are placed in the forks of tall trees, but hawks will nest on any elevated structure, like a building or behind a billboard, he explained. “The craziest place I’ve seen a nest was on the side of a bridge along I-80, over the Truckee River and train tracks,” said White.
White is interested in learning about how hawks have adapted their behavior to live in urban areas, and the interactions that people have with hawks around their homes. After spotting a nest in a tree near a house, we drove down a long driveway and knocked on the door. We pondered the possibility of coming face-to-face with a shotgun, but instead, a friendly woman named Suzie opened the door and told us a few stories about the hawks, geese and Great Horned Owls that she has seen on her property. “One of the things that has surprised me about working on this project is that almost everyone I’ve talked to has had good stories about birds of prey,” said White.
White and Parks look for hawks along South Virginia Street, Feb. 28, 2015.
Red-tailed Hawk in a tiny tree, Damonte Ranch. Feb. 28, 2015.
So far, the Reno Hawk Project team has located more than 170 nests, but they anticipate that only about thirty percent of those nests will be used by Red-tailed Hawks or Cooper’s Hawks this season. Red-tailed Hawks, which mate for life, usually have multiple nests within a territory. They’ll only lay eggs in one of the nests each season, but may decide to reuse an old nest or build a new one. In April, White and his team of interns and community volunteers will begin monitoring all of the nests that are being used by breeding pairs of hawks. They’ll watch each nest twice per week, for two hours per session, and record hawk behavior. They also plan to set up cameras at 20 nests.
On the way back to the University, we stopped by the Truckee River to see a hawk nest that has become home to a Great Horned Owl. Great Horned Owls don’t build their own nests, but move into nests built by other species such as Red-tailed Hawks, other hawks, ravens or herons. Great Horned Owls come back from their winter migration a few weeks before many hawks, so are able to get first choice of nests sites. Over the rim of the nest, we could see a big round bird-head with two feathery “horns”:
A Great Horned Owl has moved into an old hawk nest near the Truckee River. Feb. 28, 2015.
Kelsey stalks a Great Horned Owl. Photo by Trent Parks.
White believes it is important to involve the public in his research, and hopes that local citizen scientists will join him in locating and observing nests around their homes. “Part of the idea behind this citizen science project is to highlight that we live in an urban ecosystem with a full food chain,” said White. “I hope that people realize what a unique environment we live in, and what an awesome island Reno is for birds of prey.”
What kind of hawks do you see in your neighborhood? If you’d like to get involved or help sponsor this project, contact Justin White via the the Reno Hawk Project website at raptorsofreno.org. This project will run through 2017. A huge thanks to Justin White and Trent Parks for letting me ride along!
Trent Parks and Justin White, Reno Hawk Project. Feb 28, 2015.
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