Monday, September 20, 2010

Idaho Bird Observatory: Part Two - Hawkwatch & Banding

The IBO Hawkwatch Crew!
Besides song bird banding, the IBO also does nighttime owl banding, hawkwatching, and hawk banding.  These hawkwatchers have learned to amazingly identify birds of prey from great distances based on the shape of their silhouette and how they fly.  Sometimes they get close enough to identify based on color.  During the hawkwatch, the staff and volunteers identify, count, and record all the birds they can see within their 360 degree binocular view.  They only use spotting scopes to confirm identities, not to find them.  Their skills blow me away!

Jay also allowed me to spend an hour with him in the Hawk Banding Shack.  I must admit that is was the most thrilling part of the morning.  It was a such a rush! Here is why:

Hawk banding shack with downtown Boise in the background.
Here Jay Carlisle is setting up the mist net triangle.  A bait bird will be placed in the center with the hope trapping hawks that fly in after the bait.
Jay is setting one of the bow nets.  Half of the trap is folded back and is spring loaded to flip up and over the hawk.  The bow trap is held down with a tiny wire connected to a string.  The string runs into the shack and is pulled when the hawk is safely in the middle of the trap.  At one point that morning, a hawk was in the trap area, but Jay couldn't see if it was in the middle area or not.  He did not spring the trap and the hawk flew off.  The safety of the bird comes before the science!
A dove is placed into a leather harness and attached to a rope.  The bait bird is then placed on the ground.  The rope can be pulled from inside the shack to cause the dove to lift and flap its wings thereby attracting the hawks.  The pigeon is used most as it is the largest and can quickly get a hawk's attention from a long ways away.  Once it has the hawk's attention, the doves or sparrows are used to lure the hawk to the appropriately sized trap.
Even the bait birds get a little TLC with birdseed and water.  The House Sparrows are also given a  little half-buried wooden shelter.  Very few bait birds are actually harmed during the whole capture process.
Looking through the viewing gap on the shack we scan the hills for hawks.  Once we see one, Jay tugs on the bait bird ropes to get the hawk's attention.  It is stunning and exhilarating to see how quickly these hawks will make their approach and attack.  Within seconds of us setting up the traps and entering the cover of the shack we had three Sharp-shinned Hawks and two Cooper's Hawks all at once.  It was quite a sight watching Jay shifting between pulling the bait ropes for four different traps while keeping at the ready to pull the trap trigger stings.
Jay is removing a hatch-year Cooper's Hawk from one of the bow nets, our first capture of the day.
Here Jay delicately removes our second catch of the day from the mist net, a hatch-year Sharp-shinned Hawk.
The hawk is checked out for general health and for parasites.  They also check the crop to see if it is full or not.  The Sharp-shinned we caught had recently eaten another bird.
The hawk is placed headfirst into a homemade tube of taped together soup cans.  This allows the banders hands to be free to measure and weigh the hawk without getting gripped in sharp talons or bitten with a powerful beak.  The whole process from capture to release lasts only about five minutes.
Here a young Sharp-shinned is about to be released over the skies of Boise.  Happy migration! We hope somebody somewhere catches you again so we can learn more about you!
Their release was delayed a little bit this morning because some dumb blogger was there wanting to take pictures and was excited to learn more about the distinguishing characteristics between Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks.  In-the-hand, both species are really easy to tell apart, much more so than in a tree or in flight.  Color pattern, eye color, relative tail length, etc are so easy up close and personal.
It was such an honor to hold these raptors in my hands and to see them up close.  These are birds worthy of study and protection.  Please consider a donation to the Idaho Bird Observatory to further their research.  Support can be given through their website here.

In case you missed it...

Part One - Song Bird Banding at the Idaho Bird Observatory

Coming up next...a photo quiz based on a few of the birds that were banded during my visit to the Idaho Bird Observatory.  Please check back in a couple days to hone you bird i.d. skills!


  1. That is a really well documented story (as is the previous one). Good pictures plus you show great empathy with the subject matter. Such a positive treatment will I am sure result in donations and more volunteers to help with such essential, rewarding but not always recognised work. Great Stuff.

  2. Wow! What an awesome post--really interesting and wonderful photos. I'm going to check out part 1 next.

  3. Ooh, another great post. Visiting a hawk banding station is HIGH on my to do list - hopefully this fall!