The view from our eagle observation point in the Sierra Juarez, Baja California, Mexico. A nest that was occupied last spring is located on the other side of the ridge in the left side of the picture.
I recently traveled with a few colleagues to north-central Baja California, Mexico, to conduct field research for the San Diego Zoo’s Golden Eagle Project (see previous post, Golden Eagle Helicopter Survey). A wind farm is being designed for future development in the Sierra Juarez, and the San Diego Zoo is involved with pre-construction research of habitat use and demographics of golden eagles. The objective of the project is to examine what parts of the mountain range are used by eagles and how and when they use each part. Our findings may help to minimize future interactions between eagles and turbines.
I am the new field ornithologist for the Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research and just joined the team in August. Because so little is known about the eagles in the area, we’ve had to resort to good, old-fashioned detective work—that means sitting and waiting to see eagles. On our last trip in September, we saw several raptor species including turkey vultures, peregrine falcons, and American kestrels during our surveillance from our high perch at the edge of the desert, but no eagles (darn!). We have previously observed eagles in this area and know that they breed here because of nest surveys that took place last March from a helicopter (brrrrr). However, we don’t know if they stick around all year or if they leave after the breeding season is over. So we decided we needed to increase our surveillance effort for the eagles during the non-breeding season. Our objective in the week-long observation period was to make note of any eagle (and other bird) activity in the area—but Mother Nature had other plans for us.
The first day that we were there, it was really windy–the winds were gusting up to 65 miles per hour (105 kilometers per hour)! We know this because another part of our mission was to set up weather stations that send all the data they gather directly to us at the Institute’s Beckman Center via the Internet (in real time!). Birds (especially big, heavy ones like eagles) don’t like to fly when it’s too windy because it takes a lot of energy to stay in air in those conditions, so we only stayed out for half the day. We’re lucky nobody got blown off the mountain! We went back out the next morning to continue our surveillance, and it snowed! The snow only lasted for about 30 minutes, but the wind had shifted, and it was cold (which is saying a lot, because I’m from Wisconsin!). The rest of the day was sunny, but still a little windy, and we still didn’t see any eagles. Our week continued much the same way—clear and windy and no eagles.
I’m not going to lie; at times we got pretty bored. But we also got to spend a week outside without worrying about e-mails and cell phones and all the other activities that take up too much time in our lives. We got to enjoy just being out in nature, which is the reason most of us became ecologists—to save nature so future generations can enjoy it, too. So the lesson from this trip is that I have to be patient—sooner or later, I’ll see an eagle and, in the meantime, I’ve got a great view!
Colleen Wisinski is a research associate with the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.