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Releasing Ridgway's Hawks
Marta Curti — in West Indies Project    Share

On April 13, Thomas and Christine Hayes and I placed two young wild-hatched Ridgway’s Hawks into the hack box (a special enclosure designed to temporarily house the birds prior to release) set in a high tree overlooking the forest of Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. As part of an assisted dispersal program carried out by The Peregrine Fund and the Sociedad Ornitológica de la Hispaniola, the chicks would spend one week in the box before being released into their new home. The seven days spent in the enclosure gives them time to become accustomed to their new surroundings.

A recently released Ridgway's Hawk

Once the birds were settled into the box, Thomas returned to Los Limones to continue his field work, while Christine and their daughter, Mojave, and I stayed to take care of the young hawks. While the birds were in the box, our main responsibility was making sure that they were healthy and eating well. But, even providing them with food was an adventure. To reach the top of the tree where the hack box was situated, we had to climb a wood and rope ladder that occasionally creaked and wobbled. Rain also made the steps slippery, which didn’t help matters! For added protection, we always wore safety gear – a harness clipped to a jumar - before ascending the tree. From there, we dropped food down into the box through a specially designed food chute that blocked us from the hawks’ view so that they wouldn’t associate us with food. We spent time observing the birds through small peep holes to confirm they were eating and healthy. We also paid close attention to the transmitters they were wearing to make sure they fit well. These transmitters would allow us to track the birds once they were released.

Christine & Mojave at the hack site

After the doors to the hack box were opened, our schedule changed dramatically. We began to spend all day, from sunrise to sunset, at the hack site, observing the free-flying birds from a blind, making sure they were returning to the site every day for food and generally keeping themselves out of trouble. One of the problems at this site is the prevalence of vultures. Though they wouldn’t hurt our released birds, if the vultures fly too close or try to land on the box to score some free food, the hawks will fly off out of fear. It is our job to make sure these young raptors feel safe and secure on the box and know it is a safe place. So, a big part of our duties is “vulture patrol”. We regularly scan the skies, keeping our eyes peeled for their large, dark silhouettes. We then proceed to scare them away before they get too close. As it turns out, Mojave was the best vulture spotter of us all. Christine and I would be on the look-out, but it was often Mojave who spotted them first. She would point her tiny finger to the sky and yell “Bultr! Bultr” (two-year-old code for ‘vulture’). Then she would proceed to hiss and clap in an attempt to scare them away!

Though sometimes spending 14 hours every day in one place can get tiring, we always managed to entertain ourselves. Each day Mojave invented new games that involved either seed pods, sand, shells or lizards. And Broad-billed Todies, Palm Chats, Black-capped Tanagers, and a host of other birds flew in and out of the hack site most days, keeping things interesting.

A beautiful Broad-billed Tody at the hack site

Luckily, the release of the first two birds went very smoothly. Both males, named AV and BM, had returned to the box the day following release and were clearly comfortable at the hack site. I only wish the release of the second group of birds had been so easy! I will be writing about our adventures with the release ofAC next!

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