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Pantex researches planned wind farm’s migration impact

Across Carson County’s shortgrass plains near Pantex Plant, Jimmy Walker and Little Ray work in perfect harmony.

Walker wants to bring down Swainson’s hawks, the most common bird of prey in the Texas Panhandle, long enough to attach tracking devices to their bodies, and he knows Little Ray, a great horned owl, is the perfect trap.

“Every time we caught a hawk, it’s almost been like the owl says, ‘Got another one,’” Walker said. “He just sits there on his perch and lets us do our thing.”

Walker, a West Texas A&M University graduate student, is part of a team of students and Pantex researchers who want to determine what effect, if any, a planned wind farm east of Pantex might have on the hawks’ migration patterns.

The Pantex wind farm, a first at a National Nuclear Security Administration facility, will include five 3-megawatt turbines on 1,500 acres of government-owned property east of the plant.

The turbines are expected to stand 426 feet high.

Construction is expected to begin in the fall with a completion date of summer 2013, according to information from Pantex.

Proposals are due Sept. 6, and the winning bidder is expected to operate and maintain the wind farm under a 25-year contract with the government.

The owl sits calmly on a perch on an unobstructed plot of land, surrounded on two sides by nets attached to poles with clothespins. As it spots a potential threat, the hawk swoops down to confront the predator and is quickly tangled in the web.

“They (owls) are pretty amazing,” Walker said. “You think they’d be in danger, but every time a hawk comes by, all he does is kind of bend his knees and the hawk flies over him, and he’s in the trap.”

Walker must then quickly attach a breast plate tracking device that wraps around the bird’s body to track its location, elevation and direction of flight for the next year, which includes migration as far as Argentina.

Jim Ray, the plant’s wildlife biologist, said WT and Pantex researchers plan to continue the project at least three years after the turbines are installed.

The data they gather before the wind farm is finished will help determine any changes to the hawks’ movement once the birds have turbines stretching more than 400 feet in their paths, Ray said.

“If other turbines are online, this could continue,” he said.

The nature of the hawk project, now in its second year, has taken Ray and his WT colleagues outside Pantex Plant’s borders.

“We’re going off-site because animals don’t see property lines,” Ray said. “We have a lot of cooperation with private landowners around the plant in an area about six times the size of Pantex right now.”

Ray’s friend, Nancy Burrell, owns land where some of the work is done and was eager to help.

“He (Little Ray) knew there was nesting here, and (Ray) asked if it’s OK if he used our land, and I said sure,” Burrell said. “The more we know, the better things are.”

During the hawks’ visits to the Texas Panhandle, the optimal lure time is the three weeks during which the hawks tend to their nests after their young hatch but before they can step out of the nest on their own, Walker said.

This year, six of the eight Swainson’s hawks with radio transmitters came back to the plant after last year’s season, Walker said.

But while the hawks head to warmer climates, researchers likely are to use Little Ray only during cooler weather and especially in the early morning for just about 10 minutes, he said.

“He’s usually in a climate-controlled barn, and if you’re out here in the sun, you’re not going to see a wild owl sitting out here like this,” he said. “He’s going to be under the shade of a tree somewhere, so naturally we don’t want to take him out of that element too long.”

To date, the trap has worked without any major glitches, which Walker attributes to Little Ray’s calm nature.

“He’s just been raised real well and trained well,” Walker said.

Before the owl method, Walker said they used traps that lured hawks with gerbils under a metal net.

On top of the trap, small wires tied in bunches would snag the hawk as it landed on the device, tangling its talons, Walker said.

But Little Ray has made the project much easier, he said.

“You put this guy (Little Ray) under a tree with a hawk, you’re going to catch him,” Walker said.