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HawkWatch season gets ready to roost in Ramona

RAMONA – It’s not uncommon to spot a red-tailed hawk soaring over North County neighborhoods, but if you want to guarantee a close-up look at these noble birds, head to the grasslands on Saturday morning.

That’s when the Wildlife Research Institute kicks off its 23rd annual season of HawkWatch, a program of free educational birding events held every Saturday morning in January and February at the Ramona Grasslands preserve.

The popular program draws from 200 to 400 people each week, depending upon the weather.

HawkWatch was created in 1990 by wildlife biologist Dave Bittner to raise awareness about local bird species and the importance of preserving the birds’ grassland habitats. In the early years, 25 to 30 people would show up at the HawkWatch events, but as word has spread, the crowds have mushroomed.

Every Saturday from Jan. 5 to Feb. 23, the public is invited to join experts from the Wildlife Research Institute in spotting, observing and counting the area’s raptor population, and learning more about their lifestyles and habitat. It’s common to see red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, golden eagles, ferruginous hawks, Cooper’s hawks, kestrels, prairie falcons and merlins. The Ramona Grasslands are recognized as a “raptor hot spot” because 19 different species of raptors have been observed there over the years.

The institute’s goal is to preserve and expand the grasslands and to conduct bird counts throughout Southern California. The group has also been involved in the past year in more than 15 bird studies related to the high kill rate of eagles who fly into wind turbine blades at windmill energy farms in East County. Bittner said that their goal is to work with the turbine developers and farmers to redesign the blades so they’re not as lethal to the birds, and help farmers situate the farms so they’re not in the birds’ traditional hunting areas.

Because banding the birds is important for accurate counts, HawkWatch guides usually trap several birds each Saturday morning and then demonstrate to the public how they band and identify the birds before releasing them into the wild. There may also be demonstrations of how the Institute tracks eagles with transmitters. Besides wild birds, Project Wildlife and Sky Hunters will often exhibit a number of captive birds on display at the weekly programs.

The all-ages program runs from 9 a.m. to noon, though park officials recommend that visitors arrive by 8:30 a.m. to ensure plenty of time for parking and assembly. Reservations are not required. Bring your own folding chair.

Meet at the Wildlife Research Institute headquarters at 18030 Highland Valley Road in Ramona. Temperatures are usually cold in the mornings and warm by midday, so dress in layers, and if it’s raining, wear rubber boots. Binoculars are a plus, although naturalists will have some bird-viewing scopes available.

The show will go on, even if it rains. In fact, rain can be a plus, because it usually reduces the size of the weekly crowds to just over 100 people, which allows those in attendance to get a closer look at the birds and presentation.

To reach the institute from Escondido, take Highway 78 to Ramona, turn right on Highway 67 and right on Highland Valley Road. The Wildlife Research Institute is about two miles north. Call (760) 789-3992 or visit