On a morning that felt more like the middle of May than the middle of January, nearly 300 fascinated folks gathered on the grounds of the Wildlife Research Institute (WRI) at 18030 Highland Valley Road for HawkWatch 2010, held each Saturday in January and February from 9 a.m. until noon.
Celebrating its 20th year of HawkWatch, the WRI has seen its crowds grow from a handful of hardcore enthusiasts in the early days to these days averaging between 200 and 600 excited onlookers. Those in the crowd vary from Boy Scouts to senior citizens, from avid bird watchers decked out with the latest high-tech gear to those new to the pastime, professors, activists, students, and a fair mix of not only Ramona residents, but visitors from out of town as well.
Recent HawkWatch coverage in the San Diego Union-Tribune caught the eyes of many people across the county who otherwise may not have known about one of Ramona’s best-kept secrets. One such visitor to last Saturday’s event was Noelle Patterson from Oceanside. A senior at Carlsbad High School, Patterson said she saw the HawkWatch article and knew that she needed to make the trip up the hill to Ramona to see it for herself.
“I am really interested in volunteer activities, especially when they benefit the environment,” she said.
Patterson plans to attend a state university, where she longs to study environmental engineering, with hopes of, as she puts it, “using Earth’s natural systems to improve the way we create things...to encourage sustainability.”
The day begins at 8:30 a.m. with coffee and pastries. There is a lot of information, located at different stations on the WRI grounds, offering even the most seasoned birdwatchers plenty of food for thought. At around 9 a.m., the crowd gathers on a knoll facing a large expanse of natural California grasslands, and several volunteers and staff from the institute begin an intriguing lesson on the different types of birds native to the local habitat, taking questions from the group and showcasing some freshly captured raptors, allowing the crowd an up-close and personal look at the majestic birds of prey.
The lectures are interrupted on occasion as the speaker will notice a particular bird flying low over the grassland, sending those in the group raising their binoculars and spotting scopes in unison to take a look.
The morning continues with an optional drive a bit further down the road, offering those who make the trip a unique opportunity to locate and observe these incredible birds in their natural environment, with a seasoned guide nearby to answer any questions that may arise. Observers can plan to see a wide variety of birds: American kestrels, Canadia geese, and ferruginous, red-tailed and broad-winged hawks, just to name a few.
Back at the WRI grounds, there is a well-stocked gift shop with mugs and T-shirts, jackets and spotting scopes, and lots of information. A food vendor is on site with cold drinks and a warm meal, and, everywhere you turn, there seems to be a WRI staff member or volunteer ready to help.