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.
One major focus for the WRI is the preservation of natural grasslands. Due to development and sprawl, they said, as little as 1 percent of the land in California can still be classified as grassland. Ramona is unique for that reason, lending itself to so much open space, creating a safe and attractive habitat for some truly outstanding wildlife, said Dave Bittner, executive director of WRI.
Ramona’s grasslands are “vital because they create large stretches of land linkages, wildlife corridors, and breeding grounds for many migratory animals,” said Bittner.
The Wildlife Research Institute boasts a membership roster of over 800 people. Members have even found themselves in a hands-on role, literally helping to “band” captured birds with GPS satellite trackers before they are released back into the wild.
Each year, WRI staff and volunteers and interested members make two trips to Wolf Creek, Mont., where they spend a week each time banding eagles and hawks, participating in migration studies, exploring the rim of the Continental Divide, and more.
Leigh Bittner of WRI is an source of information for those who may be interested in donating to the institute or becoming a member. She is proud of a relatively new program at WRI, called Children’s HawkWatch, established in 2003. Taking place every Wednesday in January and February, the program is offered to local third- and fourth-graders, teaching them all about raptors, grassland ecology, fairy shrimp and even how to use the high-powered spotting scopes used by the experts.
The Children’s HawkWatch nine-week schedule fills up instantly at the end of each calendar year, another program that she said could be greatly expanded with more funding.
The institute also invites the community to attend its annual WRI Fundraiser, scheduled this year for Saturday, April 17, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Highland Valley Studios at 18528 Highland Valley Road in Ramona.
The event will feature an Art and Wine Fair, along with a silent auction, the proceeds of which will go to benefit the WRI and its ongoing mission of conducting wildlife research, providing education in wildlife conservation, and conserving wildlife by habitat protection and land preservation. Wine tasting, food vendors, fine art and a special encounter with a golden eagle are just a few of the events on the docket for the day.
Admission to the fundraiser is $25 per person, or tickets may be purchased at the WRI during HawkWatch events for $10 per person.
Ramonans are encouraged to grab a comfy folding chair and their best pair of binoculars and set aside a Saturday morning to get beak-to-beak with rough-legged hawks, burrowing owls, and maybe even a buffalo or two. Admission and parking are free, and the views are priceless.
For more information, call 760-789-3992 or go to www.wildlife-research.org