By Jessica King
From the lightning-fast peregrine falcon to the majestic golden eagle, the raptors that call the Ramona Grasslands home this time of year are bringing crowds to the Wildlife Research Institute.
The nonprofit is hosting its annual Hawk Watch, an all-ages education program drawing hundreds to the institute every Saturday in January and February.
On average, 300 to 350 people from throughout San Diego County — and occasionally abroad — flock to the institute on any given Saturday in January and February for Hawk Watch, said Leigh Bittner, the institute’s education director.
“Even in the recent rain we had 200 people,” said Bittner, noting the record for the largest crowd at a Hawk Watch event was set last year, with about 700 people showing up.
In addition to the free public Saturdays, the institute hosts Children’s Hawk Watch for school groups on Wednesdays. It’s mostly third- and fourth-graders and home-school groups, Bittner said, noting the only expense to the schools is transportation. The program is free.
Adding fuel to this year’s Hawk Watch popularity is the addition of two bald eagles that have chosen to nest in
the grasslands. Though bald eagles — usually juveniles — have migrated to the grasslands before, this is the first time any have chosen to nest in Ramona, according to the WRI.
Ramona resident Donna Rindskopf attended a recent Hawk Watch, bringing along a friend from Rancho Penasquitos.
“It’s cool,” she said. “I’ve been wanting to do it for a long time now and I’m glad I finally did.”
Rindskopf’s friend, Kathleen Regenhardt, was equally into it.
“I’m loving it,” she said. “This is great. I’ve lived in San Diego County all my life so it’s cool to be out here and see what’s native.”
According to Bittner, many Hawk Watch attendees who have heard about the nesting bald eagles end up surprised to learn about the other raptors regularly in the grasslands. And that, she said, is exactly why the institute puts on Hawk Watch every year.
It’s all about educating, Bittner said.
“If you don’t know what’s here, how can you appreciate it and help protect it,” she said.
During Hawk Watch, attendees are encouraged to arrive by 8:30 a.m. to enjoy free breakfast refreshments as they walk around the institute’s grounds. At 9 a.m., they are invited to gather on the institute’s lawn while raptors are presented to the crowd one-by-one by different handlers, who volunteer their time.
As the crowd marvels at the various raptors, moderators talk about the different types of raptors, touching on everything from how they sustain themselves to how they’re tracked. The moderators also debunk myths about raptors.
The crowd is welcomed at any time during the casual program to check out one of the several scopes set up to view raptors hanging out around the institute. The scopes are the only way to view the nesting bald eagles.
It takes about 15 to 20 volunteers to pull off each Saturday program, Bittner said.
To learn more about the institute or Hawk Watch, visit wildlife-research.org.