It is that time of year again. The hustle and bustle of our busiest season is coming to an end. We completed the nest monitoring in the middle of July and at the release site in Puntacana Resort & Club, only a few Ridgway’s Hawks continue to return in the evenings to feed. This does not mean that the work is over until the next nesting and release season. It is actually just a transition into focusing on monitoring the new population in Punta Cana and preparing ourselves for the upcoming season.
Speaking of monitoring, we are tracking more Ridgway’s Hawks than ever – a result of our most successful season this past year in Punta Cana. Not only did we release more Ridgway’s Hawks than ever before (31), we also had a record low number of mortalities with only one confirmed. We credit this incredible achievement to all the hard work we have put into our education program and our efforts to make all the power lines in Puntacana Resort & Club and the surrounding area a safe place for Ridgway’s Hawks. With so many new birds, we have to focus our attention on keeping track of each individual hawk. This allows us to hone in on areas where the hawks are starting to establish territories, and educate community members living nearby and who are most likely to come into contact with these birds. . We also work with locals - providing them with materials and information on building chicken coops - so they can protect their chickens by keeping them in a coop at night or while they are unsupervised. This not only protects the chickens from predation by hawks, but also from other predators such as rats, mongoose, feral cats, snakes and owls. Once people no longer see Ridgway’s Hawks as a threat to their chickens, they can begin to understand how these birds are beneficial to have around.
This past season we found six new pairs of Ridgway’s Hawks in the Punta Cana area, bringing the total number of pairs in the new population to eight pairs. This is a major achievement for the project. Four of these pairs attempted nesting in 2015 and one pair was successful in producing the fourth wild young to fledge naturally in the area. In the last report we wrote about one of these nests failing due to the adult female being infested by parasites while incubating a nest. This female has fully recovered and has been returned to the wild. We hope to see her trying to nest again in the coming year. We are very hopeful that we will see even more pairs in 2016, as well as more nesting success and wild hatched young.
Our research in the past few years has showed us that parasitism by bot flies (Philornis spp.) is one of the major causes of mortality in young Ridgway’s Hawks. We have been working very hard to develop treatment protocols that will help us to increase the productivity of the species. This undertaking has been very successful and is allowing us to take larger numbers of hawks from the source population in Los Haitises National Park without having a negative effect on the numbers of nestlings which fledge there. In fact, we are more than tripling chick production in this population. This is great news as it allows us to work faster towards the end goal of having a self-sustaining population in Punta Cana. This year we also embarked on research in order to gain a better knowledge of these parasites. This work is being conducted in a laboratory right here in the Puntacana Ecological Foundation. We hope that in the future we will understand why these parasites are so prevalent and so devastating to some bird populations. Eventually we may be able to use what we learn to implement control methods on a larger scale which could have a positive impact on other bird species both in Dominican Republic and in other parts of the world, as well!!
As usual, we have a lot of news to report about the Ridgway’s Hawk Conservation Project. During the nesting season between January and July we are busier than ever with all aspects of Ridgway’s Hawk Conservation. Our holistic approach to conserving this critically endangered species means that we have a very diverse set of tasks to accomplish. We are currently monitoring 90+ pairs of Ridgway’s Hawks in Los Haitises National Park. On top of that we are also monitoring 8 pairs of Ridgways Hawks in Punta Cana and the surrounding area. This not only includes finding these pairs and their nests, but also climbing into the nests to monitor the health of nestlings once they hatch. We also help out with a number of hands on management techniques such as repairing nests to keep them from falling and treating nestlings for parasites which can cause high rates of mortality. We have released 26 new Ridgway’s Hawks into the ecological reserve in Punta Cana and our efforts to increase environmental awareness are in full swing with increasingly positive results.
During the height of the breeding season, we received a call from Punta Cana employees stating that they had found an injured Ridgway’s Hawk on the ground. It was a female hawk we had released in the area last year. She had been incubating one egg in her first nest and became infested with a number of parasites which caused her to grow weak. Thankfully, we were able to restore this hawk to health and release her again. The fact that the employees were able to identify the hawk, knew of its importance and went to the trouble to try to save her, shows how far the project has come in educating people about this bird and creating interest and support for the program. Gracias Amigos!!!!
On May 22, we brought 55 students from the communities of Juanillo and Suero Juanillo to the Punta Cana Ecological Foundation for our annual Ridgway’s Hawk Day celebration. Students visited the Ridgway’s Hawk release site and had the opportunity to see a number of hawks up close. They each received a palm tree sapling to plant at home and participated in an art project, decorating their pots with felt and other materials. We then brought the students to the beach for a boat ride along the shore and to participate in a few games teaching them about coral reefs and conservation.
Of the 8 pairs of Ridgway’s Hawks in Punta Cana that we are monitoring, several have engaged in nesting behavior so far this year. One pair is currently incubating eggs and one pair successfully hatched two chicks. Unfortunately, one of the young chicks died sometime in its first week of life. The second chick is healthy and continues to grow each day. Another pair of hawks spent a long time incubating what turned out to be infertile eggs. As part of our assisted dispersal program, we placed a young chick slated for release into this pair’s nest - a technique called “fostering.” The adults took to the chick right away and did a wonderful job raising a healthy bird. This young hawk successfully fledged on the 5th of May and still doing well to date.
Once again it is Ridgway’s Hawk breeding season and we have spent the last several months monitoring the ever growing population of hawks in Punta Cana. We have also been preparing ourselves and the release area for another busy season. This has included making it a safer place for the birds by continuing with our environmental education program and retrofitting of power lines.
Retro fitting power lines has been one of our biggest efforts so far this year. Many power poles here in the Dominican Republic are made of cement with a metal cross-arm, making the entire pole conducive to electricity. If a bird touches any part of a cement power pole with a metal cross-arm while touching one of the power lines it can be electrocuted – especially in wet weather. With a wooden pole and wooden cross-arm a bird would have to touch two energized lines at the same time in order to be electrocuted. We initially installed wooden T-perches above the power poles in Punta Cana to prevent electrocutions, but sometimes the hawks perch below the T-perches and other smaller species of birds will perch on any horizontal surface of the pole. Even though we have worked very hard to make these poles safer we still had several Ridgway’s Hawk mortalities due to electrocutions in 2014. We immediately jumped back into action and last August (2014) we invited Rick Harness from EDM International to evaluate the distribution lines in the area. Rick is an expert in preventing raptor and other wildlife electrocutions. His job is to evaluate distribution lines and identify areas which are potentially dangerous. He then makes recommendations in order to correct the problem. Rick spent a week evaluating our situation in Punta Cana so he could advise us on how to proceed. Rick recommended a number of different products that we could use to retrofit the lines in Punta Cana and then we made the ultimate decision on which product to use based on price and functionality. Unfortunately, even though the local power company in Punta Cana has agreed to install the products for free and we can purchase the materials we need almost at production cost, it still requires about $150 total to retrofit a single power pole. As expensive as retrofitting is, we feel that this is the best option in order to make a safe environment for the hawks as well as for the other species of birds found in the area. After the lengthy process of ordering and getting these products shipped to the DR, we began retro-fitting power poles in January. With a $5000 grant from the Walt Disney Foundation and a $4000 donation from Grupo Puntacana, we were able to purchase enough materials to cover most of the poles immediately surrounding the release area. Power Line Sentry manufactured the parts we needed and the founder of the company, Ron Spencer, even flew down to the DR from the US on his own dime to make sure that all the products were installed correctly. With Rick’s and Ron’s help we have covered about 80 poles. We have estimated that it will cost upwards of $100,000 to completely retrofit all the poles in and around the Puntacana Resort and Club. Poco a poco (little by little) we move forward, for now all of the poles where we have seen mortalities have been retrofitted. As the population expands we will continue with this effort.
We are beginning to see signs that our efforts in education are proving effective. We have been receiving calls from locals in the communities close to PC. Rather than shooting raptors that show up near their houses, they are now calling us to come and identify the birds and also to provide them with chicken cages so that they can prevent having their small chickens eaten. The message that hawks are beneficial to have around is starting to take hold as locals talk about not wanting to shoot the hawks since they help to control rats and snakes which eat their crops and poultry.
Looking to the future, we plan to release 20+ Ridgway’s Hawks at the Punta Cana hack site during the 2015 season. We also expect to have more nestlings hatch right here in Punta Cana as we have identified two new pairs of hawks who are nest building, doubling the breeding population for a grand total of four breeding pairs this year! In addition to the actively nesting pairs, several juvenile Ridgway’s have paired off, spending time near each other, seeming to be forming pair bonds. These juveniles may not reproduce this year, but we know they are a sign of good things to come.
We are extremely excited to let all of you know what has happened since our last report. The last of the hawks that were returning to the release site to feed have become completely independent. For the last several months we have focused our energy on monitoring all of the hawks in Punta Cana. This has become an increasingly challenging task as the Punta Cana Ridgway’s Hawk population has more than quadrupled in the last year. Fortunately, we have several dedicated Dominicans who have made the hawks their priority and are following their movements on a daily basis.
The most exciting news is the formation of several new pairs. These new pairs come as a direct result of the last year’s releases and also the remaining unpaired males, one of which has been a bachelor since he was released in 2011. The first hawks to start acting as though they might pair up were Blue-44 and Red-22. Blue 44 was the first Ridgway’s Hawk to hatch in the wild in Punta Cana from our first pair to form back in 2013. Red-22 was released this past year and shortly after she became independent, we started seeing her and B-44 together. In the last few months these interactions have become stronger and we are most certain that they have formed a pair bond. We are hopeful that they will attempt to breed this upcoming season!!
Veteran male Black-AR and female Red-24 have also been seen consistently seen together for the last few months. Other potential pairs of hawks are starting to form and so far it looks like we may have as many as six pairs of Ridgway’s Hawks in the Puntacana area for the 2015 breeding season. Something very important to point out is that many of these birds are favoring territories in Puntacana’s upscale residential areas. There is certainly plenty of undisturbed woodland habitat for Ridgway’s Hawks in Punta Cana, but it seems that they prefer the open forest edge habitat that the residential areas provide. The hawks certainly use the pristine forests of areas such as Ojos Indigenous for hunting and to escape the hot sun in the middle of the day, but so far all of our Ridgway’s Hawk nests have been in territories in residential areas of the area. This is great news as it is a testament to the adaptability of Ridgway’s Hawks and this kind of adaptability will only mean greater success for the birds’ future. It is also good news for residents of Puntacana, since these top predators will certainly help control some unwanted pests such as rats and mice.
In other news, our education program is stronger than ever. In just the last three months we have already reached more individuals than we did in all the rest of 2014. This is the result of all the hard work that our Education Coordinator Marta Curti has put in over the last several years and some great collaborations we have put together between The Peregrine Fund, the Puntacana Ecological Foundation, Fundacion Propagas, and the Santo Domingo Zoo. Our ultimate goal is nationwide awareness and a cultural shift in the attitude towards raptors, but we are making this change one person at a time.
Finally, we have been working over the last few months to purchase and import retrofitting devices to help make power lines in Puntacana safe for birds. We have just received all of the parts we ordered and now have only to put them to work. This task will be accomplished by Grupo Puntacana over the next couple months and before the 2015 releases begin. This action will go a long way, not only to protect Ridgway’s Hawks, but also many other species who make Puntacana their home.
By the time we submitt our next report, I hope to be telling you more about the newly formed pairs of hawks and also a bit about the exciting field work we are conducting in Los Haitises National Park.
2014 has been a great year for the Ridgway’s Hawk. In our last report we mentioned that we increased our release efforts and brought 29 new hawks to PuntaCana. All of these individuals were able to be released at the hacksite in PuntaCana and with a lot of hard work, all fledged successfully. The last of the released hawks (currently six individuals continue to eat at the hacksite) are still returning to the hacksite to eat, but as the remaining hawks become independent and begin to hunt for themselves, they will stop returning to eat the food we have been providing. This year we released our first group of hawks on April 9th and it wasn’t until the first week in June till we released the final group. The large group of individuals released has made this the longest hacking period that the project has ever had. In all, we have been at the release site every morning and every evening for close to 5 months and have purchased close to US $4000.00 in food (mostly laboratory raised rats) to feed the hawks.
A big part of our work is tracking and monitoring the birds when they are not at the release site. This is very important as it gives us the opportunity to further insure the success of each individual after they have become independent. These tracking expeditions often become educational excursions as we tell the story of the hawk and the conservation project to tourists, local farmers, security guards and anyone else we encounter. One of the biggest issues facing Ridgway’s Hawks in the Dominican Republic is persecution by humans. This is normally done by subsistence farmers who are accustomed to killing hawks to protect their chickens rather than protecting them with chicken coops. One person at a time, we are educating these farmers about the importance of the hawks and the work we are doing. We have even begun to provide chicken coops to some of these individuals and they really like to use them as it protects their valuable chickens from other predators as well. We also educate them about all the benefits that raptors provide to farmers in controlling agricultural pests such as mice and rats. The cooperation from these individuals is encouraging.
Another part of this monitoring is to learn what causes of mortality our released hawks may be facing. In nature it is normal for some individuals to parish in the process of reaching adult hood. In raptor populations in general, it is thought that between 70-80% of nestlings born in the wild will die during their first year. As mentioned before, persecution is one of the major causes of mortality for Ridgway’s Hawks and normally predation by other animals is also a big concern for nestling and fledgling raptors. In Ridgway’s, we have documented very low mortality rates due to predation, but have discovered a larger concern, electrocution on power lines. Fortunately for Ridgway’s Hawks in the PuntaCana area, Grupo PuntaCana continues to work on this issue. The PuntaCana Ecological Foundation and Grupo PuntaCana have already been working on these power lines for some time now since our first documented case of electrocution in 2011. In 2014, we brought in an expert in raptor electrocutions to review the power lines in the release area. During the 2014-2015 season, the power lines in PuntaCana will be undergoing a complete retrofitting. This will be done using specially designed products to insulate the energized wires on each pole. Retrofitting power lines is costly and the first phase of the project is expected to cost close to US $20,000.00.
While the 2014 release season is still going, preparations are underway for the following nesting season in LHNP and to release another group of approximately 25 hawks in Punta Cana. Dominican field technicians, Valentine Cespedez and Misael Calcano are tracking the hawks daily and bring encouraging reports that some of the newly released hawks have been consistently seen with B-44, the male hawk who hatched in the wild in PuntaCana in 2013. We have high expectations that we will be seeing more pairs of Ridgway’s Hawks in the Punta Cana area in 2015 and with this more hope for one of the most critically endangered raptors in the world.
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