Conserving the Ridgway's Hawk in Punta Cana, DR

by Puntacana Ecological Foundation
Vetted
Hawk, wild hatched in PC in 2014.
Hawk, wild hatched in PC in 2014.

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.

2014 has been the most exciting and successful year yet for the Ridgway’s Hawk Conservation Project here in the Dominican Republic. In Punta Cana in 2013, we witnessed the formation of the first breeding pair of our released birds (2012 released female Red ND and 2011 released male Black AV). They successfully produced the first wild chick (male Blue 44) outside of the last stronghold of Ridgway’s Hawks in Los Haitises National Park. Early in 2014 we confirmed the second breeding pair which formed from two previously released individuals: 2009 released female Red SN and 2012 released male Black AN. Both pairs went on to build nests and incubate eggs. AV and ND were successful again and fledged two young male hawks on May 17th. These birds are doing great and now that they are old enough to be left on their own, both parents are leaving the nest site in search of food to feed the youngsters until they have learned to hunt for themselves. Unfortunately, SN and AN were not successful as both of their eggs turned out to be infertile. They continue to remain together in their territory and we have high hopes that they will try again next year.

Due to last year’s successful nesting from AV and ND, The Peregrine Fund made plans to beef up release efforts, moving the project out of the experimental phase and begin releasing enough individuals to create a second population in Punta Cana. The new plan for 2014 was to release 25 new hawks in Punta Cana, more hawks than have been released in all years of the project combined (19 total in the Punta Cana area). This increase was only possible due to the grueling work of treating all the wild chicks in Los Haitises to prevent botfly infestations. Efforts to increase survivability of nestlings have more than doubled the numbers of chicks which survive to fledging age in the national park population. Thus we can leave a substantial number of chicks to fledge naturally in Los Haitises   and have more birds to release as part of the effort to expand the distribution of this critically endangered bird. The final total of released birds in 2014 was 29 individuals with the final release taking place on June 1st.

Another first in 2014 was that we raised many of the chicks we released from about 5-7 days old until they were of age to be moved to the release site, about 35 days old. The hope was that this would enable the wild adults who produced these chicks in Los Haitises National Park to renest. This method seemed to work well as all of the pairs from which we took young nestlings eventually made a second attempt at nesting and many of the birds are currently raising their second round of nestlings.

Education is one of the most important aspects of any good conservation program. Here in Punta Cana it is essential that we make efforts to educate the surrounding communities about the work we are doing and the importance of the hawk. One of the best ways to help people to appreciate an animal is to make it something that they associate with having fun or something in which they can take pride. To this end, in 2014, we launched the very first Ridgway’s Hawk Day right here in Punta Cana, inviting school children from a nearby barrio to the Punta Cana Ecological Foundation to see and learn about Ridgway’s Hawks. The date we chose, May 25th, is the day B-44 hatched last year (B-44 is the first wild chick hatched in Punta Cana and the first known chick hatched outside of the National Park population in more than 30 years). Many other educational activities were carried out including visits to local schools and visits to isolated communities in the area. As the population of Ridgway’s Hawks grows in Punta Cana, it will be essential to continue to grow our education efforts because the people who come into daily contact with these birds will potentially have a huge impact on their survivability as a species. Of course, in order to reach the Dominican communities here we need continued backing from our own community of support. Thank you so much for your interest in this project!

 

 

View of the new hackbox at our site
View of the new hackbox at our site

2014 is upon us and with it a new breeding season for the Ridgway’s Hawk. Many pairs of Ridgway’s Hawks in Los Haitises National Park are already incubating and here at the Puntacana Ecological Foundation we are anticipating that our Ridgway’s Hawks in Punta Cana will soon be incubating as well. The pair of Ridgway’s Hawks, AV and ND, who raised a chick here last year have been observed taking fine materials to their nest (a sign that it is near completion). They have also been observed copulating and we are excited to see what the coming nesting season will bring for them.

B-44 (short-hand for right leg banded Blue 4 over 4), the offspring hatched last year by AV and ND, is a beautiful juvenile this year. He has been wandering the area as most young hawks do when they are surveying the available land before establishing a territory. B-44 has been spending time with another single male in the area, AR (released in 2011); they have been observed flying together on their way to separate roosts in the evening.

We recently discovered that AN, a young adult male Ridgway’s Hawk released in 2012, has moved his territory and paired up with SN, a female released in 2009. This is the first time we know of that SN has had the opportunity to be with a male. She and AN have been taking nesting materials to a palmchat nest in a royal palm that is located in the front yard of a large house here in Punta Cana. This is a great example of how easily these hawks can live in green urban and suburban areas when they are not persecuted by people. These hawks feed on rats, mice, snakes, lizards, skinks, birds, frogs, insects, and bats so they are able to support themselves readily both in wilderness and urban habitat. AN and SN have also been copulating and nest building so we are eagerly awaiting the results of their breeding efforts this season as well.

Aside from monitoring the Ridgway’s Hawks that are already in Punta Cana, we are looking forward to a great release season this year. We have been preparing a new release site in Punta Cana to help meet our goal of releasing 15 to 25 hawks this season. Last year we did not release any new hawks in Punta Cana because we wanted to put more effort into environmental education within the surrounding communities and also allow time for the electric poles in the area to be retro-fitted with t-perches to make them safer for perching hawks and other birds. In 2014, our educational outreach program will include efforts by a new project partner, Fundacion Propagas, who will be heading up a national education campaign to raise awareness about the Ridgway’s Hawk and the amazing conservation work being done with this species.

Last year The Peregrine Fund focused efforts on the main population of Ridgway’s Hawks in Los Haitises National Park. They monitored nesting pairs of adults as they have for many years and with the help of the Santo Domingo Zoo (ZOODOM) they came up with an effective treatment for the prevention of bot-fly infestations in nestling hawks. In the past, bot-flies have been associated with high mortality in nestling Ridgway’s Hawks. This treatment of nestlings has been credited with an increase in survival of nestling hawks to fledging age from 50%-60% in previous years to about 83% in 2013. This is great news for the Ridgway’s Hawk since it will make more nestlings available to release in order to create a second self-sustaining population here in Punta Cana.

During the 2009 to 2012 hacking seasons the project released about five birds per year as a sort of pilot program to help work out any complications involved in the hacking of Ridgway’s Hawks. Now that there are two breeding pairs from the released birds in the Punta Cana area and we have had a chance to address the highest causes of mortality, it is time to begin releasing larger groups of birds. The Peregrine Fund is investing heavily in the conservation of the core population in Los Haitises National Park and as a result, more nestling Ridgway’s Hawks are available for release. It is vital to the conservation of the species that a second, self-sustaining population be created and now with two nesting pairs in Punta Cana, we are on our way to doing just that here on the eastern end of Hispaniola. With so many positive things happening for the Ridgway’s Hawk we are very excited to see what the coming year will bring!

Please, if you are in the position to help, won’t you join us in our quest to conserve this unique and very rare animal?

This report was written for the Puntacana Ecological Foundation by Thomas Hayes and Christine Deegear Hayes, Ridgway’s Hawk Project Biologists, The Peregrine Fund.

Students from Cornell University observing hawks
Students from Cornell University observing hawks
Environmental Education in a School close to PC
Environmental Education in a School close to PC
B-44 the first Ridgways hawk to hatch in Puntacana
B-44 the first Ridgways hawk to hatch in Puntacana
 

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Puntacana Ecological Foundation

Location: Santo Domingo, n/a - Dominican Republic
Website: http:/​/​www.puntacana.org
Project Leader:
Jacob Kheel
Environmental Director
Santo Domingo, N/A Dominican Republic
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