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Salt Lake program's goal is to shed light on kestrels

Published July 31, 2014 7:20 am

Hawkwatch International gets a permit to set up nesting boxes in the county parks.
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Millcreek • What a homestead this could be, Hawkwatch International scientist Dave Oleyar said while installing a bird nesting box recently in a sturdy tree in Tanner Park.

About 10 feet up, the wooden box offered just about everything an American kestrel needs to thrive in an urban setting.

"It's a great looking spot," said Oleyar, pointing to the protection provided by tree limbs and the elevation that allows these relatively small raptors to look down on a field of grassy weeds between the park and a Jewish synagogue. More weeds in an Interstate 80 on-ramp nearby and between the freeway's lanes offer additional habitat for voles that kestrels feast upon.

"Kestrels hunt in open spaces and fields like these," he added.

These little birds of prey need assistance — and Salt Lake County is pitching in to help.

The County Council recently approved Hawkwatch's request to place and maintain two dozen nesting boxes in county parks and open spaces, part of a wider effort to learn more about what is happening to kestrels.

"This is a great example of a private-public partnership to learn more about these beautiful raptors and to help the public understand more about the benefits of open space in the county," said Julie Peck-Dabling, who oversees county open space. "The birds and animals that inhabit these spaces help us enjoy this area more."

But will it continue?

Oleyar said his nonprofit organization's long-term effort to monitor raptor migrations has turned up some disturbing information: Populations of kestrels are declining, in the West and back East.

"Our network has recognized there's a problem with the species," he said. "This study will try to find out what's driving that decline."

In concert with The Nature Conservancy, Hawkwatch already has a well-developed system for counting kestrels and other, larger hawks that inhabit the marshlands around the Great Salt Lake.

Hawkwatch also has set up nesting boxes on scattered parcels of private property, Oleyar said, citing the installation last year of eight boxes on Kennecott Utah Copper land in Coon Canyon in the Oquirrh Mountains.

"With this partnership with Salt Lake County," he said, "we're filling in a large part of the urban center."

Oleyar and his colleague, aptly named zoologist Shawn Hawks, spent a recent Friday morning putting up boxes in the east central valley. Besides Tanner Park, the Hawkwatch team placed boxes in nearby Canyon Rim Park and above Interstate 215 at the base of Grandeur Peak.

In Hawkwatch's monitoring program, this cluster of nesting boxes will be watched closely by a team of two or three volunteers from roughly April through July.

This period corresponds with the kestrel's breeding, hatching and fledging seasons. The volunteers, already two dozen strong and likely to grow as more nesting-box sites are introduced, develop the data needed by scientists to determine what is happening to the species.

The volunteers fill out forms, Oleyar said, that document if the box was used and by what type of bird.

Most important, they will count eggs laid, how many hatch and how many birds leave the nest.

"Starlings and woodpeckers will use the boxes, too," Hawks noted. "We keep track of that competition."

County participation in the project is expected to provide Hawkwatch with information that reflects the diverse geographic conditions facing raptors in Salt Lake County.

Boxes will be placed in higher elevations, from Emigration Canyon in the northeast county to Rose and Yellow Fork canyons in the southwest. They will go into all of the big regional parks. And, Oleyar said, they will be tucked in a half dozen locations along the Jordan River.

He also is seeking public assistance, asking anyone who sees a banded kestrel to report that information on the Hawkwatch website, hawkwatch.org, or to contact Oleyar at doleyar@hawkwatch.org.

The color bands, he noted, help scientists "understand movement and survival."

mikeg@sltrib.com

Twitter: @sltribmikeg