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Raptor Watch

Alumnus who fled the big city lends an observant eye to help birds of prey thrive on a Rocky Mountain high.

by Jerry Podgorski (SCS79)

When my wife, Joan, and I decided to retire from full-time work in Chicago and move to Boulder, Colo., we had no idea there would be the wealth of volunteer opportunities that exist here in the foothills of the Rockies.

One volunteer role I assumed shortly after we moved here was as a reader for the Radio Reading Service of the Rockies (now Audio Information Network of Colorado). It's a radio station for blind and visually impaired listeners who hear volunteers read the daily newspapers, including the grocery ads and discount ads, book reviews and some magazines. They can also tune into my weekly half-hour show, the Lighter Side. I read humorous pieces from writers such as Dave Barry, Bill Bryson and the late Mike Royko, as well as Internet jokes suitable for the airwaves.

I've been doing the Lighter Side for the past eight years, but I have another volunteer role that gets me hiking into Boulder's spectacular outdoors for at least part of the year.

At the tail end of winter, for the past several years, I have served as a raptor monitor. My job is to pay weekly visits to an assigned nest site of one of the various bird of prey species that regularly nest in the front range of the Rockies outside Boulder. I have monitored nests of golden eagles and prairie falcons, and this year, for the first time, I watched an osprey nest. Other nesting raptors here include bald eagles and peregrine falcons.

I am one of nearly 100 raptor monitors who volunteer for Boulder's Open Space and Mountain Parks department during the nesting season. That season begins as early as February and can last until June or July. It all depends on the particular species and on how early they choose their nest sites. The birds generally come back to the same nest sites year after year. Golden eagles have used one particular nest here for more than 60 years. The birds replenish old and lost nesting materials with fresh new pine boughs and other branches. The nesting season ends when the eggs have hatched and the new chicks fledge the nest.

Our job as monitors is to report sightings of the raptors as they choose a nest and to document copulation and later nesting behaviors, including incubation and hatching. We also ensure that climbers honor the areas near the nests that are closed off during the nesting season.

It can be a lonely job but often a rewarding one. After what sometimes is a one-hour hike on an icy trail up a given mountain peak, I am often the only person in a nest-viewing area during my two-hour tour. But as I set up my spotting scope on a cold and quiet day, I have often felt the eerie presence of something nearby. I suspect a mountain lion or some other stealthy creature is watching me as I watch the birds.

Among the more interesting raptor behaviors I've witnessed is when the male or female swoops down into the nest to relieve its partner from incubating duties. Sometimes this includes bringing in a fresh kill of a prairie dog, squirrel, another bird or some other delicacy to share with the other adult and later with the gaping and hungry little mouths of the new chicks.

The adult feeds the chicks by tearing off pieces of the meal and holding it in its beak for the young ones to grab. Perhaps most exhilarating was the day when I finally reached the viewing site after a tough climb, set up my scope as usual and, on initial focus, spotted two or more tiny white heads now sharing the nest with their parents. Even the grand golden eagle, which as an adult sports a 7-foot wingspan, starts out as a fluffy little ball of soft white fuzz.

The golden eagles usually breed one or two new chicks every year, while the prairie and peregrine falcons can hatch up to five new chicks. Once hatched, they all seem to mature quickly. The golden eagle in particular seems to grow amazingly fast from week to week. Before long it's difficult to tell at first glance the adult from the fledgling. And one day, in what seems like days rather than weeks, a visit to the nest finds it empty. Empty, that is, until next year, when the raptors and the monitors begin the cycle once again.

Such are some of my rewards since I've fledged the big city for the beauty of Boulder to volunteer and assist others and to become a small part of the annual cycle of life here in the Rockies.

Jerry Podgorski (SCS79) retired from the former Illinois Bell Telephone Co. in 1991.

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Illustration by Rob McClurkan