Robyn MacDuff might have one of the best jobs in the state.
As the coordinator of the Sandy-based Raptor Inventory Nest Survey, she gets to travel around Utah’s magnificent landscapes and watch charismatic birds of prey in their natural habitat.
For at least two field days each month from February through June, volunteers can follow in her footsteps, provided that they sign up for a free training session next week.
On Tuesday, Feb. 2, from noon to 4 p.m., MacDuff will be teaching Moab-area residents the basics of how to inventory raptors’ nests. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) Moab office at 82 E. Dogwood will be hosting the event, which will be followed by field training that is currently scheduled to be held on Wednesday, Feb. 3.
Key topics include monitoring protocols, such as how to keep the proper distance from nesting birds.
“We are very hands-off for monitoring,” MacDuff said. “We do it from a distance, and we use binoculars and spotting scopes.”
While some volunteers come equipped with powerful lenses on their cameras, MacDuff discourages participants from trying to get up close and taking award-winning, National Geographic-style photos of raptors.
“It’s not about exploiting the birds; it’s about protecting them and keeping your distance,” she said.
Aside from monitoring protocols, MacDuff will go over safety-related issues, and she’ll teach first-time volunteers how to operate GPS units that they’ll use to find their way around their assigned quadrangles.
“We really work on helping people gain those skill sets,” she said.
Last but not least, MacDuff encourages people to enjoy themselves while they’re out hiking around their assigned quadrangles.
“I always tell my volunteers, the number-one rule is I want them to have fun,” she said.
Castle Valley resident and returning volunteer Pam Hackley said the experience of field work is one that should appeal to many people in the community.
“If people have any interest in the wildlife that’s around us here in the Moab area, it’s a really fun way to contribute to the body of knowledge that’s out there,” Hackley said.
The information they collect ultimately goes into a database that helps the BLM and other land managers keep track of raptors’ nests in areas where developers are planning projects.
“They need to be able to ensure that there are no threats to federally protected birds,” Hackley said. “They take that information and they’ll look at a proposed project, like an oil and gas lease … to understand what kinds of birds might be nesting up in that country.”
Although the nonprofit group has been active since the early 2000s, Hackley first heard about its work in the Moab area several years ago, when she stumbled upon a small classified ad in the legal notice section of a newspaper.
As a soil scientist with a background in botany, Hackley spent most of her career out in the field, but she’d never specifically monitored raptors’ nests before.
Fortunately for beginners, she said that the birds’ nesting spots are easier to spot this time of year.
“Winter is an excellent time to be looking around because the trees don’t have any leaves on them, so you can see the nests that way,” she said.
While casual observers might assume that the nesting season doesn’t begin until the spring, MacDuff said that courtship and pairing rituals are already well under way.
“As the days get longer, their hormone levels start rising,” she said
With more boots on the ground, RINS noted a number of positive trends in 2015.
Altogether, 211 volunteers covered more than 127,000 miles around the state and spent 13,211 hours on the ground doing field work.
Of the 824 active nests they monitored last year, they counted 847 young raptors. Across the board, MacDuff said that species from red-tailed hawks and golden eagles to ospreys, prairie falcons and Swainson’s hawks, were doing well in Utah last year.
Even once-endangered bald eagles are recovering. The species were once on the brink of extinction, until the U.S. banned a widely used pesticide that weakened their egg shells.
“There’s been a big comeback for all of them,” she said.
Training for raptor nest survey volunteers set for Feb. 2
“If people have any interest in the wildlife that’s around us here in the Moab area, it’s a really fun way to contribute to the body of knowledge that’s out there.
When: Tuesday, Feb. 2, from noon to 4 p.m.
Where: BLM Moab Field Office, 82 E. Dogwood
Information: 801-554-0807; www.rins.org