Wild Hawk Chase

I’ve done enough stories on wildlife research projects over the years to know that capturing the animals needed for studies can be a real challenge.

One of the most notable occurred on a March day in the late 1990s, when a Herald photographer and I spent the majority of a long, cold day waiting for a crew of helicopter wranglers to capture a moose for a research project at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge in northwest Minnesota.

They finally got their moose that blustery day, and the capture produced some excellent photos, but it was after 6 p.m. before frustration gave way to success. We’d been in “hurry up and wait” mode nearly 10 hours.

Tim Driscoll of Grand Forks carries a baby peregrine falcon back to a crate at the UND water tower in June. Driscoll is the project director of the Urban Raptor Research Project. (Herald file photo)

I was reminded of the challenge last week when I accompanied Tim Driscoll of Grand Forks on a mission to capture red-tailed hawks for a banding project he is conducting to learn more about the raptors. Director of the Urban Raptor Project in Grand Forks, Driscoll is widely known as “The Bird Guy,” and his efforts to trap and study raptors such as cooper’s hawks, peregrine falcons and redtails frequently take him across the region.

Once, for example, he successfully captured and released a sharp-shinned hawk that had gotten inside a Home Depot store in Fergus Falls, Minn. It had been flying around the store while people shopped for more than a day, but Driscoll said it took him only a few minutes to capture the bird and release it to the wild.

I’m writing a story about Driscoll, his research and his passion for raptors, and so getting a photo of him capturing and banding a redtail is a crucial part of the article.

So far this fall, Driscoll has captured and banded more than 15 redtails, but as we discovered last Wednesday afternoon, the birds can be camera-shy. A big change in the weather was brewing, and that could have driven the hawks into cover. We spent more than two hours and logged some 50 miles scouring the countryside west of Grand Forks for one of the large birds roosting on a power pole or a tree.

Sounds simple enough, right?

We spotted only three hawks, and all of them spooked before Driscoll could set a trap — a rectangular cage with monofilament nooses tied across the top and baited with two live mice.

When he spots a hawk, Driscoll drops the cage along the edge of the road. When the hawk flies in for a closer look, one of the nooses — in theory, at least — catches the bird by the foot, and Driscoll then is able to calm and subdue the raptor for banding.

That definitely isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Providing the rain subsides, Driscoll and I will be trying again this afternoon. Hopefully, we’ll be more successful this time around.