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Researchers tracking local red-tailed hawks

VINS RESEARCH COORDINATOR Jim Armbruster holds Goodrich, a red-tailed hawk that has just been equipped with a GPS transmitter, before setting it free. VINS has been tracking red-tailed hawks in Addison County this winter.

We have not found why birds have chosen Addison County yet but are looking at factors like habitat type, prey availability, and weather patterns.
— Jim Armbruster of VINS

ADDISON COUNTY — This past weekend, to the delight of its trackers, a red-tailed hawk nicknamed Obi-Wan, which had been out of range for months, passed a cell tower and transmitted GPS data showing his recent movements.
And Obi-Wan has been getting around.
A map posted on Facebook Monday by the Quechee-based Vermont Institute of Natural Sciences (VINS) shows Obi-Wan visiting nearly 100 distinct spots in our area, from Middlebury (where he was caught and banded in January) to Shoreham, New York state, Addison and Ferrisburgh.
“He now seems to be making a beeline north, perhaps on his way to Canada,” VINS officials wrote in the Facebook post. “It will be interesting to see if he does in fact breed in the arctic as we predicted.”
Obi-Wan, which researchers describe as having “rich streaking (and) a nice dark belly band,” is one of six red-tailed hawks VINS is tracking in Addison County this winter as part of its Winter Raptor Ecology Project. VINS is studying where the birds live and hunt, and is mapping their activities in the Champlain Valley.
Addison County, apparently, is a hotspot for wintering raptors in Vermont.
“We have not found why birds have chosen Addison yet but are looking at factors like habitat type, prey availability, and weather patterns,” VINS Research Coordinator Jim Armbruster told the Independent.
During their initial encounters with the birds, researchers measured their weight, wing length and tail length, and took blood samples, according to a recent VINS press release. Two of the birds — Obi-Wan and Goodrich — were equipped with GPS transmitters, and the other four were equipped with color bands that allow them to be identified from a distance.
Researchers are also conducting roadside surveys to map the overall abundance of red-tailed hawks in Addison County.
“Understanding where a bird has traveled allows researchers to understand these birds’ migration patterns and habitat use seasonally and over longer time periods,” VINS officials said in the press release. “This research will be used to better inform VINS’s public education programs and any interested stakeholders in the region about ways to better conserve habitat for this species.”
That’s good news not only for the relatively abundant red-tailed hawk, but also for a host of lesser-known and less visible species that also use this habitat, such rough-legged hawks, northern harrier hawks, snow buntings and horned larks.
According to research gathered this winter, it appears that red-tails find northern Addison County particularly attractive. And they seem to be frequenting the same spots, which suggests an abundance of food at this time of year, researchers said. Developing a better understanding of how prey availability and red-tail behavior are connected can help researchers predict how hawks may respond to things like climate change or changing land use.
The Winter Raptor Ecology Project is a long-term project, and VINS hopes to equip more red-tails with GPS transmitters next year.
“The Vermont Institute of Natural Science is excited to play a role in these research projects, which are contributing to our understanding of these raptors’ ecology on both local and national scales,” said VINS Executive Director Charles Rattigan in the press release. “We anticipate that our research, in addition to informing our own environmental education programs, will aid in informing conservation actions, not only here in Vermont but also across this species’ range.”
Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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