Raptor Flight! Searching for birds of prey in canyons of Carbon County few have ever seen
Three sets of 20-20 eyes are in constant motion, scanning the cliffsides through the clear glass of the helicopter cabin.
Two sets of those moving eyes belong to biologists Derris Jones and Matt Serfustini (my son) of EIS, an environmental consulting firm based in Helper. They are looking for raptors and nests in a survey commissioned by Bill Barrett Corp., the natural gas producer developing the West Tavaputs field.
The third pair belongs to pilot Rod Carr of Classic Helicopters of Salt Lake. Carr's eyes are everywhere - up, down, side to side, on the instrument panel - as he guides the chopper through the spectacular scenery of Jack Canyon and its many branches.
It took only a few minutes by air to get into Jack Canyon from nearby Nine Mile Canyon. The helipad is 42 rugged road miles from the paved comfort of U.S. 6 and Wellington.
Before takeoff, Carr had conducted a safety briefing for passengers much more detailed than you get on a commercial airline. Everyone had to know where the fire extinguisher, first aid kit and emergency transponder were, as well as how to operate the headsets and microphones for in-cabin conversations.
"If for any reason you don't feel good, let me know and we'll set down as soon as we can," he concluded.
Now aloft and cruising smoothly below the canyon rims, Carr listens to the directions of Serfustini, who's the navigator for this excursion. He has a topographic map on his laptop that is linked to a GPS receiver mounted outside the cabin.
As the chopper moves, its course is automatically overlaid and recorded on the map as a string of chevrons. Also shown are raptor nests identified during previous surveys.
"We'll need a high pass and a medium pass on the right side of this one," the navigator says as the chopper enters a small side canyon.
So the aircraft floats up the canyon just below the rim as the biologists look for signs of nests. For a passenger unused to canyon flying, it is at first a bit disconcerting to be heading straight for a vertical wall at the end, but the feeling soon passes with the realization that a rotary-wing aircraft can stop in mid-air, pivot, drop altitude and come back out the way it went in for the mid-level pass.
On another pass through a different side canyon, Serfustini notifies Jones and Carr, "We should be coming up on two nests soon..." He looks at the readout on the computer, "The first one should be at your nine about now."
It takes a little maneuvering and a climb in altitude, but there's the nest in an alcove off to the left. It's vacant, just a pile of sticks now.
The second nest on this sweep is also vacant. Jones and Serfustini log this info, along with the data from some 500 other active and inactive nests they've surveyed on this wide-ranging tour of raptor country.
That data will provide what Bill Barrett needs to know to set up avoidance zones in the development area. Environmental regulations mandate that companies give active nests or roosts plenty of room to keep from disturbing the birds of prey.
An example of this is the road to C Canyon near East Carbon. There's a curve in that road. About ten years ago, when the mine was in development, an active golden eagle nest was discovered in a cliff along the proposed route. The road to the mine was rerouted to provide clearance.
Jones, a former regional manager for the Division of Wildlife Resources, says that EIS has been contracted to survey for Conoco Phillips and four coal mines in the area. While it's a requirement, often the companies will go beyond that. "They'll hire us to survey a whole area to help out DWR even if they only plan on developing a small part for now," he says.
Active or inactive, there's an art and a science, to determine what species built the nest if nobody's home to identify it.
The general rule is that big birds build big nests with big sticks. Other clues include the shape of the nest. Ravens aren't too careful about building. "They'll just pile up some small sticks and make a depression."
Eagles, on the other hand, build mansions. A mating pair may build up to six big nests in a territory they've staked out. When the female decides which one she wants to call home, the pair will decorate it with greenery, fresh pine boughs. That's how to tell if an eagle nest is active or soon to be active, Jones explains.
However, some birds don't build nests. Peregrine falcons just scrape a depression in whatever dirt or sand is available in an alcove. The trick here is to look for "whitewash" - streams of dried peregrine excretions decorating the rock.
Scanning for birds sometimes results in sightings of other wildlife. As the helicopter cruises past one ledge, Jones announces through the headsets, "There's a bighorn below. Look to your four and down a little."
Sure enough, there's a lone ewe who got up there somehow. She looks a little puzzled by the noisy contraption.
On other trips in the region, the biologists and pilot have come across cougar, bear, bison and elk. They've also found something of interest to scientists of a different discipline: a Fremont Indian granary way up in the side of one cliff, apparently in pristine condiditon.
While choppers are not cheap to rent, they are far more efficient for this purpose. It would take a far bigger staff far longer to cover the territory on foot that he and Serfustini have surveyed from the air in a few days, Jones says.
To a casual observer, a raptor survey is birdwatching in style, a lot of entertainment.
But does the job ever get to be routine and boring for those who do this for a living?
"No. It's always fun," answers Serfustini. "But I have to say that sometimes, after 13 straight days of leaving before dawn to avoid the afternoon wind, I'd say, OK, I've had enough fun for now."