Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area turns 25 this year ... Here's how to plug into the raptor channel

Ferruginous hawks on a nesting platform in the NCA. 
Joe Welson of the BLM checks on a golden eagle chick in the NCA. 

Hi all,

I've been kind of a nut about birds of prey since I saw bald eagles swoop down and catch crimson-red Kokanee trout in West Glacier, Montana in college. But ultimately, I owe my love for birds of prey to the late Morley Nelson, the great champion for birds of prey who lived much of his adult life in Boise. Morley touched literally thousands of people in Boise, in Idaho, and many more in the nation and the world via his many films for Walt Disney's Wide World of Color series, his own personal falconry and birds of prey films, and his conservation work with the Peregrine Fund. Many people observed Morley flying birds in his North End backyard as a falconer, he gave countless presentations all over the West with a golden eagle on his fist, and he hosted many boat tours in the Snake River canyon with outfitter Steve Guinn. 

Morley Nelson with a prairie falcon 
Morley personally discovered what is known as the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. I know this because I wrote Morley's biography, titled Cool North Wind: Morley Nelson's Life with Birds of Prey (Caxton Press, 2000). Soon after moving to Boise in 1948, he visited the Snake River canyon for the first time. He saw an incredible diversity of birds of prey flying around, hunting for prey on the sagebrush flats above the canyon, and golden eagles and prairie falcons nesting in the canyon walls. How fortunate it was that a man like Morley, who already was totally passionate about raptors, discovered this wildlife resource that was unique in the world.

Morley always said that it was important to let people "feel a part of the environment" by showing them the magnificent birds of prey in action. He knew the birds would sell themselves if people had a chance to see them in person or in a movie.

The Snake River canyon was where Morley worked on "Ida, the Offbeat Eagle," for Walt Disney, a movie that required 12 trained golden eagles for various scenes. He took Marlin Perkins to the canyon to film a Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom segment about golden eagles and sheep. He put an 8-pound weight on one of his golden eagles, and they filmed the bird trying in vain to leave the ground. This was proof positive for all the sheep ranchers to see that there was no point in killing eagles for fear they might cart off a newborn lamb, a frequent assumption at the time.

Morley doing the "hero" shot with
a golden eagle on his fist. His first wife,
Betty Ann, is holding a prairie falcon.  
In the late 1960s, Morley worked with Bureau of Land Management officials to catalog all of the golden eagle nests in the canyon with help from University of Idaho graduate students. They confirmed 25 active nests in 1968 and 36 active nests in 1969. The BLM recommended a protective withdrawal of 26,255 acres that would provide rim-to-rim protection for the area in 1971. Rogers Morton, the Interior Secretary at the time, signed it. Over the next two decades, numerous research projects laid the ground work for protecting the "dinner table" for birds of prey that nested in the canyon. In 1993, the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area was created, protecting 485,000 acres of land and 81 miles of the Snake River between Walter's Ferry, south of Nampa, to Bruneau. It was a remarkable achievement backed by all of Idaho's political leaders, particularly the late Gov. Cecil Andrus, Rep. Larry LaRocco,  Sen. Larry Craig and the late Sen. Jim McClure.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the original designation of the birds of prey area. And the BLM has put a HUGE amount of effort into creating a year-long celebration to commemorate the original achievement and pay tribute to the many people who made it possible, including Morley.

"A lot of people don't understand the incredible resource we have here at the NCA," says Amanda Hoffman, area manager for the BLM. "It's the largest and densest population of nesting raptors in North America, if not the world (approximately 800 pairs of nesting birds of prey). The rich history of people caring so passionately about this area is important, and what we're trying to do is recognize the people who were involved in the designation, and introduce the NCA to a whole new set of people who might not have been familiar with it before."

This would include school kids in the Treasure Valley. Through Feburary and March, there will be multiple presentations about the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area at branch libraries throughout the valley. On Friday, there is a presentation at the Boise Public Library branch at Cole & Ustick at 4 p.m. On Saturday, there's a presentation at the Nampa Public Library at 11 a.m., and another presentation at the library branch in Bown Crossing at 11 a.m. Go see them! You'll see educational birds of prey up close, learn about the NCA, and about more events coming up this year.

I would strongly encourage everyone to participate in the events coming up this year. The BLM wants to create Idaho's Largest Trash Cleanup event on Saturday, April 21st. Sad but true, a lot of people see the edges of the birds of prey as a place to dump old furniture, tires, appliances, building materials and more ... Let's get hundreds of people out there to help! Let's break the record! To inquire and sign up, contact Cory Coffman at the BLM, or call 208-384-3485.

Northern saw-whet owls nest in the NCA.  
There will be guided hikes, raptor identification classes, raptor identification field trips, interpretive trips to learn about biological soil crusts, reptiles, insects, plants and geology. You can go out and help band ferruginous hawk chicks! See the event flyer online or contact Cory for more information.

On Saturday, June 2nd, there will be a Snake River Raptor Fest hosted by the Birds of Prey NCA Partnership at the Indian Creek Winery in Kuna from noon to 5 p.m. There will be live birds of prey, presentations, live music and interactive activities for all ages. I am definitely planning to attend.

In August, they will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the NCA with a panel of speakers. There will be more interpretive hikes and activities continuing through the fall.

Watch the Birds of Prey NCA Partnership Facebook page for the latest information as the year progresses.

Joe Siratnak of the BLM led a volunteer planting effort at
Kuna Buttle last year. Hundreds of people helped out.
You can sign up to volunteer this year as well! 
It's my personal opinion that the Birds of Prey NCA needs more love. The habitat out there has been degraded by numerous wildfires, and when things burn more than once, the sagebrush shrub component gets burned up, annual grasses like cheatgrass and noxious weeds take over the landscape, and the birds of prey and their prey base suffer. Approximately 50 percent of the habitat out there is rated in "poor" condition, according to BLM experts.

So let's do our part to help make things better. The BLM has been marshaling volunteers for planting  sagebrush, native perennial plants and forbs, all of which are important for the habitat structure out there. Watch for opportunities to participate in planting efforts to make the habitat better. Again, contact Cory for more information, or call 208-384-3485.

For people who might want to try to see all the birds of prey in the NCA, here's a list of birds to identify:  

Nesting raptors: Prairie falcon, American kestrel, golden eagle, red-tailed hawk, ferruginous hawk, 
Swainson's hawk, northern harrier, osprey, great-horned owl, burrowing owl, barn owl, short-eared owl, long-eared owl, northern saw-whet owl, western screech owl, turkey vulture. 

Non-nesting/wintering/pass-thrus during migration: peregrine falcon, bald eagle, merlin, northern goshawk, Cooper's hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, rough-legged hawk, gyrfalcon (very rare winter visitor). 

BTW, my biography on Morley Nelson, Cool North Wind, is still in print. I've heard people say it's a good read! And probably the most complete history of the creation of the NCA from soup to nuts. I will be giving some presentations about Morley and the book in the coming year. Stay tuned! 

No comments: