If birds of prey could talk as well as parrots, they'd shriek "Thank you RINS!"

RINS is the Raptor Inventory Nest Survey in which more than 100 volunteers who are locating and recording the nests of eagles, owls and hawks in a vast section of northern Utah.

The volunteers help the Bureau of Land Management, which is committed to making sure the federally protected birds are not disturbed by off-road vehicles, pipeline projects or other intrusions during the critical nesting period, March 1 through Sept. 30.

Five species of birds of prey that frequent Utah are listed by the federal government as needing special protection, according to RINS. They are the bald eagle, burrowing owl, ferruginous hawk, northern goshawk and short-eared owl.

Raptors disturbed by noisy vehicles during nesting season might take off, leaving the nest for the rest of the year — and perhaps never returning.

According to RINS, the birds can be territorial. If they are frightened away from their own ground they may not be able to find a good place in country claimed by another pair. The number of hawks could drop.

RINS checks a region from the Tooele-Juab county line to Idaho and west to Nevada. In addition, the volunteers look for nests in 160,000 acres in Rich County in northeastern Utah.

"They search for raptor nests," said a grateful Randy Swilling, BLM wildlife biologist in the field office, Salt Lake City. "They also collect data on nest success. They identify the number of hatchlings and the number of fledglings."

This intensive effort, he said, allows the BLM to better assess the likely impacts of proposed projects. With data supplied by RINS, "we know where the birds are. We can identify areas of particularly high nesting activity."

Federal law and the BLM's land-use plan protects raptors. During nesting periods, the BLM works to make sure that nests are not disturbed.

A focus of recent activity is Five Mile Pass Recreation Area, Utah County, west of Cedar Fort. The BLM is working on a federal register to close routes that could be too close to nesting hawks.

"It's a real high nesting area, one of the highest that we have in the state, for ferruginous hawks," he said. The bird is in a special protected status for the BLM, and its numbers are declining in the West. RINS has been spreading the word about Five Mile Pass, handing out information to all-terrain vehicle drivers and asking them to stay at least half a mile from nests.

ATV groups have been "incredibly responsive" and cooperative, he said. "We've been able to cut down on the amount of ATV traffic that disturbs these birds."

RINS is carrying on the work of the late Dawn W. Sebesta, who worked for years with the group, discovering nests and banding birds. In October 2003, she and volunteer James Messinger were killed in the crash of a light plane in Utah's western desert.

Sebesta, 56, a resident of Park City, and Messinger, 52, Salt Lake City, had been searching for raptor nests. The loss was a terrible blow to RINS, but the group is continuing to carry on the work.

Robyn MacDuff, project coordinator, said RINS has about 85 regulars and other volunteers bring the number to over 100. Much of the effort is organized out of her home in Sandy.

This year, 57 team leaders have either led groups or gone out by themselves scouring the desert for nests of eagles, owls and hawks. One of the volunteers is her son, Bryan Hull, 13.

"We do have a lot of kids in their teenage years that are part of our project," she said.

Banding is important to tracking areas that the birds need. But it can't be done by just anyone. The person needs to have special permission, as Sebesta did.

A Ph.D., Sebesta held a master of bird banding license from the federal and state governments.

"It is illegal to handle a wild bird of prey unless one has gained proper bird handling permits from local and federal authorities and is performing banding for a project that meets federal guidelines," MacDuff added in an e-mail.

Kay Millar, a Salt Lake City woman mentioned by Swilling as another main organizer for RINS, said the BLM doesn't have the resources to do the surveys itself so the group helps.

The volunteers are people "who enjoy raptors and other wildlife and like being away on the open public lands, away from the city," she said.

Asked if they have had any adventures, Millar replied, "Probably half of us have met rattlesnakes out in the desert." Nobody has been hurt, as the reptiles seem to want to avoid the humans as much as the people want to avoid them.

View Comments

One RINS helper had a "brush with a cougar," she said.

"We have to go out there prepared in case we do have a mechanical breakdown," Millar said. "I don't think anybody has had to stay overnight, but they've been stuck in the mud a few times."

Anyone interested in volunteering for RINS service should check the group's Web page, www.rins.org.

E-mail: bau@desnews.com

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.