Allen Fish: A Very Birdy 30 Years at GGRO

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By Vivien Kim Thorp

Allen Fish, director of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory (GGRO), recently celebrated his 30th year at the helm of the GGRO (founded one year before his start, in 1984). A program of the Parks Conservancy in cooperation with the National Park Service, the GGRO now has a staff of four, a cadre of interns, and 275 dedicated volunteers who logged over 22,500 hours of service last year.

In November, the GGRO had the honor of hosting the annual conference of the Raptor Research Foundation. The conference, held in Sacramento, brought together more than 400 scientists, students, and raptor enthusiasts from around the world.

Gateways recently caught up with Allen, recipient of the 2016 Environmental Education Award from Bay Nature Institute, and asked him to reflect on the GGRO's accomplishments—and his personal connection with raptors.

Why was this particular Raptor Research Foundation conference so significant?

This year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first symposium, convened to determine what was decimating Peregrine Falcon populations. This was before we had the concept of “conservation biology,” and wildlife research was often underwritten by the agricultural industry.

That 1965 meeting, held in Madison, Wisconsin, marked the first-ever gathering of biologists to untangle a species conservation problem—particularly one that had nothing to do with the preservation of a fish-and-game species. Work from the conference eventually led to the banning of commercial use of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and saved the Peregrine Falcon, and many other birds, from extinction.

How did you commemorate this historical significance of the 1965 conference?

We brought together five of the original attendees in Sacramento, and another three, who were physically unable to travel, joined the conference by video. Bringing all these septuagenarians together was certainly a challenge! But their 90-minute panel, which was really about the saving of an entire species, was a deeply moving experience. In the end, there were 400 conference attendees, mainly scientists, trying to hide their tears.

What have you learned from three decades of GGRO research?

In the 1980s, when the GGRO first began counting birds, the idea was that we’d be able to detect rises or declines in raptor populations. These numbers would point to threats arising from poisons, much like it did with the Peregrine Falcons and DDT, or with other human impacts, like habitat destruction. What we didn’t know was that the biggest single impact on raptors would be climate change.

How is climate change affecting raptors?

Shifts in wet/dry cycles or temperatures affect everything from raptor nesting habits to the timing of migration patterns. Such changes can “desynchronize” species. For instance, Sharp-shinned Hawks feed almost completely on songbirds, which, in turn, feed on bugs, nuts, fruits, and seeds. Climate changes that affect the phenology, or seasonal/cyclic timing, of any one of these can impact the intersections of these species and create layers of complications. The question is: How many times can you desynchronize events and still have an animal make it to the end of its life?

What other issues are posing a major threat to raptors?

A current topic at this year’s conference was saving Golden Eagles and other raptors from collisions with large-scale wind and solar farms. Unfortunately, both do huge damage to raptors. Raptors favor traveling on windy ridge lines—exactly the places where wind turbines are placed. The wind turbines at Altamont Pass are literal killing fields for raptors.

What is the GGRO’s specific role in mitigating threats to raptor species? And what can I do to help?

The GGRO’s autumn counts are the only index of changes to migrating raptor numbers in the state, giving Californians an early alert system for population declines. Visit Hawk Hill in the autumn, and you’ll be knocked out by the magnificence and diversity of the birds of prey overhead. To help hawks in your neighborhood, you can take steps such as not using rat poisons and waiting to trim trees until the fall and early winter when nesting season has passed.

Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands

Each year, GGRO volunteers count tens of thousands of birds. Why is Hawk Hill such a great place for observing raptors?

Raptors don’t like to cross the San Francisco Bay or large bodies of water in general. They prefer traveling over land, riding uplifts of warming air along coasts and ridgelines. The Marin Peninsula—which, at its widest point, extends from Bodega Bay to Vallejo—eventually tapers down the Marin Headlands, a five-mile-wide stretch that forms a natural bottleneck, concentrating birds traveling the California Coast.

During peak season on Hawk Hill, in September and October, we can see more than 1,000 birds in 6 hours, which translates to 220 birds an hour, or 3 birds a minute.

Does the GGRO only count birds of prey?

No, we also have been counting non-raptor birds since we started. We see and count huge flocks of swifts, swallows, band-tailed pigeons, and more. We also count butterflies and make note of dragonflies and other insects.

Why did you decide to get involved with birds?

My fascination with birds all started when I was a kid, growing up in Redwood City. We used to visit the Coyote Point Museum (now CuriOdyssey) in San Mateo. It was there that I fell in love with a Great Horned Owl named Hooter. I’d spend hours staring through chicken wire into her eyes.

Do you have a favorite raptor?

I have a special place in my heart for the Swainson’s Hawk, which migrates 8,000 miles, twice a year, to winter in South America. They are threatened, particularly in the U.S., by insect control, which has vastly curtailed grasshoppers (their major food source).

But I must admit: I also love the ubiquitous Red-tailed Hawk. In my personal daily migration from my home in Berkeley to work in Marin, I usually see five or six Red-tailed Hawks. Every single one brings joy to me.

Looking ahead, what are your hopes for the GGRO?

I would love to see the Golden Gate National Recreation Area continue to play a significant role in the citizen-scientist movement, which I believe is exactly what is needed to monitor climate change. By offering spaces for this kind of volunteer work, organizations like the Parks Conservancy and National Park Service can help people form lasting connections with wildlife and wild lands.

To learn how you can support the work of the GGRO, please contact Ben Harwood at (415) 561-3036 or bharwood@parksconservancy.org.

An abridged version of this interview first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Gateways. To subscribe to Gateways, the quarterly newsletter of the Parks Conservancy, become a member today.

Photos by Katie Dunbar, Matthew Perry, and Jessica Weinberg McClosky