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Raptors Have Building Projects in Their Grip

In Thousand Oaks, some construction waits while protected hawks learn independence.

June 13, 2005|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Smack in the middle of two ambitious development projects in Thousand Oaks -- the construction of a $45-million college sports center and a 367-unit retirement community -- a delicate wildlife rescue mission is unfolding.

Bulldozers are kept at bay. Wildlife experts equipped with binoculars and emergency rations stand ready to intervene. The opening of a sales office and welcome center has been delayed.

And only when four little red-tailed hawks learn to hunt and another nest-full of hawk chicks flies the roost for good can humans completely take over the land.

It turns out that what is attractive to developers and home buyers -- sprawling hillside terrain, lots of trees, big skies and an on-site water supply -- is also appealing to hawks, classified as a protected species by state and federal law. For now, the chicks have legal right of way.

First, in early spring, a pair of red-tailed hawks hatched three chicks high in a nest in a eucalyptus tree next to California Lutheran University's 80-acre sports complex project. To safeguard the chicks, biologists established a 500-foot zone around the nest within which no construction can occur until the birds are old enough to fly, feed on their own and become independent.

Then an Orange County wildlife rescue center was looking for a home for an orphaned 8-week-old hawk. Center officials turned to the Cal Lutheran hawk family, hoping those red-tails would adopt the orphan and teach it to become a bird of prey. Last week, near a rock ridge made famous in a movie scene from 1939's "Wuthering Heights," the rescued hawk was reintroduced to the wild.

The hawk tales took one more twist last week when biologists discovered the nest of another protected raptor: a couple of Cooper's hawks and their four chicks, bringing on more construction precautions and monitoring.

"The good news is we have this big, beautiful site where 40% will remain open space," said Warren E. Spieker, a vice president for Continuing Life Communities, the Carlsbad, Calif.-based partnership developing the senior homes. "But the bad news is all that space is also very attractive to birds."

Called University Village, the continuing care retirement community is designed to accommodate up to 500 people, from healthy seniors to those needing 24-hour medical care. Living in the upscale community will cost seniors a refundable entrance fee ranging from $300,000 to nearly $700,000, plus a monthly fee of $2,300 to $3,700.

Spieker said the red-tailed hawks' nesting postponed by about six months the relocation of the company's sales trailer, which will include a full-scale model of a two-bedroom, two-bath living unit when it opens in August. The first housing units are slated to be ready in 2006.

Across Campus Drive, workers have poured foundations for the Cal Lutheran athletic complex, which will include two gyms, an aquatics center, the George "Sparky" Anderson baseball field, a soccer venue, track and field facilities and the Ventura County Sports Hall of Fame. The baseball field will open in November and the gyms in fall 2006.

Under state law, developers or others face misdemeanor charges, punishable by a $1,000 fine or six months in jail, if threatened wildlife is not protected, said Ron Jurek, a senior biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game. If a raptor's nest is destroyed, it could lead to a felony charge.

Spieker said supporting the hawk families has cost his corporation about $100,000, which represents a fraction of the project's overall $175-million cost. The developer hired the Tustin-based wildlife consulting firm Peter Bloom & Associates, which enjoys a solid reputation among hawk experts. Biologists Scott Thomas and Karly Moore are monitoring the Thousand Oaks birds.

Thomas said the hawk-watch strategy is simple. The humans park their truck about 100 yards away and keep binocular vigil on the nest. They keep a journal on when the hawks feed, whether or not they are sitting up strong and when they fly. If the biologists think the fledglings are hungry, the humans make the birds' hunt easier by setting loose live rats within the hawks' field of vision.

Before releasing the 8-week-old bird that had been orphaned in Orange County's Trabuco Canyon, Thomas and Moore noted that it weighed about 2.5 pounds and had a wingspan of 4.25 feet. They also stuffed three days' worth of chopped-up rodent meat into its "crop," a pouch halfway between mouth and stomach where food is stored and gradually released to the stomach. The orphan was outfitted with two leg bands for monitoring.

Last Wednesday, the hunting bird with a piercing glance and sharp talons was set free. It spread its wings and soared a short distance before perching atop a clump of boulders. The fledgling, unceremoniously referred to as "No. 4," appeared to be waiting for a trio of hawks circling the sky less than 100 yards away to approach it.

"Beautiful. The best we could have expected," Thomas said during the release. "He did well."

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