Throwing raptors into flight

by Becky Lomax

NAME: Rob Domenech

VOCATION: founder and lead biologist for Raptor View Research Institute

HOME BASE: Missoula, Montana

KNOWN FOR: banding more golden eagles in the U.S. than all other banding stations combined

SPARE-TIME SPORT: grappling jujitsu

 

On an exposed ridge in Montana’s Helena National Forest, high on the blustery Rocky Mountain Front, Rob Domenech recoils from the wind in his baggy jeans and knit hat. From a cage of cooing pigeons, he takes two birds and tucks them gently into the pockets of his windbreaker. He walks 100 yards across the ridge, where he pulls out one pigeon, wraps it in a Barbie-doll-sized leather vest and clips the vest to a fine polyester string connected to a pole. Then he huddles inside a camo-painted and branch-covered 4-by-8-foot blind, binoculars at hand. He sits back, looking through the 4-inch-wide windows, and waits for a raptor to swoop down for the pigeon.

It’s just another day on the job for the founder of Raptor View Research Institute. Since 2001, Domenech has banded 105 golden eagles — more than any other banding station in the U.S. Along with banding raptors, his 4-year-old institute tracks migratory goldens with satellites, monitors ospreys for heavy metals near a Superfund site, and studies nesting Swainson’s hawks. But it also aims to educate kids who aren’t necessarily honors students — giving them the chance to launch a banded raptor skyward.

Crouched in the blind today, Domenech peers through binoculars at a distant black speck in flight. Beside him, a teenage boy from Missoula’s youth home squints to make out the bird. Is it a golden? Like most visitors to Domenech’s raptor banding station, the boy can see the faraway dot, but can’t distinguish it from any other bird.

Domenech sees himself mirrored in these kids. When he was in fourth grade, his father died, leaving his mom to raise the four children alone. “It was all about keeping lights on and food in the fridge,” says Domenech. “I was lucky I didn’t get in any more trouble as a kid.” He survived his teens by quietly daydreaming his way through school. A loner disappearing into the classroom walls, he penciled dinner plate-sized drawings of golden eagles on desktops. “No one was making me get through school,” he says. “If I had dropped out, no one would have objected.”

This fall, his work with at-risk kids will pay off when one participant from Missoula’s Flagship Program joins the banding station’s full-time staff. “He’s been exposed to more field science at 19 than most university wildlife biology grads,” Domenech notes.

Bird-watching was a skill he gleaned from his mother, who always pointed out hawks. At the age of 18, Domenech accompanied a friend to New Jersey’s Appalachian Trail, where a curt researcher counting raptors snapped at hikers interrupting his work. “He called in a merlin that did five tight concentric circles and then zipped off out of sight,” remembers Domenech. “I was hooked.”

Domenech was the kind of kid who memorized field guides — he used to argue with his grandfather that buzzards were really called turkey vultures — but it took him eight years to get his degree at the University of Montana. “I was way too restless to sit in class when I knew the migrants were flying,” he laughs. In fact, he took off every fall semester during migration season. Camping in his Ford Escort with Scratch, his Rhodesian ridgeback-rottweiler cross, he spent months navigating logging roads to find good places for watching raptors.

Back in the blind with the scared pigeon, searching through his binoculars for a golden eagle, Domenech mutters, “They are wiley.” As he flicks birdseed from his jacket pocket, he tells me about his design for robotic marmot lures to replace live pigeons. He also recently acquired a grant to fund three more satellite transmitters on adult eagles to establish migratory patterns.

The second a golden swoops down for the pigeon, Domenech deftly pulls strings to release the trap. He leaps out of the blind to hood the eagle before it injures itself or kills the pigeon. The Missoula youth-home youngster follows eagerly on Domenech’s heels — this is his bird, his golden to throw into flight.

The author writes from Whitefish, Montana.

© High Country News