Published October 18, 2012, 12:00 AM

Grand Forks’ Tim Driscoll is ‘The hawk guy’

GRAND FORKS — The red-tailed hawk was perched in a dead tree along the road, a perfect vantage point for hunting rodents, and Tim Driscoll had just what the large bird wanted.

By: Brad Dokken, Forum Communications

GRAND FORKS — The red-tailed hawk was perched in a dead tree along the road, a perfect vantage point for hunting rodents, and Tim Driscoll had just what the large bird wanted.

An easy snack — two mice in a mesh cage about the size of a loaf of bread.

But there was a catch — literally, in this case — as the hawk soon would discover. The cage protecting the mice from an inevitable “snack-down” was covered with monofilament nooses designed to capture a foot or a leg.

Spotting the hawk, Driscoll drove closer to the dead tree and opened his driver’s-side door. He dropped the cage from the moving vehicle onto the edge of the road as smoothly as a quarterback lays down a perfect pass.

The hawk’s keen eyes quickly spotted the mice, and it was on the trap within a minute.

The large bird’s day was about to get a whole lot more interesting.

Driscoll, of Grand Forks, is a certified raptor authority and director of the Urban Raptor Research Project. He spends hours afield trapping and banding Cooper’s hawks, red-tailed hawks and other raptors, collaborating with researchers in other parts of North America on everything from avian malaria studies to DNA sampling.

Driscoll, who has a master-level banding permit, also banded the peregrine falcons that have made news around Grand Forks the past few years.

Information from the numbered leg bands sheds light on where the raptors migrate. But since raptors are a protected species, Driscoll says a band return usually is a good news-bad news finding.

“Almost always, the bird is dead,” he said, “unless it is caught in another trap.”

Smooth encounter

The recent red-tailed hawk encounter on a rural road southwest of Manvel couldn’t have gone much better. Driving past the cage, Driscoll turned the vehicle around and watched from about 100 yards away as the hawk swooped in on the mice.

It wasn’t obvious, though, that the hawk had caught its leg in one of the nooses, so Driscoll resisted the temptation to run up for a closer look.

“It’s hard for me to tell exactly when the hawk gets caught,” he said. “That’s why I’ll wait them out for a little while.

“I never get tired of watching them go down on the trap.”

Freeing the foot of a hawk from a monofilament noose comes with obvious hazards as Driscoll discovered, yet again, when he approached the bird from behind. He lost control of the bird’s free leg for a split second, and it responded by sinking a claw into the ring finger on his right hand.

In the world of raptor research, this is known as getting “footed,” Driscoll said; it’s happened before, and it will happen again.

“My fault,” he said.

Driscoll kept his composure and soon had the bird calm, as well. He placed the hawk, a young bird hatched this spring, head-first into a long metal tube and set up a portable table along the side of the road. The federal bird-banding laboratory in Maryland requires that he provide at least a dozen pieces of information, including the length of the beak, the length of the back claw, wing- and tail-feather measurements, the location of the capture and the band number.

He also takes blood samples, one for a University of North Dakota study on avian influenza and another for a genetic researcher in Alaska.

“Working up” a hawk takes about half an hour and draws the occasional gawk from passing motorists.

“A lot of people stop and help me,” Driscoll said. “One lady stopped and said, ‘This is a strange place for a picnic.’”

Catching the bug

Driscoll, whose background is in criminal justice and sociology, said the bird bug bit him more than a decade ago after he took a community education class from Grand Forks birding expert Dave Lambeth.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “I just went hook, line and sinker. That’s the way I am — either all in or all out.”

Then, in 2004, Bob Rosenfield, a Wisconsin raptor researcher, contacted Driscoll after hearing about Grand Forks’ abundant population of Cooper’s hawks. Driscoll recalls watching him set up an owl decoy in front of a mist net placed near a Cooper’s hawk nest. It drove the parents into frenzy, and they charged the decoy, flying into the net for Rosenfield to band and collect information.

“I was hooked,” Driscoll said. “I’ve seen it probably 300 times, and it never gets old.”

Through his work with Rosenfield, who made several subsequent visits to Grand Forks, Driscoll in 2008 was able to obtain his federal banding permit. That allows him to band any raptor species except bald eagles and golden eagles. The master permit is difficult to obtain, Driscoll said, and there are only about 200 in the country not affiliated with universities or research sites.

Driscoll teaches a course in raptor ecology at the University of Minnesota-Crookston, but he conducts the majority of research on his own dime. The Urban Raptor Research Project, Driscoll says, is a one-man operation he started mainly to provide people with a contact when they encounter hawks or other raptors in their yards.

“I am the Urban Raptor Research Project,” he said. “I don’t even have a budget other than my own checkbook. I would run into people who’d say, ‘You’re the hawk guy’ and say they were going to call me about something they’d seen but didn’t know who to call.

“I wanted a bunch of numbers so they could just call me. That was the thinking there.”

‘Beyond cool’ fieldwork

Students in Driscoll’s raptor ecology class at UMC are required to accompany him in the field on at least one banding excursion as part of their coursework. So far this fall, Driscoll said, he’s trapped and banded 20 red-tailed hawks and will continue sampling the birds as long as they migrate through the area.

“Just for statistical studies, I would like to get to 50,” he said. “I’ve got four or five students that are so fired up about doing this. I tell people, ‘Trust me — you’ll like it.’ One student last weekend said, ‘That was way beyond cool; that was awesome.’”

Driscoll once was an avid bicycle rider who hunted pheasants in the fall. Now, he spends the majority of his time afield trapping and banding raptors. The question many people might ask is, “Why?”

“I have a passion for it … I don’t know,” he says. “Why not?”

Driscoll says he prefers the rush of watching a hawk over flushing and shooting a pheasant.

“This is a lot better because the bird gets to fly away, and I get to hold it, and it’s still alive,” he said.

He still is matching wits with a wild animal in its natural environment. And the effort ultimately benefits the species.

“I’ll be trapping hawks as long as I can afford it,” Driscoll said.