Drama builds as a drone slowly rises above a towering dead pine tree in River Heights and its camera zooms in on what sits at the very top.
It’s a mother hawk staring menacingly up at the strange flying machine while shielding what appear to be two, maybe three, infants in a large nest. It puffs out its feathers.
Will the hawk abandon her young and fly off? Will she attack the drone?
David Johnson didn’t dare maneuver the small craft any closer to find out. He was using it not to harass the hawk but to size up the situation at his rental property after the tenant there alerted a tree-cutting crew to the existence of the nest.
“It hunkered down and gave me the eagle eye,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want to get too close to the nest and disturb it or scare it off.”
Johnson’s drone has been attacked before — by a swarm of bees. Another time, while being used to video a fisherman, a lure hooked the drone during a cast and hurled it into the water. It survived both ordeals to successfully carry out its mission on Tuesday, resulting in an eleventh-hour reprieve for the old Ponderosa pine tree and its raptor inhabitants at the end of 700 South in River Heights.
Johnson contacted the Utah Division of Natural Resources to find out what to do about the birds. Federal law protects all nesting migratory birds, so he’ll wait until the young hawks are grown and out of the nest before removing the tree, which has become a danger on the property.
“The main law protecting those birds is the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and hawks definitely fall under that protection,” said Adam Brewerton, a sensitive-species biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife.
Shown a photo of the bird from Johnson’s video, Brewerton identified it as a Swainson’s hawk, a species of raptor that is plentiful in Cache Valley along with red-tailed hawks. He presumes it is a female because mother hawks are known to guard their nests while males hunt for food to sustain the family.
“One of the interesting facts about Swainson’s hawks is that they are really long-distance migrators,” Brewerton said. “They migrate to South America for the winter, as far south as Argentina.”
But a bird doesn’t have to be as storied or large in stature as a hawk or an eagle to warrant protection. All migratory birds, even short-distance travelers like robins, are covered by the federal act.
“When it comes to tree removal, there’s a good chance that any large tree could have nests in it, so typically this is best done outside of the nesting season,” Brewerton said. “The nest isn’t necessarily what is protected. It’s the birds in the nests.”
Asked if it is rare for a hawk to be nesting in an urban area, Brewerton said not necessarily.
“Swainson’s hawks are much more tolerant of human development, so they are relatively common in rural areas and urban areas too,” he said.
For his part, Johnson was happy to avoid causing harm to the family of hawks and get some “pretty cool” nature photos in the process.
“I’d hate to bring down a tree with a bunch of baby chicks in it,” he said. “In a month or two, they’ll probably fly the nest and we’ll be able to remove the tree then.”