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Hawks, eagles and other birds of prey ride the thermals that stir the air at the Jenner headlands in numbers that bird lovers never imagined.

From a knoll 900 feet above the ocean, with a 360-degree view of the Pacific Ocean, the Russian River estuary and grasslands and the coastal hills, bird-watchers are sighting 90 birds of prey an hour, from broad-winged Golden Eagles to small but swift Merlin pigeon hawks.

"They are a beautiful birds, a lot of them have striking coloration and markings," said Brook Edwards of Jenner.

Edwards is project manager for the newly created Jenner Headlands Preserve, a 5,630-acre ranch that was formed by the Sonoma Land Trust a year ago when 16 different private properties were combined in a $36 million deal involving landowners and dozens of public and private entities.

It opened up an area of the North Coast stretching from Jenner to Russian Gulch that had been closed to public access for more than a century.

With that new access came a startling discovery. The Jenner headlands not only has a healthy population of resident birds of prey, but plays a central role in the migration for other hawks.

"We all knew Jenner had this potential, we had just not been up in there," said Larry Broderick, a docent for the Sonoma Land Trust. "For a century it has been farm, logging and hunting, there were no people up there looking at birds."

Birds of prey hold a special interest for bird-lovers.

"They are the top of the food chain, and they are on the headlands hunting," Edwards said. "Seeing them soar and swoop and dive on a prey is pretty cool to see. You can see Red-tailed Hawks go into a dive and fold up their wings and plunge to the earth."

In the North Bay, Hawk Hill on the Marin headlands overlooking the Golden Gate, sets the bar. Bird-watchers there can see 300 birds of prey an hour, Edwards said.

The Jenner Hawk Outlook, as it is now being called, has fewer numbers but is no less impressive, said Broderick, a bird-watcher for 25 years.

"It is a big deal, huge," Broderick said. "We have the resident population all year around, then the migrations of birds going south and then some coming here to winter.

"In late September and mid October, it is like a subway, the birds are heading south, they just come right by you," Broderick said.

Red-tailed Hawk are among the most common Jenner resident birds, along with kestrels, Golden Eagles and Northern Harriers, while Bald Eagles and Red-shouldered Hawk also have been seen.

Spending the winter on the headlands are Ferruginous Hawks, which were once on the threatened list. The birds are residents of the Midwest prairies and spend the winter in Northern California and parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Mexico.

Merlins, Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper's Hawks also are spotted flying by in their north-to-south migration.

"We are getting volunteers onto the property and they teach us a lot of what is going on our there, and we can provide the data sets to the larger scientist community to crunch the numbers," Edwards said. "It is a really fun project."

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bob.norberg@pressdemocrat.com.