Flying High

Mikaela Howie's picture
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Counting hawks at 8,600 feet.

From below, the hike seems daunting. There are many routes up, but today we decide on the long traverse that switchbacks from north to south across Bridger Bowl. Hiking-stick in hand and supplies for another day of hawk-watching on our backs, we start up the two-mile hike, gaining 2,500 feet along the way. After a month, this commute almost seems normal—just the start to another workday on the ridge.

hawk migration, raptor, bridger mountains

Every year, thousands of birds of prey (raptors) leave their breeding grounds, which stretch from Montana and the Canadian Rockies all the way north to Alaska, in a mass exodus with the promise of warmer temperatures and longer days waiting in the south. Being high on nature’s food chain, raptors are excellent indicators of ecosystem health and are used to monitor changes in the environment. Declining numbers of migrating raptors may indicate changes to their breeding grounds, such as warmer temperatures or habitat loss, that can make it harder for them to find adequate food. Varying numbers of raptors migrating through the Bridgers may also indicate that they are choosing alternate migration corridors, giving us reason to ask more questions. 

It's because of these questions that we find ourselves stationed on the ridgeline above the Bridger Lift. This 23-year-old raptor-migration project is spearheaded by Hawkwatch International and maintained by Montana Audubon, under the leadership of Steve Hoffman. Raptors, and especially golden eagles, use the Bridger ridge because of its north-south orientation and high westerly winds, which provide lift, helping them on their travels south. The numbers of raptors identified and counted each year are incorporated with other hawk-watch sites across North America to give ecologists an idea of population trends of 17 different species of North American raptors.

coopers hawk, bridger mountains, raptor migration
Our duty as hawk-watchers is to record every passing raptor as it makes its way south from Bridger Bowl. We diligently scan the skies to the north over Ross and Sacajewea peaks with a pair of binoculars. We'll use our findings to inform and educate the public about this annual phenomenon and to address many research questions. The data collected is shared daily on hawkcount.org.

The hawk-watching season runs from September 1 through November 5, and the vigil is a daily 9-5 from a helicopter pad on the ridge, pending weather. On a typical day in early October we may see 100 golden eagles. Peregrine falcons and merlins will swoop down on a decoy owl set in front of the pad to fool passing raptors into mock battle with their mortal enemy. Red-tailed hawks and northern goshawks pass by at 45 mph, just barely noticing the small dots beneath them staring up through strange glass eyes.

As we record each raptor's passing, we witness a short moment in its long journey. We learn what we can and then they're gone. But next year they'll be back, and hopefully the year after that, and the year after that.   

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