All eyes to the sky

Courtesy of Cherin Spencer-Bower

Cherin Spencer-Bower’s favorite raptor is a rough-legged hawk, which flew to the Commissary Ridge, Wyo., hawk-watching site from the Arctic.

I love watching hawks, especially red-taileds in the Southwest, and I love watching peregrines, ospreys and eagles wherever I can find them. Imagine scanning skies with binoculars looking for raptors and then catching the wild birds to tag and test them – and even draw blood samples.

Fort Lewis College biology graduate Cherin Spencer-Bower has done just that. She and Hawk Watch International are unraveling the secret migratory routes of birds of prey as they transit the American West.

Spencer-Bower has literally gone to the birds. She has become an avian field biologist, and this fall she worked at Commissary Ridge, Wyo., as hundreds of raptors flew overhead on their southbound journey. Despite the cold, wind and snow, I wish I could have been there.

As winter approaches, hawks on the East Coast travel south along the Atlantic coastline, but in the West, avian corridors are still being studied and mapped. Migratory birds can be blown off course by winter storms though they seem to use ridgelines and thermal currents to guide them.

In the Goshute Mountains of eastern Nevada, counts exceed 10,000 migrants each season at the biggest site for hawk watching in the West. Near Kemmerer, Wyo., researchers have counted 3,650 raptors, including 200 golden eagles, in a season.

Daily bird counts begin around 10:30 a.m. and last until 7 or 8 p.m. The record count, set this year, is 405 flying birds in one day. Sites set up a “trapping blind” where observers, working via radio contact with each other, use sparrows, starlings or pigeons as lures. If raptors blast down for a kill, they are caught with a trigger-activated bownet.

Researchers like Spencer-Bower then have the daunting task of subduing the angry bird, immobilizing its razor-sharp talons and performing scientific tasks such as the application of blue-vinyl numbered wing tags.

“It’s a very intense situation,” she said. “Adrenaline flows as we catch large birds to band them and record measurements to help understand the movements of birds of prey.”

An alluring plastic owl

In Montana, Spencer-Bower learned how to trap raptors – mainly golden eagles – and fit them with GPS transmitters. Nine goldens and now nine ospreys “carry around little backpacks to be tracked,” Spencer-Bower said. Golden eagles fly to the southern United States and parts of Mexico, while ospreys speed down to Central and South America, especially Argentina.

“Hawk-watching can be a very relaxing and enlightening experience,” Spencer-Bower said. “It can also be slow at times, with days of only seeing a handful of birds. We live at a remote camp an hour’s drive from the closest (small) town. Three of us spend each day climbing to the top of the ridge to our observation site to keep our eyes to the skies from late morning to just before sunset.”

To attract high-flying raptors, hawk watchers erect a plastic decoy owl on a pole. Raptors plunge to smack the owl because “owls trigger a territorial instinct for almost every raptor, and if they see the owl, they are quick to come from out of view to directly in front of our view as they attempt to chase off the owl,” Spencer-Bower said.

“Last fall, we had a migrating rough-legged hawk try to chase off the owl, then continue on its path south, then come back and try again – six times,” she said.

Conversation mission

Just as birds of prey migrate, Hawk Watch International also has moved. The organization incorporated as a nonprofit in New Mexico 25 years ago but moved to Salt Lake City to be more strategically located. With seven full-time and four part-time staff members, Hawk Watch promotes migration research and conservation efforts.

Joseph Dane, director of development and marketing, said the group encourages people to visit one of its migration sites.

“We also operate a program called Frontline Science, which is basically a citizen science opportunity where people, for a fee, get to spend the weekend at either our Goshute, Nevada, or Manzano, New Mexico, sites and work with the field crew for the weekend,” he said.

I like the idea of assisting with counting and observation as well as trapping and banding. I also would like to join the crew for evening meals.

Using facts to call for action

Hawk Watch now monitors diurnal raptors at eight sites across the West and Gulf Coast.

“HWI operates the largest, coordinated migration count in the country and holds the largest data sets on western raptor migration counts,” Dane said.

The organization uses facts and figures to advocate for conservation action and works closely with state and federal wildlife officials to target species of concern and create protection plans.

Those are admirable goals. The number of golden eagles flying across the Rockies seems to be in decline. Why? Groups such as Hawk Watch might help to find the eco-answers.

Just as the nonprofit reaches out to tag and monitor birds, it also reaches out to 20,000 Americans each year with education at community centers and school classrooms using five non-releasable raptor ambassadors to help teach biology, ecology, environmental education and science-based curriculum.

More to learn

In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, her book about the dangers of abusing pesticides and what would happen if bird numbers declined because of DDT use and thin egg shells.

In subsequent decades, major efforts brought back populations of bald eagles and peregrine falcons. Carson helped foster the modern environmental movement, and with the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, Americans became committed to saving the flora and fauna that our ancestors knew.

But even as we are dedicated to those principles, there remains much science we do not know. Slowly, patiently, biologists and volunteers are helping us gain new knowledge, even as circumstances change with increased gas and oil development and global warming. Hawk watching is a vital part of understanding ecosystems and environmental health.

Scanning the skies

One of the life-changing moments for volunteers is to witness and assist with trapping and banding raptors, taking their measurements and then letting the birds fly.

“We try to let visitors release the raptor, as it is a very moving and spiritual experience for most,” Spencer-Bower said.

I want to be there. I want to be out on a ridge, scanning the skies, looking for birds of prey and trying to understand our complicated Western ecosystems.

This year Hawk Watch operated near Goshute, Nev.; Chelan Ridge, Wash.; Bonney Butte, Ore.; Bridger Mountains, Mont.; Manzano and Sandia Mountains, N.M.; Commissary Ridge, Wyo.; Grand Canyon, Ariz.; Corpus Christi, Texas; and Veracruz, Mexico.

Next year, I want to be one of their volunteers. It’s one thing to respect the environment and another thing to give back.

“Contributions to environmental groups account for a mere 2 percent of total charitable giving in the country, making funds for our programs a constant struggle,” Dane said. “We work hard to continuously engage individuals and provide a connection to nature and wildlife through raptor education.”

So yes, this holiday season I’ll give green. I hope Santa lets me stand on a wind-swept ridge next fall with binoculars in hand and a plastic owl downslope.

gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu. Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College.

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