Migrating birds can still be spotted
September through October is migration season for raptors traversing through the eastern Cascades of Washington along the Pacific Coast Flyway. Since 1998, Hawk Watch International (HWI) has conducted a yearly count at the study site on Chelan Ridge.
In previous years, visitors would travel up Black Canyon to talk with scientists and technicians to learn about migration ecology, raptor identification, and research efforts. Because COVID-19 is easily transmittable, HWI made the difficult decision to not conduct counts at Chelan Ridge this year.
Crew members typically live and work in small communal yurts and the remote location is far from medical services. In consideration of worker safety, and to slow the spread of the virus, HWI suspended the annual survey at Chelan Ridge this year.
Technicians have recorded 2,000-3,000 birds, and up to 17 species, each season. In a video created by Steven Foreman for Methow Grist, it is noted, “Hawks have flown past this exact same spot in exactly the same way at exactly the same time for over 10,000 years.”
Commonly observed raptors are the Sharp-shinned Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Northern Harrier, Golden Eagle and American Kestrel. Beginning in 2001, HWI began banding raptors at Chelan Ridge and uses the site to conduct satellite-tracking research.
Seven main species of raptors travel through the Methow Valley during migration season: Accipiters, Buteos, Falcons, Eagles, Osprey, Turkey Vultures, and Northern Harriers. Accipiters are smaller in size, with short, round-tipped wings, and long tails. Cooper’s Hawk and the Sharp-shinned Hawk are accipiters. Buteos are larger, with long broad wings and a short broad tail. The Red-Tailed Hawk is a beautiful buteo. Falcons have long pointed wings, and narrow tails. Kestrels and Peregrines are falcons.
Vital to ecosystem
Hawks are beneficial birds that prey on the rodent population, important predators in a balanced ecosystem. Farmers place nesting boxes around fields to encourage hawk nesting that keeps rodents from destroying crops and spreading disease amongst herd animals. Patrick Hannigan at NiceNests in Twisp creates species-specific nesting boxes. Behind my own house, I placed a kestrel nesting box from NiceNests, and a kestrel family moved in, reducing the mouse population near our house.
The biggest threat to the survival of hawks is human activity. These raptors depend on a healthy food source. When humans remove natural grasses and sources of habitat for prey animals, predatory birds lose their food source. Hawks are susceptible to the poison rodents ingest, and die from lead poisoning when they swallow fish that contain lead sinkers, or consume carcasses containing lead ammunition used by hunters.
Outdoor lights at night can be deadly. According to the National Park Service, “Birds navigate by star patterns and the rotation of the sky … night lights disorient their migration.” During peak bird migration months from March to May and August to October, The National Audubon Society encourages people to reduce nighttime light pollution by turning out all unnecessary lights from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.
People can take simple steps to be good neighbors and protectors of hawks. Use traps instead of poison for rodents. Do not use lead sinkers or lead ammunition. Clean up carcasses, hooks and spent ammunition when hunting and fishing.
From any ridgeline in the Methow Valley, people can observe hawks migrating south. The peak season is Sept. 6 through Oct. 26. When venturing out for a day of hawk watching, you will need: binoculars, bird field guide (Trail’s End Bookstore has a fine selection), water, snacks, a hat and sunscreen, sunglasses, camera. Dress in seasonal layers — Methow Valley weather changes throughout the day. Birdwatchers can download a raptor identification guide from https://www.hawkwatch.org and find informational videos, and resources.