High on a windswept ridgeline in the Goshute mountains of Eastern Nevada sits Aaron Viducich, a thick flannel shirt draped across his shoulders and eyes glued to a monstrous pair of binoculars. “Another Cooper’s Hawk,” he says pointing at what appears to be a speck of dust miles away. “Cooper’s Hawk,” repeats his partner Laurel Ferreira and logs it on the Hawkwatch.org daily observation sheet.
Viducich is the lead observer for Hawkwatch International at their research station in the Goshute mountains and with good reason. He can tell just by the size and movement of a bird what species it is when all others see is a formless speck. “Some birds flap a lot, others move only the tips of their wings. Some are smooth, some lanky and awkward,” he says by way of explanation.
The Toano mountain range, of which the Goshute mountains form the southern part, turns out to be one of the largest migratory raptor flyway west of the Mississippi. At times, the observers will log several hundred raptors of various species, so you have to be fast, and you have to be good.
Hawkwatch International (HWI) has been studying the fall raptor migration in the Goshute Mountains since just before 1980 when HWI founder Steve Hoffman and his colleague Andy White, then both in college, looked at a map and took what they knew about raptors to decide that the previously unknown Goshute mountains would be perfect for the birds. After blazing a trail up the steep mountainside, they discovered one of the largest and most active migratory routes in the country. Banding and research started soon after, and Hawkwatch International was born.
Since its inception, HWI has banded more than 60,000 birds at the Goshute site and accumulated a nearly 30-year data set of what birds are migrating when, and in what condition.
Deneb Sandack is the lead bander and project coordinator in the Goshutes. “To see trends, you must have a lot of data going back a long time. Raptors are at the top of the food chain and any problems in the ecosystem will show up in the hawks first,” she said. Some of these birds travel from Alaska to Veracruz, Mexico each year others migrate anywhere in-between. With new technologies, such as mini satellite transmitters, scientists have determined that certain species, such as Peregrine falcons have been known to travel 800-1000 miles in a single day. The average for most of these raptors is more like 200-400 miles in a day.
HWI’s primary goal is data collection and education. They make much of their research and observations available online, and other scientists can incorporate that into their specific studies on climate change and the environment. Even though their job is simply to collect accurate data and not draw conclusions, one of their banders, a Frenchman by the unlikely name of William Blake, couldn’t help but make an observation as he held a beautiful male Kestrel for release. “We have definitely seen a decline in the Kestrel population over the last 5 years,” he said, “Though exactly what is causing that we can’t really say.”
Hawks and falcons which make up a class of bird called Accipiter, which are forest hunters, are the first large migratory wave to wash over the Goshutes in September. Raptors don’t like to flap and they don’t like barren spaces. They prefer to ride thermals or ridge generated wind lift and glide from place to place conserving their energy. Later in September and into October, the larger birds such as Eagles, Goshawks and Red Tails begin to move through in droves. The migratory season in the Goshutes runs September through October, with a peak around late September. Bird watchers and enthusiasts willing to make the 2 mile, 1800 foot climb up to the station are rewarded with literally hundreds of birds of prey gliding by often just above their heads.
The observers sit on a large exposed ridge where they can see off in all directions. A plastic owl on a pole sits just feet away. Contrary to popular belief, owls don’t scare off the birds. Owls are the natural predator of birds and hawks will often spectacularly dive-bomb the plastic owl just feet from observers. In another section of the ridge, the banders use live birds under ultra thin and light netting to attract and capture birds. The raptors attack the lure and are safely caught in the netting. Banders remove them from the netting and place them head-first into a large, ventilated can. Once the bird’s heads are covered, they calm down and measurements are taken, sometimes a feather sample for analysis, a small metal band is clipped on their leg and they are released usually in 5-10 minutes. Occasionally if a bird is especially calm and the crew is not overly swamped, they will allow visitors to release the birds, a rare treat!
In addition to gathering valuable scientific data, the Goshute research site also provides an opportunity for the public to learn about the conservation needs of raptors either on site, or by scheduling a presentation with one of their volunteers. But just like everything else these days, HWI is feeling the effects of the economy. “We once had 6 blinds, each with a team of banders, and were able to tag over 100 birds a day during the migration,” said Sandack. “Now we are lucky if we have two people working and get 30 birds.” Volunteering at a remote site like this so close to the birds is a very special experience, something lead observer Erin Viducich prolongs by traveling around the world and volunteering or working at other seasonal sites. You don’t need to be as good as Erin to help out, but you do need some basic bird identification skills, and you really need to like being away from everything, cell phones, computers, people, everything. Contact HWI for more information about volunteering or to make a donation or adopt a hawk.
Hawkwatch also maintains an observation and research site in San Francisco near the Golden Gate where visitors can see migrating raptors Sept. through November most years.