Flathead Audubon proudly presents our first 2016 Conservation Achievement Recognition to our most dedicated Jewel Basin Hawk Watch Observers. These individuals have given thousands of hours over the last eight years identifying and counting migrating raptors at the Jewel Basin Hawk Watch site. This incredible group of experienced “Jeweler’s”, as they like to be called, include BJ Worth, Barbara Summer, Diane Lundgren, Lisa Bate, and Barbara Boorman. Together, these folks have contributed nearly 2000 hours tracking the fall hawk migration on top of the Swan Divide east of Kalispell from late August to the end of October, not including commute time and preparations.
The Jewel Basin Hawk Watch officially began in 2008 by Dan Casey and many of these outstanding Primary Observers and volunteers. Dan had discovered that hundreds of hawks, accipiters, and eagles use the Swan Divide during their fall southward migration and often flew within feet of the ridge making identification of species as well as age and sex fairly easy. The value of this site and others like it is that it provides important long-term trend data on many species of western raptors. Knowing the numbers of juveniles in proportion to adults relates to successful reproduction from the previous summer. This is particularly important for monitoring species like golden eagles whose numbers appear to be declining. The Jewel Basin Hawk Watch is one of the best sources of information on migrating accipiters that make up more than 50% of the total Jewel Basin Hawk Watch fall count. Total fall counts during the approximately 40-50 annual suitable count days during this 75-day window, range from 2,010 in 2009 to a high of 3,411 in 2015 and includes as many as 18 different species.
The project was initiated with the help of the American Bird Conservancy, the Plum Creek Foundation and the Flathead National Forest who both quickly saw the value of this project. The American Bird Conservancy helped Dan with administration and time. The Flathead National Forest has provided the necessary permits, annual grants, as well as some housing for the Primary Observers over the last eight years. Last summer, Flathead Audubon agreed to take over the management of the project from the American Bird Conservancy with continued support from the Flathead National Forest.
For those of you who have never made it up to the Jewel Basin Hawk Watch, this is not an easy job, especially when the weather deteriorates with fog, cold, wind, snow, or ice. First, the observers drive the infamous Jewel Basin road, a major challenge for any vehicle. After toiling up the road, these seasoned Observers then carry their 25-50 lbs. packs up another 1,400 feet to the Swan divide; set up the plastic owl decoy, chair, (scope and camera optional), and clipboard; and, then begin identifying and counting raptors all by 10 A.M. Not only is this a physical and time challenge, the bird numbers and sighting conditions can vary from crazy cold with no birds flying to warm and windy with hundreds of hawks passing through within hours. During the peak migration, for example, the average count can be higher than one migrant/minute with most of the birds coming through in multiples within a 2-hour period. “It’s like being an air traffic controller”, says Barbara Boorman, “At times we will have hawks, accipiters, and eagles all coming in at the same time. We find ourselves calling out to the Primary Observer, two accipiters at 10 o’clock; two birds in the notch and heading down the ridge, a bald eagle on the right”. On other days, the site could be socked in for hours. Our Jewelers and many of our dedicated volunteers stay as late as 6 p.m. in the early part of the season before they tally the results, make their way back down the mountain, put a summary of the day’s counts on the information board in the parking lot, call in to the Hawk Watch coordinator, and finally go home to eat and sleep. Often, they get up the next day and repeat this ordeal, again.
What is it about the watching migrating hawks that gets these folks up early and doing this physically and mentally challenging work day after day, year after year? Lisa Bate, one of the first Primary Observers, explains, “Before my first time on the Jewel Basin Hawk Watch Ridge, most of my raptor observations lasted 1-3 seconds because I worked mainly in forests. Then in 2009, I was up there during the biggest flight day that year. I will never forget watching a peregrine falcon two miles out in the gap, come screaming down the ridge straight for the owl. It only took a few seconds. I had eye contact with it as it went by a few meters overhead. That was a life changer. I got the chills from seeing the intensity and beauty of that bird close-up.”
BJ Worth, outstanding wildlife photographer, stuntman, and birder has also worked as a Jeweler since the project’s beginning. “I am passionate about birds, passionate about conservation, and passionate about being out in nature. I thank Dan Casey for realizing that we have this incredible opportunity in our backyard, to candidly observe these raptors doing what raptors do. And, our ‘office’ has the best possible penthouse view. More than anything, it puts a smile on my face!”
Diane Lundgren, an enthusiastic birder and hiker, has helped with these surveys since 2008. She has a huge appreciation for both the physical challenge of reaching the site as well as the challenges in rapid bird identification. Sometimes the Jewelers have only a few seconds to identify a species as it passes.
Our latest Jeweler, Barbara Summer began helping in earnest in 2012. “The first time I went up to the site in 2009 as a volunteer, “ says Barbara, “I was totally enthralled by the beauty and majesty of being so close to this raptor migration. I would come home and pick out one of the species that I saw and read raptor books, especially “ Hawks in Flight”. Soon I became an official “Jeweler”. I hope to be up there as long as my legs can carry me. It is truly an inspiring experience that I wish for anyone who can hike the trail.”
Flathead Audubon board and members want to thank these Jewelers and all the other volunteers who have made his trek for their incredible contributions to this outstanding and important bird project.
If you want to join this outstanding team as a volunteer or become a “Jeweler”, contact Gael Bissell (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Joe Batts (email@example.com). You can find Hawk Watch data, posts, and photos online by joining Yahoo Groups-Jewel Basin Hawk Watch. Also, look for our summary of the latest Hawk Watch data in a future Pileated Post.