For the Birds- Eyes to Skies Hawk Watching the West



Adventure is not just what you do, but also what you observe. I love watching hawks, especially Red-tails in the Southwest and 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–even drawing blood samples! Utah native and Fort Lewis College Biology graduate Cherin Spencer-Bower has done just that. She and HawkWatch International, headquarters in Salt Lake City, are unraveling the secret migratory routes of birds of prey as they transit the American West.

Cherin has literally gone to the birds. She has become an Avian Field Biologist and this fall she worked Commissary Ridge in Wyoming 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 comes, on the East Coast hawks travel southward along the Atlantic Coastline, but avian corridors in the West 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 in eastern Nevada counts exceed 10,000 migrants each season at the biggest site for hawk watching in the West. Near Kemmerer, Wyoming researchers have counted 3,650 raptors including 200 Golden Eagles. Bird counts begin around 10:30 a.m. and last until 7 or 8 p.m. The record set this year was 405 flying birds in one day. Sites set up a “trapping blind” where staffs work via radio contact using sparrows, starlings, or pigeons as lures. If raptors blast down for the kill they are caught with a trigger-activated big bow net.

Researchers like Spencer-Bower then have the daunting task of subduing the angry bird, immobilizing their razor-sharp talons, and performing scientific tasks including the application of blue vinyl numbered wing tags. She tells me, “It’s a very intense situation. Adrenaline flows as we catch large birds to band them and record measurements to help understand the movements of birds of prey.” In Montana, Spencer-Bower learned how to trap raptors, mainly Golden Eagles, to fit with Global Positioning Systems, or GPS transmitters with tiny antennas. Nine Goldens and now nine Ospreys “carry around little backpacks to be tracked.” Golden Eagles fly to the southern United States and parts of Mexico while Ospreys speed down to Central and South America especially Argentina.

Spencer-Bower explains, “Hawk watching can be a very relaxing and enlightening experience. 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.” She’s been snowed in, had her dogs get plastered with porcupine quills, and been on her own waiting for birds of prey. That’s a lot of excitement for a girl growing up in Orem, Utah, but Cherin Spencer-Bower has found her niche. Her idea of adventure is to study raptors.

To attract high-flying raptors, hawk watch sites erect a decoy plastic 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 relates. “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 says.

Just as birds of prey migrate, HawkWatch International has also moved. The organization incorporated as a non-profit in New Mexico 25 years ago but moved to Salt Lake City to be more strategically located. With seven fulltime and four part-time staff, HawkWatch promotes migration research and conservation efforts. Joseph Dane, Development and Marketing Director, told me the group encourages “people to visit one of our 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 Goshutes, NV or Manzanos, NM site and work with the field crew for the weekend.”

HawkWatch now monitors diurnal raptors at eight sites across the West and Gulf Coast. According to Dane, “HWI operates the largest, coordinated migration count in the country, and holds the largest datasets on western raptor migration counts.” The organization uses “facts and figures to advocate for conservation action” by working 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 like HawkWatch International might help to find the eco-answers.


The non-profit reaches out to tag and monitor birds, but it also reaches out to 20,000 Americans each year with education at community centers and school classrooms utilizing five “non-releasable raptor ambassadors” to help teach biology, ecology, environmental education and science-based curriculum. In 1962 Rachel Carson published Silent Spring about the dangers of abusing pesticides and what would happen if because of DDT and thin egg shells, bird numbers declined. In the following 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 (1973) Americans became committed to saving all the flora and fauna which our ancestors knew.

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

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

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 HawkWatch operated near Goshutes, NV; Chelan Ridge, WA; Bonney Butte, OR; Bridger Mountains, MT; Manzano and Sandia Mountains, NM; Commissary Ridge, WY; Grand Canyon, AZ; Corpus Christi, TX; and Veracruz, Mexico.

Joseph Dane for HawkWatch International in Salt Lake states, “We work hard to continuously engage individuals and to provide a connection to nature and wildlife through raptor education.” Utah has plenty of adventure in its canyons, rivers, and mountains, but it’s also becoming an important center for environmental issues and organizations. In 2014, I want to be a volunteer for HawkWatch. It’s one thing to respect the environment and another thing to give back.


Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at

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