Dan Casey has been conducting a hawk watch from a ridge overlooking Jewel Basin in the Swan Range, NE of Bigfork, since 2008. Every year, his team has counted over 2,000 migrating hawks of up to 17 species, so it seemed like a good place for a Five Valleys Audubon field trip. The last week in September is usually the peak of the migration, so I set up a trip for Sunday the 23rd. Five of us carpooled from Missoula to the trailhead, where we met two friends of mine from Seattle. Then we all hiked up to the observations site and met up with Dan. The flight was slow getting started, and smoke from the Condon Mountain fire reduced visibility a little, but pretty soon we were seeing birds. Early on we got a nice look at a peregrine that came straight towards the owl (a plastic great horned owl decoy, mounted on a pole, that is set up to lure the hawks in) and veered off at the last second just above us. Not all the birds were that close, but most were flying along our ridge and flew by near enough for good looks and discussion of the finer points of ID (sharpie vs. coopers, bald vs. golden).
In all, 63 migrating hawks were counted that day, which included 2 peregrines, 2 merlins, 2 prairie falcons, 3 northern harriers, 4 red-tailed hawks, 6 kestrels, 7 Cooper’s hawks, 8 golden eagles, and 24 sharp-shinned hawks. Also, there were a few “local” redtails, harriers, and golden eagles that entertained us during the day – the redtails often stooping on each other from a great height. We also saw some noteworthy non-raptors – flocks of pine siskins, mountain bluebirds, and Clark’s nutcrackers, and a couple of yellow-rumped warblers.
We sat on nice soft beargrass tussocks, and could position ourselves in or out of the wind to maintain just the right temperature. And part way through the morning we were joined by 3 mountain goats that stayed with us the rest of the day! The highlight of the day, from my point of view, was a merlin that grabbed a butterfly, and ate it, while circling over our heads! And we had a fun dinner on the way home, at a cool little cafe in Bigfork with foosball and ping pong tables.