METHOW, Wash. – The instant a black dot appears on the horizon, someone calls out, “We’ve got a bird out there,” and all chatter stops. The sound of a gentle wind pushing against the ridgetop is all that can be heard as wildlife biologists and visitors raise binoculars to their eyes to study the speck coming toward them.
Silence. More silence.
“A bald eagle, maybe?” someone asks.
Moments later, “Yes, a bald eagle,” biologist Brian Connelly confirms when the raptor is close enough for positive identification.
Satisfied, his counting partner, Craig Waythomas – also a wildlife biologist – puts it down on a clipboard page marked with 18 species of hawks, falcons and other birds of prey that might be seen from here.
Over the past 13 years, biologists have counted more than 27,000 raptors from this 5,500-foot ridge that separates the Methow and Chelan valleys about 40 miles northeast of Wenatchee. In the last 11 years, they’ve captured and banded more than 6,000 birds of prey, starting the leg-banding after two years of counting confirmed this was a good migratory route for birds of prey from late August to late October.
Principal biologist Kent Woodruff, who works for the U.S. Forest Service in the Methow Valley Ranger District, said the collaboration between the nonprofit conservation group HawkWatch International and the U.S. Forest Service gathers valuable baseline data that will help determine when a species is in trouble.
“One of the things we’re learning is that raptor populations fluctuate, and some of that fluctuation is normal,” Woodruff said. A drop in the count of one species over a few years is no cause for alarm, he said, but over a decade, it becomes a trend, and can be an indicator that something’s wrong. The data so far show no trends, up or down, of any of the hunting birds they count.
Each year, they count and capture everything from the common sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks, to the less-often-seen prairie and peregrine falcons.
Among the rarest sightings from this location is the broad-winged hawk. Over the years, they’ve counted only 62 from this location of the tens of thousands of birds identified. On Sept. 28 they trapped and banded the first broad-winged hawk ever captured in Washington state.
The event was a highlight of the summer. Biologist Robert Spaul calls it luck. He knew almost immediately what he had, despite its unusually dark color. “It threw me off for a couple of seconds. But as I pulled it out of the net I was like, ‘Oh, wow! This is something special.’ ”
Spaul is one of two biologists who work the capture stations on Chelan Ridge, known as North Blind and South Blind. He uses live pigeons under plastic cover to attract the raptors, which trigger a net to fall when they attempt to catch the protected bait.
Once the raptor is caught, Spaul takes measurements, like leg length, beak length, and length of the longest talon. This helps determine if they’ve captured a male or female. They also weigh the bird, and take notes on its plumage.
Chelan Ridge is one of six places where HawkWatch International captures and bands birds of prey, and one of 13 counting sites.
“For me, it’s one of the most rewarding and meaningful projects I’ve done in my career,” Woodruff said.