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Chelan hawk migration lures research, festival

“Plastic owls on long poles help bring the hawks near capture nets,” said Felix Martinez of Spokane. “Hawks hate owls and will veer miles out of their way to harass even the silhouette of one.”

Martinez, who volunteered last year to help band migrants at Chelan Ridge, was intrigued by the spectacle of avian research on a high mountain top.

“Live pigeons are the luring bait. After capture, the biologists photograph, weigh, measure, and band the birds. It was clearly a thrill for the volunteers who got to release the birds.”

The research – and even a public festival – has evolved around this northcentral Washington site, one of the top spots in the nation to witness the annual fall migration of hawks.

The Chelan Ridge Hawk Migration Festival, based in Pateros, Wash., next weekend will help indoctrinate the public in a birding event that might otherwise soar over their heads.

“This festival is scheduled to coincide with the peak of southbound migration of raptors at Chelan Ridge - the best place in Washington to view fall migrating raptors,” said Bridget Egan, Chelan Ridge Hawk Migration Festival spokeswoman.

Wildlife biologists with the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies and birding groups use the North Cascades migration highway funneling point to capture, band and study the birds of prey.

Chelan Ridge is about 13 miles northwest of the village of Chelan. The counting site is at elevation 5,670 feet and provides a 360-degree view.

Visitors soon get a feeling for the spot’s attraction to migrating hawks:

The view to the south extends across Lake Chelan and into the Wenatchee National Forest. The view to the west extends into the Sawtooth Wilderness. Northward is the Methow Valley and Pasayten Wilderness. To the east is the Columbia River and the Waterville Plateau.

On days of moderate to strong south winds, migrants using updrafts along the ridge fly extremely close to the observation point.

Two years ago, trained observers counted 2,325 migrating raptors of 16 species from late August through late October.

The flight consisted of 58 percent accipiters, 18 percent buteos, 6 percent falcons, 5 percent harriers, 4 percent eagles, 3 percent vultures, 2 percent ospreys and 4 percent unknown raptors.

The most common species seen in 2009, according to a Forest Service survey report, were the sharp-shinned hawk with 37 percent of the total count, red-tailed hawk 15 percent, Cooper’s hawk 14 percent, northern harrier 6 percent, golden eagle 4 percent and American Kestrel 3 percent.

“The broad-winged hawk, being so rare in Washington, is always a delight for birders to see and it is usually seen every year here,” said Teri Pieper, an active birdwatcher and Audubon member who lives in Twisp.

Raptor counting at Chelan Ridge started in 1997 followed by banding in 1999. The Chelan Ridge project was one of 10 long-term annual migration counts in 2008 and one of five migration-banding studies in North America co-sponsored by HawkWatch International.

The scientists share information throughout North America. For example, a female sharp-shinned hawk captured briefly at Chelan Ridge on Oct. 22, 2009, was wearing a band indicating it had been captured on Sept. 5, 2009, by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service researchers in Alaska’s Matanuska Valley.

In other words, the bird had made the 2,037-mile trip in 47 days.

The researchers say raptors serve as important biological indicators of ecosystem health. Long-term migration counts are among the most cost-effective and efficient methods for monitoring the regional status and trends of multiple raptor species, they say.

“The Chelan Ridge project is good news for hawks, which in some cases still face challenges for survival,” said Kent Woodruff, Okanogan and Wenatchee national forests biologist.

“It’s also great for nature enthusiasts who like to see animals in the wild doing what comes naturally and see scientists at work trying to learn more about the raptors as they migrate south to spend the winter.”

The Chelan Ridge Hawk Migration Festival is a free family event to learn about raptors as they journey to winter territories. Vendors, live bird displays, childrens activities and field trips to the ridge are among the activities planned for Saturday in Pateros.

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