National Forest Foundation

Counting Raptors Flying High in the Sky Over the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest

Wildlife, Treasured Landscapes


There is little more thrilling than standing on the top of a mountain cliff and watching a golden eagle soar past you, followed by sharp shinned hawks zipping by and, if you are really lucky, a rough-legged hawk hovering overhead, wearily looking for prey on its long migration from Alaska. Last week, when I visited the Chelan Ridge Raptor Migration Project, that’s exactly how lucky I was.

Photo by Natalie Kuehler

A rough-legged hawk prepares for takeoff. All raptors have three characteristics in common: a curved beak, talons, and extremely good eyesight. This raptor is the only Buteo hawk tied to cold climates and sports fluffy, insulating feathers that extend down its leg to the base of the toes

For the past 19 years, the Okanogan-Wentchee National Forest has partnered with HawkWatch International to operate this project high up in the Northern Cascades, near Cooper Mountain (5,862 feet). Chelan Ridge is located right in the Pacific Coast Flyway, a band of air that stretches from Alaska in the north all the way down to Patagonia in the south. Flanked by Lake Chelan on one side and the Methow Valley on the other, Chelan Ridge experiences strong updrafts that raptors use to be carried high in the sky with minimal effort as they travel thousands of miles on their winter migration. It is one of the best places in the Pacific Northwest to spot hawks, falcons, eagles and harriers.

And every year, from late August to late October six volunteer wildlife biologists with a strong background in avian studies spend nine hours a day standing on the exposed cliffs, binoculars to their eyes, or hover quietly in an unheated blind. They are paid a stipend of $40 a day, barely enough to cover their food and sleep in little tents hidden from public view. It’s a 30-mile roundtrip over rough dirt roads just to the nearest grocery store. Even so, competition for these jobs is stiff. It isn’t every day, after all, that you get a chance to release a rough-legged hawk that was just caught, examined and banded.

Photo by Natalie Kuehler

The volunteer biologists share this unheated common space and kitchen.]

Photo by Natalie Kuehler

A volunteer biologists is about to release a rough-legged hawk. “This made my life,” she said. It was only the second rough-legged hawk banded at Chelan Ridge all season.

The volunteers count and identify every migrating raptor that flies by and gather detailed statistics – including sex, weight, age, and the existence of parasites – on birds that are trapped. Each of the captured birds is also outfitted with a leg band. The resulting data, together with information from HawkWatch’s eight other sites across the country, is used to track long-term population trends and enhance understanding of the life histories, ecology, status and conservation needs of raptor populations in North America.

Photo by Natalie Kuehler

This bulletin board with observation and banding totals by raptor species is updated daily throughout the season.

Photo by Natalie Kuehler

A volunteer biologists examines the wing structure of a sharp-shinned hawk that was captured and banded only minutes earlier.

Photo by Natalie Kuehler

A volunteer biologists examines the feathering on this female rough-legged hawk before releasing her. This raptor likely migrated all the way from Alaska, and its fat stores were depleted from the lengthy travels.

This year the record-setting fires in Washington State nearly prevented the long-running project from operating. The area, already affected by last-year’s devastating fires, burned right up to the mountain ridge in the Black Canyon fire. Safety concerns forced the volunteers to start the raptor count unusually late; in fact, and the fire reached right up to the line constructed by the fire crews a few feet from the observation point and blind.

Photo by Natalie Kuehler

The view from the Chelan Ridge Raptor Project observation point. This year’s fires burned all the way up the ridge, and pockets of activity persist in the steeply-sloped canyons.

Photo by Natalie Kuehler

Only a few weeks ago fire roared through Black Canyon. Nonetheless, new shots are already appearing among the scorched trees and ash.

Scientists are now eager to explore whether the fires have affected the migrating raptors. They have, in any event, affected the project staff: Jesse McCarty, the Forest Service wildlife biologist for the Entiat and Chelan Ranger Districts who oversees the volunteers’ work, lost all of his outbuildings to the fires. Nonetheless, he is up at Chelan Ridge at almost every other day. McCarty, who due to tight budgets donates most of his time to ensure the project’s success, encourages the public to come up and visit: one of the few things he loves more than raptors is sharing his passion for them with others.

Photo by Natalie Kuehler

Forest Service wildlife biologist Jesse McCarty stops to explain vegetation – and this year’s fire line – along the brief hike from the parking area to the Raptor Project observation point on Chelan Ridge.

Photo by Natalie Kuehler

Katie Taennecker, a recent visitor to the Chelan Ridge Raptor Project, experiences the thrill of releasing a newly banded sharp-shinned hawk.

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