by Dan Casey
In August of 2007, local birder Dan Casey was joined by Steve Hoffman (formerly Montana Audubon Director) to scout a potential raptor migration survey site in the Jewel Basin. Dan had a hunch, based in part on opportunistic sightings on fall hikes to Mt. Aeneas, that there was potential for this to be an important raptor migration corridor. Steve, who had started Hawkwatch International decades earlier based on ridgeline surveys in Utah, agreed. Our initial surveys bore this out, and the rest is history. Flathead Audubon and other partners have now collected 12 full seasons of hawk migration data at the Jewel Basin Hawk Watch, identifying and counting nearly 30,000 raptors of 18 species in the process.
The Jewel Basin Hawk Watch site is special because under the right conditions, it offers spectacular close-up views of hawks and eagles at point-blank range. As the premiere Accipiter site in Montana, there is no better place to observe and learn the finer points of Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawk identification, as these two species comprise more than half of all the birds counted. On peak migration days in late September, it is not uncommon to have birds passing at a rate of one a minute, many merely an arm’s length away. By mid-October, Golden Eagles dominate the flight. Red-tailed Hawks are the next most common species, followed by American Kestrels, Bald Eagles and Northern Harriers. Northern Goshawks, Broad-winged Hawks, Peregrine Falcons and Prairie Falcons also make regular appearances.
August 25th marks the beginning of the 2020 survey season, which will run through November 7th, weather permitting. The success of this effort depends on a cadre of experienced “primary observers”, a seasonal technician paid and supported through an agreement between Flathead Audubon and Flathead National Forest, and hundreds of hours donated by local and visiting volunteers. If you have not experienced the spectacle of hawk migration at the Jewel Basin site, why not consider some “social distancing” this fall, and join us on the ridge? There might be no better cure for all that 2020 has thrown at us than to sit on the ridge watching migration unfold.
Birders of all skill levels are welcome to join the surveys. There will always be an experienced primary observer on site, but extra eyes are needed on busy days! The Jewel Basin site sits on the ridge crest about ½ mile north of Mt. Aeneas. Getting there involves a 2 ¼ mile moderately difficult hike from the Jewel Basin parking lot to the ridgetop, steadily gaining about 1,400 ft in elevation. The scenery is as spectacular as the birding.
You can watch live tallies at the Flathead Audubon count area on Dunkadoo.
We will include monthly updates in the Pileated Post, and there is also a Google group dedicated to the effort (drop us a line on our Contact Us page for access to the group). For more information, or to participate in the counts, contact Dan Casey at 406-270-5941.