Nerdin’ out on the data

What is so interesting about the hawk flight in Cut Bank?

Here’s what’s interesting. For the few hours our volunteer counters have put in over the years, we’ve turned up an unusual species composition and distribution.

The Cut Bank Hawkwatch (N 48° 38′ 27.7″, W -112° 20′ 32.05″) is located in Cut Bank, Montana – 40 miles as the crow flies from East Glacier (along the Rocky Mountain Front), 100 miles southeast of the Vicki Ridge site near Beaver Mines, Alberta, 110 miles north of Roger’s Pass (MT) and 160 miles north-northwest of the GEMS site at Duck Lake Pass (MT). Cut Bank bills itself as a place “where the Rockies meet the plains” but it’s more accurately characterized by glacial topography – where the mountain glacial outwash meets the continental ice sheet outwash. These prehistoric carving, melting and flooding events created a dispersed, lumpy, opportunistic area of updrafts for migrant and resident hawks. The greater Cut Bank area was the location of the Glacial Lake Cut Bank, which overflowed into the Glacial Lake Great Falls. It appears that one of the lake’s drains is now the Cut Bank Creek Coulee, along which the town is situated. One of the better views both to the north and south along the coulee is conveniently located at the town’s main strip mall.

It is, from every angle, a unique site. It is not a ridgeline. It is not a lakeshore or an ocean coastline. It is at the edge of a small town on a prairie, overlooking a small creek coulee. Places of business (food, gear, hotel and restrooms) are immediately at hand. It is accessible 365 days of the year. It has ample parking. It is close to a planned stretch of the town’s growing trail system. Freight trains rattle and bellow as they traverse a picturesque trestle across the coulee along which the flight primarily occurs. On clear days – and most are – Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness are visible on the western horizon. And on a good fall day, Rough-legged Hawks and Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawks blast south-southeast at 20-50 meters directly overhead in the double-digits.

Our current efforts are focused on the fall flight, but a two-season site may be possible to develop.

To the data!

FALL 2016: 352 birds

  • 75 hours
  • October: 8 days
  • November: 2 days
  • December: 1 day
  • Turkey Vulture: 0
  • Osprey: 0
  • Bald Eagle: 7
  • Northern Harrier: 9
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk: 13
  • Cooper’s Hawk: 1
  • Northern Goshawk: 2
  • Red-tailed Hawk: 44
  • Rough-legged Hawk: 236
  • Swainson’s Hawk: 0
  • Ferruginous Hawk: 2
  • Golden Eagle: 12
  • American Kestrel: 1
  • Merlin: 3
  • Peregrine Falcon: 0
  • Prairie Falcon: 8
  • Unknown Buteo: 11
  • Unknown Falcon: 0
  • Unknown Eagle: 2
  • Unknown Raptor: 1

FALL 2017: 827 birds

  • 99 hours
  • August: 1 day
  • September: 7 days
  • October: 15 days
  • November: 4 days
  • Turkey Vulture: 0
  • Osprey: 2
  • Bald Eagle: 64
  • Northern Harrier: 50
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk: 31
  • Cooper’s Hawk: 6
  • Northern Goshawk: 1
  • Broad-winged Hawk: 7
  • Red-tailed Hawk: 145
  • Rough-legged Hawk: 271
  • Swainson’s Hawk: 81
  • Ferruginous Hawk: 48
  • Golden Eagle: 38
  • American Kestrel: 9
  • Merlin: 10
  • Peregrine: Falcon 3
  • Prairie Falcon: 20
  • Unknown Buteo: 25
  • Unknown Falcon: 1
  • Unknown Eagle: 1
  • Unknown Raptor: 1

SPRING 2017: 544 birds

  • 71 hours
  • February: 3 days
  • March: 14 days
  • April: 4 days
  • Turkey Vulture 2
  • Osprey 2
  • Bald Eagle 107
  • Northern Harrier 22
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk 17
  • Cooper’s Hawk 11
  • Northern Goshawk 0
  • Red-tailed Hawk 117
  • Rough-legged Hawk 86
  • Swainson’s Hawk 0
  • Ferruginous Hawk 45
  • Golden Eagle 90
  • American Kestrel 7
  • Merlin 2
  • Peregrine Falcon 2
  • Prairie Falcon 13
  • Unknown Buteo 9
  • Unknown Falcon 0
  • Unknown Eagle 0
  • Unknown Raptor 7

The standout Rough-legged Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, and Prairie Falcon flights have yielded some of the highest tallies west of the Great Lakes with only casual effort for 2 years running. In Canada, the Rocky Mountain Eagle Research Foundation’s Vicki Ridge site (near Beaver Mines, AB) logged 282.63 hours during the fall of 2016, with 313 Rough-legged Hawks, 3 Ferruginous Hawks, and 10 Prairie Falcons. The GEMS site in the Big Belt Mountains of Montana have logged 2 full fall seasons in 2016 and 2017 (389.17 hours, 256.23 hours) with an average of 146 Rough-legged Hawks, 1 Ferruginous Hawk, and 11 Prairie Falcons. Far to the north at Gunsight Mountain in Alaska, 2 full-season spring counts (2016 and 2017, at 485.33 and 514 hours) have yielded an average of 260 Rough-legged Hawks.

We’re really excited to see what we can pull out of the sky with a counter or 2 on the ground on a consistent basis this coming fall.

If you want to grind out the data yourself, please check it out at HMANA‘s wonderful Hawkcount.org, and please do consider donating to this wonderful organization while you’re there. They keep the data free. It’s only one of many, many good things they do!

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