Fall 2018 Season Summary

As we ramp up for the second season on the Cut Bank Coulee, we realize we owe y’all a Fall 2018 summary! Not everyone keeps obsessive track of the stats over at hawkcount.org like we do, so rather belatedly but with great joy, here it is!

Thanks to our many donors and supporters, the Cut Bank Hawkwatch was counted from 15 September 2018 through 12 November 2018, for an average of 5.8 hours per day. During our focus month of October, 186.42 hours were observed overall, at 6.4 hours per day on average, achieving our first objective. Funding for the CBHW primarily supported hiring and housing a full-time counter, Silvan Laan. Silvan – artist, wanderer, life-long bird watcher – is originally from the coastal town of Zandvoort, Holland. He was Lead Counter at Chestnut Ridge Hawkwatch (NY) during Fall 2017. And now, he’s our friend. Major donors and logistical supporters were Hawkwatch International, HMANA, Upper Missouri Breaks Audubon Society, and the Glacier County Conservation District. THANK YOU!

The level of effort during Fall 2018 surpassed the previous years, yielding the following results:

Species 2018 2017 2016
Turkey Vulture 1 0 0
Osprey 4 2 0
Bald Eagle 49 64 7
Northern Harrier 74 50 9
Sharp-shinned Hawk 75 31 13
Cooper’s Hawk 25 6 1
Northern Goshawk 1 1 2
Broad-winged Hawk 11 7 0
Red-tailed Hawk 200 145 44
Rough-legged Hawk 243 271 236
Swainson’s Hawk 63 81 0
Ferruginous Hawk 22 48 2
Golden Eagle 82 38 12
American Kestrel 29 9 1
Merlin 19 18 3
Peregrine Falcon 1 3 0
Prairie Falcon 23 20 8
Gyrfalcon 1 0 0
Unknown Accipiter 14 0 0
Unknown Buteo 20 26 11
Unknown Falcon 1 1 0
Unknown Eagle 2 1 2
Unknown Raptor 29 5 1
Total 989 827 352
Level of effort:

2016: 34.75 hours

2017: 99 hours

2018: 330 hours

For those unfamiliar with the overall flight, the diversity of the overall flight is notable, and despite low-seeming numbers, the tallies for open-country species are unique. Records of note this year include a count-first Turkey Vulture (more often seen in the single digits by local birders in the springtime), and a count-first Gyrfalcon – which sums up the CBHW in a lot of ways: by other regional standards, the most mundane bird is a remarkable observation, and the most remarkable birds are always possible! This gray immature Gyrfalcon was observed on October 24, coincident with a handful of sightings on both sides of the divide in Montana.

The standout metrics revealed by the table, however, are the 2018 season total versus the level of effort, and the total Rough-legged Hawks across all three years. Tripling the effort did not produce triple the total birds, but it seems that a major factor this season was weather. While we have not performed in-depth analysis on conditions versus flights for this small dataset, the weather remained warm, the winds gentle, and the skies blue for much of the official count. In 2016 and 2107, counters found that frequent fronts and west/southwest winds steady at 10-20 mph (and gusty enough to rattle your pickup) seem to create the conditions for good flights at the CBHW. In 2018, these conditions were hard to come by. However, the total number of Rough-legged Hawks tallied in all three years, regardless of effort, is remarkably steady.

If you’re interested in digging a little deeper into the Rough-legged Hawk results, we wrote a summary report for the HMANA journal Hawk Migration Studies. HMANA was one of our major supporters in the Fall 2018 season, and we encourage folks out there to join, and purchase the journal for a more in-depth analysis on that end. The two sites we dig into are our benchmark hawk watch study sites that consistently observe Rough-legged Hawks in the central part of North America during the fall. These are Vicki Ridge, AB, and Hawk Ridge, MN. Vicki Ridge is a sister site to Mount Lorette, best known for its impressive fall Golden Eagle flight. Counted in recon-status during 2014 and 2015, it has been counted more consistently since 2016. Hawk Ridge, one of the longest-running raptor migration study sites in the world, has been collecting migration data since 1972. For the hawk junkies out there, it’s worth digging around in the data over at hawkcount.org at Hawk Ridge, but for Vicki, you have to dig a little deeper into their blog.

The initial focus in building this project has been on Rough-legged Hawks, however the unique suite of open country prairie birds whose migration is poorly understudied does not start and end with this species. We hope to expand the season to run from August 15 – November 15 to more completely capture the Ferruginous Hawk and Prairie Falcon flights in particular.

We hope to build upon this season and towards our our second objective in the coming years, building enthusiasm for the project in the Glacier and Toole County communities. We hope to show that the CBHW could become a long-term driver of ecotourism, an educational opportunity for the schools, and a point of interest on the Cut Bank Trails. While the 2018 fall season was primarily a test of the flight itself and of the overall project logistics, in 2019 we hope to stoke the Eastern Front community’s interest in the folks with the spotting scopes by the Cut Bank train trestle.

This project would have been impossible without countless kindnesses large and small, and we are incredibly grateful for the support from all quarters last year.

What’s next? Fall 2019. Still rolling with our friends at Hawkwatch International. Stay tuned.


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