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.


A Visit from Friends

Our friends at the Upper Missouri Breaks Audubon, Great Falls group came for a visit and caught a great day. Here’s the word from their November newsletter:

Well, we finally made it to a hawk watch site this year. After losing out to bad weather the previous 3 weekends (rain, snow, ice and low clouds) October 20th proved to be mostly sunny, breezy enough to push the raptors south and not cold (in fact it got up to 72 degrees in Cut Bank that day). The hawk watch site in Cut Bank is literally behind the shopping center – overlooking Cut Bank Creek and the railroad trestle. “Rock Falcons” (Rock Pigeons) were constantly soaring and distracting – “is that one? No – just a pigeon”. Eurasian Collared Doves mainly sat around. The stars of the show were the 22 Rough-legged Hawks that flew over while we were there. And guess what – the single day, high count for Roughies was – October 20! There were dark morphs of both Roughies and Red-tailed Hawks. A Cooper’s Hawk went shooting by, the Bald Eagles kept circling around – or so it seemed – so the count could have been only 4 or as high as 6 or 8. It was
easy to count the young Bald Eagles of different ages as unique birds. A Prairie Falcon headed north – it was counted as a “local” bird. Indeed there are some local Prairie Falcons in the area.

There aren’t many sites for counting raptors where you could actually sit in your car and watch. We had chairs handy for when we got tired of standing. We could have had a BBQ going and made it into a “tail-gate watch party”. In addition to Silvan Laan (the primary counter) we had the company of Andrew Burmester to provide even more raptor id expertise.

We really did hit a nice peak day. As of October 26 there have been 898 raptors reported – 196 Roughies (only 2 in September), 194 Red-tailed Hawks – 155 in October, peak of 35 October 6 and 21 on both October 8 and 12. Thre were 82 raptors recorded on October 12 – the high daily total. There have been 60 Golden Eagles 21 on October 12. Sharp-shinned Hawks peaked at 54 on October 1st. You can find all the numbers at www.hawkcount.org – just click on Montana on the map and choose “Cut Bank”. On the left column you can choose to look at daily or monthly data. The birds flew right overhead for the most part – sometimes headed over town to the east, other times down along the creek (like a pair of Northern Harriers we watched. A few paused to do some hunting. One Bald Eagle photographed looked like it had recently had a large meal.

We did a little side birding to a few local “pot holes” – a quick trip up to Split Pond yielded some lingering Long-billed Dowitchers and a group of Green-winged Teal, the sewage lagoons had a couple hundred Canada Geese loafing and northern Shovelers, Blue-winged Teal and Mallards dabbling. On our way home we stopped by a pot hole at Ethridge and found 5 lingering Greater Yellowlegs (and more dabblers). The Cut Bank Hawkwatch is an easy way to get introduced to hawk migration watching. Be forewarned – it can become addictive.

October is for Roughies!

At the halfway mark of our first official fall season, it’s time to take stock. Fortunately our numbers are posting over at hawkcount.org, so we can see the whole season’s results unfold in one place. We can compare it to previous efforts in 2016 and 2017, and we can compare it to other places in North America.

The numbers can tell us so many things. They can tell us where the raptor flight at Cut Bank fits into the larger story of raptor migration across North America, and the world. It can tell us what the flight is not, of course. Cut Bank is not a hawk migration site where crazy numbers of raptors are counted, like say, at Cape May in New Jersey, where they just counted over 5400 American Kestrels in a single day, or the GEMS site in the Big Belt Mountains of Montana where they once counted 359 Golden Eagles in a day, or way over in the Republic of Georgia at the Batumi Raptor Count, which has tallied one million raptors in the past six weeks. Yes, one million individual birds.

But what they ain’t got, we got, and it’s special. It’s Rough-legged Hawks. These birds are tough, and actually think places like Glacier County are great places to spend the winter. They breed in the Arctic, and are adapted to cold, windy, open environments like those that occur along the Rocky Mountain Front. They have built-in winter gear like any sensible Eastern Front-dwelling Montanan wears ice-fishing or taking a walk to the post office in the winter time: extra warm layers! Their legs are feathered much farther down their legs than a lot of other birds. You Montanans up there might have noticed that Sharp-tailed Grouse put on booties for winter, but Roughies are built for cold and wind all year-round. In addition to their feathered (hence rough) legs, they also have more feathers on their face, much farther down on their bill than some other hawks – like putting on your face mask or neck warmer before heading out into the cold wind.

Ok, back to the numbers – let’s dig in. So far this season, as of October 15, 2018, 108 Roughies have been tallied at Cut Bank.

Let’s put that in context with just the Cut Bank flight. This is our first season with someone counting (almost) daily. Previously, we’ve counted only opportunistically. In 2017, the CBHW tallied a total of 271 Roughies, and more than half of those rolled south AFTER October 15. In 2016, CBHW tallied 236 birds from October 15 forward. So we’re on track to see a similar – if not greater – number of this species pass through Cut Bank during migration this year.

Now let’s put this in context with other migration sites in North America that see this bird in good numbers annually.

In the fall, two of the other sites that see them in appreciable numbers consistently are Hawk Ridge in Minnesota and Vicki Ridge in Alberta. Granted, Vicki Ridge is also a new-ish study site, but they’re just north of us in Cut Bank and make for an interesting comparison. During their first full-season fall count in 2016, they tallied 313. Hawk Ridge’s seasonal counts have ranged all over the place, between only 17 birds one year all the way up to 1123 birds in another.

na_rlIn the spring, this species is a notable component to the flights at Derby Hill and Braddock Bay in New York, and at Gunsight Mountain in Alaska.

In Montana, fall averages (as of 2017) are as shown below. They see them, but not quite like we see them at Cut Bank.


So far this year, the Roughie flight hasn’t materialized at Hawk Ridge (yet!). They stand at 10 individuals as of October 15, 2018.

At Vicki Ridge, they’re at about 56 Roughies as of October 14, 2018.

At MPG Ranch, they stand at 48 Roughies as of October 15, 2018.

At GEMs, they’re at 8 Roughies as of October 15, 2018.

Long story short, we’re interested to see over time if the CBHW is a consistent location to observed Rough-legged Hawk migration in the fall, so we can learn more about this tough wind-rider of the open country. So far, so good!


Bird’s eye view of the Cut Bank Creek Coulee

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see Cut Bank just like the hawks, eagles, and falcons cruising south down the coulee for the winter?

Wonder no more! Follow along the Cut Bank Creek from just north of the train trestle, cross the bridge, then end up just shy of US Highway 2.

The Hawkwatch location itself is just south and east of the trestle (to the left, in the grassy patch just past the bridge). At the end of the clip, if you turned west (right) and took Route 2, you would head straight for the Marias Pass – the dividing line between the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park.

Here’s a Bald Eagle taking the Coulee line south-bound last year:


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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