Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Banner Day at Bonney Butte Hawk Watch

For once, I finally live in a place with real seasons – not just where it’s either really hot, hot, or not-so-hot. The leaves are changing color and there is a definite crispness in the air, not to mention all of the pumpkin products lining the shelves. And with this lovely change in seasons comes migrating birds, perhaps the best part about fall. One fall bird activity on our to-do list has been to go to a hawk watch, and luckily there’s one not too far away from here. We actually had meant to go the weekend before, but the threat of rain kept us away a week, and we’re so glad it did because we had the most beautifully clear day with mild temperatures.

Mount Hood

It took two and a half hours (and several missed turns and bumpy roads) to get to Bonney Butte, an open hilltop with a fantastic view of Mount Hood that lends for great views of hawks passing by and heading south. This hawk watch doesn’t have nearly the number of birds that form large kettles as in many other hawk watch sites, but it does have pretty good variety.

Accipiters were the most numerous, as Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks zoomed by. Falcons (Merlins and Peregrines) were few but awesome with their sword-like wings cutting through the air. But one of the most amazing things from this trip had to be the burst of Golden Eagles. This was actually a lifer for us, and when it rained, it poured! We saw a couple scattered towards the beginning of our watch, but then midway through – bam, bam, bam! SIX Golden Eagles flew across the sky one after the other practically in a line. (I guess I should have written out 6 bams). Since we were new to these incredible raptors, it was only from hearing from the seasoned hawk watchers that we knew that this was an amazing occurrence that just happened. Not only was this number of Golden Eagles great for this site, but to have them stream in like that was also unprecedented.

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

But the highlight of this gorgeous day has to be getting to release sharp shinned hawks and observing a Golden Eagle up close. A short-ish hike from Bonney Butte is a banding station that uses bird lures (Starlings and Pigeons) that are eventually released and humanely treated (expect for being scared out of their mind for a minute as a hawk comes diving towards it). A net is cast over said hawk and then a small team bands the birds and then allows willing participants to release the bird. Nick and I each got our own Sharpie (Sharp-shinned Hawks) to release after they were brought up in their homemade tube. The experience was simply amazing.


We then got to see a Red-Tailed Hawk and a Merlin released, too. Neither bird seemed to pleased to be held, but hopefully their short-term annoyance will lead to some good data. And I know the rest of us definitely appreciated this great close-up opportunity. We've seen a few Red-Tails in our day sort of up close in captivity, but I can't say that we've been this close to a Merlin. This Taiga subspecies of Merlin was especially striking with his deep, dark blue-gray color contrasting those bright yellow lores.

And then there was the juvenile Golden Eagle, who after close inspection, was deemed healthy enough to don a satellite tracker on its back. It took some time for the team to properly affix the tracker onto the eagle. There was even a close call as the eagle wriggled and nearly took off. But the handler, who seemed dangerously close to having his nether regions ripped up by this giant raptor’s magnificent talons, kept him from flying off too soon. After some readjusting of his backpack, the Golden Eagle was released, pushing off with such power and grace.

We almost thought the day couldn’t have anything more to offer, but we were graced with the presence of a new lifer – a flyby Clark’s Nutcracker and a band of Gray Jays that came up so close just to check us out as we were on our way out. One even swooped inches from my head, perhaps looking for a snack handout. They’re so endearing like many other jays, but they’re so round and plump unlike any other jays we’ve seen. It was a fun way to end such a spectacular day – perfect weather, a great variety of birds, getting to release Sharpies, and a rare close encounter with a Golden Eagle who was just one of many. Truly outstanding!


  1. To hold a raptor...and then get to chuck it in the air. This seems a rare treat. Also, Gray Jays are wonderful creatures and hardy as a bowl of nails. a bird in band really better than one in the bush?

    1. It was a rare treat, indeed! And I would have to say in this case, yes, a bird in band is better than one in the bush. ;)

  2. Replies
    1. Exactly, Mary! I must have said that word 100 times that day. =)