I've been feeling hawkish.
So I think I'll take Friday off and drive to Government Camp, to meet some hardcore birders with high-clearance vehicles. Together, we'll caravan north on Highway 35 and turn south onto Forest Road 48, which follows Iron Creek into the heart of the Mount Hood National Forest. After crossing Bonney Creek, we'll turn onto another paved road, then veer onto a dirt track, ignoring the sign that says "Not Maintained for Passenger Vehicles." Because what worthwhile backcountry road is?
We'll grind our way up north past Bonney Meadows Campground, and ultimately park at a spur that's marked only with plastic flagging tape. Then we'll march uphill for a quarter-mile, and visit with four volunteers atop a frightfully exposed knob of rock with a stunning horizon dominated by Mount Hood to the north and the Badger Creek Wilderness to the east: Bonney Butte.
In 1993, the scientific director of Hawkwatch International, a Utah-based conservation organization that monitors the health of the nation's raptor population, used a topographic map of the Mount Hood National Forest to site an observation post along the primary migratory route used by Pacific Northwest birds of prey. On paper, Bonney Butte seemed, well, positively bonny. It crowns a north-south ridge, a natural compass that migrating birds instinctively follow once they round the eastern flank of Mount Hood. The ridgeline also cleaves the prevailing continental winds like a wing, with high pressure on one side and low pressure on the other. Precisely the sort of situation that every raptor, and human glider pilot, lives for.
Imagine, for a moment, that you're a migrating raptor with limited stores of energy and a powerful set of wings. With 1,400 miles of terrain to cover, you'd want to flex your biggest muscles as little as possible. So you glide. You seek thermals and updrafts. Then you jump off and soar down the hypotenuse, your glide slope. Rise over run, basic geometry, all the way to Mexico.
Sunup until sundown, from the morning of Aug. 31 until the evening of Oct. 31, a team from Hawkwatch keeps a lonely vigil atop Bonney Butte. Two observers sit in the open counting raptors, while two trappers, hidden in a blind nearby, try to catch, weigh and band them. Get this: They use live birds as bait. Doves. Wearing harnesses, no less. Tethered harnesses. When the observers spot a bird of prey, say, a red-tailed hawk, they radio the trappers, who release their doves and fly them like kites, luring the unsuspecting raptor into a tier of fine mesh nets. This, I figure, I have to see.
So far this season, the observers have tallied more than a thousand raptors, including seven bald eagles. Since 1995, the trappers have bagged and tagged some 500 birds. All hawks. Not a single bald eagle. Because our nation's razor-beaked mascot, you see, just isn't moved by doves.
Dave Helzer of the Portland Audubon Society is leading a free, daylong field trip to Hawkwatch International's Bonney Butte Raptor Migration Project on Friday, Oct. 5. Meet at 8:30 am at the Summit Ski Area parking lot in Government Camp. Make sure you bring a lunch, and plenty of water. And that SUV that's never left the pavement. For more information, call 292-6855.
To read more about Hawkwatch International, visit www.hawkwatch.org .
To hear the latest raptor count, call the local Bonney Butte hotline at 972-6064.