Thirteen lucky individuals participated in this year’s Raptor class, eager to improve their hawk and eagle identification skills. About 1/3 of the group was taking the class for their second time because they enjoyed the first round so much, and we quickly discovered we were in for a real treat. Attendees from as far as Seattle and Billings gathered at FWP in Great Falls Friday night for a slideshow presentation and Saturday field trip. Our enthusiastic guide Steve Hoffman, the Bozeman-based former director of Montana Audubon and walking encyclopedia of hawk and eagle knowledge, dazzled us “fledglings” with many wonderful photographs and helpful ID tips.
After two hours of drinking from Steve’s fire hose, we knew our dihedral (upward angled wings from horizontal, Golden Eagles have a little bit of it especially at the wing tips while Bald’s wings stay flat in flight) from our diurnal (active during the day, opposite of nocturnal) and a veritable feast of diagnostic hawk characteristics. We also learned many interesting facts about the various raptor migration patterns, habitat needs, and survival strategies. Who knew male Northern Harriers are polygynous -as in polygamy- they mate with multiple females and they hunt for and provide food to their multiple ladies! Also, even though Shrikes (Northern in MT in winter, Loggerhead in MT in Summer) kill and eat meat they are not part of the raptor family. Raptors, it turns out, are distinguished from all other birds by their powerful talon tipped feet. Also fascinating were the human impacts on raptor habitat from oil and gas development and emerging conservation efforts in Mexico and South America.
The class spent Saturday on the pastoral back roads south of Great Falls, looping from Eden bridge and lunch on the banks of the Smith River, to Cascade and Ulm. With the short grass prairie in its vivid “full green” our group marveled at sightings of Osprey with fish, Swainson’s and Cooper’s hawks, Kestrel, well over a dozen Bald and Golden eagles, Short eared owls, and even side by side male and female Northern Harriers. Curlews, Sandhill cranes, and Snipes graced our presence; yes, snipes exist and are super cute! Mother Nature also provided stunning views of the largest and rarest hawk in North America, the magnificent Ferruginous. For ID think light/light/light: light head, light chest/body, light tail with rusty red top of wings.* There is a dark morph as well but less than 10% of the population.
A few of the many additional sightings included “all the Teals”, Lark buntings, Upland sandpiper, Phalaropes, Godwit, Sandhill Cranes, Turkeys, Redheads, Pintail, Gadwall, Turkey Vultures, Yellow Warbler, and Black Angus beef on the hoof. This driving loop really showcases the stunning bird and raptor habitat that is our central MT backyard.
We would like to acknowledge Beth Hill and Candace Beery for making this class happen, and for providing close up views with Beth’s new spotting scope. Thanks also to Montana FWP for their continued support of UMBA allowing us the use of their facility. Finally, a huge thank you to Steve Hoffman for coming up to Great Falls for the weekend to help us learn our raptors, and for his lifetime commitment to our feather friends. – UMBA Raptor Class of 2018
Lastly, Drew Marsh is leading a group trip to the Duck Pass – Golden Eagle Migration Survey (GEMS) observation site 20 miles West of White Sulfur in the Big Belt Mountains in early October. Surveyors count 2,000-3,000 golden eagles each Fall, with peak single day counts of 200-300! Stay tuned to UMBA for more details coming out in August.
P.S. Steve Hoffman now owns/leads birding tours throughout Central and South America year round. Check out upcoming trips at https://merlinbirding.com. I can’t think of a better guide for the international trip of a lifetime!