Into The Highway Of Raptors

To be able to look into the eye of a hawk. Nevada is such a wild place, but I’m still searching for something that even comes close to the mental and emotional reset of being on the “highway of raptors”—a migratory path for birds of prey that stretches from British Columbia all the way to Argentina… and just so happens to run through Nevada’s eastern border outside West Wendover in the Goshute mountain range. There you can hike into a section of rugged Nevada you might not have thought to check out otherwise, where raptors come in with overwhelming intensity, giving you a snapshot of the bigger environmental picture out there. All the while, you get the bonus luxury of shadowing a team of wildlife biology badasses who survey and live among these forceful creatures for three solid months during peak migratory season. You’re in the heart of a setting experiencing raw landscapes as they are and always were—a little reminder that, if you want to be wild, here in Nevada, you truly can.

Accessing The Sharp-Shinned Expressway 

Real adventure. The sets of experiences that drop you into landscapes where you’re not going to cross paths with another soul for the entire day, that find you traveling hundreds of miles on nothing but dirt, and that set you up for some legitimately mind-blowing wildlife experiences. If you’re lookin’ for it, I can’t think of many better places than backcountry Nevada… Facts are facts, babes. It’s true; you’ve gotta log some serious hours to access Nevada’s pristine alpine lakes, streams, and 300+ mountain ranges, but once you do… wow. What a total gift. I get it—it sounds a tad over the top and maybe even cheesy, but for those of you who’ve grabbed onto it, you know exactly the type of reward I’m talking about. A situation you want to shout out about from the peaks, but are also a little afraid of blowing up for fear of overexposing the good stuff.

The good news is this: with 110k square miles to play with—most of which is extremely primitive—I think there’s enough of that good-good to go around. In this circumstance, it’s a migratory route that thousands of birds follow through Northern and Southern America which (SCORE) runs just south of West Wendover in the Goshutes—a range positioned right in between the Bonneville Salt Flats and Rubies in eastern Nevada. A place you’d probably never, in your wildest dreams pay any attention to, and probably even pooh-pooh as boring dead desert. But sometimes it’s great to be wrong. Because, as in this case, I can’t imagine anything else more alive.

Team Hawk Watch, Baby

So it’s a migratory path… aren’t there like, tons of those all over the world? You’re right—there are a few that even stretch through Nevada that are ranked of global importance for migratory shorebirds. But raptors, and birds of prey? This is a way sexier bag of tricks, guys. Two words: APEX. PREDATOR. Put together, this means these birds are at the top of their game, ruling their entire dang food chain… And flying through Nevada as they make their way south to winter in warmer places—literal snowbirds. While tons of National Wildlife Refuges have been in place for decades, there weren’t a whole lot of groups (or really any) monitoring the wellbeing and studying overall population stability when it came to birds of prey.

That is, until Hawk Watch International entered the game in 1986, specifically targeting this exact range to study in eastern Nevada to get a handle on raptor migration in the western United States, although founder Steve Hoffman had already been studying the migration in the Goshutes since 1980. And guess what? That alone qualifies the tremendously special work that this non-profit has logged as the longest running standardized migration monitoring situation in the West. What the what? Yeah, what they’re doing is a big deal. Together with Nevada BLM, Hawk Watch International has built an observation deck at the top of the Goshute Range designed to zero in on the long term health and welfare of hawks, eagles, and falcons passing through the region.

Turns Out, Nevada’s Great Basin Is A Regional Sweet Spot

There just so happens to be a few different theories about the paths these raptors continue to follow, year after year. I poke fun at it, joking it’s a literal expressway, but dang, considering how closely these bird babes really do follow the route, it might as well be. Impressive stuff. Over the years, scientists have proposed that birds use the stars and sun to help navigate through the span of two continents, arguing that some birds have even “lost their way” above major metro areas where light pollution is super extreme. Other wildlife biologists have shot that down, arguing that raptors are using the Earth’s magnetic field as a guide. Yeah, the idea that birds have an internal magnetic compass that helps steer them along the planet’s magnetic routes is pretty unbelievably impressive, right? Right. The course they’re following is called the Intermountain Flyway—the span of two continents, beginning in the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic, stretches along the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts, and ultimately reaches its end point all the way in the southern tip of Argentina. The Intermountain Flyway is a solid route for them to follow, and Nevada’s landscapes aren’t different than other areas they’re soaring through. As a whole, the Intermountain Flyway is made up of wetlands, saline sinks and alpine streams and lakes these birds can bank on. Whether they’re reliant on the heavens, or that internal compass of theirs, thousands and thousands of raptors are traveling along Nevada’s eastern border mid-August through early November, which goes completely gangbusters and peaks in early October. Hint hint.

Oh, And The Wildlife Bios Are Total Badasses

Not so plain and simple: Nevada is a place where your experiences are totally enhanced by the people you meet. Whether you’re ponied up next to an old rancher at a sagebrush saloon, or sharing a cowboy tub with a band of hippies in the Black Rock, or you’re beckoned by the caretakers of a historical gem for an unplanned tour while exploring a ghost town, one thing is Tahoe blue, crystal clear. It’s the people who are going to elevate your time in Nevada, guaran-dang-teed. Did you think time in the Goshutes was going to be any different? No way, silly goose. So we know the window of opportunity is August through November each fall, and the folks at Hawk Watch have set up a pretty amazing little basecamp up on the ridgeline in the Goshutes. The remaining part of this equation? A gang of seriously talented and incredibly caring wildlife biologists to do the real work—the brains behind the operation. And my goodness, do they score with this mighty crew. About 6-ish wildlife biologists live up here—as in round the dang clock for over 90 days—at their basecamp to devotedly collect information as they survey one of the largest concentrations of migratory raptors in the West. I mean, you’re not hardcore unless you live hardcore, and LAWD, these babes are certainly living up to it. While you’re wrapped up in a pure Disney-style moment, they’re over here tallying the birds flying overhead, or taking measurements to understand the bigger picture.

Travel Nevada Pro Tip

Be sure to talk to the wildlife biologists—they’re sure to deliver some pretty incredible travel stories about their lives spent traveling all of the country and world, studying woodpeckers in northern Texas, surveying California Condors at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

First Things First: Head For The Observation Point

Once you hike that booty up 2,000 feet of elevation gain in 2 miles, you’ve summited. Woo hoo! Maybe kind of intense, but an over-before-you-know-it sort of an experience that has insta-payoff. Standing on top of any mountain definitely delivers an experience I’m always grateful to have, but especially in this zone. With the Bonneville Salt Flats on one side and snow capped East Humboldts on the other? I mean, does it get better? But wait: yes, yes it does. Though you can totally drink in a full 360° perspective as soon as you summit, the first thing the wildlife bios are going to do after you check in (other than give you a great big bear hug) is take you to the official observation point. Up here, you can see about 100 miles in every dang direction. Get all up in it, lovies. Coincidence? I think not… this exact spot on the ridgeline allows the wildlife biologists to surveil the horizon with laser focus, spotting falcons, raptors and eagles coming from a long ways out. And that’s exactly what they do: two or three of the biologists will post up, lock into those binos, and wait. Wait until those big ol’ birdies show up and add ‘em to the tally board for the day, annotating by specific species.

The Species Variation Is A Real Face-Melter, Guys

Sitting in a chair all day on top of a summit waiting to try to spot large birds might sound kind of dull. At first. That is, until you remember that a cool 25 THOUSAND birds move through the area—and directly overhead, remember—comprising nearly 20 different species. If you need to brush up on your raptor facts (I totally did) let me lay it on you, loves. Falcons, eagles and raptors—AKA apex predators—are usually split into several different types of classifications: accipiters, buteos, falcons, eagles and odd balls (Northern Harriers, Osprey and Turkey Vultures.) Basically everything ripping through the Intermountain Flyway falls into one of these categories. Accipiters are still birds of prey, but typically smaller in size than what you have as a mental picture for a hawk or eagle. Characteristically, they’ve got shorter, rounder wings and rudder-like tails. Think Coopers Hawks, Sharp-Shinneds or the Northern Goshawk. They’re smaller in size, which helps them maneuver through thickly wooded or forest habitats (what they’re built for), but still crazy powerful by force, bombing their prey. Trivia night lockup: the peregrine falcon is the fastest member of the animal kingdom, swooping in on prey at over 240 miles per hour. Yow. Typically, most accipiters exhibit a distinctive flight characteristic: two quick flaps and a long glide. Flap-flap-glide. Flap-flap-glide.

On to buteos. The big birdies. This is the Red-Tailed, Swainson’s and Broad-Winged Hawk sorta zone… the big bodied, broad winged babes. Most buteos have large bodies, and long, broad wings with wide, fanned tails. They gliiiiide. Not as much of the flap-flap biz, but can soar for long stretches of distance. If you see a big ol’ bird in the sky just riding those thermals for days, chances are, it’s a buteo. Red-Tailed, Swainson’s Ferruginous, or Broad-Winged Hawk. Rough-Legged, too.

Travel Nevada Pro Tip

Having trouble remembering the difference between the accipiters and buteos? Remember this: buteos got big ol’ booties. What a mnemonic device we can all get on board with, right?

…And Then There’s The BLIND

Here’s where it goes from impressive to amazing: as the biologists are posted up on the observation point, sometimes they can figure out what types of birds they’re seeing not by physical attributes, but flight characteristics, or body shape and proportion. Best yet, they’re nailing species type for the tally board every. Single. Time. Yeah, they’re tallying the different types of birds they’re eying, but if one is getting super close to Hawk Watch basecamp, they radio over to the second part of their team… posted up in the blind, baby. But before we all get too excited here and blow this thing out, remember this. These folks are wildlife biologists. As in, professionals, who are permitted to be here to conduct an official wildlife study, and the last thing they are setting out to do is hurt any birds. That’s actually the polar opposite, in fact. Here’s exactly what happens.

A pair of wildlife biologists are on lookout, trying to see what’s flying around or approaching basecamp. If one gets close enough, they’ll radio over to the blind, where two more wildlife biologists on team Hawk Watch are waiting patiently for their job to spring into action. As soon as an accipiter or buteo is within close enough range to catch its attention, then bam, they’ll make it appear as if another bird is flailing around in distress. Smoke and mirrors for the sake of wildlife conservation, lovies. This staged situation signals to the bird of prey, making it think “oh yeah, you know what? I think I AM kinda hungry, what an easy target.” When really, they safely catch the wild raptor to give it a good solid once over before they set it free it back on its path to Argentina. The raptor comes in hot, and hey now—survey’s in full swing, sassy pants.

Class Is In Session, Bird Nerds

The tally count going down on the observation point is crazy-important, but the actual inspection of the birds they’ve trapped is what takes this thing from zero to sixty. It’s also where all the enchantment in this operation goes down. Once one comes in for the “kill” to the staged bird in faux distress, the wildlife biologists run out to snag it and bring it inside the blind to their surveying station. First step—other than seeing what type of bird they have in hand—is to weigh it, and then they dive right into a thorough, yet efficient inspection of these babes. They want to collect information about them, but guys. They’re wild, and they want to get them back on the International Flyway ASAP.

After charting species type and weight, they feel around the bird’s breast bone to check for muscle mass. The sharper the bone feels, the less muscle mass there is… so what does that mean? The bird is less “fit.” Image that, a bird considered to be a little soft around the edges, but travels over 8,000 miles—a distance most people on earth will never cross in their entire lifetime.

Next, they’ll fan out the tail feathers to grab a measurement, and make sure that all 12 that are normally present are intact. All of the tail feathers are called retrices, and the best one to get a length read on is the middle one—R1. So they measure from the base of their little bird butts all the way to the tip of the tail feather.

This next one has still got my imagination soaring: they’ll also check for the amount of fat deposits that can be seen on the bird’s breast in what’s called the wing pit… or the bird’s armpit. And get this: just like a marbled steak at the dang deli case, fat deposits on the breast of these birds looks the exact same. A dark red color with swirls of white, if it’s a fatty bird. To check for this, the bio will pull back the wing and simply blow back the feathers in the wing pit to get a good read on it.

Next, they measure the wing chord, or the curve of the bird’s wing for more size-related measurements…

And of course pimp them out with some birdy bling blow before they’re on the road to release. Aside from taking a general population count of birds of prey traveling the highway of raptors and making note of general health and welfare of the birds to understand the bigger picture, banding (aside from the very important education component Hawk Watch is blasting into the ether)  is the single most important task they’re doing. Nothing about this hurts the bird—remember, they’re doing this to help them. Plus, it’s a vital tool in understanding migratory pathways, like the Intermountain Flyway.

They’ll also make other general observations, like specific characteristics that stand out. In one case, wildlife biologist badass Allie Pesano commented that the Sharp-shined Hawks we we were giving the once over was a mature bird. She could tell because the color of their eyes are typically yellowish, but the one we had before us had an deep amber color to it.

But the very best? Oh man, you know that comes last after you’ve worked for it. Time to release these babes back into the wild… send ‘em on their way.

Raptors Are Cool And All, But Why Go To All This Trouble?

Ok yeah, this whole thing isn’t a huge production, but also not a small one either. It’s undoubtedly interesting, but why go to all the trouble and expense of setting this up? And for months on end? The reason is this: raptors (or apex predators) are at the top of their food chain. They cover gargantuan areas of land, migrating over thousands of miles to get to where they ultimately winter each year. Because they’re at the tippy top of their food chain, if something is wrong with them, it’s a glaring-red, sirens-going-off, red flag alert that something is wrong within the larger ecosystem, within the northern forests and songbird population in specific. In fact, that’s exactly why Hawk Watch originally set up shop back in the 80s. To understand their flight patterns on a much grander scale, while zeroing in on their health to figure out what is really going on in their environment. Pretty incredible how it’s all connected, and this is just one little piece of a great big puzzle, right?

Anybody Can Grab Onto This Tangible Piece Of A Much Bigger Picture

I know what you’re probably thinking—yeah, this is super cool that she got to go do this… she’s a writer and must’ve had special access, blah, blah blah. But, NOPE! The beauty is, anybody can hike their tail up that dang mountain, shoot the breeze with some crazy-inspiring wildlife bios, learn more about the greater environmental picture, and release these fascinating babes back into the wild. I mean, I probably wouldn’t just show up totally unannounced—but all you have to do is hit up their site to access a super great set of resources on apex predators, and how you can secure your spot as an official guest in the Goshutes, which goes down every fall. I can’t scream it from the mountain tops enough, guys. I just spelled out why this experience is so gratifying of every shred of your being, but being able to look straight into the eye of a Cooper’s—wow.

These birds are traveling through truly pristine landscapes, experiencing the same terrain now that they always have—at least in Nevada’s raw and rugged, still mostly untouched nature scene. This type of surveying has only been a thing for 30-ish years, but to be part of it, even only for a couple hours, gives you a whole new perspective, not just where these creatures are headed, but where you’re going too. For me, it helped realign some forgotten perspectives. Up here, conservation and stewardship go hand in hand, but also swiftly serves up something I needed to be refocused: Don’t lose the wild in you. In the Goshutes, you can sure grab onto a whole lot of it. #DFMI