HawkWatch Raptor Count on Commissary Ridge

In late September, Carrie Dvorak, Danice Cole and I went to Wyoming to learn about a HawkWatch International raptor counting program and investigate a possible field trip next fall.  High on Commissary Ridge, in a remote location north of Kemmerer, three researchers showed us how they collect data about the fall raptor migration and taught us a great deal about the magnificent birds they were watching.

I was happy for the opportunity to get involved with organizing a bird photography trip in conjunction with HawkWatch International, a Salt Lake City-based organization that I have known for many years.  Being an avid, tho amateur, birdwatcher, I was excited about improving my hawk identification skills.  We had an outstanding, educational trip to Commissary Ridge to learn about the raptor counting work that HawkWatch has been doing there for twenty years.  

This location is one of 5 or 6 western US counting sites that HawkWatch operates, with the purpose of tracking long-term population trends of raptors – hawks, eagles, vultures, owls.   The information gathered enables them to better understand the life histories, ecology, status, and conservation needs of raptor populations in North America.

 We drove 150 miles to some wide-open spaces twenty-two miles north of Kemmerer, where five HawkWatch workers are camped August 27 thru November 5, weather depending.  There are no permanent structures at the campsite, just cars and tents.  From the camp, we hiked a mile up to Commissary Ridge (8850 ft elevation), where the researchers have some primitive rock walls for shelter (which look like they might have been constructed by ancient indigenous residents) and count birds eight hours every day.  One of the observers told me he gets one day a week off to go into Kemmerer and shop for groceries, go to the gym, do laundry and take a shower.  Very weak cell signals on the ridge top and a few solar panels for basic power needs make for a primitive existence.  In October they get snow, often enough to have to shovel out their shelter before starting the count.  Quite a life.

We spent a few hours there in very pleasant weather – 65 degrees, not one cloud and a 10 mph breeze – but too mild for good sightings.   The crew told us the birds are usually much closer on cold windy days when the thermal updrafts are stronger. A few clouds for background would make the sightings much easier, too. 

We saw dozens of hawks and eagles, but almost all were distant dots that weren’t much good for photography.  Most were positively identified by the skilled binocular-equipped observers. They could even determine male or female when I was barely able to follow the bird in my binocular.   I learned a new ornithological term – eyebird.  One you can see without a binocular.

HawkWatch also traps and bands birds, usually a few every day.  We thought that banding a big raptor could be an excellent photographic subject, but none were captured during our visit. 

James, the crew leader was smart, experienced and helpful.  His two associates, Elly and Coburn, spent most of their time with binoculars aimed, scouring the blue sky, exchanging location & species information and making notes.  I easily doubled my raptor knowledge with James’s explanations and answers to my questions. Everyone was friendly. 

On the drive back to SLC, we stopped in Kemmerer, a town of 2600 that appears to have missed the mining and oil boom that grew the Wyoming economy for the last four decades.  Surprisingly, it is the home of the first JCPenney store.  The picturesque town square has a large bronze statue of James Cash Penney and is surrounded by neglected, photogenic old buildings, many sadly empty.  The Stock Exchange Club, Mandarin Garden, Tinsky’s Fossil Fish, the bright pink Chateau Motel and the Mother Store of the J. C. Penney Company are just a sampling.

We plan to set up a club trip next fall for 15-20 members.  We’ll precede the trip with a lecture by one of HawkWatch’s PhD experts.  Should be a good outing.  I will be going again.

John Ballard
Mentoring & Membership Director

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