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Observers scan the sky for migrating raptors at the Goshute Mountains hawk watch site in Eastern Nevada.
Photo by Jesse Watson.

Observers scan the sky for migrating raptors at the Goshute Mountains hawk watch site in Eastern Nevada. Photo by Jesse Watson.

Putting the West on the Map: HawkWatch International

In the early 1970s, Steve Hoffman spent more time climbing the rugged mountains around Utah State University than he did in the classroom. Hoffman, a graduate student from Pennsylvania, was studying coyotes, but on these wilderness hikes he was looking for something else. Scanning ridgelines and flight paths, he was searching for birds of prey. 

At the time, there was little known about how raptors migrated in the region, no data or published papers to speak of. Some researchers were not even sure that raptors migrated through the Mountain West, as they did along the well-studied flyways of the East and Great Lakes. But Hoffman’s goal was to locate a hawk-watching outpost in the western U.S., hopefully followed by others. He dreamed of a continental-wide network of migration sites, but as it stood, the map west of the Great Lakes was blank.

Alabama is one of America’s most biodiverse states, with landscapes ranging from its Gulf Coast migratory pit-stop to plateau country in the north, from coastal plain to mountains, and in between the rolling plains of the Black Belt region. Except Ansel Payne, the executive director of the 75-year-old Alabama Audubon, believes relatively few birders and nature lovers are aware of that – a realization he himself came to only fairly recently.

“I think the truth is, if people were only thinking about birds and nature, this would be on every birder’s wishlist,” he says. “There are just too many good things to see in one spot. Where else can you see Cerulean Warblers and then drive a couple hours and see Painted Buntings and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers?”

He pauses. “Nowhere!”

Payne moved to Alabama in the summer of 2015 after his wife received a professorship at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He grew up in West Virginia, an hour north of Charleston, attended college in New England, and continued his studies at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. A year into his Alabama residence, he got a job as a naturalist for Alabama Audubon, and months later became its outreach director. He’s now a champion for the state and its birds.

On the other hand, there were dozens of hawk counts in the eastern U.S., and it was at the most famous one – Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in eastern Pennsylvania, at the top of the Appalachians’ Kittatinny Ridge – where Hoffman’s passion first began to burn. Five years earlier, as a freshman at nearby Albright College, he joined a field trip one late September weekend to Hawk Mountain. That day, 4,000 migrating raptors rode northwest winds and the strong updrafts that the Appalachian ridge has offered these birds for millennia. From the mountain’s boulder-strewn North Lookout, experienced observers identified and counted the birds as they flew by – many at eye-level. “I was changed for life,” Hoffman says.

A juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk observes the observers at the Commissary Ridge hawk watch in Wyoming. Photo by Jesse Watson.

Dave Ewert doing field research in The Bahamas, where Kirtland's Warblers winter.
Photo courtesy of ABC.

“I was hesitant to move here, frankly. Here’s the thing, though,” he says. “People have to overcome what they think Alabama means to them. That’s our history. I wish people would recognize the complexity of the state, and how so many of the terrible stories of American history happened here, but also the heroic response to those terrible stories also happened here.”

Birmingham Audubon Society, as the organization was known when Payne joined (he led its name change last year), had been run by dedicated volunteers until 2013, but with significant support from the estate of a local family, it has grown its staff and its ambitions. With federal and state money, too, it opened a field office on the Gulf Coast to manage the protection and monitoring of beach-nesting birds there. Payne became executive director in the spring of 2018; their staff is now up to 10 employees, with several coastal biologists plus a conservation director.

“I think we’re developing a reputation as a national leader among Audubon organizations,” he says.

LaFond saw the need to do something. In 2010, while volunteering on a local winter raptor survey, she learned about a large parcel of farmland that was going to be sold and subdivided into tract housing, fragmenting the unbroken habitat that grassland birds need to survive. A few years earlier, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) had purchased almost 300 acres of critical habitat within the IBA in Fort Edward, and they were considering protecting another 180 acres, but town officials opposed further acquisitions. The state did not pay taxes on the land – although it was open to it, since it did so already in the Catskills and Adirondacks – and the town worried about that financial loss.

LaFond realized that a non-profit land trust was needed. She founded the Friends of the IBA, which would later be renamed Grassland Bird Trust, and in 2011 the organization held its first event, a Winter Raptor Fest. More than a thousand people showed up at a large dairy barn in the middle of snow-covered grasslands. Buoyed by this support, LaFond sprung into action. 

Part of that reputation comes from their efforts to make Alabama Audubon more representative of the state. For decades, Payne says, the organization would run field trips to the Black Belt Prairie Region, or Black Belt, a crescent-shaped, biologically and geologically distinct area that extends from southwestern Tennessee through east-central Mississippi and then across central Alabama. The Black Belt owes its name to its rich soil but also the agricultural slave economy that grew there because of this fertile land. Later, Civil Rights struggles played out in towns like Selma and Greensboro. Today, it remains extremely poor.

“This region is characterized by weathered rolling plains of relatively low relief developed on chalk and marl of the Cretaceous Selma chalk,” according to one ecological assessment. “Historically, the natural communities of the Black Belt consisted of a mosaic of various hardwood and mixed hardwood/pine forests, chalk outcrops and prairies.”

Kirtland's Warbler. Photo by Joel Trick, USFWS.

To learn more about the organization and its efforts, as well as to contribute directly, please visit the Grassland Bird Trust website or click the donateb  

Steve Hoffman poses with a recently banded Red-tailed Hawk at the Commissary Ridge hawk watch as part of HWI’s 35th anniversary celebration. Photo by Colby Bryson.

Viewing hawks in flight is a spectacular experience anywhere one does it, but the work of counting hawks provides vital scientific information. Rachel Carson, in her 1962 book “Silent Spring,” cited records from Hawk Mountain over the span of three decades that showed that the numbers of Bald Eagles, Ospreys and Peregrine Falcons had declined drastically, due in large part to the prevalence of pesticides like DDT in the environment. Birds of prey, as Carson showed, tell us a lot about the health of our ecosystems. Located at the top of the food chain, they concentrate toxins and pesticides over time in a phenomenon called bioaccumulation. They have adapted to live and nest in all habitats and are sensitive to changes in the landscape. And as Hoffman learned from his many trips to Hawk Mountain, raptors are relatively easy to monitor because they typically migrate during daylight hours and collect along time-honored ridgetops and coastal paths year after year.

Inspired by Carson’s work and equipped with this knowledge, Hoffman set out to find a hawk flyway of the West.

He started around the Great Salt Lake Desert, which runs up the spine of Utah and is flanked by mountain ranges. The area is a raptor dead zone, lacking updrafts and suitable quantities of food. Presumably, raptors would detour around it. But where? After three years of searching, on a fall day in 1976, Hoffman and a few friends climbed 3,200 feet to the top of Wellsville Mountain, 10 miles west of Utah State University, and watched breathlessly as 160 southbound raptors soared overhead, Golden Eagles, American Kestrels, and Northern Harriers among them.

The crew at the Goshute Mountains poses for a photo wearing hats made by crew member Carole Hallett in 1993. Photo by Ed Deal. 

The sun sets over the Goshute Mountains during the setup for the fall 2021 season. Photo by Jordan Herman.

Golden-winged Warblers nest in young forests, or brushy wetland openings within mixed-age deciduous forests, also known as early-successional habitat. The types of disturbances that once created these gaps in a forest, like blow-downs or local wildfires, rarely happen anymore. And it isn’t only Golden-winged Warblers that have suffered, but other fellow travelers like American Woodcock and Ruffed Grouse.

A decade ago, a coalition of agencies and organizations identified the Golden-winged Warbler as an urgent priority and created comprehensive plans to reverse its decline. ABC answered the call for action, securing funding to hire foresters who would restore or create their preferred habitat. With a grant from the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund, ABC hired a forester to work on state, federal, and tribal lands. And in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, ABC has partnered with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, a federal agency that provides incentives to private landowners for proper forest management. ABC’s team is now up to seven foresters.

Hoffman returned the following year and continued going back. Wellsville, which would average 4,000 raptors a season, became his first Western count site and the start of the network he dreamed of. Three years later, he discovered another flyway west of the desert, in the remote Goshute Mountains along the Utah-Nevada border. He and other researchers began banding hawks there, an integral part of their scientific study. Soon the network expanded to include two mountain peaks near Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then, in 1986, Hoffman founded the Western Foundation for Raptor Conservation, which became HawkWatch International.

Hoffman left the organization in 1999, but the work he started continues, as each year dozens of hardy, dedicated researchers come to remote high-elevation ridgetops to camp out for the season and count and band birds. This year, HawkWatch International is celebrating its 35th birthday, and it occupies an important place in the field of raptor conservation and education. Its migration network has grown to eight sites in eight Western states, from the Grand Canyon to the Texas Gulf coast, and it has also helped create several others now run by local partners. HWI is a member of the Raptor Population Index, a group that monitors the continent-wide health of raptors and which includes Hawk Mountain, the Hawk Migration Association of North America, and Birds Canada.

American Kestrel nestlings huddle together in a nesting box as part of HWI's research to understand what is causing long-term declines of North America’s smallest falcon. Photo by Jennifer Bridgeman. 

In 2019, HWI formally launched an International program to expand its research into some of the world’s least-studied and most endangered raptors, like the Martial Eagle, which has seen declines of up to 60% in the last 20 years in South Africa. Photo by Meg Murgatroyd. 

The purpose of HWI’s migration network is to “take the pulse” of raptor populations in the West, says Dave Oleyar, its director of long-term monitoring and community science. What they’ve learned from those year-over-year checkups has spurred conservation initiatives for species in trouble, such as American Kestrels and Golden Eagles. HWI has also extended its conservation work outside of the migration network, where it can lean on its expertise in long-term diurnal raptor monitoring to study other at-risk birds of prey, such as nocturnal cavity-nesting forest owls and endangered vultures, eagles, and harriers in Africa.

Since its beginnings, one of the goals of HWI was to be a sustainable organization, which would allow for standardized and professional annual counts that contribute to the Raptor Population Index and provide a larger statistical analysis. Central to that sustainability was, and remains, education and outreach. All the count sites are open to the public, and crew members educate visitors on raptor ecology and conservation. Additionally, HWI’s staff goes into classrooms with live raptors to share the stories of these magnificent birds, and to use the data collected at the sites to bring those stories to life.

“In addition to increasing the knowledge of raptor population dynamics, the migration network has created opportunities for young biologists to get really valuable hands-on experience,” says Nikki Wayment, HWI’s executive director. “This has led to advanced degrees and careers in raptor biology for many people.” The result over 35 years has been not only a migration network but a network of people too, all connected by HawkWatch International, who have spread out into the field of raptor biology and conservation.

Of their 16-person full-time staff, two began their involvement with the group as volunteers. Field biologist Jessica Taylor, who is studying how American Kestrels respond to different landscapes in the greater Salt Lake City area and pursuing her masters in raptor biology from Boise State University, was introduced to HWI in 2012 during a field trip to Chelan Ridge in Washington, one of its eight count sites.

Jessica Taylor provides an education program to visitors at Chelan Ridge.
Photo by T.C. Walker.

Taylor was a junior at Washington State University at the time, and her experience was not too different from Hoffman’s more than three decades earlier at Hawk Mountain. Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks and Merlins whizzed 10 feet above her head, and she got to see them in the hand as well. Taylor and her classmates camped in a yurt overnight, and by the end of the weekend, she couldn’t wait to sign up. “I couldn’t believe that you could do this for 10 weeks in the fall, each year, and watch birds fly by. Who wouldn’t want to do that?”

Those prairies formed an important ecosystem in the Southeast, but by the beginning of the 20th century, they were all but gone – gobbled up by agriculture or development. The birds of the Black Belt, however, remained an attraction. But when Alabama Audubon’s members visited, they rarely spent much money in the area before driving back to Birmingham, which never sat well with Payne and others within the organization. In several Black Belt counties, a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line and many lack access to health care and running water.

There is also very little public land. Alabama Audubon’s members would visit an old-growth cypress swamp called Perry Lakes Park, in Hale County, where they’d find Prothonotary Warblers and Bald Eagles, and a state-owned, appointment-only quail plantation, but otherwise they did their birding from the highway shoulder, bracing themselves against gusts from speeding trucks. It was not ideal.

Taylor releases a Golden Eagle banded at Chelan Ridge. Photo courtesy of HWI.

She signed up two years later, returning to Chelan Ridge as part of a five-person crew. She would work at a few different sites over the next seven autumns, while joining field projects for HWI during the winter and summer months. She joined the full-time staff in 2019. “Our work has value and importance to raptor populations,” she says. “A lot of what we do informs management decisions for federal and state agencies. You can’t answer questions about how to manage for a species without doing the research.”

But to her, how HWI engages with the community – to bring people so close to something so wild – might prove to be an impact as lasting as its contribution to understanding raptor ecology. “You have to get the general public to care about what you’re doing and have them understand why it’s important,” she says. “When you show somebody a bird in hand, or a bird 10 feet away from their head, that’s life-changing for a lot of people.”

It was for her. “Yes,” she says happily. “I’m one of those people.”

In the early 1970s, Steve Hoffman spent more time climbing the rugged mountains around Utah State University than he did in the classroom. Hoffman, a graduate student from Pennsylvania, was studying coyotes, but on these wilderness hikes he was looking for something else. Scanning ridgelines and flight paths, he was searching for birds of prey.

At the time, there was little known about how raptors migrated in the region, no data or published papers to speak of. Some researchers were not even sure that raptors migrated through the Mountain West, as they did along the well-studied flyways of the East and Great Lakes. But Hoffman’s goal was to locate a hawk-watching outpost in the western U.S., hopefully followed by others. He dreamed of a continental-wide network of migration sites, but as it stood, the map west of the Great Lakes was blank.

Kirtland's Warbler. Photo by Joel Trick, USFWS.

A juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk observes the observers at the Commissary Ridge hawk watch in Wyoming. Photo by Jesse Watson.

On the other hand, there were dozens of hawk counts in the eastern U.S., and it was at the most famous one – Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in eastern Pennsylvania, at the top of the Appalachians’ Kittatinny Ridge – where Hoffman’s passion first began to burn. Five years earlier, as a freshman at nearby Albright College, he joined a field trip one late September weekend to Hawk Mountain. That day, 4,000 migrating raptors rode northwest winds and the strong updrafts that the Appalachian ridge has offered these birds for millennia. From the mountain’s boulder-strewn North Lookout, experienced observers identified and counted the birds as they flew by – many at eye-level. “I was changed for life,” Hoffman says.

Steve Hoffman poses with a recently banded Red-tailed Hawk at the Commissary Ridge hawk watch as part of HWI’s 35th anniversary celebration. Photo by Colby Bryson.

Viewing hawks in flight is a spectacular experience anywhere one does it, but the work of counting hawks provides vital scientific information. Rachel Carson, in her 1962 book “Silent Spring,” cited records from Hawk Mountain over the span of three decades that showed that the numbers of Bald Eagles, Ospreys and Peregrine Falcons had declined drastically, due in large part to the prevalence of pesticides like DDT in the environment. Birds of prey, as Carson showed, tell us a lot about the health of our ecosystems. Located at the top of the food chain, they concentrate toxins and pesticides over time in a phenomenon called bioaccumulation. They have adapted to live and nest in all habitats and are sensitive to changes in the landscape. And as Hoffman learned from his many trips to Hawk Mountain, raptors are relatively easy to monitor because they typically migrate during daylight hours and collect along time-honored ridgetops and coastal paths year after year.

Inspired by Carson’s work and equipped with this knowledge, Hoffman set out to find a hawk flyway of the West.

He started around the Great Salt Lake Desert, which runs up the spine of Utah and is flanked by mountain ranges. The area is a raptor dead zone, lacking updrafts and suitable quantities of food. Presumably, raptors would detour around it. But where? After three years of searching, on a fall day in 1976, Hoffman and a few friends climbed 3,200 feet to the top of Wellsville Mountain, 10 miles west of Utah State University, and watched breathlessly as 160 southbound raptors soared overhead, Golden Eagles, American Kestrels, and Northern Harriers among them. 

The crew at the Goshute Mountains poses for a photo wearing hats made by crew member Carole Hallett in 1993. Photo by Ed Deal.

The sun sets over the Goshute Mountains during the setup for the fall 2021 season. Photo by Jordan Herman.

Hoffman returned the following year and continued going back. Wellsville, which would average 4,000 raptors a season, became his first Western count site and the start of the network he dreamed of. Three years later, he discovered another flyway west of the desert, in the remote Goshute Mountains along the Utah-Nevada border. He and other researchers began banding hawks there, an integral part of their scientific study. Soon the network expanded to include two mountain peaks near Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then, in 1986, Hoffman founded the Western Foundation for Raptor Conservation, which became HawkWatch International.

Hoffman left the organization in 1999, but the work he started continues, as each year dozens of hardy, dedicated researchers come to remote high-elevation ridgetops to camp out for the season and count and band birds. This year, HawkWatch International is celebrating its 35th birthday, and it occupies an important place in the field of raptor conservation and education. Its migration network has grown to eight sites in eight Western states, from the Grand Canyon to the Texas Gulf coast, and it has also helped create several others now run by local partners. HWI is a member of the Raptor Population Index, a group that monitors the continent-wide health of raptors and which includes Hawk Mountain, the Hawk Migration Association of North America, and Birds Canada.

American Kestrel nestlings huddle together in a nesting box as part of HWI's research to understand what is causing long-term declines of North America’s smallest falcon. Photo by Jennifer Bridgeman. 

The purpose of HWI’s migration network is to “take the pulse” of raptor populations in the West, says Dave Oleyar, its director of long-term monitoring and community science. What they’ve learned from those year-over-year checkups has spurred conservation initiatives for species in trouble, such as American Kestrels and Golden Eagles. HWI has also extended its conservation work outside of the migration network, where it can lean on its expertise in long-term diurnal raptor monitoring to study other at-risk birds of prey, such as nocturnal cavity-nesting forest owls and endangered vultures, eagles, and harriers in Africa.

In 2019, HWI formally launched an International program to expand its research into some of the world’s least-studied and most endangered raptors, like the Martial Eagle, which has seen declines of up to 60% in the last 20 years in South Africa. Photo by Meg Murgatroyd. 

Since its beginnings, one of the goals of HWI was to be a sustainable organization, which would allow for standardized and professional annual counts that contribute to the Raptor Population Index and provide a larger statistical analysis. Central to that sustainability was, and remains, education and outreach. All the count sites are open to the public, and crew members educate visitors on raptor ecology and conservation. Additionally, HWI’s staff goes into classrooms with live raptors to share the stories of these magnificent birds, and to use the data collected at the sites to bring those stories to life.

“In addition to increasing the knowledge of raptor population dynamics, the migration network has created opportunities for young biologists to get really valuable hands-on experience,” says Nikki Wayment, HWI’s executive director. “This has led to advanced degrees and careers in raptor biology for many people.” The result over 35 years has been not only a migration network but a network of people too, all connected by HawkWatch International, who have spread out into the field of raptor biology and conservation.

Jessica Taylor provides an education program to visitors at Chelan Ridge. Photo by T.C. Walker.

Of their 16-person full-time staff, two began their involvement with the group as volunteers. Field biologist Jessica Taylor, who is studying how American Kestrels respond to different landscapes in the greater Salt Lake City area and pursuing her masters in raptor biology from Boise State University, was introduced to HWI in 2012 during a field trip to Chelan Ridge in Washington, one of its eight count sites.

Taylor was a junior at Washington State University at the time, and her experience was not too different from Hoffman’s more than three decades earlier at Hawk Mountain. Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks and Merlins whizzed 10 feet above her head, and she got to see them in the hand as well. Taylor and her classmates camped in a yurt overnight, and by the end of the weekend, she couldn’t wait to sign up. “I couldn’t believe that you could do this for 10 weeks in the fall, each year, and watch birds fly by. Who wouldn’t want to do that?”

Taylor releases a Golden Eagle banded at Chelan Ridge. Photo courtesy of HWI.

She signed up two years later, returning to Chelan Ridge as part of a five-person crew. She would work at a few different sites over the next seven autumns, while joining field projects for HWI during the winter and summer months. She joined the full-time staff in 2019. “Our work has value and importance to raptor populations,” she says. “A lot of what we do informs management decisions for federal and state agencies. You can’t answer questions about how to manage for a species without doing the research.”

But to her, how HWI engages with the community – to bring people so close to something so wild – might prove to be an impact as lasting as its contribution to understanding raptor ecology. “You have to get the general public to care about what you’re doing and have them understand why it’s important,” she says. “When you show somebody a bird in hand, or a bird 10 feet away from their head, that’s life-changing for a lot of people.”

It was for her. “Yes,” she says happily. “I’m one of those people.”

To learn more about HawkWatch International, as well as to contribute directly, please visit its website or click the DONATE button below.

HawkWatch International works to conserve our environment through education, long-term monitoring, and scientific research on raptors as indicators of ecosystem health. We'll donate 20% of the profits from this specially designed collection to support that work.