Note: Some stories are best experienced via audio, and this is one of them.
Every fall, thousands of birds of prey migrate over Gallatin County. And while most people never notice them, two so-called “hawk watchers” do. They sit on top of the Bridger Mountains for days counting raptors and trying to better understand how they’re impacted by people.
Slipping on mud and snow and climbing towards a distant ridge.
Bret Davis is my guide and he’s way ahead of me. He looks like a ski bum, long hair, super fit. He does this direct ascent of the Bridger Mountains near Bozeman almost every day. An hour later we finally get to the top. Davis shows me around a concrete helipad that serves as his office.
Nate Hegyi: "The birds zoom right through, right past here?"
Bret Davis: “Yeah, this one point. It’s a highway.”
Davis calls himself a "hawk watcher” and he and his partner spend days tallying birds of prey as they migrate past the Bridgers to places as far away as central Mexico and Argentina.
“If you wanted to know what the population was like between two cities, you might go the main highway connecting them and look at how many cars are going by versus having to go to those cities and do all that work,” Davis says.
Their counting is part of long-term population study run by a local chapter of the Audubon Society and funded in part by the U.S. Forest Service, utility companies and other organizations.
Davis says on a clear day like today, they’ll often count hundreds of raptors. But as we settle in, it’s pretty quiet. The wind is calm, the trees barely move.
His partner, Adam Bradley, is sitting on a plastic chair glassing the sky with a pair of binoculars. He looks like your typical mountaineer, and unlike Davis, Bradley doesn’t make the hour-long trek every day to commute to the spotting station. He lives up here, melting snow for water and sleeping in a cramped snow patrol hut. He says even on his days off he’ll go birding.
NH: “Because it makes you feel sane, you said?”
Adam Bradley: “Yeah, there’s just a lot of craziness and distractions and I just find looking at birds, like, very peaceful. I like listening to their songs.”
And sure, there’s a lot of waiting around, but it’s for moments like when a small, black speck rises in the distance.
“Here comes a big bird off the pinky of Ross. And another one, one I wasn’t even watching,” Bradley says, handing me a pair of binoculars so I can get a closer look at the two birds.
NH: “Those are two golden eagles?
BD: “Yes. And they’re circling up as though they’re trying to gain some altitude. Some elevation. So the way these birds migrate is they’ll find sources of lift. One thermal mass rising or one place where the wind hits the ridge in a particular way. And they’ll circle up on that…”
And then zoom past the spotting station at speeds up to 40 miles per hour. After the “hawk watchers” see a raptor, they mark a paper spreadsheet recording the birds’ age and species.
The data goes back almost three decades. Researchers have a detailed look at how climate change and more people living in the West has affected birds of prey.
Take these golden eagles. Over the past twenty years, these surveys have shown there’s been a sharp decline in the number of migratory golden eagles passing through Montana.
And while those declines have somewhat steadied in recent years, a 2016 U.S. Fish and Wildlife report says nearly two-thirds of adult golden eagle deaths are caused by humans. They’re shot, poisoned, hit by cars or even killed by wind turbines.
BD: “It’s an animal of the mountains and wide-open expanses. I don’t think it jives too well with the development. You know, you don’t see golden eagles in town so much like you might see red tailed hawks, you know that's a bird that probably has adapted well.
NH: “Kinda sounds like you, Adam.”
AB: “Yeah, I mean, where they like to be is where, they’re all the places I love. For sure.
NH: “Away from development.”
Bradley, who lives up here during the fall migration, has spent the past twenty years doing field work like this, often times alone, in the cold, far away from cities.
“Town is not really a big draw for me, so I do try to stay up here as much as possible, versus commuting,” he says.
And he says in his days away from cities, he’s seen the landscape change. Animals appear where they weren't before, migrations begin earlier. And when it comes to people’s impact on the environment:
“I’m not going to wait for a political response," he says. "We’ve now left the Paris climate agreement, and it means it’s only that much more important that we each do our part.”
And Bradley says he does his part, by counting birds of prey as they soar past the Bridger Mountains on a journey to their winter home.