A hawk in the hand

Get close-really close-to migrating raptors in Nevada's Goshute Mountains
Brian Beffort

It's one thing to admire hawks soaring overhead. It's quite another to hold one in your hand. The red-tailed hawk in mine watched me with yellow eyes. For such a large bird―with a wingspan of 4 feet―it seemed incredibly light. Minutes before, researchers had captured, measured, weighed, and banded the bird. It was now my turn to set it free.

This redtail was one of nearly 21,000 hawks, eagles, falcons, and other raptors studied by HawkWatch International's Goshute Mountains Raptor Migration Project in eastern Nevada last fall. From August to November, the researchers study the passing birds from the 9,200-foot ridgetop. The migration's peak is mid-September to mid-October; on September 27, 2001, a record 2,198 birds soared by the station.

The birds migrate annually from breeding areas as far north as Alaska to feeding grounds as far south as Argentina. HawkWatch operates 16 such stations nationwide, but the best place to see migrating raptors in the West is the Goshute Mountains. Each year hundreds of visitors make the long drive and steep hike to join them.

The view alone is worth it, stretching from Nevada's Ruby Mountains to the Great Salt Desert. Being able to help spotters scan the horizon for birds, to watch banders net and process the birds, and to hear educators speak on raptors and their research adds to the experience.

Why this effort? "Raptors are good environmental indicators," educator Kim Tice explains. "Because they're at the top of the food chain, anything that affects their prey base will affect them too. Studying them helps us see the environment as a whole."

Frequently, visitors are given the opportunity to hold the birds―which is why I had a hawk in my hands. I released him from a cliff overlooking the desert 2,000 feet below. He dropped in an effortless swoop, circled, then continued his journey south.

Goshute travel planner

The HawkWatch site is in the Goshute Peak Wilderness Study Area south of Interstate 80 near the Utah border. From Wendover take U.S. Alt. 93 southwest 24 miles to the highway maintenance station. Turn west onto 5 miles of good dirt road to parking. A trail climbs a strenuous 2 1/2 miles and 1,800 vertical feet to the station. Bring a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, extra layers for wind and cold, binoculars, food, and plenty of water; primitive campsites are available.

HawkWatch offers a special three-night ecotour that includes participation in research for $295. (800) 726-4295 or www.hawkwatch.org.