by Autumn Young
Two Golden Eagles swept by at eye level, wings held steady, enjoying the free lift proffered by the wind. I was on top of the Bridger Mountain range in Montana, home to the largest concentration of migrating Golden Eagles in the United States. Tracked for the past twenty years by Hawkwatch International, the site is an important key to monitoring Golden Eagle populations.
The count point is located at the end of a two-mile trail that travels 1900 feet up to the top of Bridger Ridge, which is close to nine thousand feet in elevation. As we mounted the top of the ridge, a blast of wind hit us, catching us by surprise. The westerly winds were blowing hard against the mountains, which run north to south, creating the perfect lift for migrating raptors.
We joined the two seasonal counters, who were staked out on a helicopter pad, and started looking for eagles. They pointed out the local landmarks—Sacajawea Peak, the knuckles, and Ross's. Within minutes a Golden Eagle appeared as a distant speck above Sacajawea Peak. Binoculars raised, we followed its progress as it grew closer. Within a minute it was gliding past fifty or sixty feet away, apparently unbothered by the humans watching its progress. White wing patches and a broad white tail band made it easy to tell that it was a first year bird.
The counters marked the eagle down on their data sheets and turned their attention back to Sacajawea Peak, where two more birds had appeared. As we watched, it became apparent that the ridge line was the bird equivalent of an interstate. Eagles rocketed past like semis, with Sharp-shinned Hawks scattered in between like VW Bugs.
The sun glinted viciously off the snow as we scanned the sky for eagles, and the counters showed us their technique of using binoculars with sunglasses—a skill they had mastered. A Rough-Legged Hawk hovered above Ross's Peak for a few minutes before swooping out of sight as two more Golden Eagles materialized from the blue sky. They brought our count to fifteen in the few hours we had been there, and eighty-nine total for the day.
Counters monitor this interstate from the end of August to the beginning of November, making the daily trek up the mountain as long as they can see to count. October is peak migration for Golden Eagles, and on good days over two hundred have been counted from this spot. Through satellite tracking researchers have determined that these eagles breed almost entirely in Alaska and Canada and are on their way to New Mexico and Texas for the winter.
We ended our day of eagle watching on that note, starting the trek back down the mountain more than happy with the fantastic views we'd gotten of these gorgeous birds. The number of Golden Eagles migrating though the Bridger Mountain range has been declining since 1999, mostly due to habitat loss, and I hope that future generations will be able to make the hike to the top of the mountain and still be able to see the Golden Eagle highway.
About the author: Autumn Young is seventeen and has been birding for the past six years. Her interest in birds was sparked when she first saw a Magnolia Warbler on her family farm in Union City, Ohio. As much as she has come to love eastern migratory speciess, she says it has also been incredible to have the opportunity to enjoy western birds during her family's four-month stay in Montana. She has combined her love of travel with her love of birds, and after visiting Costa Rica last November she decided her future should definitely involve this wonderful contry and its stunning birds.