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Watching like a hawk

About 45 minutes east of Sandy, there’s a spot that offers a commanding view of Mount Hood, and the chance to encounter wild predatory birds.

Bonney Butte sits at 5,700 feet, where a team of volunteers spends late August through October observing, catching and banding migrating raptors. They’re part of HawkWatch International, a 26-year-old research organization that collects data on the migration and health of hawks and other raptors in order to better understand their realtionship to the ecosystem and to provide data to state and federal agencies concerning conservation policy and methods.by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - HawkWatch volunteer Jade Ajani holds a juvenile peregrine falcon Sept. 10 at the Bonney Butte HawkWatch station.

“The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management regularly ask us for data on raptors,” said Joseph Dane, development and marketing director.

Of course, gathering data on top-tier predatory birds can be challenging, and it takes a special kind of person to put in the time necessary. Bonney Butte is one of a network of 13 such sites, ranging from northern Washington all the way down to southern Mexico, along the known migratory routes of the raptors.

“They always travel along ridge lines,” Dane said. “They catch the thermal updrafts and they’ll just soar for hundreds of miles.”

Even a soaring raptor gets hungry, and for this reason the HawkWatch volunteers offer a lure to attract them. Volunteers Dan Sherman and Jade Ajani peer out of slit windows from inside a camouflaged blind, scanning the skies for raptors. In front of them sits a pigeon, wearing a leather vest tied to a line. When a raptor swoops in for the seemingly easy meal, it trips a net, usually before it can dispatch the hapless decoy.

The caught raptor then gets a numbered band on its leg, which helps researchers track the migration and the mortality rates of the birds. It also is weighed and measured, and then set free. More than 2,000 raptors are caught and banded each year at Bonney Butte.

The data gathering provides important insight into the migration and health of North American raptors, but the site also allows the public to experience the birds. This, said Ajani, is the other value of the site.

“We get a lot of visitors up here that get to let their kids see the birds and even help set them free,” he said.

For directions to the Bonney Butte site, visit hawkwatch.org.