We are sitting at Salt Creek campground along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where we stopped for a bathroom break. The heavy rain & slashing winds of the night before have broken open, and we have been enjoying some strong spring sunshine. Sitting east of us in the near distance is Striped Peak, one of the last foothills of the Olympic Mountains before the cold waters of the Strait devour its base. I was sitting in the car, idly glancing around, when I saw a couple of Bald Eagles soaring over the peak. There was a mad scramble for binoculars (both pairs!) and then jostling for the best viewing place. Binos glued to our faces, we called out sightings and descriptions back and forth: “No, look, look, to the left of the peak, see that scraggy tree, just above it. Ooooooh look, there’s another one!” As we watched, a thermal updraft formed, and migrating hawks raced to catch it. This is spring hawk migration along the Strait. For me, it took me back 22 years to Cape Flattery and other April raptor migrations I have watched.
Here in western Washington state, the birds of prey are making their migration move north. It is the Red-tailed Hawks, the Bald Eagles (and occasional Golden Eagles), the falcons, the accipiters like Sharp-shinned and Coopers Hawks, and others that leave their winter territories in the southern lands and follow the Pacific coast line north. Some stop in Washington state, and set up breeding territory, but many more push through to Canada and into Alaska to find their place, their mate and rear this year’s young.
|Crossing the cold water to Vancouver island|
|A Red-tailed hawk, wings set to ride the thermal|
I first learned about all this from Bud Anderson, falcon biologist and educator extraordinaire, who discovered this Strait of Juan de Fuca spring migration phenomenon further west near Neah Bay, at Cape Flattery. It was with Bud and his Falcon Research Group volunteers that I spent several early Aprils, on a low mountain near Neah Bay, watching the hawks, falcons and eagles head north. After the research project ended, I really missed seeing the migration. So what happened for us this week was a real treat.
What we saw at Salt Creek was several factors that came together to make the thermal elevators possible. For example, the hot spring sun had been warming up Striped Peak, but unevenly: one warm side of the hill with one cold side sets up the spiraling updrafts. In addition the peak sits right on the cold water of the Strait, which adds its own complexity to the thermal recipe. There was a weak southeast wind; from my years at Neah Bay I remembered that east winds along the Strait really aid in the formation of thermals. In addition, Striped Peak is near the narrowest point of crossing to Vancouver island - about 10 miles. If I’m a hawk and the day’s conditions are questionable, I’m going to pick the shortest crossing.
|Look closely: hawks soaring above the trees|
Not all thermals have enough lift to get the birds high enough to cross. Today we watched the birds in the kettle shift and adjust, trying to find the best spots. The thermals did not seem to generate enough lift for most of the birds, although Glen was certain he saw one bird gliding over the Strait. By about 2:30 clouds were covering the sun and the thermal elevators shut down for the day. The birds dispersed and disappeared.
|Sunset along the Strait|
We headed back to our snug berth along the Dungeness Spit. The heavy clouds turned to rain and then broke briefly for a beautiful sunset. I thought about the hawks, now settled down in a tree somewhere along the water’s edge. Hopefully they found a fish, a vole, a small bird to eat before the cold night ahead. They will wait for morning, for better conditions, to try again.
I fall asleep and dream of them, wheeling, rising and turning, disappearing into the mist, making safe passage north to home...
• Falcon Research Group: www.frg.org
• Red tailed Hawk Photo by Ellen Wilson. See her blog at: http://www.wilsonswordsandpictures.com/
• All other photos by Glen Buschmann