Commissary Ridge: solitude in hawkwatching

24 September 2015

Text by Caleb Hansen, Commissary Ridge HawkWatch crew member

I get in my 2007 Honda Accord to leave for Pinedale, Wyoming for what was intended to be a nice day off of the job from the HWI stakeout at the Commissary Ridge HawkWatch. The car radio serves as a passage back into the civilized world with its commentary on the latest coverage on Donald Trump’s disparaging remarks against a new political scapegoat. The tremors of contemporary anxiety begin to embark their way back into my bloodstream and I’m back among the members of our industrialized world. I’m immediately reminded of the solitude that the mountains provide by the visually imprinted silhouettes of soaring hawks that present themselves on the backs of my eyelids every time I blink.

As I pass by a perched juvenile Red-tailed Hawk on a fence post along highway 189, I can’t help but wonder, “what really places us above these creatures as a species?” They are the lauded and feared masters of their ecologic domain. With talons capable of crushing skulls & razor-sharp beaks for fleshy incision, they possess the tools necessary for independent survival in any natural context. We simply do not. We select our food from a shelf in a location of commerce or order it on our cell phones to name a few of our modern methods. I cannot surrender my respect enough to such a crafted specimen of fortitude & fearless abandon as they prepare for their great fall voyage south.

Time moves comfortably slow up on the ridge while scanning the sky for the distant migrant raptors. Countless instances of mistaken identity occur as the resident raptors patrol their territories, politely escorting any unwelcome visitors out of their hunting grounds. There are magnificently intimate territorial boundaries all along the mountain range. Kestrels & shapries squabble in a dazzling display of aerial athleticism until a victor is communicated out. Red-tails swoop into the magnified visual scope of a migrating sub-adult Golden Eagle far out into the west. Northern Harriers zip just a couple feet above the ruggedly sloped sage-brush in search of rodents. Peregrine falcons are spotted as tiny black specks in a magnified binocular view and are right at our doorstep buzzing the owl decoy within seconds after an impressive wing-tucked stoop across the entire valley. Spending numerous hours stationed in our remote location really immerses you in the natural processes of the wicked landscape of Wyoming.

With the wind picking up each morning, billowing from west to east, migratory traffic picks up considerably in the midst of the crisp mountain air. Migrant Sharp-Shinned Hawks act out a great twitch in their seemingly mangled flight path while their larger cousins, Northern Goshawks, slice apart the windy thermals hundreds of feet overhead. Golden Eagles nonchalantly soar over the greatest depths of the valley below to the west. The particularly angled wing of an Osprey can be identified from kilometers away. Their uniquely white & black plumage is absolute as it’s steady approach continues overhead. An adult Bald Eagle can be easily identified with the naked eye as it rides the warm air thermal off to the northwest with a resident adult red-tailed hawk chasing it up the spiral flight path. Even with all the provided visual characteristics of a migrating Cooper’s Hawk as it passes by, it still comes down to plucking hairs in order to accurately differentiate it from it’s smaller fellow Accipiter brethren.

All of this excitement is spaced out through the entirety of 9 hours every day of the week up here at Commissary Ridge. So, please come watch with us anytime of the day! You can tell us we’re wrong and we can share our conventional wisdoms up on the ridge during one of the greatest biannual events of the North American cycle of natural life.

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