No doubt you’ve seen them soaring over the High Desert or perched on a power pole — birds of prey such as bald eagles and red-tailed hawks. The East Cascades Audubon Society is tracking the birds through monthly, volunteer-driven raptor surveys over the winter.
“A raptor is a bird that kills its prey with its talons,” said retired science teacher Chuck Gates, one of those many volunteers who spends his days driving around looking for birds.
“I’ve been doing this route for about a dozen years or so anyway,” Gates said.
“Every raptor we see we count,” Gates said. “A typical number for this route would be about 150 birds that we’d see in one day.”
Chuck and a team of citizen scientists are driven to collect data for the Audubon Society. Birds get identified, recorded and uploaded to a database.
“It’s the crunch period for birds of prey or any species of wildlife. The winter is always the toughest. It always culls out the most,” said Jeff Fleischer, Developer and Coordinator for the Winter Raptor Survey.
Fleischer used to work for the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. In retirement, he founded a project that’s led to a cross-Cascade collaboration that is now 20 years old.
“That’s a rich area for birds that (Gates) has on his routes,” Fleischer said.
The Winter Raptor Survey counts the birds along fixed routes three months out of the year.
“Right now we’ve got 575 active routes covering 34,000 miles of transects that are surveyed each month about about 460 primary volunteers,” Fleischer said. “We’re basically a collection agent to the data and willing providing it to whoever wants it.”
“We’re developing a database for how many raptors are actually out there,” Gates said.
The database has numbers from Oregon and five other western states, used by the public and private sector and non-profit organizations.
“Instead of having to extrapolate, you can have boots on the ground,” Gates said. “It’s gaining scientific knowledge, but we’re also educating the public.”
It’s growing thanks to volunteers like Cindy Zalunardo and retired Central Oregon Daily News anchor Allen Schauffler.
The spotters can ID birds by their style of flight and even silhouette.
“The rules say that we can count a bird if we can see a bird. So we get out here in the open country and we can see some birds as far as a mile away,” Gates said.
For the birds, the outlook is good.
“Overall, most of the birds of prey species are holding their own which is good considering since man is encroaching on their habitat every year,” Fleischer said.
The group hopes to release new mapping with greater detail later this year. If you’d like to check out those maps and find out how you can volunteer with the survey, visit this link.