The Birds Above Boise

IBO Research Director, Jay Carlisle, intensely scans for a hawk from the hidden confines of a wooden blind at Lucky Peak Research Site.  

About seven miles east of downtown Boise, as the hawk flies, stands Lucky Peak and the Intermountain Bird Observatory's (IBO) main research site. On a bare ridge sits a small shack. From late August through October the sky above is active with thousands of southbound raptors. From the hidden confines of the wooden blind, researchers sit undetected, patiently waiting to capture some of these magnificent birds of prey.

The Lucky Peak Intermountain Bird Observatory wooden blind sits perched above Boise, Idaho.

Having called ahead, my friend, Terri Gibbs and I are excited to see them up close. As we approach the structure, we are suddenly stopped by a man’s voice coming from a dark slab of window, cut from the plywood. I quickly look around, hoping I haven't thwarted a potential capture.

“That’s Jay,” Terri says.

Off to my right and on the ground a subtle movement caught my eye. A pigeon stood covered in leather body armor, situated carefully as bait, behind a tall net barrier.

Thirty seconds later Jay waves us forward and we enter the blind.

We are met by volunteer Robin Leonard and IBO Research Biologist Rob Miller. Next to Rob sits Research Director Jay Carlisle who has a Ph.D. in Biology studying songbird migration. For twenty years Carlisle has been a part of IBO, a non-profit research branch of the Department of Biological Sciences at Boise State University. During the fall migration Carlisle traps raptors a couple times a week.

From inside a blind at Lucky Peak, Robin Leonard gathers important data about a Sharp-shinned Hawk captured moments before, as IBO’s Research Director Jay Carlisle looks on.

“It’s one of my favorite places on earth because of the birds,” Carlisle says about Lucky Peak. “I don’t have to go to the birds, they’re coming to me.” Through the large north facing window, behind him, looms Boise Peak.

Every fall, since the start of the IBO in 1993, around 5,000-9,000 raptors of eighteen different species are counted around the Boise Foothills. They follow leading lines, along the Boise Ridge, traveling on wind currents towards the southernmost point at Lucky Peak. And they’re not alone. Owls and songbirds also congregate here, gathering fuel or resting before flying into the large expanse of the Snake River Plain. Lucky Peak is unique in that it offers “around the clock” research for many different bird species throughout the fall.

“If you can catch three or four birds in an hour than you’re doing pretty good.” Carlisle says about trapping raptors. “It comes in waves.” Miller and Carlisle patiently scan the sky.

Robin Leonard prepares to release a Sharp-shinned Hawk at Lucky Peak research site. Roughly 1,000 raptors are trapped and banded at both Lucky and Boise Peak every fall. 500-600 are Sharp-shinned Hawks.

Suddenly, a Cooper’s Hawk swoops down from its lofty height, lured by the false hope of a free meal. The IBO team springs into action and pulls strings attached to the lure bird’s body armor, creating movement. The hawk lands and approaches the bait, unaware of the bownet trap cocked and ready for action. At just the right second, Carlisle triggers the trap with impeccable timing. The spring loaded net quickly covers the hawk and Carlisle runs out to retrieve the captured bird.

IBO Volunteer, Robin Leonard, carefully clamps an identification band around the leg of a recently captured hawk. If the bird is later recovered at a similar trapping site it could give valuable data about migration routes, breeding grounds, and even information on mortalities.

The Cooper’s Hawk looks straight ahead with intense eyes, wings fanned out, and beak open, boldly posed. Leonard attaches an identification band to the bird’s leg, takes measurements and gathers other important data. Researchers here capture and band roughly 1,000 raptors each fall. On average, about nine of these birds will be recovered at other sites across North America, giving important information on raptor movement, wintering grounds, and even mortality rates.

Eventually we move outside to release the birds. Terri and I gather around Miller as he educates us on Cooper’s Hawks and I soon realize the IBO is much more than a place that simply captures and bands pretty birds. It’s also a place that helps cultivate an inspiration for the natural world through education and awareness.

“By having a couple thousand visitors every year their eyes open to this highway of raptors migrating by.” Carlisle explains. “I hope that maybe it helps to grow more of a conservation ethic.”

The birds are held out at arm's distance. The hawks quickly lean forward with wings spread and powerfully lunge into flight. It's fun to think that they could fly to California or, better yet, Mexico for winter. Soon they disappear into the large expanse of blue sky above the Treasure Valley.

I leave impressed, not only by the fierce beauty of the hawks but also by the passions of the people who study them. ♦