Owl decoys used to channel raptors over the lookout on Montana's Bridger Mountain. Photos: Bridget Bradshaw

Ornitho-logic

When Your Day Job Is Counting Eagles (and Other Awesome Birds of Prey)

There’s nothing glamorous about the life of a field tech—and for some, that’s the appeal.

A narrow footpath on the jagged spine of the Bridger Mountain Range in southwestern Montana marks the final leg of field tech Bridget Bradshaw’s commute—at 8,562 feet above sea level. A bumpy dirt road makes up most of the trail, but the last two miles are almost completely vertical and can only be navigated by foot. With an elevation gain of 2,000 feet, it’s enough to make even the most seasoned hiker wheezy.

Last fall, from late August to mid-November, Bradshaw spent eight hours a day perched on a bald-faced lookout on top of Bridger Mountain, tallying raptors for Montana Audubon's annual migration count. In total she observed 3,281 birds—including Golden Eagles, Sharp-shinned Hawks, American Kestrels, and Bald Eagles—as they flew south through the Rockies in search of warmer climates.

Digging Up Data for Conservation

Every fall Hawkwatch International collects stats from hundreds of checkpoints like the one on Bridger, in hopes of piecing together all the numbers to assess the health of raptors across the continent. Birds of prey are near the top of the food chain, and are excellent barometers of overall ecosystem health, so tracking highs and lows in their populations could reveal which way the environmental pendulum will swing. The data from the past twenty years reveals an almost 40% decline in the Golden Eagle population, and has prompted state and federal agencies to look closely at the impact of development throughout the West.

To complete these counts, conservation groups rely on seasonal techs who can ID raptors from a distance, and endure physical strain, brutal weather, subpar hygiene standards, and meager salaries. Often, they’re young, restless college graduates who are eager to gain hands-on (or eyes-on) experience in the field. Montana Audubon employed Bradshaw to conduct their counts at her mountaintop post—at 24, the recent college grad has spent the last 18 months hopping from state to state to fill these temporary tech positions. (Last spring she collected bees and surveyed bats in muggy pine stands across the southeastern United States, and before that she was counting and banding raptors for the Golden Gate Audubon Society in San Francisco.)

“People ask me all the time what it’s like to be a field tech,” she says. “It’s a vagrant lifestyle. You end up living in close quarters with many random people. I have a lot of hole-y, dirty clothes.”

The Challenges of Being a Field Tech

At Bridger, Bradshaw and her field partner, Andrew Eberly, lived in a ski hut located next to the lookout. The small, four-walled abode is perched on a saddle between the mountain peaks, and can only be reached by foot (and helicopters, in the case of emergencies). There’s no running water, so once a week the techs made the treacherous trip down the mountain to the town of Bozeman to take their weekly shower, restock on groceries, and refill enough six-gallon jugs of water to last them the week. “I hope really beefy calves are in right now,” Bradshaw says jokingly. Once they wrapped up their season in November, she and Eberly had to haul their personal belongings back down the treacherous, icy trail. The portable squat toilet that held a season’s worth of their excrement —a testament to their “leave no trace” way of life—was left behind for the ski patrollers taking over the hut.

The ski hut next to the lookout. Photo: Bridget Bradshaw

At the top of the trail, just beyond the humble hut and rugged mountain crest, a 16-by-16-foot concrete helipad marks the raptor observation site. Each morning after a quick breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, Bradshaw and Eberly would hike over to the lookout, set up their camping chairs, open up their data sheets and field guides, and turn their spotting scopes north, scanning the narrow wedge of sky between the peaks until nightfall. Some days the techs would only tally a few dozen birds; other days they could barely keep up.

One of the more erratic elements on Bridger Mountain is weather: It’s not uncommon to have freezing wind chills and 90-degree forecasts within the same week. (When we spoke in October Bradshaw said there were about four inches of snow on the ground.) Storms can be persistent, too, and low-lying stratus clouds sometimes hang on the horizon for days, making distant birds impossible to identify. The extremes can be weary. “You don’t want a bright, cloudless day because your retinas will just burn,” Bradshaw says. “You can’t focus. Colors get distorted.”

Life Is Good on Bridger Mountain

Bradshaw admits that the grunge and unpredictability is not for everyone. But for those who can live on thrift and can sacrifice basic amenities and hygiene, fieldwork offers things that money can’t buy. “We [field techs] are all kind of similar,” Bradshaw says. “We like to be outside in the quiet. We like to look at birds all day and talk about what kinds of flowers we see.” On Bridger Mountain, there’s ample opportunity to do all that. Beyond the fermenting portable toilet, the helipad is surrounded by 360-degree views of rolling alpine tundra, scree fields, and dense pine forests. Flocks of finches cruise above the treetops, and mountain goats and red weasels scamper along the slopes. And of course, there are the eagles: Sometimes a hundred or so will fly over right before dusk.

After finishing her long shift on the helipad, Bradshaw would return to the ski hut and indulge in small luxuries. She’d practice her violin, or read aloud from a book, or watch an episode of the nature show Life (shockingly, the mountain had wi-fi). If the night was warm and the sky was clear, she and Eberly would open a few beers, set up their spotting scopes, and watch the shadows of migrating birds cut through the silver moonlight. In the early darkness, Bradshaw couldn’t always tell what the species were based on their silhouettes. But she knew that, like her, they had a difficult, beautiful journey ahead.