WELLSVILLE MOUNTAINS ÿ A lot of people like birds, but not many like them as much as Darlene Kilpatrick and Paula Shannon do.
The two young women hiked to the ridge of the Wellsville Mountains on Wednesday morning and will remain there, more or less continuously, until Halloween. Those 10 weeks will be spent counting raptors: redtails, kestrels, Cooper's hawks and hopefully even some eagles.
Results of their counts, which could total over 4,000, will be merged with data from other sites run by HawkWatch International. The organization tracks population trends through migration counts at 15 sites in nine states and one in Mexico, sharing the information with government agencies to help them manage raptor populations.
But the non-profit group couldn't function without heavy contributions from volunteers, and Kilpatrick and Shannon are perfect examples. The recent college graduates may as well have stood alongside I-15 with "Will work for food" signs, because that's exactly what they're doing.
The per diem they receive buys supplies, and that's about it. It doesn't cover the eight hours a day the pair will scan the horizon from the wind-whipped lookout point, or the fact that they'll spend their nights in a tent on the mountain, early snow or not.
"It takes a certain mindset to be up there without any company and stay focused on the birds," said Paul Grindrod, the outreach coordinator in HawkWatch's Salt Lake City office. "It's hard enough just to camp, and it's hard to spend eight hours a day counting birds. If we had to pay people what it's worth, there's no way we could keep up the network."
It's a job that requires concentration, dedication and Visine by the quart, but Texan Kilpatrick and Pennsylvanian Shannon didn't seemed bothered by the prospect on Day One.
"We're a little strange," acknowledged Kilpatrick. "We like this."
"The wind's fun," Shannon added, with more than a little sarcasm.
The rookie watchers were assigned to the Wellsville site because it's a little slower than locations such as the Goshutes, where counters hold a clicker in each hand and work them till their fingers smoke.
"They're breaking us in easy," Kilpatrick said, noting that they had seen only a handful of raptors that morning.
The migration will pick up in September and October, with the redtails, Cooper's and kestrels leading the early rush before the others join in. Last year's Wellsville count showed increases for the osprey and Swainson's hawk, and decreasing trends for the sharp-shinned hawk and American kestrel. Long-term statistics show a depressing trend in golden eagle populations, as well.
The 1999 count revealed 4,261 birds of 17 various species, encouraging numbers Shannon and Kilpatrick hope to duplicate. A typical day will see them at the viewpoint by 8 a.m., facing north with binoculars glued to foreheads. Along with monitoring bird activity, they track wind direction, temperature and barometric pressure. This is all done as a form of unpaid internship, with the hope of one day landing jobs in wildlife research.
For every six days on the mountain they get one day off to visit the home of local birder Bryan Dixon to do laundry, shower and eat a hot meal. And maybe catch a movie ÿ doesn't matter which one.
"If you ever want to see a good movie, camp out for a week and then go," Kilpatrick said. "Anything you see will be great."
Then it's back up to the checkpoint, which offers an unmatched view of Box Elder County to the west, Cache to the east, and Franklin to the north. There are rattlesnakes here, and the elements will certainly have an impact at this lofty aerie, from where viewers can actually look down on their winged quarry, but Shannon and Kilpatrick are undaunted.
"I love raptors, they're amazing animals," Kilpatrick said. "They're majestic, beautiful, incredibly powerful animals. They're important for me spiritually."
The most exciting event of the first morning was when redtail hawk flew directly overhead, tossing them a casual glance as he passed. Other than that, most of the sightings were distant, although a plastic owl has been placed nearby to lure raptors in for closer looks.
The social life atop the mountain was a little slow, and sure to get slower in coming weeks, but the watchers don't seem to mind that they missed the "Survivor" finale.
"This is so lush," said Kilpatrick. "It's beautiful up here. This is our office, you can't beat that."
To get involved
HawkWatch welcomes community involvement in the raptor count, which at the Wellsville site is scheduled to run from Aug. 23 to Oct. 31. Organizers expect to see around 4,000 migrant or resident raptors during that period, with many of the migrants continuing on to Mexico.
"A big part of what we do is educating people and getting them to love raptors so they'll be more interested in preserving them," said volunteer counter Darlene Kilpatrick.
The easiest ÿ maybe we should say "least difficult" ÿ route to the lookout point is up Deep Canyon. The brushy Deep Canyon Trail covers four miles and more than 3,000 feet in elevation, and takes around 2 1/2 hours.
The Wellsville site, in its 17th year, is one of the longest-tenured site in the Intermountain flyway. The count began in 1976 but was suspended from 1980-86.