Enraptured by a Raptor Fest
By Joyce Dalton
Bowl, just outside Bozeman, Montana, is most widely known for its 1,500 acres of
ski terrain. But each fall, visitors and locals tote binoculars and cameras,
rather than skis and poles, as they head for the top of the ridge. Lifts operate
in ski season only, but hardy souls who make the 2.5-mile hike (elevation gain,
2,500 feet) earn an impressive reward: the ideal observation point for the
largest known golden eagle migration in the lower 48 states.
1,000 golden eagles migrate annually along the Bridger Mountain range. With its
80-88” wing span, the golden eagle is undoubtedly the star, but numerous other
raptors, or birds of prey, favor the same route. The bald eagle, osprey,
peregrine falcon, American kestrel, northern harrier and various hawks also can
be spotted. Thus, Bozeman’s annual celebration, the Raptor Fest, came into
Atop the ridge, a raptor monitoring station is manned
during September and October by HawkWatch International and Forest Service
personnel. While their main mission is counting migrants, they are not adverse
to answering visitors’ questions and helping them identify birds. A mounted
artificial owl tempts some raptors to approach very closely, hoping to drive it
out of the area. Their goal may be foiled, but official counters and visitors
luck out with a closer view of the would-be attackers.
folks also are available at the base lodge with literature and information. One
particularly helpful handout identifies species by their overhead flight
silhouettes. At scheduled times, lectures about specific raptors are held on the
deck, complete with live examples; my group was up close and personal with a
great horned owl and a rough-legged hawk. It’s not only great for photo ops, but
for interesting facts, as well. Slide-lecture programs and nature films, both at
the base lodge and in-town venues, add to the Raptor Fest activities.
learned that, like humans, raptors seek the easiest way, migrating around
particular geographical formations to make their flight less arduous. Hawks and
eagles find updrafts, sort of thermal windsheers, then sit there and soar,
traveling miles without wasting calories flapping their huge wings. Similarly,
they use gravity to descend to the next thermal. Fall winds in the Bridger range
are westerly with very strong updrafts, just what raptors like for their long
For two-legged wingless creatures whose endurance level
doesn’t quite measure up to a high altitude hike, a drive along the back roads
around Bozeman can be counted on to produce a goodly number of raptors perched
in trees and on telephone poles. Unless you’re an experienced birdwatcher, it
helps to have someone along who is. My group benefited from the knowledge,
wildlife trivia and spotting ability of Ken Sinay, a naturalist guide and
director of Bozeman-based Yellowstone Safari Co.
van outfitted with high-powered binoculars for each occupant, two telescopes
that could be set up on open windows and another attached to a tripod, Ken
pointed out four golden eagles, a red-tailed hawk, Northern harriers, a great
blue heron and many smaller, but quite pretty, birds, 23 species in all. The
drive also produced mule deer, American pronghorns, a dead prairie rattlesnake,
picturesque granaries and barns, and the remains of once-thriving towns which
gave up when the railroad left.
stop at Parker Homestead State Park – at one acre, the smallest state park in
Montana – proved evocative. Parker came westward with the Homestead Act of 1862
and built a cottonwood, sod-roofed cabin, now in disrepair. An informational
sign reminds readers that “The Montana soil is swallowing hundreds of old
homestead buildings like this one. Each takes with it untold stories of men and
women whose lives brought them drought and blizzards, loneliness and
companionship, fear and simple joys, much like we know today, yet sprung from a
world that will never be again.”
Raptor Fest visitors cannot live by birds alone, even when
those birds are golden eagles. Fortunately, Bozeman and the vicinity boast many
among them is the Museum of the Rockies which has permanent exhibits on
dinosaurs, Native Americans, geology and Montana’s natural and cultural history.
Three halls of traveling exhibits and a planetarium offering four different
presentations add further choices. Many of the dinosaur skeletons, including a
Tyrannosaurus Rex and the skull of a Triceratops, were found at sites in
Montana. Signage often is clever as well as informative; one, entitled “Eggs
over Easy,” describes how these mammoth creatures lovingly tended their eggs. An
exhibit about Lewis & Clark displays objects the explorers would have seen,
items they would have used and pictures and explanations of Native American
Named for John Bozeman, a mountain man and mid-19th century
guide whose Bozeman Trail led to Montana’s gold fields, the town is home to
Montana State University. The restored downtown section claims more than 40 art
galleries. Historic tours operate several days per week in summer, but a
self-guided walking tour pamphlet featuring 39 sites is available from the
Convention & Visitor Bureau.
The town enjoys a rich cultural life with a symphony, an
opera and a dozen acting companies, including a Shakespearean troup. Sunset
Hills Cemetery holds the graves of John Bozeman, the newscaster Chet Huntley and
a number of citizens whose names were given to many of the town’s buildings and
Gallatin Pioneers’ Museum, housed in the old county jail, features household
items of the homesteading era, Native American artifacts and a collection of
carved Montana agates. In contrast, the American Computer Museum’s exhibits date
back hardly more than a couple of decades.
Opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, golf, rafting
and blue-ribbon trout fishing are found just outside town.
Easy excursions can be made to a host of interesting nearby
towns and sites including:
Forks, where the Madison River joins the Jefferson and Gallatin, was a
significant site in the journeys of explorers Lewis & Clark. At 560-acre
Missouri Headwaters State Park, walking trails lead past interpretive displays
which provide information about the expedition, as well as facts about local
flora and fauna. Built in 1910, the Sacajawea Hotel is a Three Forks landmark
and a good choice for dinner, refreshments, lodging or simply a photo.
off Rt. 287, south of Three Forks, the little town of Pony guarantees to enchant
with a few historic buildings and an amazing metal sculpture of, naturally, a
pony. Part ghost town, part living town, the historic district is on the
National Register of Historic Places. Named for Tecumseh “Pony” Smith, a
mid-19th century prospector, the settlement grew with miners and the railroad.
Less than a century later, the mines, economy and population had dwindled.
Continuing south, the town of Ennis claims a main street
lined with boutiques and gift shops. The environs are popular for fishing and
floating on the Madison River. Retrace your route northward as far as Norris;
then, return to Bozeman via Rt. 84, which runs along the Madison.
bit west of Bozeman, Rt. 191 leads south to Big Sky, arguably Montana’s most
well-known ski resort. However, golf, tennis, fishing and other warm-weather
sports can be enjoyed here, as well. The same road runs alongside the Gallatin
River as far south as West Yellowstone, one of the entry points for Yellowstone
For gorgeous scenery, take I-90 east from Bozeman, then
pick up Rt. 89 south to drive through the well-named Paradise Valley where the
Yellowstone River separates the Absaroka and Gallatin mountain ranges. Once
inhabited by Native Americans, mountain men and miners, some of the literary and
movie worlds’ big names now call it home (or at least, second homes). For Old
West ambience, the Old Saloon in the tiny town of Emigrant is hard to top. “Est:
1902 is written on the ceiling with dollar bills.
Emigrant, it’s a short hop to Chico Hot Springs where the resort of the same
name offers 110 guest rooms in three separate structures, a spa, an indoor hot
spring pool and one of the state’s finest restaurants. The quality of the food
is matched only by the service and presentation.
Thirty miles south of Chico, Gardiner is yet another entry
to Yellowstone National Park. While most visitors will want more than a day
here, it’s possible to sample the park’s scenery, wildlife and an eruption of
Old Faithful and still make it back to Bozeman, only 90 miles away, by
If you go ….
The Raptor Fest is held each fall, usually early in
October. Dates for 2005 are October 1-2.
Bozeman accommodations include such mid-range motels/hotels
as Holiday Inn, Comfort Inn, Best Western, Fairfield Inn and Hampton Inn, as
well as ranches and bed & breakfast facilities. G Bar M Ranch in the town of
Clyde Park (www.gbarm.com)
is another good option.
Among the many restaurant choices in Bozeman, Ferraros
(406/587-2555) and Savory Olive (www.savoryolive.com)
can be recommended.
The town is situated along Interstate 90 and is served by
Delta, Horizon, Northwest, Skywest and United Airlines.
Bozeman Convention & Visitor Bureau:
Chico Hot Springs Resort:
Museum of the Rockies:
Yellowstone Safari Company:
Images by Joyce Dalton