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Bonney Butte

Bonney Butte Sharp Shin - M Sulis

Sharp-shinned Hawk in Hand at Bonney Butte - M Sulis

Bonney Butte, just south of Oregon's Mount Hood, is home to the largest known fall concentration of migrating raptors in Oregon.  Directions to Bonney Butte at bottom of page.

In 1994, HawkWatch International hired observers to conduct a season-long count, and in 1995 a small-scale banding program was begun.

Fall Hawk Migration at Bonney Butte

by Dave Helzer

Sharpshinned Hawk - Bonney Butte - M Sulis
Sharpshinned Hawk - Bonney Butte - M Sulis

Each year during the months of September and October a total of 2,000 to 4,500 migrant hawks are seen from the top of Bonney Butte on the southeast side of Mt. Hood. The great majority of these birds are Sharp-shinned Hawks and Cooper's Hawks.

Migrating Merlins, Golden Eagles and Red-tailed Hawks are also commonly seen. A total of 18 migratory raptor species have been recorded to date.

On a good day in late September, it's possible to see 150 migrating hawks from the butte. 

On the grand scale of hawk migration in North America, Bonney Butte numbers are relatively small compared to the 20,000 migrants per season seen at the Goshutes Ridge in Nevada or the 4 million birds of prey tallied each year in the coastal Mexican state of Veracruz.

Despite the relatively small numbers, Bonney Butte is the best hawk watch location in Oregon. Standardized counting and banding efforts have been underway there since 1994 under the direction of HawkWatch International, a raptor research and conservation group based in Salt Lake City.

Bonney Butte is a great place to see lots of Accipiters or forest hawks; these are the Sharp-shinned, Cooper's and Goshawk.

The elusive Goshawk is rarely seen by local birders. They are uncommon at Bonney Butte; on average less than 30 are recorded per season. Your best chance for seeing one is to visit the butte in early October and then cross your fingers.

An even harder bird to see in Oregon is the Broad-winged Hawk. Prior to observations starting at Bonney Butte in the mid-'90s there were only a handful of sightings in Oregon. But now they are seen regularly from the ridge, usually one or two per season.

On September 29, 1999, a migratory flock of 65 Broad-winged Hawks was seen passing over the butte, an unprecedented sighting and thrilling enough to make any avid birder foam at the mouth.

The concentration of hawks seen from the butte is a result of the local topography. Just north of Bonney Butte three large north-south ridges converge into a bottleneck that funnels birds over the butte as they travel south.

The longest of these is Surveyor's Ridge, which extends almost 50 kilometers south from the Columbia River all the way to Bonney Butte.

The combined effect of this ridge with Bluegrass Ridge and Bennet Ridge is that under normal flight conditions, almost any hawk migrating across a wide area along the east side of Mt. Hood will be funneled over Bonney Butte.

Hawks follow these north-south ridges as they migrate because updrafts and thermals from the ridges provide the lift needed to travel long distances with minimal energy expenditure.

After passing over the butte, the birds disperse again and travel over a much wider area. Banding data has shown that most of the hawks passing over Bonney Butte are migrating from breeding territories in southwest British Columbia to wintering grounds in southern California.

A Visit to Bonney Butte

Hawk counters, banders and an educator are on the butte every day from September 1 - October 30, weather permitting. The site is open to the public and visitation is encouraged.

The largest flight and peak migration typically occur between September 20 and October 10. Even on a slow day the butte is worth a visit, the views are superb and trapped hawks from the nearby banding station provide a chance to see birds up close and personal.

The last 4 miles to Bonney Butte is a rough Forest Service road; a vehicle with high ground clearance is recommended. A typical trip from central Portland will take about 2 hours. There is a .25-mile hike to the top of the butte from the parking area. A Forest Pass is not required.

Sun and wind can be intense on the butte, so plan and dress accordingly.

The peak flight usually occurs between 10 am to 3 pm, so it is recommended to bring a lunch and stay put for the day. A folding chair is also recommended -- just kick back and scan the skies for hawks, eagles and falcons. Audubon Society of Portland will offer field trips to Bonney Butte in September; check the September issue of the Warbler for dates and meeting information.

For additional information, visit the Bonney Butte Raptor Migration Project and Bonney Butte Raptor Project websites.

Directions to Bonney Butte

The last 4 miles to Bonney Butte is a rough Forest Service road; a vehicle with high ground clearance is recommended. A typical trip from central Portland will take about 2 hours.

From Government Camp travel east on Hwy. 26, then take Hwy. 35 north towards Hood River. After 4.5 miles you will cross the White River; just past the river you will see the White River East Snow Park. Turn right (south) here and head down paved Forest Service (FS) road 48. Go 7 miles down FS 48 and turn left onto FS road 4890, which is marked after you turn onto it. Go 3.75 miles and turn left onto FS road 4891, following signs to Bonney Meadows.

This rough 4-mile stretch will take you to Bonney Meadows Campground. Continue past Bonney Meadows Campground to a gated spur road on the left.

Park here and hike up the spur road about .25 mile to the observation point at the summit of Bonney Butte.

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