There is a single ridge in the Rocky Mountains used by thousands of migrating eagles as the navigational pivot of their annual migrations. Accessible by foot, the Piitaistakis Ridge is the geological tailbone of an unbroken spine of mountains descending from the Far North to Crowsnest Pass, Alberta. A one-hour hike will lift you to where you may quite literally have to duck to avoid being clipped by a huge eagle intent on catching the updraft formed by the westerly wind smacking against the ridge.
In spring, from throughout the eastern foothills and valleys of the U.S. Rocky Mountain West, the birds funnel towards Piitaistakis Ridge. From there, they share the same narrow updraft along the Front Ranges of the Canadian Rockies to their northern breeding ranges in Yukon and Alaska. In fall, adults, juveniles and the young of the year reverse the flight path south to Piitaistakis Ridge, from where they break formation to disperse among the foothills and valleys of the American Rockies.
It was only in 2006 that naturalist Peter Sherrington scientifically documented this migration landmark previously remembered only in its Pikanii Blackfoot name meaning "Place of the Eagles." A windy day spent atop Piitaistakis Ridge with Sherrington towards the end of the spring 2009 migration provided a privileged panorama of the folded foothills and flat prairie to the east, and the ragged peaks of the Rockies to the west. It also revealed the maturing Research Director of the Rocky Mountain Eagle Research Foundation (eaglewatch.ca) to be as dedicated and enthusiastic as ever in his chronicling of the migration. Sherrington expressed childlike delight as the last bird of the day, a big, young golden eagle, chose a close-by flight line set against the white peaks of the Flathead Range. Even through ordinary binoculars, it was a sight equal to the best of David Attenborough's, "BBC nature spectaculars." That, "Sherrington exulted,"was worth the entire day."
The watch site is difficult to access in spring and the weather is reliably cold and wet. Plan instead to experience the fall migration when the birds are more concentrated and the weather is more agreeable. Ask at Frank Slide Interpretive Centre, just off Highway 3 in Crowsnest Pass, for precise directions.
The Crowsnest Conservation Society leads a one-day Eagle Fest hike to Piistaistakis Ridge in mid-September. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.