It’s fall and the bird thoroughfares that head south are crowded. In North America, migrating birds tend to cluster in what biologists call major flyways. There’s one along the east coast, another along the Rocky Mountains, and another along the Mississippi River. On this central route, hawks and eagles squeeze into a bottleneck at the western tip of the Great Lakes, and each fall thousands of them stream over a place called Hawk Ridge in Duluth, Minnesota. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris Julin has more:
It’s fall and the bird thoroughfares that head south are crowded. In North
America, migrating birds tend to cluster in what biologists call four major
flyways. There’s one along each coast, another along the Rocky Mountains,
and another along the Mississippi River. On this central route, hawks and
eagles squeeze into a bottleneck at the western tip of the Great Lakes, and
each fall thousands of them stream over a place called Hawk Ridge in
Duluth, Minnesota. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris Julin has
(Sound of people shifting feet on a gravel road. One person says “Here
comes a low one.”)
It’s chilly for a September morning, and it’s a weekday, but about 20
people stand on a gravel road that skirts a ridge 800 feet above Lake
Superior. Below, a huge freighter steams out of the Duluth harbor in the
misty sunshine. Above, dozens of hawks seem to turn in unending circles.
For watching birds of prey…or raptors…this is one of the best spots on
“Top five. It’s for sure in the top give in North America.”
Nia Palmersten is the naturalist at Hawk Ridge. She says some years,
between August and December 100-thousand raptors fly past this spot. Many
of the country’s most popular hawk watching posts are lucky to get
20-thousand birds in a season… that many raptors flew past Hawk Ridge
in one day this September.
These birds are flying south from Canada and Alaska on North America’s
central flyway. Hawks and eagles tend to avoid big stretches of open water,
so when they hit Lake Superior, they follow the shoreline, which funnels
them through Duluth, at the western tip of the lake.
“It’s an amazing spectacle.”
Pershing Hofslund is a retired ornithology professor from the University of
Minnesota in Duluth. He says many raptors like to soar to conserve energy,
so they congregate at Hawk Ridge to ride the updrafts bouncing off the
cliffs. They spiral high into the air, and then coast south…sometimes
making hundreds of miles in one day.
“I counted — laying on my back and looking up — counted 16-hundred
coming off of just one of these spirals.”
Hofslund is 83, and he’s watched birds at Hawk Ridge for 50 years. He says
he’s seen a big change in people’s attitude toward raptors.
“When I grew up, hawks were varmints. I knew my mother had a chicken
yard, and if we saw a hawk out there, we were afraid they were going to get
the young chickens. And you’d pick up a Field and Stream magazine, anything
like that, and they’d have articles on how to shoot them.”
People used to come to Hawk Ridge to shoot the birds for target practice,
but activists with the Duluth Bird Club put a stop to the shooting by 1950.
They also collected donations to buy land at the highest point on the ridge
and make it a nature preserve. Since then hawk numbers have mostly held
steady, or even increased for some species. These days on the ridge, people
hunt hawks with binoculars … and naturalist Nia Palmersten says they NEED
them. Thousands of hawks might fly past, but most of them are specks to the
“Binoculars are a must. And you learn. You have to scan all around
you at all times a watch for them to come. Sometimes they come low,
sometimes they’re up way high.”
And even if you do see a lot of birds it takes practice to know what you’re
(Sound of “Did you see a merlin?)
Palmersten spends much of her day helping people identify what they’ve seen.
(sound re-establishes “not a very long tail, but somewhat of a tail, where
a sharp-shin’s going to have a very long rudder-like tail)
Palmersten also spends time keeping eager birders from pestering Hawk
Ridge’s official bird counter Frank Niccoletti. Niccoletti has to
concentrate. He’s counting swirling specks in the sky…making sure to
tally each of them just once…noting which distant dot is a broadwing
hawk…which one is a northern harrier. Frank Niccoletti says he can tell
if an eagle is an adult or a juvenile from three miles.
“You know you’re looking at a bird at a great distance, and you’re
watching it move. You’re not looking for field marks, but you’re looking at
the shape of the wings, you know how long is the tail proportioned to how
long the wings are, and that’s what you’re looking for.”
Niccoletti grimaces a little at the suggestion that he has an inborn knack
for identifying hawks. What he HAS, he says, is 20 years of intense practice.
“And it’s just an art. You know some people know how to write, you
know, or some people know how to play the piano. I identify hawks, and birds.”
Birders less eagle-eyed than Niccoletti can still enjoy the challenge of
identifying raptors. Kim Mills makes the five-hour drive from southern
Minnesota each fall to spend a few days on Hawk Ridge.
“You know every time I come up here I learn, and I learn more and I
learn more. I kind of listen to what other people are saying, and what
they’re seeing, and it’s intriguing. I love it.”
Amateurs come to Hawk Ridge to learn, but so do scientists. Researchers
catch and strap leg bands on thousands of hawks each fall. Biologists from
across the continent spend time here studying raptor populations trends,
diseases, and migration patterns.
By the end of September, most small hawks have passed through, but there
might be thousands more. Bigger raptors…red-tailed hawks and bald
eagles…will pass the ridge in their largest numbers during October.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Chris Julin in Duluth.