Each fall a great flood of birds comes down from the north as the sun moves further south. This amazing annual migration takes place right over our heads, but few people ever witness it and that’s unfortunate. These are large birds; raptors to be specific. This grouping includes hawks, owls, eagles, and falcons. These birds follow certain geologic pathways as they have been doing for eons. The routes are selected for their rising air currents to make the journey less energy sapping. There are sites all across the U.S. where this phenomena happens and the map from Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania clearly illustrates the routes the birds follow.
Closer to my home is Hawk Ridge, located on the volcanic ridge that parallels the shoreline of Lake Superior. Hawk Ridge is a nationally famous location for birdwatchers and I encourage everyone (birdwatcher or not) to visit this easily accessible site. Not only is it the best place to see some of the tens of thousands of birds that are winging overhead, but the expansive view of the lake and town below is unexcelled. You really feel as though you’re on a mountaintop and in September and October, with the trees turning multiple shades of red and orange it is a painting in progress.
It is important to bring binoculars along when you go there, because many times the birds are flying high in the sky, looking like specks of pepper thrown against the clouds. Some will only travel as far as Iowa and Missouri, but others will reach Central and South America; places where they will be able to find food during the winter months.
When the sun comes out at Hawk Ridge and starts to heat the dark rocks, great waves of warm air swirl upwards like escalators of wind that the birds use to their advantage. Lake Superior is such a massive body of water that birds choose to follow the shoreline, rather than attempt an open-water crossing.
The City, with help from the Duluth Audubon Society purchased the highest part of the Ridge and set it aside as a Nature Reserve. The Raptor counting officially began in 1972. The season begins in mid-August and goes into mid-December, with best viewing in mid-September to October when the largest concentration of birds can be seen. On a good day – sunny with a west or northwest wind – as many as 20,000 birds may be counted. Fourteen species are seen regularly and three less often, but the two most common are the broad-wing and the sharp-shinned hawks.
In another part of the site, bird banders set up nets and use bait to entice the raptors to grab some food. In trying, they are caught in the nearly invisible nets and then banded, so that our knowledge of migration and each species can be better understood over time. It is done very quickly and then the bird is released to rejoin the river of raptors flowing overhead. Occasionally, a visitor to the Ridge has the unique opportunity to hold and release one of the birds; a thrill of a lifetime.
People come from all over the US and even beyond to experiences this annual spectacle of nature. If you’re a birder like me and like the birds to come to you, visit a Hawk counting site. It’s also a great way to enjoy the last warm days of autumn, while wishing the birds a safe journey to their winter territories.