Hawk Ridge - Duluth


By Kate Crowley

For the first time I was able to bring three of my grandchildren up to Hawk Ridge in Duluth.  It was something I’ve been waiting to do for years and now that they live in Duluth, it is an easy car ride up the hill from their house to the long, rocky ridge that parallels the lakeshore below.  I know that people living in northern Minnesota, especially in the Duluth area are familiar with this fantastic natural resource, but there are still many in the state that have never visited, nor witnessed this amazing yearly phenomenon.

For people who do watch birds and pay attention to the autumnal migrations, there are only a few places in the U.S. that compress and funnel the birds as they move from the far north to the far south.  There is a Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania that is similar to our Hawk Ridge.  It is on the Appalachian flyway.  Whitefish Point Bird Observatory in Michigan is another place where migrating hawks, owls and songbirds are observed and counted.   These three places all incorporate geological features that cause birds to concentrate as they move south.  Mountain ranges that run in a north/south direction and large bodies of water are two features that have a big impact on migration. 

In the case of Hawk Ridge, this long, linear rise of land on the east end of Duluth combines the two above mentioned features.  While not quite a mountain, at 700’ above the lake, the slope faces south and collects lots of sunshine during the day, causing heat to rise (thermals).  The massive lake is a deterrent to the birds, since crossing it can be dangerous in more ways than one.  The raptors in particular find the thermals rising in front of and on top of Hawk Ridge to be fabulous elevators of air that lift them high up above the land.  Many of these birds, like the sharp shinned hawks use a flap and glide method to fly with the air carrying them thousands of feet up, so they have even more room to glide downward, carrying them forward further, with less effort.  Conserving energy is critical during migration because the birds never know where their next meal may be coming from.

People from all over the country know about Hawk Ridge and so it was that I took a group of 18 adults to the Ridge on September 1st.  This was the first day of the ‘tourist season’ at the Ridge and staff and volunteers were there to help visitors see and identify the birds flying over.  The sky was clear, which was good, but there wasn’t a breath of wind, which was bad. 

The hawks fly best and most frequently when there are northwest or westerly winds. From the other directions you will get less satisfactory bird movement. When a good high pressure system moves in from the northwest, you can usually expect to see more birds just before or soon afterwards.  If it’s raining or really foggy, don’t bother going up.  The birds don’t like this kind of weather any better than you do.

On Thursday (the 1st) a total of 150 birds were seen.  That is a really low number, but not so surprising considering the earliness of the season and the heat of the day.  The next day 982 birds were counted and on the 4th 2965 flew past!  The largest numbers represented were the sharp shinned hawks - small accipiters with piercing red eyes.  Three members of our group had the chance to hold these hunters of the sky, because two had been caught in nets set up on the Ridge and then banded, before being released.  They were immature sharp shins and as such had yellow eyes instead of red.  One woman was so overwhelmed with the experience she couldn’t stop talking about it the rest of the day and the next morning. 

When I brought the grandkids to the Ridge, I was delighted to see that they were nearly as enthusiastic as me over the beautiful view of the lake and the sight of birds flying overhead.  They used my binoculars and field guide to spot and learn more about the birds.  With their good, young eyes, they were able to catch sight of the tiny black spots in the distance that were the hawks.  A group of professional bird watchers and counters stood on a platform with their binoculars and spotting scopes trained in different directions so they wouldn’t miss a one.  This is a unique and challenging skill, because the birds generally fly so high, they are merely silhouettes and the counter must use this as a clue to the species, as well as their size and flight patterns.  Twenty species of raptors and vultures have been seen at Hawk Ridge and so the spotters must pay close attention to details.

            The migration runs from September into late November, so you really don’t have any excuse to miss this magnificent event in this lovely spot.  Bring a picnic and enjoy a leisurely lunch sitting on the boulders next to the road, as the summer slips away to the south, trailing fall colors behind.  If you’re really lucky you’ll get there on a record setting day when over 100,000 broad wing hawks pass overhead.  That actually happened on September 15, 2003.


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