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Photo by Michael Furtman
A red-tailed hawk soars above Hawk Ridge in Duluth, Minnesota.
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A peregrine falcon gives an impressive stare. This map shows how to reach Hawk Ridge in Duluth.
Snow swirls around the Sawtooth Mountain Elementary School in Grand Marais, Minnesota. It’s 20 below zero and the snow lies deep in the woods.
We are miles away and months removed from the well-known hawk count that attracts hundreds of people each autumn to Duluth’s Hawk Ridge, but this classroom is as much a part of the mission of Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory as enumerating feathered heads.
The fourth-graders thrill to see the eastern screech-owl held by Debbie Waters, the observatory’s education director. She teaches them about raptors of all sorts, sparking interest and understanding that furthers the observatory’s mission “to protect birds of prey and other migratory birds in the Western Lake Superior Region through stewardship, research and education.”
Actually as the hawk flies, Grand Marais is not that distant from Duluth. Raptors migrating by Hawk Ridge in fall – sometimes thousands in a day – can travel from as far as the Arctic Circle.
By the first half of the 1900s, The Ridge was well-known for spotting migrating raptors. Unfortunately, the folks who traveled to “Hawk Hill” back then brought shotguns, not binoculars, and slaughtered hundreds of hawks, using the “bad birds” for target practice. All predators – feathered or furred – were considered a scourge. Kill a hawk, save many bunnies (for the table), the sentiment ran.
The official bird count takes place from a platform at Hawk Ridge.
But by 1950, the Duluth Bird Club (now Duluth Audubon) had harnessed public outrage at illegal shooting of hawks and gained political support with local naturalists Olga Lakela, Joel Bronoel and Evelyn Putnam leading the charge.
When the shooting subsided, the counting began. The first official hawk count happened in fall 1951, and for the next 20 years, the tally was spearheaded by Duluthians Jan Green, a local bird enthusiast, and Pershing B. “Jack” Hofslund, an ornithology professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth. By 1972, the hawk count had full-time paid jobs spanning mid-August into November. This same year, the hawk and owl banding station opened. Soon a naturalist was added. Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve – the protected area above Duluth’s Lakeside neighborhood – grew to 315 acres, attracting local hikers and an ever-increasing number of out-of-state visitors coming to witness the fall migration spectacle.
Today, those programs have morphed into the year-round Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, the name adopted in 2004. Still essentially just a wide spot in the road – it is possibly the only outdoor nature center in the country that conducts its programs in the middle of an active city street – its research and education programs are broad-reaching and don’t end with the last hawk over the hill in late fall.
In winter and spring, the staff of about 17 spreads out into classrooms across the Northland. Last year alone, observatory staff presented programs in more than 60 classrooms to 1,750 students.
“Discovering Birds,” the newest program, introduces third-graders to birds in their own backyards and gives them hands-on research to undertake, such as finding out how much chickadees weigh using the scientific method or trying their hand at extracting “songbirds” (played by pinecones) from a mist net. There are also fourth- and fifth-grade programs.
Debbie Waters in a class in Grand Marais.
Observatory Executive Director Janelle Long says the grade-school programs thrill the staff almost as much as the students. “(To) witness a fifth-grade class as it adopts and releases a sharp-shinned hawk … Their faces light up, they clap and cheer as the bird zips away and continues its journey south. Over 20,000 students have been connected to their surrounding natural environment through bird education programs offered by Hawk Ridge,” she says.
Classrooms are not the only teaching opportunities.
“Ooohs” and “aaahs” are not often heard on downtown sidewalks in Duluth, but you can catch those sounds every late spring and early summer as locals and visitors watch the antics of a nesting pair of peregrine falcons atop Superior Street’s Greysolon Plaza Building.
For Peregrine Watch, the observatory’s volunteer coordinator, Julie O’Connor, and her volunteers set up spotting scopes on the Lake Place Park or right on a Superior Street sidewalk, pointing scopes at the artificially created aerie atop the tall building. Some locals show up almost every day to check on the chick.
Passers-by who can’t resist asking, “What you looking at?” can get a lesson on the spectacular falcons, now back from the brink of extinction.
Nearly 15,000 people have looked through those Hawk Ridge scopes or at the video nest monitor during the five years of the program.
Courtesy Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory
Julie O’Connor shows off a chickadee.
Education is one major branch of the observatory’s mission; research is the other.
While fall migration gets the most attention, spring counts, too, as Hawk Ridge researchers discovered.
In fall, the northeast-southwest angled Minnesota North Shore funnels southbound migrants through Duluth and over Hawk Ridge. But it was thought that northbound migrants in spring had no such funnel.
Then several years ago, former chief hawk counter Frank Nicoletti noticed large kettles of hawks migrating over Duluth. Not unusual … except for the time of year. It was spring.
Frank organized the first Spring Hawk Count in 2000. He set up at two locations – below Enger Tower along Skyline Drive and Thompson Hill Rest Area – and counted from March through May.
South and southwest winds bring the biggest numbers of raptors past the count areas with some amazing totals: 822 bald eagles March 23, 2004 or 9,206 broad-winged hawks May 6, 2005 and 2,222 red-tailed hawks April 12, 2002. The count has recorded extreme rarities flying by such as a gyrfalcon, Mississippi kite, ferruginous hawk and short-eared owl.
A gathering at Hawk Ridge, which is truly a “wide spot in the road,” as the author points out.
Behind the scenes and hidden in the woods atop The Ridge is the core of the observatory’s research – the Banding Station. Dave Evans has banded hawks and owls here since 1972. During these 39 years, 101,323 hawks, falcons, eagles and owls have been caught, measured, weighed, aged, sexed, banded with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leg ring and released. Data from this research has led to amazing discoveries with continentwide implications. For instance, Dave and his crew documented the long-distance migrations of northern goshawks, some of which come through Duluth from British Columbia to winter in Louisiana. They also have the confirmed longevity record for a sharp-shinned hawk: 12 years and two months.
Their research on northern saw-whet owls had written the book on its molt patterns.
Dave also has done extensive work with bald eagle research … climbing many a dizzyingly tall pine to weigh, measure and band chicks. In winter he conducts snowy owl research in the Duluth-Superior Harbor.
A school group learns to spot birds.
Owls are relative newcomers to regular attention by the Hawk Ridge observatory.
No consistent survey of breeding owl populations in this area had been conducted until Dave Grosshuesch, then Hawk Ridge’s raptor bander and passerine researcher, took up the challenge and started Western Great Lakes Owl Monitoring. This year, in cooperation with the observatory, the Minnesota and Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources turned up 313 calling owls in eight species on counts run over 175 routes in early April.
Of course, with all of the other activities of Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, the main season remains fall.
Hawk Weekend is when that “wide spot in the road” hops with activity.
Naturalists show off banded hawks, educating the crowd about natural history. A veritable army of naturalists work with the school groups that descend on The Ridge. (The 900 fifth-graders who participated in Experience Hawk Ridge last year learned the hows, whys, and whos of hawk migration.)
Courtesy Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory
It’s catch-and-release for a banded raptor.
Count interpreters wander through the crowd, pointing out and identifying overhead birds and answering questions.
In the woods, staff members band passerines (songbirds), hikers trek the miles of maintained trails and photographers position to get the shot of a lifetime. Back at the main overlook T-shirts, field guides and other items are for sale in a trailer.
From a platform, the latest addition at the site, counters climb above the crowds to observe raptors trying to “sneak” behind The Ridge.
The whole atmosphere is charged with excitement and festive.
“Anchored by the staff and volunteers,” says Julie O’Connor, “there is a community of people from all walks of life who share the passion for watching hawks.”
That passion will no doubt continue to spread its wings, fed fall, summer, winter and spring by the Hawk Ridge staff in classrooms or on that magical “wide spot in the road” overlooking Lake Superior.
Sparky Stensaas, a former Hawk Ridge raptor counter and observatory board member, is a publisher, photographer, writer and naturalist living in the Nemadji Valley of Carlton County, Minnesota.