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Photo by Michael Furtman
A red-tailed hawk soars above Hawk Ridge in Duluth, Minnesota.
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Photo by Sparky Stensaas
Birk Stensaas, 2, spots birds.
Hawk Ridge Draws Fans of Feathered Friends
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.
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.
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Read the full story of Hawk Ridge in the August/September 2011 issue of Lake Superior Magazine, available on regional newsstands or by subscription from the publisher. To subscribe, click here.