If it takes a “big man” to admit ignorance, consider my stature with that of the Biblical David. After being a Minnesota resident for 36 years, it took my relationship with Mary Gafkjen to learn of the autumn raptor migrations at the Hawk Ridge Raptor Observatory in Duluth.
She mentioned the migrations a couple of weeks ago and suggested we head to Duluth to witness the phenomenon at Hawk Ridge. We arrived on a grayish but calm day on the last Monday of September to virtually an empty hill. There was a trailer set up with a volunteer who was basically closing up. “It hasn’t been a good day,” she said, “and it’s pretty much shut down for the day. Tomorrow might be better. Try being here by nine or so in the morning.”
Sounded like the story of too many fishing trips. We traversed the wooded hill through some spectacular autumn scenery and babbling North Shore streams back into the small city for some craft beer and fine dining. On Tuesday morning we were a few minutes late, and was greeted by dozens of bird watchers carrying some impressive monoculars, binoculars and cameras. The watch had begun. I scanned the treetops on this high bluff some 500 feet above Lake Superior, eyeing the skies just above tree line. A bearded young man with a volunteer patch suddenly exclaimed loudly, “There! Just above the fishing ship.” He easily identified three different hawk species and some vultures … those with the thin tails.
What? They were flying above the lake itself? I studied the skies across the beautiful and still calm waters and saw nothing. Mary caught my angle and directed me to look higher. Much higher. Even higher still, and then, high and wide of the bluff, and clearly over the waters of the lake, were the thermals carrying the birds. Dots to the naked eye, but with good binoculars, and even with my inexpensive 600 mm lens, there they were.
Initially I was disappointed as a photographer, though not so much as a spectator. The birds were not only quite distant, they were also very high in the thermals. They were not even close to the beautiful layering of colors provided by the lake and clouds. Exhibiting more patience than I typically noted for, in time fortune came my way … for about a dozen images.
What an incredible learning experience. Here is a brief history: The first systematic count of raptors began in 1972, and the voluntary naturalist program, Friends of Hawk Ridge, was established seven years later. And, yes, raptors have used this unique flyway for eons. Apparently the site and migration were familiar to local gunners who actually used the birds for target practice. The killing was stopped through efforts of the Duluth Bird Club (now the Duluth Audubon Society). The club publicized the illegal shooting and worked to have the prohibition against shooting within the city limits enforced.
Later that group, with a loan from the Nature Conservancy, bought approximately 250 acres to serve as a buffer for the preserve, and later, with a trust agreement with the City of Duluth, now manages 365 acres as a nature reserve open to the public for both study and enjoyment. Now thousands of visitors come from all 50 states and some 40 foreign countries to observe this unique annual fall migration … one of the few concentrated raptor migrations in the world.
More than 20 different raptor species move from their summer breeding areas as far north as the Arctic and head to destinations as far south as points in South America. In the fall, the birds veer southwest along the lake shore. Some days are obviously better than others, and observers say that on days with northwest winds, thousands of raptors can be seen migrating past the Ridge.
It is a wonderful experience, though much different than the sandhill crane migration. Admittedly, I didn’t know what to expect although raptors are among my favorite bird species. We had passed a grouping of cars the first day and was told that volunteers had hiked into the site to hopefully capture and band resting birds.
On the morning we were on the Ridge, a volunteer arrived with a young Sharp-Shinned Hawk that screeched bloody murder about being held. After a brief presentation and discussion period, he handed the bird to a woman who did the honors of releasing the bird. The effort was applauded by those arcing around the two as the hawk quickly vanished over the treetops.
Then it was back to the observations … from the roadside to a treetop platform. I found myself smiling as I looked back over the treetops and into the vast skies over the huge lake. “There,” said the deep-voiced young man, his eye trained through the viewer of his monocular secured to a sturdy tripod. Again I raised my camera lens along with those who hoisted their binoculars, only this time I was facing the lake. Off in the distance was another grouping of silhouetted black dots against the blueish-purpled clouds. He and some of the others were quick to identify the dozen or so specks as another Hawk Ridge volunteer erased the previous numbers on a nearby tally board. Seventy-one in all to that point in the morning, and more than 21,000 sighted so far in September!
Meanwhile, I prayed for lower angled, invisible thermals … low enough to hopefully have the raptors mixed in with the delightful colors. They were soaring high and wide, rarely moving a feather it seemed … gliding quickly and effortlessly further along the bluff line perhaps toward the Mississippi Flyway directly south. Again, I could feel the smile, realizing once again how fortunate it was to witness a fleeting moment in geological history and time even if they seemed only dots in the distant clouds.