Hawk Ridge offers opportunity to witness spring’s northbound bird migration

Broad-winged Hawk (Photo courtesy Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory)

Hawk Ridge in Duluth is known for the thousands of raptors that pass by heading south each fall, pushed over the site by Lake Superior and the surrounding topography. People come from around the world to witness the wonders of the migration.

Spring in Duluth can be pretty busy with birds, too.  Last month, bird counters from Hawk Ridge broke the one-day North American record for number of bald eagles, with 1,076 of the birds spotted on March 19.

“The bald eagles were moving in groups of up to 50 at times!” Nicoletti told Sam Cook at the Duluth News Tribune. The waves of eagles is a springtime phenomenon, as they mostly travel solo when headed south. “In the world of hawk watching, this is unprecedented and a truly remarkable testament to all of those who worked hard to make the recovery of the bald eagle.”

Eagles were in danger of extinction in the mid-twentieth century, mostly because of the insecticide DDT. The population hit its lowest point in 1963, with only 487 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the wild. That’s fewer birds than were seen on the one record-breaking day last month at Hawk Ridge.

Eagles, hawks, falcons, and more

So far this spring, counters have tallied more than 6,348 raptors (bald eagles comprised 5,308 of that number). The first birds started appearing around the middle of March.

The spring bird count was started in 1997, but run less formally by volunteers between 2006 and 2017. Starting last year, it is run full-time again. Over almost three months last spring, counters observed 32,603 raptors of 17 species, the second highest in the count’s long history, making it one of the top in the U.S. for numbers and diversity of raptors during spring migration.

“Birds are on a mission in the spring: Get To Nesting Territories! This means they’re not taking their time waiting for perfect migrating weather. Numbers are, however, greatly reduced in inclement weather such as fog, snow, rain, sleet, or hail,” Hawk Ridge reports. “Another spring advantage? GREAT looks! The cold ground doesn’t promote the development of huge thermals, so the birds are generally much lower, riding updrafts along the ridge instead.”

During northbound migration, the ornithologists move from the fall observation site on West Skyline Drive to sites on the southwest edge of the city. This takes advantage of migration routes which bottleneck at the western corner of the Great Lakes, but at slightly different spots because of the northbound route.

Depending on wind direction, the spring counts are hosted at either Enger Tower or Thompson Hill.

Avian April

Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory says species pass through the region in reverse order of last fall, with the latest migrators in autumn the first to appear in spring. Based on decades of data, here are the peak dates for key species:

  • Eagles: around March 25 (Bald: 400-500/day; Golden: 10/day)
  • Rough-legged Hawks: April 10-20 (up to 75/day)
  • Red-tailed Hawks: April 10-20 (1,000-2,000/day)
  • Broad-winged Hawks: May 1-10 (3,000-4,000/day)
  • Sharp-shinned Hawks: April 10-20 (up to 450/day)
Hawk Ridge Count Interpreter, John Richardson (left) & Hawk Ridge Spring Count & Banding Director,
Frank Nicoletti (right) (Photo courtesy Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory)

The bird observatory is hosting a Spring Migration Celebration the weekend of April 26-28. It includes activities for families, guided bird outings, and presentations and workshops. Trip destinations include other birding hotspots around Duluth, such as the St. Louis River estuary and Park Point.

On Sunday, April 28, Hawk Ridge counters will participate in Raptorothon, a nationwide challenge to count as many raptors as possible in 24 hours. It is led by Chief Counter Frank Nicoletti and

Pledges to the effort will be split between Hawk Ridge and the Hawk Migration Association of North America.


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