Friday, November 21, 2014

Duluth's Hawk Ridge: Migration Headquarters!

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I've never lived very far from a great body of water (the Great Salt Lake, Lake Champlain, and the Great Lakes, including a short stint near the Pacific Ocean. The Caribbean Sea too, while I was a cruise ship entertainer some decades ago).  But magnificent Lake Superior, which contains 10% of the world's fresh surface water, remains a favorite. I've camped on its shores and kayaked past its sea caves, marveled at its Apostle Islands, and toured its lighthouses and waterfalls along the North Shore.wirock2 One summer night while walking on a beach in Grand Marais, I chanced to find this stone (right)--which bears a striking resemblance to Wisconsin's shape.

So a few weeks ago in late September, I drove 6 hours from home, straight north through the middle of Wisconsin--for a brand new Lake Superior experience. This time, I'd be there during the fabled raptor migration.

As a birder, you can't do much better on a fall weekend in the Midwest than to stand overlooking the largest and most pristine of the Great Lakes while migrating raptors stream overhead. If you have been to Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth, Minnesota, you know exactly what I mean. From where you stand, the grandeur of Lake Superior is laid out far below in all its radiant blue glory. In between, lie the hilly neighborhoods of Duluth: land which radiates the sun's mid-day heat to create thermals: columns of warmed air that lift and carry the raptors in slow, effortlessly rising spirals. It is mesmerizing.



One of the first things Susan, Ed and I check out when arriving at Hawk Ridge is the score board, which is constantly updated throughout the day, every day--as monitoring takes place from early August to mid-November.

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The expert birders up on the Count Platform were fascinating to watch: eyes on the sky, each facing their appointed direction, and at a constant state of focused attention. I wondered how they could keep such an accurate account of what was flying by, especially at times when kettles of 300 of more mixed species made their way through.

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Moving closer, I noticed the click-counters attached to the platform railing. No doubt each counter had its designation for Sharp-shinned Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Bald Eagle, and so on. Brilliant!

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We sat in on a Raptor ID class held in an open-air classroom to sharpen our knowledge of wing and tail shapes, flight characteristics, and learn other clues to recognize the variety of birds sailing by. It felt like being at camp! Wooden benches accommodated individuals, couples, and eager families, and loaner binoculars were handed out to anyone who needed them.


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The Hawk Ridge staff member Gail Johnejack did an excellent job with a quick Binocular 101 for the multi-age group, and the flyover raptors themselves provided the opportunity to test our new skills. At one point during the class, a guy on the Count Platform shouted, "Golden Eagle!", and we all followed its majestic form overhead with hearts racing. What a thrill!

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A popular part of this day (besides the delicious food procured from vendors' trailers parked along the road) was the bird banding demonstration. Here, holding a Cedar Waxwing, certified bander Margie Menzies explains the importance of capturing and banding migrating birds, and what information is gathered and recorded in the short time the bird is in hand.

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When the bird was ready to be released, a lucky volunteer from the audience was chosen to do the honors.

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And the chosen volunteer wasn't always a child. Even a passing motorist pauses to take in the magic.

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Below, if you look closely, you'll see a released young Sharp-shinned Hawk, which flew over the crowd and toward my camera before veering off to continue its journey south.

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This young man (below, center), Count Interpreter Cliff Nienhaus, had the crowd's collective ear as he adeptly alerted us of approaching birds, pointed out species by their identifying traits, and spotted kettles starting to form.



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There was something for everyone: if there wasn't a kettle of raptors floating over, there might be a freighter moving silently along through sparkling water far below.


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Before leaving, I posed with staff members Gail Johnajeck (left) and Katie Swanson (right), thanked them for their good work, and vowed to return to Hawk Ridge. It rates as one of my favorite Lake Superior experiences. If you have a chance to visit during spring or fall migrations, do! You can also donate to keep Hawk Ridge, its research, and its education programs going strong.



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Nina Cheney
Eagle Optics Staff
Binoculars: Bring them. See what they bring you.

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