My First Hawk’s Ridge Weekend
Although I have lived in this area of Minnesota/Wisconsin for most of my life, I have never actually gone to Hawk’s Ridge in Duluth until this fall. For those who don’t know, Hawk’s Ridge is a bird observatory and nature area that is one of the best places in Minnesota (and North America in general!) to watch migrating birds of prey. Each year, over 90,000 pass over the ridge during the fall migration. This is pretty amazing! And yet, I never bothered to pay a visit to the observatory. This year, I was finally drawn there my interest in birding and had hiked several times in August and September. However, the thing that I was really looking forward to was their Hawk’s Ridge Weekend Festival event, a three day event of birding field trips, hikes, presentations, and bird watching. The event happens each year, but I had never attended as my interest in birds is fairly new. Hawk’s Ridge is a great place to watch hawks and other birds migrate, because the sun warms the basalt rocks that form the ridge creating thermals that the birds can use to ascend into an easier glide (i.e. flap less or expend less energy in moving). The ridge also serves as a natural highway that the birds can follow along Lake Superior, rather than crossing the cold, expansive lake as they head south. Well, I signed up for a weekend pass on their website as well as a membership. This is how the event went:
The view of Lake Superior and fall colors from Hawk’s Ridge
The event started on a Friday, but I did not attend the first day of hikes and presentations since I was tired and stressed from work/activism and the weather was gray and windy. Saturday also turned out to be a gray day, but I went on a guided hike. The bird activity was not too intense, but we did see many Sharp Shinned Hawks. Now, I am really terrible at identifying birds of prey. That was the appeal of attending the festival: to learn how to identify hawks. With that said, the birds fly pretty high. Somehow I imagined that the hawk migration was going to be something more like a scene from The Birds. I imagined that there would be dozens of birds flying all around me at close range. After all, if there are thousands of birds migrating, it must be like a swarm! Not really. While there were various falcons and Sharp shinned hawks that came closer to us, it really wasn’t how I imagined it. Most of the birds are watched from a distance. This meant that even with binoculars, I couldn’t always see them very clearly. Yet, everyone else seemed able to easily identify the hawks. This is pretty amazing, but at that distance, other cues are used to identify the birds. Attending the event taught me to pay attention to details like flight pattern and shape. Sharp Shinned Hawks, which I saw a lot of that weekend, are long with short heads- making a t-shape silhouette as they pass through the sky. Their flight pattern is flap, flap, glide. I heard a naturalist repeat this dozens of time, until it was drilled in my head to think “flap, flap, glide” as the birds moved across the sky. In another area of the observatory, some naturalists were banding hawks. A Sharp Shinned Hawk was brought to the crowd for closer inspection. I was surprised by how small it was, since it seemed larger from a distance or in the sky. I also learned to start thinking of hawks in terms of genus. Sharp Shinned Hawks are Accipiters, or forest dwelling hawks that can easily navigate around trees. Cooper’s Hawks are another Accipiter, which is slightly larger and said to look more like a crucifix in flight. We saw at least one of them, but I was not be able to identify it at close range or in flight in the sky. Goshawks are a larger Accipiter, but none were observed while I was there. They migrate later in the season and I have seen a few on my visits now that it is October. Despite the slow activity at Hawk’s Ridge, I went away feeling satisfied that I am slowly building my knowledge about birds.
Clint, a naturalist with Hawk’s Ridge, holding a Sharp shinned hawk.
On Sunday, the sky cleared, making for a gorgeous sunny day. In the morning I did the Color Run, then I zipped over to Hawk’s Ridge for more presentations and birding. The warm, clear weather created a massive migration. I quickly learned a new word as birders kept saying, “Check out that kettle of Broad Winged Hawks.” That was the theme of the day, as 20,000 Broad Winged Hawks passed over Hawk’s Ridge on Sunday. The Broad Winged Hawks were very high in the sky, flocking together or “kettling.” They were so high up, I could not see them with my naked eye. With binoculars, they looked like black specks or Amazing Sea Monkeys. My binoculars are not very powerful, but it was pretty amazing to have dozens and dozens of birds come into view as they peppered the sky. Again, they were high enough in the sky that it would be impossible for me to learn to identify them through markings. As the name suggests, they have broad wings. They also have short-ish tails. Sunday was the biggest migration day that Hawk’s Ridge has had (at least that is what I overheard). When it comes to identifying Broad Winged Hawks, I would have much more trouble. I learned that they are in the genus, Buteo. They have a thicker profile in the sky and a much shorter tail. However, from a distance, I found that their shape looked pretty similar to Red tailed hawks and other buteos, or raptors built for soaring. I did learn that Broad winged hawks are often seen migrating together, if that offers a clue.
Some of the birds that were seen that day.
There were other birds viewed that day as well. One highlight was a flock of Sandhill cranes which honked loudly overhead. Some Osprey passed over on Saturday, undeterred by the overcast sky. They look like the letter M in the sky. There were also turkey vultures and bald eagles. Peregrine falcons, American kestrels, and Merlins also passed by. They flew low enough that we could catch a closer glimpse of them. Still, I would be hard pressed to identify them at a distance or as they are speeding by. Their profile looks pretty similar to me. As they season progresses, the species of migrating birds changes. Since visiting that weekend, I have returned several other times, including twice yesterday! I really, really, want to see a golden eagle, a goshawk, and a rough legged hawk (since I have not seen any these birds before). All of these are late season migratory birds, so they may appear more often later in October. (The first two golden eagles of the season passed over the ridge yesterday…15 minutes after I left for the day!!). Despite missing out on the golden eagles yesterday, I did see an American pipit, which is a new bird for my bird list. I doubt I would have noticed it without birders around, since it looks like a drab, brown bird (easily overlooked).
Not the best photo, but here are the migrating sandhill cranes.
The more I try birding, the more overwhelmed I am by the amount of detail that a person must learn. Thus far I have mostly tried to become familiar with birds by memorizing their appearance- though this relies on a close up view of a stationary bird. Of course, a person does get better at recognizing birds by sight and there are field markings which aid with a quick identification. I have seen a lot of white outer tail feathers lately. I don’t need to see the whole bird to identify the flocks of Dark eyed juncos as they dart for the ditch. Or, when I see a waging, white tipped tail, I think…Eastern Kingbird. I have since tried to learn some bird songs or calls, but this is daunting as it is like learning another language. Attending Hawk Ridge Weekend taught me to pay attention to flight pattern and body shape from a distance. This adds yet another layer to the detail that a person must learn to become proficient at identifying birds. I am not a natural when it comes to this. It is a concerted effort to pay attention to the birds around me. Though, the hope is that someday I can look at some distant bird and know exactly what it is. This has brought me back several times this season- quietly watching the birds- and trying to learn from the other birders. The benefit of building my birding skills is that it reshapes my relationship to nature. Nature is often the background- the repeating, bland landscape of green. (Sort of like a video game wherein all the trees and rocks look like they are the same- or some variation on a limited template). By paying attention to the details, nature announces itself- its variety, its sounds, its hidden life forms- that we have taken the time to study and name. There is something really amazing and overwhelming (soooo much information!) about becoming acquainted with the planet.