Friday, October 11, 2013

Migration Season at Hawk Ridge

“Hold it like an ice cream cone,” instructed Gail Johnejack, Education Director at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, as she skillfully wrapped her hand around mine, and guided my fingers into a careful grip on feathers and legs. When she transferred the bird into my care, I could feel the heartbeat in my own skin. A breeze ruffled the Sharp-shinned Hawk’s feathers, and I imagine we were both eager for it to continue its long migration journey. Beyond the bird stretched the city of Duluth, and the shimmering water of Lake Superior.

Hawk Ridge in Duluth, MN, is one of the top five hawk migration sites in North America for overall numbers and diversity of species. Each fall, about 82,000 raptors pass through this bottleneck on their southern migration. Understandably reluctant to cross a large body of water, the birds funnel southwest along the shore of Lake Superior. The high, rocky outcrop of Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve makes a great viewing platform, and people come together from all over the country to watch the migration here.

Harry, a Hawk Ridge volunteer, lives in central Minnesota, and drives three hours to volunteer a few days each week between September 1 and October 31. Harry is retired, like many volunteers, and enjoys interacting with the other main type of volunteer—college students fulfilling requirements for courses.  Harry loves his job, because “volunteers and visitors both find commonality and community in the birds – they draw us all together as a group. It keeps me young!” says Harry.

The natural setting is also a bonus. Bright sunshine, a warm breeze, and a terrific view are a stunning combination. Even chilly gray days have their own beauty. Harry likes the full spectrum. “When we hawk watchers arrive on the first of September we look down on the city in full summer green. By the time we leave on October 31, most of the leaves are gone. We are blessed with seeing the complete transition of fall.”

I gripped the Sharp-shinned Hawk carefully, amazed at both its sturdiness in my hand, and also the strength I could sense in its muscles. Erik Bruhnke, Count Interpreter, positioned himself just over the cliff, camera in hand. All day, Erik alternates between spotting and identifying birds, answering visitors’ questions, and taking photos of hawk releases. He is a wealth of information, and one of the reasons Harry loves his volunteer gig.

“I watched birds all my life, but I’m not a bird watcher,” Harry says humbly. “I’m just trying to become one! One of the benefits of Hawk Ridge is that amateurs can really learn from all the real birders that are here.” Erik is equally thrilled the arrangement. “Teaching is the best way to learn. Working here really helps me learn about birds on a deeper level.”

I learned a lot from Erik, too. For instance, the bird in my hand, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, is an agile and acrobatic flier, able to navigate dense woods at high speeds by using its long tail as a rudder. Short, rounded wings help Sharpies zip through tight spaces after small birds. During migration, they leave the dense forests of their northern nesting grounds and take to the open sky.

“Now you’re going to be the Statue of Liberty,” Gail instructed. “Hold your arm up high. When Erik counts to three, give it a little toss into the air.”

I raised my right arm high—thrilled to hold such an amazing creature for even a few seconds—and thrilled to be a part of its freedom. “One...two...three!” counted Erik. I released my grip with a gentle toss, and watched in awe as the hawk took flight. It swooped down below the cliff, and darted around trees before disappearing from sight. Close on its tail, three more hawks materialized out of the north, and zipped past the eager crowd.

Today, with a south wind, I wasn’t expecting to see much. Why would raptors fly with such a headwind? But, to my great delight, Sharp-shinned Hawks, American Kestrels, Merlins, Peregrine Falcons, Ospreys, and even Northern Goshawks zoomed past low enough to identify with the naked eye. Rain a few days ago delayed migration and created a backlog of birds. Now, the southerly winds force the birds to fly low, within easy view, and where they can be baited into the nets that researchers have set up.

Researchers carefully extricate each bird from the net, take a variety of measurements, and attach a numbered band to its leg. About three percent of birds banded here are recaptured. “Our utmost priority is to keep the raptors safe,” assured Gail. “When a raptor is captured for banding, it is held for a very short time, and then we let it get on its way.”

The bird I just released has a band, and if researchers recapture it again, Hawk Ridge will be notified. Since I sponsored the bird’s release, (with a donation to the private non-profit Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory) they will also let me know that this bird I connected with is alive and traveling.

“It’s hawk migration season!” exclaimed Gail. “We love having people come and visit and learn about this great migration event!” If you would like more information on the migration at Hawk Ridge, visit their website: or find them on Facebook, or on their blogspot—

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI, at 13470 County Highway M. The current exhibit, “Deer Camp: A Natural and Cultural History of White-tailed Deer,” opened in May 2013 and will remain open until April 2014.

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