Monday, October 11, 2010

Quiet Day at Hawk Ridge

We ventured north to Duluth on Saturday to see the hawks pass above (and sometimes below) Hawk Ridge. The huge kettles of broadwing hawks have moved through by now, thousands at a time, and we’d be more likely to catch sight of individual kestrels,, merlins, and red tailed hawks along with eagles, sharp-shinned hawks, and an occasional goshawk. Many of these birds come from the Yukon and other parts of extreme northern Canada, moving down the southern edge of the boreal forest until it hits Lake Superior. At that point they follow the shore, picking up the thermals rising from the lake north of Duluth, from the heights of which they can drift effortlessly off across Wisconsin for quite a ways.

But the wind was coming in from the east that day (I checked on-line before we left) which is not a good thing. It keeps the birds back up in the hills. But you’re always bound to see something up there—and to learn something from the experts and volunteers who mingle with the crowds on a regular basis.

By the time we arrived on the ridge it was approaching noon, and that brisk east wind was ruffling up Lake Superior something fierce, giving it a deep blue tinge against which the whitecaps were a dazzling white. One or two sailboats were struggling to make headway in the distance and three ore boats were visible out in front of the lift bridge.

An immature bald eagle passed by fairly low overhead from time to time, and a red tail appeared now and again, though the direction of flight seemed to be inland, away from the ridge. The highlight of the morning was the goshawk that one of the experts brought down from the banding station for us to see. She described the bird’s extraordinary tenaciousness—one such bird was observed chasing a rabbit for 45minutes! Once we’d all had a chance to ogle the bird, someone in the crowd forked over $100 for the privilege of releasing it.

While we were standing around in the sun and wind, scanning the northern horizon, I struck up a conversation with an elderly man who turned out to be from Maryland. He’d come for the week to watch the hawks, he was staying in a Motel 6 in West Duluth.

“This morning I drove out to the Sax-Zim Bog,” he said, “I saw some spruce grouse there!” That’s was a lucky sighting, if you ask me.

He grilled me concerning the northern species he might see off in the woods. Black-backed woodpeckers, boreal chickadees, bohemian waxwings, hawk owls (too early in the season). He asked me, “What’s in those big freighters out there?”
“Iron ore, probably,” I told him. He hadn’t been more than a few miles up the lake, and I urged him to drive at least as far north as Silver Bay.

On the day we were up there, 148 hawks were sighted. Rather a feeble result, considering the total for the season stands now at 43,674. (See the whole chart here.) But we’d had a good time, and we also enjoyed smelling the roses at Leif Ericson park, waiting patiently at the lift bridge as an ore boat went by, and watching men in wetsuits trying to get their hang gliders aloft out in the surf at Park Point.

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