For the Birds Radio Program: Western Birds Flying in on Westerly Winds

Original Air Date: Sept. 16, 1988

Westerly winds, and a huge fire in Yellowstone, are sending some amazing western birds our way.

Duration: 4′09″


(Recording of a Western Kingbird)

I hate statistics. But sometimes numbers are the only way to tell a story, like the one about this fall’s migration.

Let’s start with last Thursday–the day the sky was smoky and yellow over much of the Northland from the devastating fires in the West. In spite of the haze, it was a red letter day for me: I added two new birds to my lists–a Western Kingbird to my Minnesota list, and a Sharp-tailed Sparrow to my St. Louis County list. Chances are some of this fall’s many migrants have literally escaped to Wisconsin and Minnesota from the drought- and fire-stricken states west of here, aided by the strong westerly winds we’ve been getting. The Sharp-tailed Sparrow belongs in the northern Great Plains, but the kingbird may well have flown here from Yellowstone. He stayed near the same North Shore perch for at least two days, eating mosquitoes, which in turn were eating the blood of the many birders drawn to the spot. This kingbird was one of the easiest rare birds to find that I’ve ever seen.

The Sharp-tailed Sparrow was another story. He skulked in some mosquito-infested shrubs and weeds, and only gave a few birders a glimpse. I was lucky–he held still in the bottom of a bush for about five seconds just when I happened to have my binoculars pointed in the right direction. His body was entirely obscured by leaves, but he was still identifiable by his striking orange face markings, gray collar, and blackish crown.

The next day, last Friday, Hawk Ridge broke its all-time record for Swainson’s Hawks. These graceful buteos belong on the Great Plains. Swainson’s are normally found only once or twice a season at the ridge, but on Friday, 37 were counted in just a few hours. And this year’s migration of kestrels is absolutely astonishing. On September 3, Hawk Ridge counters tallied fully 468 kestrels, breaking their previous one-day record by over 200. And the next morning I had 250 kestrels in just three hours at the Lakewood Pumping Station. Ospreys are also abundant this year–on the day the kestrels were so thick,, a record-breaking 51 Ospreys flew over Hawk Ridge.

Blue Jays are just starting their migration peak. In all of August, only 2 were seen migrating over the Lakewood Pumping Station, but in the first ten days of September, 1,728 were counted. Blue Jays have a slow, labored flight which makes them easy to count, and if the sun hits them just right, their colors are lovely. They are usually silent while migrating, since so many hawks are around at the same time. But if a sharp-shinned hawk dive-bombs a group of jays, the whole gang squawks and jeers loud enough to wake up a dozing president. And if a sharpie has the audacity to actually catch a jay, the flock will yell and scream for a long time after, waiting around in apparent hopes that their comrade will return.

Waxwings and warblers are moving through in big numbers, now, too. Well over 12,000 Cedar Waxwings have been counted so far, and over 15,000 warblers. And for one final statistic, the total number of birds counted from the pumphouse in the first ten days of September was 30,660, averaging over 1,000 birds per hour. If you’d like to join me counting at the pumphouse some Saturday or Sunday morning, drop me a line at KUMD. And this weekend is the annual Hawk Ridge Weekend, when I’ll be up at the ridge helping visitors identify hawks all day. So if you’re in Duluth, stop by. Such a fantastic migration is much nicer when it’s shared.

(Recording of a Western Kingbird)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”