For the Birds Radio Program: Record-breaking Day at Hawk Ridge

Original Air Date: Sept. 16, 2003

Yesterday, September 15, the two-millionth raptor was counted at Hawk Ridge on a record-smashing day. Fully 102,329 raptors were counted!

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Hawk Ridge

Imagine a river of hawks coursing through the sky—a huge, wide river that never ends. Yesterday, September 15, 2003, came as close to that vision as I’ve ever seen, right here in Duluth. At Hawk Ridge, it marked the day when the 2 millionth raptor was counted since the official autumn counts began in 1972. But Hawk Ridge isn’t a place where milestones like this go by without a bang, so to make the day even more dramatic, the number of hawks going over shattered the previous one-day record. Fully a decade ago, on September 18, 1993, Frank Nicoletti counted the all-time single day hugest number of hawks at the ridge, 49, 615. But yesterday, the new counter at Hawk Ridge, Tim Smart, more than doubled that record, with help from Frank Nicoletti, Dave Carman, and even Don and Lillian Stokes, the field and behavior guide authors, who managed to be at the right place at the right time! By the end of the day, the final count was 102,329 hawks, 101,698 of which were Broad-winged Hawks. Debbie Waters and Lew Oakland helped keep track of all those numbers on the count sheets during the day, and Tim Smart sent the final tally in at 11.

The count had been running a bit on the slow side this season, with the Broadwings apparently biding their time so they could stage a dramatic entrance to greet our new counter. The morning didn’t appear all that auspicious for raptors, with low clouds and fog, and bazillions of warblers all over town. But in mid-morning, I briefly tore my eyes away from the Redstarts flitting on glowing wings in my yard to peek up at those clouds and they were dotted with high-flying hawks. Usually on good days, the hawks start out low and build, getting higher and higher throughout the day. But today by the time the fog broke they were already high in the sky, and seemed to spend far more of the day cruising than circling and gaining altitude.

Duluth Audubon Society, which manages Hawk Ridge, had a contest to see who could guess when the 2-millionth raptor was going to fly over Hawk Ridge. Some lucky person who sent in a guess before August 31 predicting the exact hour of the exact day when the 2 millionth raptor would fly over, and guess which species, will win binoculars and a Hawk Ridge t-shirt and sweatshirt. But everyone who looked up in the sky today and saw the incredible sight of all those hawks cruising at dizzying heights was a winner.

It’s hard to predict what the rest of the migration will bring. Those hawks were still flying into the evening hours, so early Tuesday might be good too, with the hawks even easier to see as they start out from low. And even as the Broad-wings clear out, there will be plenty of hawks to enjoy throughout the season, from the kestrels and merlins flying right now through the push of Red-tails, Rough-legged Hawks and Goshawks next month and Bald Eagles throughout the season. So head on up to the Ridge, or look up at the sky wherever you are, and enjoy this dramatic phenomenon.