For the Birds Radio Program: Hawk Counting

Original Air Date: Sept. 7, 1992

On this Labor Day, Laura celebrates an occupation that pays far less than minimum wage and will never have union representation.

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Late summer is a time when Northland people start pleading with their tiny green tomatoes to grow faster, a time for buying children school supplies and new clothes, a time for taking out wool sweaters and warm jackets, and a time for looking skyward to watch the migration of the hawks. Birders from throughout Canada and the United States find prime hawk-watching from late August through November and even December.

There are many excellent places to observe hawk migration: Cape May along the New Jersey coast and Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania are the most famous, but as hawk-watching becomes more and more popular, people are discovering raptor flyways on many ridge systems throughout the continent. Some of these hawk-watching spots boast spectacular scenery, especially along an ocean or mountain ridge. Some have other amenities, nature centers, and paved parking lots and observation towers. But one of the most modest and unassuming of all hawk-watching spots boasts the largest number of hawks counted each year in the entire inland United States—an average of 50,000 raptors every year. And that spot is right here in the Northland, at Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve in Duluth.

To the typical tourist, Hawk Ridge is an odd attraction. The only way you know you are even at the right place on the dirt road is by the wood sign that reads “Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve, managed by Duluth Audubon Society.” Behind some bushes, there’s another wood sign—a map showing trails. But that’s it. There are a few big rocks along the roadside used as seating for hawkwatchers, and for a couple of weeks each fall a couple of Satellite portable toilets are set up down the road a ways, but as far as amenities go, that’s it. But the thousands of visitors that gather each fall to enjoy the migration don’t mind the lack of facilities at all. They’re there to see hawks, and the hawks that gather at Hawk Ridge are plenty good enough.

This year, I was the official hawk counter from August 17th through the 31st. During that two-week period, as the hawk migration was sputtering to a start, I saw no really unusual birds. One early goshawk and a couple of Cooper’s Hawks were the rarest things I found. The true pleasure in hawk watching is just watching hawks–Turkey Vultures drifting motionless on a breeze, Red-tails hang-gliding, Bald Eagles circling steadily, hardly noticing the Sharp-shins darting at them like little kamikaze pilots.

Each morning, I set out a Great Horned Owl decoy. Owls spend their days watching hawks, too, and then at night surprise those hawks in their roosts and eat them. So if hawks spot an owl, they have a powerful instinct to drive the owl away. My decoy tricks a few hawks—this fall, I watched harriers, red-tails, kestrels, merlins, and dozens of sharp-shins divebombing the owl–a breathtaking display right below me.

Some of the hawks were distant specks—a discouraging sight for newcomers. Fortunately, many of the hawks wheeled in for close examination. A few of the 11 Bald Eagles I saw came right in, circling just above our heads so close that viewers held their breath. Most of the 64 Osprey flew low—either right overhead or along the ridge at eye level. The kestrels were molting—they looked like the Raggedy Anns of the bird owlrd as they winged delicately past. The feisty little sharp-shins were my bread-and-butter birds. I counted 839 of them in my 15 days of counting.

All in all, I counted 1,555 hawks during 67 1/4 hours of counting. For this I earned a total of $4.46 per hour, or 19 cents per bird. Hawk counting is not the way to amass a fortune, but, then again, $4.46 per hour is more than Donald Trump ever made birdwatching.