For the Birds Radio Program: Hawk Ridge

Original Air Date: Aug. 14, 1995

Duluth’s Hawk Ridge is one of the premier birding places in the U.S., and now is when the hawks start flying. 3:33

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Now that mid-August is here, hawks are on the move, and this year I’ll be counting them as the official August counter at Hawk Ridge in Duluth. We don’ t get tremendous numbers in August-­ mostly sharp-shins and kestrels, with a smattering of Ospreys and eagles, but the numbers steadily increase from day to day, and the occasional harrier, vulture, or red-tail spices things up nicely. Plus, the end of August is the time when it’s at least possible, if improbable, that a Mississippi Kite will turn up. These delicate fliers hardly ever show up in Minnesota, but when one does, it’s virtually always at Hawk Ridge, and virtually always at the end of August or beginning of September. Last fall I watched one Mississippi Kite dancing about the skies for an hour, darting at dragonflies with the sun sparkling on its delicate wings, making me and the other observers happy to be alive just to see it.

Hawk watching may be spectacular when the huge numbers of Broad-wings show up in mid­ September , but I like the slower, more laid-back days of August. Much of the time there’s a hawk or two in the sky, but even when there isn’t, there’s plenty to enjoy. Flocks of Cedar Waxwings laze about, occasionally darting forth from their trees to snatch insects, but usually just whispering pleasant stories to one another. Warblers join up with chickadees and spend their days feeding as they slowly but steadily inch their way toward the end of Lake Superior. Come nightfall, they’ll do some serious non-stop migrating, navigating by the stars, but by day they mosey along the way you’re supposed to on a lazy August day.

Late afternoons now are when we watch for nighthawks. Their name deceitfully implies a relationship with real hawks, while in reality nighthawks are the most gentle birds imaginable. Although they must kill insects to stay alive, they do it in a most civilized manner, flying at them with huge mouths wide open, never ripping off butterfly wings or tearing little bugs apart the way Blue Jays do. Nighthawks are disappearing from many of their familiar northland haunts, but if we get a fine migration night, we’ ll be reassured that there are good numbers of them hiding out somewhere.

Not many people show up at Hawk Ridge in August, so there isn’t the crowded feel of September, and there’s usually time for a snatch of quiet conversation between hawks. Once in a while when I’m all alone up there, a bear ambles up, checking out the berry situation. All the bears I’ve met at the ridge are amiable and quiet, going about their business with little more than a howdy-do nod at me, but the banders don’t find their company so pleasant–some bears have figured out the mist nets, and find the little warblers clinging to them right tasty.

August days go by slow and pleasant, but they eventually end. Come September, Frank Nicoletti will drive in from New York, and under his amazing eyes the hawk count will skyrocket. I don’t have the patience or skill to identify and count bazillions of hawks the way Frank does, but I sure like keeping track of the smattering of hawks winging their way south of a lazy August day.