For the Birds Radio Program: Hawk Ridge Weekend

Original Air Date: Sept. 11, 1995

This weekend is the annual “Hawk Ridge Weekend” in Duluth. Today Laura Erickson tells how 49,615 could be counted in a single day. 3:58

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Friday is the start of Hawk Ridge Weekend–an annual event that brings bazillions of birders, and sometimes even more hawks, to Duluth. Last year over 25,000 hawks flew past on the Friday of Hawk Ridge Weekend, and over 33,000 on Saturday. Of course there were so many visitors that the hawks only barely outnumbered the people–at least that’s the way it seemed. And two years ago, on September 18, 1993, the Saturday of Hawk Ridge Weekend, we broke our all-time record, with 49,615 hawks in a single day.

When I was counting hawks a couple of weeks ago, a man said, “Well, that was one guy counting 200, and another guy counting 300, and another counting 200 and on and on, so there weren’t really that many hawks, right?” The answer is, NO! Our counter, Frank Nicoletti, imported from New York for his patience, diligence, expertise, and fantastic eyes, needs someone to help him record birds on those hot and heavy days, but he counts the hawks himself. When they’re coming in huge groups, sometimes he does use helpers to count different groups at the same time, but they keep track of their own hawks till they’ve passed out of range, so no hawks are counted twice.

Large hawks can hardly flap all the way to Central America–that would be too much work–so they capitalize on rising air currents to hold them aloft as they cruise along with a minimum of flapping. Some days produce better rising air currents than others. When the sun is shining, heated air above the ground rises, producing thermals. These are strongest above dark ground-­ roads, parking lots, and fields rather than water or forest, and go highest when there’s little or no wind to dissipate them.

Strong winds hitting buildings or ridges produce another rising air current called an updraft. And regardless of thermals and updrafts, hawks like to move on high pressure days. They can feel barometric pressure literally in their bones, and high pressure just seems to buoy them up. That 49,000 hawk day had been preceded by over a week of junky weather, with drizzle and fog and east winds. Bazillions of Broad-winged Hawks were restless to get going, and the first good day they left en masse. The same thing happened last year.

Probably the best time of all was Saturday morning. Those 25,000 hawks that had gone by on Friday had to sleep somewhere, and many of them camped out in Duluth. The first thermals to develop Saturday morning were naturally over large parking lots. By 9 o’clock, hawks were swirling above every grocery store in the city, and an enormous number of people who had never even noticed the hawk migration before were suddenly amazed by how many hawks were about.

But there were no clouds, and virtually no wind all day to break up the thermals, so by afternoon the thermals were rising practically up to the ozone layer. Those 33,000 hawks were rising up too, making them little more than pepper specks in the sky. People who did their chores in the morning and came up to the ridge in the afternoon were mostly disappointed. So sometimes the biggest days aren’t as satisfying as the days when only 500 or a thousand hawks go by nice and low.

Of course, there are also days with drizzle, fog, east winds, and a total of 6 hawks. So weather obviously plays a major role in determining which days hawks will move, but unfortunately, people can’t always time a trip to Duluth based on weather forecasts. It’s a crapshoot, and all you can do is hope for the best. Frank Nicoletti, the hawkwatcher’s “Gump,” put it best when he said that “Life is like hawk migration–you never know what you’re going to get.”