Duluth’s Magnificent Hawk Migration
A Must-See Fall Phenomenon
By Kris McNeal
Autumn has arrived here in the Northland, and we’re starting to see thousands of visitors traveling to Duluth to witness the spectacular changing of the seasons and catch one last glimpse of the serene North Shore before winter sets in. Travelers to Duluth will experience calm days along Lake Superior’s North Shore coupled with some of the most vibrant colors in the Midwest – a major draw for tourists from around the region.
Most of our visitors, however, will miss out on one of the most incredible events taking place high above their heads. Dust off the binoculars folks because it’s time for hawk watching!
Beginning in mid-August and continuing through early December, migrating raptors (hawks) and passerines (most song bird species) will set out from their summer breeding grounds near the arctic circle and travel to their wintering grounds in South America. During their migration, many of these birds reach the North Shore of Lake Superior where they will be “funneled” along the Duluth’s prominent ridge line as they head south.
Raptors in particular, will take advantage of upward moving thermal drafts ascending from the ridge line to gain altitude before gliding south for many miles. The use of these “thermal elevators” greatly reduces the energy needed for “flapping” and makes for an efficient use of Duluth’s unique topography.
Lake Superior acts like a kind of barrier to their southward migration and concentrates the hawk migration through Duluth… this is why areas like Hawk Ridge are such great locations for watching the hawks as they pass through town.
Visitors to the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory will witness thousands of migrating raptors on the “big days” during the peak migration (mid-September to mid-October). Of the 20 species of Buteos, Accipters, Falcons, Eagles, Harriers, Osprey, and Vultures that have been documented at Hawk Ridge, one might expect to have an exciting day of hawk watching with breathtaking views of Lake Superior and the surrounding foothills as the backdrop to this exciting event.
This concentration of birds is the largest in North America, with an average of 94,000 raptors counted each year!
The great folks at the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory offer many different opportunities for education and close encounters with the migrating birds. During the migration, they have naturalists and interpreters stationed at Hawk Ridge and are equipped with loads of binoculars and identification tools to help enhance the experience using educational classes and one-on-one identification skill building.
There are also many different research projects being conducted during the hawk migration that are critical for understanding and protecting these magnificent creatures and their trans-continental movement patterns. For example, in 1972 researchers started a systematic count of the migrating raptors and have used those data as a way of tracking population trends. They also capture some of the raptors and band them with unique identification numbers that can be used to monitor survival rates on a yearly basis.
In addition to counting and banding, which help predict increases and declines in populations and help observe migration patterns, researchers also collect tissue samples that can be used to test for mercury and other pollutants. There are many efforts underway to study this amazing phenomenon and Hawk Ridge is the place to visit if you want to experience one of the most impressive animal migrations in the world.
So… whether you are a Duluth local or a visitor up to explore the North Shore for the weekend, we recommend that you make the trip up to Hawk Ridge and get in on the fun!
We’ll transport you up to Hawk Ridge and providing you with some background on the biology behind the migration. Then we’ll outfit you with binoculars and identification guides so you can start to truly experience the magnificence of this fall migration. We’ll connect you with the experts from the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory and take you on a personal hike to a secluded ridge where these impressive naturalists will provide you with the tools and insight on hawk identification. You’ll be calling out raptor species just like the pros!