Northland Nature: Raptors add to the bird migration of fallThe autumnal equinox (the first day of fall) happens on September 22 this year. It is interesting to note that it nearly coincides with the full moon (the harvest moon) of September 19.
The autumnal equinox (the first day of fall) happens on September 22 this year. It is interesting to note that it nearly coincides with the full moon (the harvest moon) of September 19.
This date not only means the beginning of the new season, it also marks the time of equal daylight and darkness for many places (“equinox” means “equal”). At this latitude, the exact date of the same amount of daylight and darkness is not this day, but a few days later (September 25).
Nevertheless, we are entering the season of autumn and, along with other features of this time, daylight is lessening each day. From now until late next March, darkness exceeds light.
Also associated with autumn is lower temperatures; and though we have times of warmth, the overall trend is down. Frost, sporadic until now, becomes more common and expected. Soon we will see the first thin coat of ice on puddles. And snow flurries can mix with a chilly rain.
These changes are setting the pace for the time of longer darkness and cold, winter. Though the cold dark days are still quite far away, nature is preparing for that time. And each day we step out to see these changes all around us — often something that was not here the day before.
Maybe the most obvious is the color of the tree leaves. They stood out here green all summer, but now before their leaves are dropped from the branches, they give us a show of reds, oranges and yellows worth noting.
Wildflowers that gave colors of their own to the scene for the last month are now quickly fading into the seed formation, their way of coping with the cold. Berries, fruits and garden produce ripen as these plants take a step into autumn.
But living where we do, we see another amazing happening at this time of September: migration. This seasonal movement is another way to handle the coming cold, by moving away from it.
Although several kinds of animals will migrate, we mostly associate this southbound trek with birds.
We do have some birds that remain as our companions throughout the winter. These permanent residents are able to continue their diet of seeds or change from the warm-weather foods.
Others, many of which feed on insects, will need to go to a climate where such meals continue to be available. Most of these migrants are songbirds, and flitting through the trees or flocking on the ground, they travel through the region now, heading south. Water birds will need to cope with ice and so they go on as well.
And there are the raptors.
Raptors, also called birds of prey, are regular migrants through the area. Their food sources, smaller birds or mammals (or maybe fish and insects), are easier to find further to the south. It is now that we are able to watch this annual spectacle as they follow the lake shore and come by our homes.
Nearly every day, hawks, ospreys, vultures and eagles are flying over. Some come by alone, others in flocks that may reach into the thousands. Fortunately, we have a site, Hawk Ridge, where we can observe this movement.
Dazzled by a panoramic view of Lake Superior and the North Shore leaf color, the raptor flight adds much to the fall days. And if they are not flying, the songbirds and waterbirds are.
The flight begins in August and lasts until late November, but maybe the best times are these delightful days of September. Unless we are getting persistent rains, any day is a good day to see birds at hawk ridge. On cool cloudy days with a northwest wind, they often fly low while they tend to be much higher on the clear warm days.
A pair of binoculars is a great help and makes the time spent here even better.
Raptors range in size from the small kestrels to the huge eagles: small, medium, large and extra-large. Despite their various sizes, all raptors have hooked beaks and sharp talons on their feet.
Groups of raptors are the small- to medium accipiters: sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, and the northern goshawk. Buteos are the larger broad-winged, red-tailed and rough-legged hawks. Fast-flying falcons are the American kestrel, merlin and peregrine. Other regulars include the medium-size northern harrier, large osprey, turkey vultures and eagles — usually the bald eagle now, but there could be golden eagles later.
These raptors migrate during the day, resting at night. Others, such as various owls, come by at night, as do many songbirds.
No matter diurnal or nocturnal, we still take note of their flights, and whether we are at Hawk Ridge or our homes, we can all glimpse this amazing autumnal avian display.
And there’s something new to see here every day.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o firstname.lastname@example.org.