Beyond an emerald canopy, the lake sparkled like brilliant sapphires in the late-summer sun. But none of the dozens of people on Hawk Ridge was looking that way on Sunday. Their eyes were on the sky.
"It's just beautiful," said Barry Bast, who came from Manitowoc, Wis., with his wife for the annual Hawk Weekend Festival.
This weekend marked the height of the annual bird migration that brings 75,000 raptors and 200,000 birds of other sorts to Duluth's skies, a treat for birders or anyone with an avian appreciation.
"You don't have to be a birder to come here; you're not expected to know everything," Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory Executive Director Janelle Long said. "We've got people to help. And you don't even need to hike."
Duluth marks a good stopover point for many traveling birds looking to ride some thermals before they continue soaring south for the winter. The lake acts as a net, catching bald eagles, broad-winged hawks, sharp-shinned hawks and lots more.
The observatory has a few real nets, too, and just before noon Sunday a crowd gathered to see a recently banded red-tailed hawk get released back to the skies.
It was Bast who gave the bird a gentle toss, letting go of the talons and eliciting some oohs and ahhs from spectators as the hawk spread its wings and grabbed some warm air to glide on.
Though Bast said he and his wife can see red-tailed hawks in their eastern Wisconsin backyard, the appeal of Hawk Ridge was too strong to keep them at home.
Obviously, it's not just birds who migrate through the Twin Ports this time of year, as the hundreds of folks passing along the hillside show.
"We have visitors that come from all over the world for the fall migration," Long said. "Visitors come year after year. Some people have been coming 30, 40, 50 years."
Among the first-time visitors this year was Ha Nguyen, a Milwaukee man who has found a passion for birding on the road since retiring a few years ago.
"My car (odometer) turned 82,000 today after 30 months," Nguyen said. "I've been in Quebec, Key West, San Diego, Seattle - the four corners of the country. I'm lucky my wife is still with me."
The 70-year-old was born in Vietnam and fought for the American cause in the final months of the war there. He settled in Milwaukee and worked 40 years before retiring and picking up a camera, a giant lens and a car looking for some mileage.
"The best picture I took in those 82,000 miles? Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge," Nguyen said, referring to a refuge in Texas.
With youthful energy, he handed out glossy prints of birds that got caught in his lens and got back to catching more.
Just because Hawk Weekend is over doesn't mean the migration is ending; at 11 a.m. Sunday about 28,300 raptors had been counted, so there is still plenty of time to catch sight of some big birds as the migration continues through the fall.
"Into October, it does change what we're seeing," Long said. "It's an event every single day."
To learn more
The nonprofit Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory manages the city-owned Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve and hosts a variety of events and educational programs for the public as part of its mission to protect migratory birds. To become a member, donate, volunteer or otherwise support the observatory, visit hawkridge.org or call (218) 428-6209.