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Birders from around the world head to Duluth's Hawk Ridge

Janelle Long directs this world-famous Duluth birding destination. Hawk Weekend Festival is Sept. 20-22.

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Janelle Long started as the executive director of Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in 2007. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
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Janelle Long was walking up to the bird counting platform at Hawk Ridge when a sharp-shinned hawk fluttered by, alternately flapping then soaring, maybe looking for a little songbird to munch on.

While many hawks prefer a tail wind on their migration south, the sharp-shins don’t seem to care as much, and this one was flying through the teeth of a cold, easterly blow off Lake Superior.

“For a lot of the raptors that soar, westerly or even northerly winds are definitely the best days for sheer numbers of birds here,” said Long, the only full-time executive director Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory has ever had. “But for some species, you can actually get birds down closer on days with an east wind or even south wind. … Unless it’s pouring rain or super foggy, there's always something flying here this time of year.”

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Volunteer Russ Edmonds tries to locate birds using binoculars at Hawk Ridge on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

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Even on this “slow” day for migration, some 109 sharp shins flew over here, as did 26 bald eagles (and 171 blue jays; every bird gets counted). Already thousands of birds have been counted this fall with tens of thousands more coming over the next few weeks. Some 76,000 raptors fly over this spot each autumn, on average, along with thousands of other birds — waterfowl, songbirds, crows, owls and more — many of them skirting above Duluth’s hills as they avoid flying over Lake Superior.

And that’s why Hawk Ridge has become one of the premier birding spots in North America. While still a best-kept secret from many Northlanders, Hawk Ridge is a destination for birders worldwide, with visitors from places such as Ghana, Norway and Japan as well as nearly every state in the U.S.

Annual visitors to Hawk Ridge — the biggest rush over a few weeks each autumn — are estimated at over 18,000 people now, up from about 7,000 when Long first took her post in 2007. There’s a seasonal staff now of more than 20 people, including bird counters and bird banders, public outreach and education staff. The budget has topped $200,000 annually. And for the first time, this year Hawk Ridge Nature Area received some of Duluth’s city tourism sales tax revenue, $20,000, a testament to how many people it draws into town.

“Our survey cards show that 80, even 85% of our visitors are from outside the area,” Long said. “And the majority of those people are coming here primarily to see birds. That’s a pretty big deal for us and for the city. This is a destination.”

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"The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America" by David Allen Sibley sits on a table next to tally counters as volunteers scour Hawk Ridge for birds on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Hawk Ridge also is expanding its spring programs, moving raptor watching west to Enger Tower and Thomson Hill in Duluth, where this spring they counted an all-time North American record for bald eagle migration.

When they aren’t on the hills, Hawk Ridge staff currently has an office in the old Limnology Lab off London Road along the Lester River. And they have access to the Lester-Amity Ski Chalet for use as a rainy day classroom. But Long’s long-term goal is still to have a permanent, physical presence for Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory.

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On site, a covered picnic/classroom pavilion would be nice on the ridge.

“We’ll have school groups now just about every day through October. … Actually, we have some booked into November, now, too,” said Margie Menzies, Hake Ridge education director, now in her ninth year at the ridge. “We are getting school groups from all over the area. And when they come from two hours away, we have to have some place for them to go even if it’s rainy or foggy.”

Hawk Ridge supporters also are looking beyond the hilltop and a simple shelter, however. They still have an interpretive center in their dreams.

“It would be nice to have something permanent and close. Whether or not it’s appropriate for something right here, probably not. This is a nature area, after all. But somewhere close would be great,” Long said. “Some place where we would have classroom space and a gathering place for staff and a permanent” concession store for T-shirts, bumper stickers and books.

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Executive director of Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory Janelle Long wears bird earrings on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com

The Janelle Long file

Long, 42, began her career as executive director at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in August 2007. She grew up in Greenfield in southeastern Wisconsin and attended the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point where she received her degree in wildlife management and biology.

“I became addicted to birds, thanks to a couple great professors, and I really thought that was going to be my career path, on the research side. … But I also realized I wanted to be involved with people, in the education part,” Long said. So she also received her Masters in Environmental Education at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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Long’s interest in ornithology and conservation biology began by assisting several Ph.D. students with their field research studying neotropical migrants and grassland birds. She worked at several Audubon Centers and for the Bureau of Land Management’s Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area in Oregon before coming back to Duluth to take the Hawk Ridge job. She lives in Duluth with her husband and three children.

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Hawk Weekend Festival is Sept. 20-22

This is the biggest birding event of the year in the Northland, with thousands of people expected. Hawk Ridge is always open and free to the public to view migrating birds. But some programs for Hawk Weekend require a general admission wristband — $5 daily/$10 weekend — and some events have special fees. Go to hawkridge.org for details and to preregister for special events.

Friday

9 a.m. to 4 p.m.: Bird Migration & Programs at Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve

3 to 5:30 p.m.: Birding and Natural History Train Trip on Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad (preregistration and fee.)

Saturday

Early morning Birding field trips (fee and preregistration required.)

9 am-4 pm: Bird migration and programs at Hawk Ridge.

4 to 6:30 p.m.: Vista Boat & Birding Dinner Cruise (fee and preregistration required.)

7 p.m.: Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory Annual Meeting at University of Minnesota Duluth, Life Science 185. Free and open to the public.

7:30 p.m.: Evening program at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Life Science Building Room 185: John Fitzpatrick, Director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, will present “How Birds (Including Hawks!) Can Save The World.” Fitzpatrick will share the new results from ongoing analyses of eBird data and what is being learning from it, including the global importance of citizen-observations.

Sunday

Early morning: Field trips (fee and preregistration required.)

9 a.m. to 4 p.m.: Bird migration and programs at Hawk Ridge.

Saturday night owl events

On Oct. 5, 12, 26 starting at 8 p.m. $5 and pre-registration is required. Buy tickets at 218-428-6209 or at the Hawk Ridge merchandise trailer daily.

Fundraiser date moved

The Hawk Ridge gala celebration and fundraiser, historically held during the Hawk Weekend, has been moved to Oct. 11. The event, the nature area’s largest fundraiser of the year, is set for 5 to 9 p.m. at the Radisson Hotel Duluth. Tickets are available through Oct. 7 at $65/members, $75/non members or a table of 8 for $500.

Watch migration count updated online

Each year the raptor count at Hawk Ridge is one of the two or three highest anywhere north of Mexico. From 1991 to 2013 the average yearly number of raptors observed at Hawk Ridge is 76,000 and comprised of 16 regular hawk species and 4 rare hawk species plus 3 rare migrating owl species. You can see nearly real-time raptor counts at hawkridge.org and click on Live Fall Count Data.

Directions

Bird counting and most public outreach is done above the second, larger overlook at 3980 East Skyline Parkway, about one mile east of Glenwood Street and just past where the blacktop turns to gravel. On crowded weekend days, be prepared to park some distance from the overlook.

For more information

Go to hawkridge.org , call 218-428-6209 or email mail@hawkridge.org .

Related Topics: TOURISMTHINGS TO DO
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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