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Die-hard raptor fans flock to Duluth's Hawk Ridge

To say Andrew Longtin is passionate about Hawk Ridge would border on understatement. The Corcoran, Minn., man was at Hawk Ridge on Saturday morning, wearing a Hawk Ridge jacket over a Hawk Ridge T-shirt with a Hawk Ridge baseball cap on his head....

Sharp-shinned hawk
A 2-year-old sharp-shinned hawk is displayed during Hawk Weekend activities Saturday at Hawk Ridge in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

To say Andrew Longtin is passionate about Hawk Ridge would border on understatement.

The Corcoran, Minn., man was at Hawk Ridge on Saturday morning, wearing a Hawk Ridge jacket over a Hawk Ridge T-shirt with a Hawk Ridge baseball cap on his head. He has had Hawk Ridge polo shirts specially made so he can wear them to his job in the Twin Cities.

"I'm a walking advertisement for Hawk Ridge," Longtin said.

He was among about 300 people -- many carrying cameras and binoculars -- gathered on the ridge overlooking the Lakeside neighborhood for the middle day of the Hawk Weekend Festival. Tens of thousands of raptors fly over the ridge each fall as they follow the Lake Superior shoreline to their winter homes in the South. The fall migration takes place over more than two months, but the peak is around the middle of September -- hence the timing of Hawk Weekend Festival.

But the fact that it's the peak time for migration doesn't necessarily mean lots of hawks will be moving on a given day. And on Saturday morning, with mostly cloudy skies and no wind for the raptors to ride, not much was happening.

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By 11 a.m., only 22 sharp-shinned hawks had been sighted, and any other raptors were in the single digits. Consider that on Thursday, the official counters spotted 12,790 broad-winged hawks in 11 hours, and on Sept. 4 they saw 1,859 sharp-shinned hawk in 12 hours.

Activity picked up quickly around noon. But Saturday's slow start correlated with a lull in what might be the most popular event of the festival, in which people get a chance to "adopt" a bird. Raptors that are captured in nets in an area screened from public view are banded, and then brought to the main overlook on Skyline Parkway. For a fee, you get your picture taken holding and releasing the bird, and you're notified if it's recaptured.

They do the same thing with songbirds, except you get to see the banding process.

Perhaps it was the lull that produced an unexpected adoption on Saturday.

"I've got a bird in the hand that I've only had one other time here," said Debbie Waters, in her 11th and final year on the Hawk Ridge staff. Someone in the crowd caught a glimpse of a sleek, black head and laughed.

"I didn't say rare," Waters said.

It was a crow.

Longtin was happy to adopt the crow. It was a first for him, and it's not easy for him to get a first anymore. As of Thursday, he had adopted 83 birds at Hawk Ridge, and he added several more this weekend. It adds up financially, not that Longtin is complaining.

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"It's $100 to adopt a goshawk, and I think I have adopted 12 of them," said Longtin, who has been coming to Hawk Ridge since the mid-1990s. "It can get spendy, but I know it goes to a good cause, so it doesn't bother me a bit."

Bryant Mulligan might catch up with him someday. The 10-year-old from Cohasset, Minn., looked poised as he held a sharp-shinned hawk before releasing it. The smallish hawk, with cinnamon-colored bands across its chest, tracked every movement through alert, red eyes. But it seemed relaxed in Bryant's hand.

Bryant, it turns out, is an old pro. "This is my eighth time," he said. He has been coming to Hawk Ridge since he was 4 or 5. He has adopted sharp-shinned hawks before, although he said this one was bigger than the others. He held the bird by its legs in his outstretched right hand as the crowd counted down: "ONE ... TWO ... THREE!"

And the hawk was high in the sky in seconds.

"As they started counting down I could feel it tense up," Bryant said later. "I could feel its feathers open up."

For 17-year-old Skyler Vold of Lamberton, Minn., the sharp-shinned hawk he released later in the morning was his first. "It was really light -- lighter than I would have imagined," Vold said. "You don't have to hang on very tight."

Longtin, who comes up to Hawk Ridge about five times each fall, becomes almost poetic when asked what it's like to release a raptor.

"I always imagine being a bird and being able to fly anywhere you want," Longtin said. "Well, to have this gorgeous bird that can fly anywhere it wants in your hand is just a great feeling, I think."

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IF YOU GO

Today is the last day of the Hawk Weekend Festival, but naturalists will be on hand at the main overlook during daytime hours through Oct. 31. There is no charge for admission or parking.
Hawk Ridge is on Skyline Parkway about one mile east of Glenwood Street in Duluth.
Adoption rates range from $15 for songbirds to $200 for a bald eagle. Sharp-shinned hawks, one of the most common raptors at this time of the year, are $25.
More information is available on the Hawk Ridge website: www.hawkridge.org.

Debbie Waters
Naturalists Debbie Waters (left) and Lizzy Schnabel show the features of a crow to a crowd that gathered for Hawk Weekend activites at Hawk Ridge in Duluth on Saturday. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

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