Hawk Weekend Festival starts Friday

So this was considered a slow day last week at Hawk Ridge, one of the premier fall bird migration watching and counting spots in the nation: 4,000 warblers, 1,800 blue jays and nine peregrine falcons flew over with a smattering of a dozen other s...

Bird watchers watch birds fly over Hawk Ridge recently. Steve Kuchera /
Bird watchers watch birds fly over Hawk Ridge recently. Steve Kuchera /


So this was considered a slow day last week at Hawk Ridge, one of the premier fall bird migration watching and counting spots in the nation: 4,000 warblers, 1,800 blue jays and nine peregrine falcons flew over with a smattering of a dozen other species.

On another sunny, warm day last week a skein of 184 geese (yes, counters confirmed the number) flew over the western tip of Lake Superior, heading south. Dozens of cedar waxwings fluttered by, reminding us that this is where the most cedar wax wings are counted each year. A half-dozen sharp-shinned hawks - sharpies to seasoned birdwatchers - circled high overhead at once, and a few more darted just over the trees, in search of a quick meal of songbird.

The sharp-shins, there would be 74 fly over on this day, come from as far away as northern Canada and Alaska, on their way to as far as South America.

Slowly, nature is pushing birds south, even when it felt like more like July in September. Soon, when a cooler northwest wind blows down, it will be hundreds, even thousands of hawks in a single day day.


"We're seeing the passerines (small songbirds) so that's why we're seeing the sharpies,'' said John Richardson, fall count director at Hawk Ridge, as he peered through a spotting scope. "They follow the food, hunting their way south, and they move when the food moves.''

Even if there's a headwind.

"We know the young females come first, then young males, then older females and finally older males. But we don't know why it's that way,'' Livingston added of the sharp-shinned migration pattern.

Sharp-shinned hawks are among the most commonly seen over Hawk Ridge each year, with 22,163 counted last fall out of a total of 80,000 raptors. (Some 6,099 of those were bald eagles, a new record.) That's' the most raptors in the past 14 years, since the amazing record 202,000 in 2003, and the eighth most ever in 47 years of counting.

Now, just in time for the usual peak in fall hawk migration - timed especially capture the big kettles of broad winged hawks - the annual Hawk Weekend Festival is coming up next weekend. The ridge can see thousands of broad-wings on the right days.

It's not that there will necessarily be more hawks on Hawk Weekend. That depends on the weather - northwest winds provide the best days for the most birds. And it's not like Hawk Ridge is only open one weekend each year. In fact it's open, with staff interpreters on hand, every day through Oct. 31.

But next weekend there will be more ways to learn more about the birds that are flying over.

"We have something going on almost constantly each day," said Janelle Long, now in her 11th year as Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory's first and only executive director. "Obviously it's our biggest weekend (for attendance) so it's our biggest chance to reach more people."


Hawk Ridge has become more than just a place where hawks are watched and counted. The meticulous records kept here by avian experts have helped fill-in details on species that are little known. It's a place where hawks, owls and songbirds are captured in nets and banded and released to find out more about the mysterious migrations of multitude species. Busloads of school children come to learn about migration and hawks and the difference between an eagle and a osprey.

But on Hawk Weekend Festival "it's all about the hawks,'' Long said.

Bird lovers from across the U.S. and several countries come to watch the hawks soar over Duluth's hilltops as the birds skirt Lake Superior and glide on North Shore air currents on their annual trip south for winter.

"We get people who come back year-after-year,'' Long said. "This is a pretty incredible phenomenon to get this many birds flying over one spot."

That includes retired college professors Susan and Gene Bauer of Northfield, Minn. The Bauers spend an entire month in Duluth, renting a house and volunteering at Hawk Ridge nearly every day.

"I've been coming up here since 1977. I've been avid birder all my life,'' Gene Bauer said. "We've been volunteering here since we retired in 2011. It's a nice opportunity to help share the knowledge we've learned here about migration and the raptors and all the research they are doing up here."

Susan Bauer has been employing her talents to draw young children into the mix at Hawk Ridge, with kids activities that add a hint of raptor education.

"We want it to be more than a place where the parents drop their kids off while they look at hawks," she said. "We hope the kids come away with a little birder in them, too."


Long hopes more Northlanders take advantage of the incredible chance to see nature up close, close right here at home - if not for Hawk Weekend then on another day this fall. The migration will stretch into November, even December.

"About 80 percent of the visitors we interact with come from outside the area,'' she said. "We have this amazing thing happening in our backyard and we need to get our community interested."


Hawk Weekend Festival

The annual celebration of the hawk migration at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth, is set for 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day this coming weekend, Sept. 21-23, at the ridge with evening events off-site. The festival includes hawk-watching, birding field trips, programs, speakers and much more.

Hawk watching at Hawk Ridge is free and open every day during the fall. But there is a charge to attend special events during Hawk Weekend Festival. A festival wristband can be purchased onsite for $5 daily or $10 for all three days. A wristband admits you to all daily scheduled public programs at Hawk Ridge.

Other special events - such as a birdwatching train ride and a birdwatching tour boat excursion in the harbor - have separate fees. Pre-registration is only required for off-site field trips and workshops.

For more information go to or call (218) 428-6209.



About Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory

• Located at 3980 East Skyline Parkway in Duluth, about a mile off Glenwood Street. Staff on hand every day 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Oct. 31

• Is all outside, there is no building or shelter at Hawk Ridge, but there are portable toilets and a souvenir trailer with Hawk Ridge t-shirts and some snacks.

• Sees an average of 76,000 raptors fly over each fall, sometimes hundreds or even thousands each day depending on the wind. The number of birds flying over the ridge is so high here because birds try to avoid flying over lake Superior and converge over Duluth's bluffs at the tip of the lake they are trying to fly around. The North Shore's hills also give the birds a little extra lift form updrafts and thermals.

• By far the best days for seeing the most birds are those with west or northwest winds when hundred to thousands of birds can be seen migrating past the ridge. Days with south or east winds are much slower.

• An estimated 18,000 people visit Hawk Ridge each fall, with Hawk Weekend Festival the busiest days. About 80 percent of visitors who sign cards come from outside Duluth.

• Sleep in. Unlike a lot of other wildlife viewing that happens early and late in the day, the best hawk watching is usually from about 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.


• Bring binoculars. You can see hawks and other migrators with the naked eye even as they kettle hundreds of feet above ground, but it's fun to see them up close.

• Why do raptors "kettle'' so high? It's all about the free ride. They soar up on the puff of updrafting air, and it's estimated that for every mile they go up, they can glide seven miles toward their destination with almost no flapping at all.

• The raptor migration began in mid-August with American kestrels, sharp-shinned hawks and broad-winged hawks. The migration continues even into December with the last of the red-tailed and rough-legged hawks, northern goshawks and eagles.

• Hawk Festival Weekend is timed to coincide with the peak migration of broad winged hawks, among the largest and by far most frequently seen raptor at Hawk Ridge. As many as 160,000 board-wings have flown over Hawk Ridge in a season, in 1983, with an astonishing record daily flight of 101,608 on Sept, 15 that year.

• The first noted hawk counting at Hawk Ridge occurred in 1951 and grew from a few days in September to a months-long endeavor. In 1972 the Duluth Audubon Society, with a loan from the Minnesota Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, donated funds to the City of Duluth to purchase the highest part of the Ridge, about 115 acres, and a systematic bird count began. The city acquired another 250 adjacent acres in 1973 to serve as a buffer for the Nature Reserve. Under a trust agreement with the City, the nonprofit Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory formed in 2004 and now manages all 365 acres as a nature reserve, open to the public for study and enjoyment.

• A fundraiser "Take Flight With Hawk Ridge" is set for 5-9 p.m. Oct. 12 at Pier B Resort in Duluth. Cost is $50 per person and includes dinner. There will be live music, beer from Hoops Brewery, live birds, artwork and an auction.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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