Frank Nicoletti was looking out over the Duluth harbor when he noticed something in the distance.
“Three balds. Out above the bridge. Coming at us. They look like movers,’’ Nicoletti said.
Then he brought up his high-powered binoculars and confirmed what he saw with his naked eye before adding three more checks to the daily eagle tally. (Movers are migrating birds as opposed to local birds.)
I’d have to take his word for it. For most untrained eyes, the mature bald eagles were just dots against a crystal blue sky. But for Nicoletti, who has been counting raptors for a living since 1983, they were easy targets, even a mile or more out from his perch below Enger Tower.
Nicoletti, spring bird count director for Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, was joined by several volunteer counters on this cold but sunny March morning last week, counting raptors, mostly bald eagles, and other birds that are winging their way back north to their summer nesting homes.
Nicoletti has been counting birds in this spot on and off since 1996, and he’s credited with discovering a massive spring raptor migration over the Twin Ports that is best seen from the Point of Rocks west. So every spring now Hawk Ridge moves its official counting operations from Hawk Ridge on the city’s eastern hillside to Skyline Drive just below Enger Tower in the center of Duluth. (If the wind is off Lake Superior they move, for the day, even farther west, to Thompson Hill.)
The city’s western hillside is the best spot to capture migrating birds seeking thermals, upward air currents, as they skirt around the western tip of Lake Superior on their way north. These birds have come from southern Minnesota along the Mississippi River, from southern Wisconsin and other points south, from where there was open water and open fields all winter.
“In the fall, they are coming down the North Shore’’ and end up over eastern Duluth as they avoid flying over Lake Superior, "so Hawk Ridge gets more birds in fall,” Nicoletti said. “In the spring, they are coming up along the South Shore, so this spot is much better than Hawk Ridge. This is where they hit the hill first and pick up their thermals.”
Thirty years ago, “nobody believed this was a major spring migration spot. Until we started showing them the numbers.’’ Nicoletti said, noting the first few years counting here he averaged some 26,000 raptors each spring.
In fact, during the spring migration, this is the best spot to see bald eagles anywhere in North America. On March 21, 2019 the expert counters here tallied a record-breaking 1,076 bald eagles in one day, the most ever recorded in a single day anywhere in the world. During the entire spring 2019 migration season, roughly March and April for bald eagles, counters tallied 7,727 bald eagles flying over Duluth, also a record-breaking season. In all, more than 30,000 raptors were counted here last spring.
On the morning we visited Nicoletti and crew last week, they counted 53 eagles in just a couple hours, including some that soared high overhead and a few that swooped by at treetop height. By the end of that day — generally 10 a.m. to about 5 p.m. in March — they had counted 170. Already this year they are at 1,500 bald eagles total, including 307 on March 8 and 355 on March 11. Those totals don’t include golden eagles or hawks.
The best days to see the most birds are warmer with sunshine and south winds, pushing the birds north and creating thermals — updrafts — along Duluth’s hillside that the birds can soar on with little effort.
“When they really get going, when the air currents are right, they just come in waves of 15 and 20 at a time,’’ said Dave Carman, a life-long birder and one of the volunteers helping Nicoletti count that day.
Carman talked about huge kettles of raptors drifting over Duluth’s skyline on some days.
“It’s all about energy conservation for the birds. They say every foot of altitude an eagle can get is worth 40 feet of migration distance … So if they can get up to 3,000 feet, that’s a lot of free miles downrange.’’
The bald eagles and golden eagles and red-tailed hawks we saw winging north are moving quickly, Nicoletti said, to get to their prime nesting locations before competitors do. Other raptors will follow as the snow melts over their hunting grounds.
“The spring migration is much more rushed. They’re in a hurry,’’ Nicoletti said. “In the fall, it’s more gradual. It starts and stops.”
Nicoletti formally counted birds here each spring between 1997 and 2005, but then Hawk Ridge ran out of funding to continue. Now, Hawk Ridge has received a major, anonymous donation that will fund 10 years of spring counts.
“This is our third year and we hope to keep it going beyond 10 years,’’ said Janelle Long, Hawk Ridge executive director. “The real value in these annual bird counts is the long-range trends they reveal.”
And for eagles, those trends are very good. The record counts here are just another sign of the remarkable comeback the birds have made over the last half-century as they recovered from the brink of extinction. Golden eagles, which migrate through on their way to northern Canada’s tundra, are also increasing, with as many as 33 goldens flying over Duluth in a single day this year.
“We see more bald eagles every year,’’ Nicoletti said. “And the goldens are doing really well, too.”
The official counting started March 1 and will go through May 31. Depending on the weather, how quickly winter is giving way to spring, the last two weeks in March usually see the most eagles moving. But eagle migration will continue well into April and the the hawk migration well into May.
If you go
For more information on the Hawk Ridge spring bird count, including live updates of the current migration tally, go to hawkridge.org and click on Spring Bird Count.
Anyone is welcome to stop by on any day to watch and ask questions (just remember to keep your social distance.) Dress for the weather and bring binoculars if you have them. There is no bathroom or shelter.
Depending on COVID-19 status, Hawk Ridge had planned its second annual spring extravaganza for April 24-26 at the western counting site along Skyline Drive below Enger Tower, with seminars and field trips and special events. A Duluth Community Day also is scheduled for May 3. Watch hawkridge.org or facebook.com/HawkRidgeDuluth/ for updates on if the events will be held.
Did you know?
Bald eagles are native only to North America, from Alaska across Canada and all of the continental U.S. and even a little into northern Mexico.
In the U.S., Alaska has by far the most bald eagle nesting pairs followed by Minnesota, Florida and Wisconsin.
The continental U.S. bald eagle population has increased from just 417 nesting pairs in 1963 to as many as 15,000 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states today.
In the 1950’s a chemical known as DDT was widely used to kill mosquitoes and other insects. But research showed that DDT interfered with the calcium processing of birds and resulted in deformed eggs that didn't hatch. Bald eagles, many of which feed primarily on fish, often received concentrated doses of DDT through a process called bio-accumulation. Because of DDT, in addition to decades of indiscriminate eagle killing and habitat loss, the bald eagle population declined steeply throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s.
In 1972 eagles got help on two major fronts: DDT was banned in the United States and the bald eagle was put on the newly created endangered species list.
Bald eagles flew off the endangered species list in 2007 when their numbers had recovered in nearly all their original ranges. But bald and golden eagles are protected under the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act which prohibits the taking or possession of any bald or golden eagle, alive or dead, including any part, nest, or egg.
Some bald eagles migrate, but not all. If an eagle’s breeding territory has ample food sources through the winter, the eagle is less likely to migrate. But if an eagle’s breeding territory is in northern states or Canada where lakes and streams freeze or prey animals hibernate, the eagle will migrate south to find open water and food. Some Northlanders have noticed an increase in eagles spending the whole winter in the area, feasting on ample road-kill deer when other food sources, like fish, may be scarce.
Eagles can easily fly at 30 mph and can dive at speeds around 100 mph.
Eagles monitored with tracking devices have been known to fly 125 miles in a day during migration depending on the weather conditions and wind currents.
Sources; National Eagle Center; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.