In the Spotlight

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Raptor Rapture Rules Hawk Ridge
By Chris Julin
September 22, 2000
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The summer tourist season is over, but thousands of visitors are streaming through Duluth. They won't stay in motels or spend any money, though, because they're birds. Each fall thousands of hawks and eagles pass through the Duluth sky on their way south. And the passing birds draw a good number of humans to a place called Hawk Ridge.
If you go to Hawk Ridge:
   Hawk Ridge naturalist Nia Palmersten urges hawk watchers to set aside at least two days for their visit, because - even at peak migration - some days, very few birds fly past. Rainy days and days with an east wind are poor hawk-watching days. West winds often bring many hawks past the ridge.
   Palmersten says it's essential to have binoculars. Most birds remain too distant from the ridge to see with the naked eye. She also recommends warm clothing. Hawk Ridge is often windswept, and birdwatching can be a chilly pastime in the fall.

IT'S COLD FOR A SEPTEMBER MORNING, and it's a weekday, but about 20 people stand on a gravel road skirting a ridge 800 feet above Lake Superior. Below, a thousand-foot freighter steams out of the Duluth harbor in the misty sunshine. Above, dozens of hawks seem to turn in unending circles, searching for updrafts that will lift them to cruising altitude for their long flight south. For watching birds of prey, or raptors, this is one of the best spots on the continent.

Nia Palmersten, the naturalist at Hawk Ridge, says some years, between August and December, 100,000 raptors fly past this spot. These birds are flying south from Canada and points north, and they follow the Lake Superior shoreline to avoid flying over open water. That funnels them through Duluth, at the western tip of the lake.

Many of the country's most popular hawk watching spots are lucky to get 20,000 birds in a season. That many raptors have flown past Hawk Ridge in one day.

While that's a lot of birds, Nia Palmsersten says some visitors expect clouds of hawks, and they're surprised to find most of the birds are little more than specks to the naked eye.

"Binoculars are a must," she advises. "You have to scan all around you at all times. Sometimes they come low, sometimes they're up way high."

And even if you do see a lot of birds, it takes some practice to know what you're looking at.

Palmersten spends much of her day helping people identify what they've seen.

Palmersten also spends time keeping eager birders from pestering Hawk Ridge's official bird counter, Frank Nicoletti. Nicoletti has to concentrate. He's counting swirling specks in the sky, making sure to tally each of them just once; noting which distant dot is a broad-wing hawk, which one a northern harrier.

Frank Nicoletti says he can tell if an eagle is an adult or a juvenile from three miles.

"You know you're looking at a bird at a great distance, and you're watching it move. You're not looking for field marks, but you're looking at the shape of the wings; you know how long is the tail proportioned to how long the wings are, and that's what you're looking for," Nicoletti says.
Hawk Ridge's official bird counter, Frank Nicoletti says October is the best time to see larger raptors, such as red-tailed hawks. Nicoletti left New York to be closer to the raptor migration along Lake Superior.


Nicoletti grimaces a little at the suggestion that he has an inborn knack for identifying hawks. What he has, he says, is 20 years of intense practice.

"It's just an art. You know some people know how to write, or some people know how to play the piano. I identify hawks, and birds."

Birders less eagle-eyed than Nicoletti can still enjoy the challenge of identifying raptors. Kim Mills makes the five-hour drive from Winona every fall to spend a few days on Hawk Ridge.

"Every time I come up here I learn, and I learn more and I learn more," he says. "I listen to what other people are saying, and what they're seeing, and it's intriguing. I love it."

This day, birders have seen only a few hundred raptors. Earlier, thousands of birds moved through. Naturalist Nia Palmersten says the raptors tend to clump like that.

"If you come up here, make sure to have a couple days, because if you hit a bad weather day, you're not going to see anything," she says.

Most small hawks have moved south of Hawk Ridge by the end of September, but there might be thousands more. Larger raptors - red-tailed hawks and bald eagles - will pass the ridge in the largest numbers during October.

Related Links:
Hawk Ridge home page
Hawk Watch International
Minnesota Ornithologists' Union