In the Spotlight

News & Features
Your Voice
DocumentJoin the conversation with other MPR listeners in the News Forum.

DocumentE-mail this pageDocumentPrint this page
They count hawks, don't they?
Larger view
David Carman is half of the official hawk counting team at Hawk Ridge. (MPR Photo/Chris Julin)
People who watch birds get excited about Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania. Each fall, about 20,000 raptors fly past Hawk Mountain on their way south. But there's an even bigger concentration of hawks and eagles in northern Minnesota. Last week, 30,000 raptors flew past Hawk Ridge in Duluth -- and that was in one day. It was a busy day, but not a record. Last year, 100,000 raptors flew past Hawk Ridge in a single day. We can tell you how many birds flew by because a couple of guys counted them.

Duluth, Minn. — David Carman will be up on Hawk Ridge today with his binoculars and his spotting scope. This time of year he's up on the ridge every day, all day, counting hawks and eagles. He assists the chief bird counter, Frank Nicoletti. They've been doing this for years.

Nicoletti makes a modest wage, and Carman volunteers his time -- about 1,000 hours each fall. If you do the math, that's about 25 work weeks squeezed into September, October and November.

This week the weather has been bad for hawk counting -- lots of rain and the wind's been blowing the wrong direction -- so there weren't many birds flying past.

That gave David Carman some time to talk.

"Where we're standing is the original shoreline of Lake Superior when the glaciers melted," Carman says looking from the ridge down to the lake. "We're 650 feet, approximately, above the lake shore."

The Hawk Ridge Observatory is just a clearing in the trees along a dirt road. The views Duluth and of Lake Superior are tremendous.

Larger view
Image Counters at work

Thousands of hawks follow the lake shore south in the fall, and they don't want to fly over the lake, so they fly between the water's edge and the ridge where Carman is standing. Carman and Nicoletti spend much of the day scanning the sky through binoculars.

"I'm just sweeping the sky slowly going up and down, across the horizon, up and down, just continually repeating that pattern," Carman says as he scans the sky.

These hawk counters can identify big birds, like eagles and turkey vultures, from four miles. Small hawks, like sharp-shins, have get get within a mile before Carman and Nicoletti can make a positive ID. Most the birds are never more than a speck to the naked eye, but sometimes they fly by almost close enough to touch.

"Here are two sharp-shinned hawks," Carman says and he pulls the binoculars to his face in a flash.

"Excuse me," he says instantly."It's one sharp-shinned hawk, and a kestrel, an American kestrel."

At eye-level, just a 100 feet away, the two birds are fighting as they fly. They look like World War I pilots taking swooping dives at each other.

"They're at the top of the food chain and they're both aggressive birds and they're chasing each other," Carman says. "These are immature or juvenile birds. They were born only three months ago, and like our teenagers they are prone to hot rodding the sky, if you will."

Carman says he never knows what will appear in the sky in front of him.

Larger view
Image Daily tally

"Yesterday we had an arctic peregrine falcon come through," he says. "That bird's on a 6,000 mile-plus journey from the arctic to South America. The bird's capable of speeds up to 200 miles per hour in a dive. Every day you learn something new."

Carman keeps talking, but he's scanning the sky with his binoculars again.

"Today we had an adult goshawk, which is a very large raptor, come right at us," he says. "It was within 40 or 50 feet of us and flew straight at us. That's why I come out here."

Carman will be up on Hawk Ridge with Frank Nicoletti counting raptors through November. Small hawks and falcons will keep moving through Duluth into early October. Larger hawks and eagles will continue flying past Hawk Ridge into December.

By the end of the season, Carman says, he goes through lots of hot chocolate every day.

Respond to this story
News Headlines
Related Subjects