At a lookout point at Lake Superior, you can look down, not up, at the birds.
DULUTH, Minn. — Normally people look up to bald eagles. But at Hawk Ridge, Minn., you can look down on eagles, hawks and other birds of prey — and it’s not even considered impolite.
“Hey everybody! North-going eagle,” shouts Erik Bruhnke, a staff member of the Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve in Duluth, Minn.
On a bluff high above Duluth and Lake Superior, a juvenile bald eagle cruises along the bluff line, just below the sight line of onlookers.
Every fall, volunteers with spotting scopes and birders with binoculars gather to watch the migrating raptors that pass between the bluffs and Lake Superior by the thousands.
“It is very weather-dependent,” says Bruhnke, who also leads birding tours. “The best conditions are with west or northwesterly winds with sunny conditions. The winds keep the birds hugging the shoreline.”
With the migrating birds of prey funneled along the shore of the vast lake, birdwatchers only have to pick a spot and wait.
“Raptors are not capable of flying long distances over water,” Bruhnke says.
That’s because they soar on thermals, rising pockets of warm air created when the sun heats the surface of the Earth. It’s one reason a small airplane ride in the middle of the day can get bumpy. The birds glide on warm air, getting some extra lift that helps them conserve energy for the long trip.
On Tuesday, all the conditions came together, and more than 7,000 raptors were counted at Hawk Ridge. Counters keep tabs on raptor migration from mid-August until the end of November.
Wednesday was not quite as nice, with cool and cloudy conditions. Scattered showers were in the area and could be seen passing over parts of Lake Superior from the vantage point of Hawk Ridge. Still, the birds kept coming.
There were broad-winged hawks — smaller cousins of the common red-tailed hawk — on their way to a destination perhaps as far away as South America. We also saw an osprey, sharp-shinned hawks and a pair of sandhill cranes.
Onlookers got to see sharp-shinned hawks captured for banding on Tuesday. Staff member Noelle Grunwald and volunteer Sabine Naber held the hawks gently, and Grunwald gave a short natural history program.
Grunwald said the two hawks were young birds, only about 3 months old, making their first journey south to a point as far away as Central America.
Mary Morgan of Cedar Rapids, Neb., was in Duluth to visit relatives for a reunion. She and a number of family members were on hand during Grunwald’s program, and Morgan had the privilege of releasing one of the hawks and sending it back on its way.
“It was awesome,” she said. “To me, it’s just mind-boggling that they know — they just know where to go. It’s only 3 months old and it’s not following anyone.”
Most raptors tend to migrate alone. Broad-winged hawks, however, are sometimes seen in large groups called kettles.
For Naber, it was her first day as a volunteer at Hawk Ridge and her first time holding a bird of prey.
“It’s pretty amazing,” she says of the grueling migration facing the two birds not much bigger than a blue jay. “It’s not something I would be able to do. It seems so dangerous. They are only 3 months old. They don’t know all the dangers yet.”
And speaking of dangers, Bruhnke saw a lone European starling perching in a tree not far from where the sharp-shinned hawks were released. Sharp-shinned hawks are members of a group of hawks known as accipiters, forest hawks that eat other birds.
“It’s kind of surprising to see a starling here,” Bruhnke said. “With all the raptors around, this is kind of a ‘no-fly zone’ for other birds.”
Chris Young can be reached at 217-788-1528.