Northland predators soar over Duluth for annual fall migration

[slideshow_deploy id='22474'] In my last article, I focused on why black bears are making their presence felt in Duluth. I found out food was a major factor that funnels these bears into Duluth and into some of our back yards.

Food sources are once again drawing some more natural wonders to our neighborhoods.

As the flavors of fall fill our northern forests with sweet tangy smells and bright colors, birds of prey are soaring overhead.

“Their migration is strictly based off food availability,” said Gail Johnejack, the education director for Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory. Johnejack explained that birds of prey whose summer range is in the forests of Canada begin to migrate south when their natural prey begins to disappear in the fall.

“Song birds start to leave, fish are inaccessible under ice, and snakes, which some birds prey on, burrow underground,” Johnejack said. With all their food moving and adjusting for the harsh northern winter, raptors are only left with one option: move or starve.

During my time at the overlook, three northern goshawks were released back into the wild. Johnejack pointed out that the Hawk Ridge overlook is a world-class location to see Northern Goshawks.

An adopted northern goshawk takes flight back into the wild. Photo by Tony Schmitt.


Northern goshawks range in the boreal forests of Canada in the summer months, which is where they breed and feed. When their food source shifts south, northern goshawks begin to follow the edges of the boreal Canadian forests east until they run into the shores of Lake Superior.

Once they hit the shores of cold Lake Superior, most birds start to head south. “The birds could cross Lake Superior, but it would very energetically expensive,” said Johnejack.

When birds of prey fly, they use the rising warm air to help lift them as they soar across the sky. This would not be possible over the frigid waters of Lake Superior. The birds would be required to flap their wings much more, draining precious energy. Instead, birds are naturally funneled to Duluth where people can watch them pass throughout our picturesque falls.

People from all over the world come to see this exclusive first hand look at the northern goshawk and the other birds of prey passing through.

"Just recently, I talked to some people from Germany, and I also had a group from Finland come through,” said Annie Choate, one of the many volunteers that are crucial to helping the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory function.

Choate explained that she and the other volunteers work with the staff to help with all sorts of tasks at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory. The private non-profit organization has been in the works for about 40 years and has been doing research as well as educating the public.

Myron and Holly Peterson are a retired couple that have been visiting the Hawk Ridge overlook since 2008. As I sat with them on that sunny afternoon, we spotted a bird flying overhead. Without skipping a beat, they identified it as a peregrine falcon. I saw firsthand the education program at work. The Petersons said the program is one of the highlights of their visits to Hawk Ridge.

“There are three things that draw us here," Myron said. "The spectacle of the raptors is incredible, the view of the lake, the trees and the passing boats from the ridge, and the friendly and knowledgable staff. We’ve learned so much since we started coming here.”

The couple said that when they first started going to the overlook, they had no idea how to identify the raptors migrating overhead, but the staff and the volunteers assisted them in learning how to recognize the different shapes and behaviors of the different species. Now distinguishing these birds of prey is much easier for them; it enriches their experience.

Holly explained that although they live in the city they spend close to 20 days during September and October at the ridge. “We come up in the middle of September for two full weeks in to watch the broad winged hawks migrate through. Then we come back in October to see the larger birds, such as the bald eagles, pass through.”

Hawk Ridge overlook provides more than just a magnificent natural display. The organization also conducts some serious research. According to the Hawk Ridge Organizations's mission statement, they do work in order to “protect birds of prey and other migratory birds in the Western Lake Superior Region through research, education, and stewardship.”

Birds are captured, banded and released in order to help track where these birds end up. Visitors can even donate and adopt their own raptor and release it into the wild. If the bird is located, the adopter is notified where the bird was found.

There are also some professional bird watchers who keep count of all the birds of prey passing through and mark down the species of that particular day. Matti Erpsestad, a naturalist, count interpreter, and songbird counter for Hawk Ridge, told me that birds can generally be identified through its shape and its flying behavior. Take a look at these identification aids: identify raptor groups or identify raptor species.

Ridge also informed me that the count can be influenced by the direction of the wind.

“When a colder wind blows off the lake, sometimes birds will fly more inland where the air is warmer and they can use the updraft to help them glide. This will sometimes alter the counts because we can’t see them,” he said.

For example, Matti believes that when the broad winged hawks came through in September, they flew more inland because of the direction of the winds. This altered the birds that could be observed.

All of this count data is compiled to one centralized database in order to help better understand and manage these spectacular birds. Sometimes thousands of birds can be spotted in one day. Some of the past and present data can be viewed here and here.

Depending on the time of the year, different birds will be more common. During my visit, I saw with my untrained eye three bald eagles, a peregrine falcon, and several northern goshawks that were released into the wild. But the official board count showed that I may have missed much more. (see photo below).

A display of the days count up until 2 p.m. on Oct. 11. Photo by Tony Schmitt


So, if you’re free one day this fall, grab your binoculars or camera and head out to enjoy this world-class natural wonder before these raptors have soared past Duluth.


The Music Resource Center teaches young people to play

What’s the lowdown on the new building on St. Marie Street?