Saturday, October 18, 2014

Raptor Enrapture

Duluth, Minnesota is a destination for a lot more than human tourists. The city was recently featured in the September, 2014 issue of Outside Magazine, following a nationwide contest to name the "best towns ever," receiving the highest total from more than 1.5 million votes cast between 64 cities. Perhaps the crown jewel of Duluth's urban wilderness experience is the Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve. During September and through October, Hawk Ridge is the pre-eminent location in North America for spotting birds of prey.

During the annual migration, the world's largest expanse of fresh water is an immense obstacle to southwards progress for raptors, which rely on thermals for minimized energy expenditure during flight. Flying potentially hundreds of miles across Superior is a dangerous business, and the safest route is following the shoreline around the lake. Therefore, Duluth's location on the westernmost tip of Lake Superior and the broad, south-facing slopes of the north shore combine for a unique thermal highway that attracts thousands of raptors every autumn.

A bald eagle and a northern goshawk. 

Red-tailed hawks and a bald eagle. Above them is a merlin.

The daily count at noon, October 18, 2014.

Throughout migration season there are numerous free educational programs offered daily by the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, which manages the 365 acre reserve under a trust agreement with the city. The reserve is a not-for-profit, so freewill donations are appreciated. When we visited, my youngest son was "banded," and his vital statistics (arm span and height) were recorded so we can check on his growth next year, and he had lengthy one-on-one lessons from volunteers that included lots of hands-on learning. He was particularly interested in the variety of talons on hand and the soft, downy feathers of owls.

This merlin was captured at one of the nearby banding stations, and after a brief introduction up at he view-stand he was sent back on his way. He had an accident in the hand of this volunteer to show his displeasure.

Besides birdwatching, there are over four miles of trails in the small nature reserve alone, just a small fraction of the immense park system in Duluth and the surrounding Arrowhead region on the north shore of Lake Superior. Nearby are very scenic drives along Amity Creek, as it falls down to Lake Superior.

The area is beautiful any time of year, but fall colors make for a particularly vibrant visit.

Views of Lake Superior are magnificent, and any given weather condition reflects another mood of the great Gitche Gumee. Hawk Ridge is situated on the narrow,western end of the lake, and the state of Wisconsin can be seen in the distance. Lakers still ply the inland waterway bearing iron ore and grain bound for other ports on the Great Lakes.

The migration season programs run every year from September 1 - October 31st, from 9am-4pm daily. To get there from down-town Duluth, Take W 2nd Street, Woodland Avenue and Snively Road to E Skyline Parkway. Total distance is about 6 miles (9 kilometers) and driving by car takes about 10-15 minutes. The portion of Skyline Parkway through Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve is a maintained gravel road, closed to traffic in winter for snow-shoeing and cross country skiing.

Via Google Maps.