Janelle Long was walking up to the bird counting platform at Hawk Ridge when a sharp-shinned hawk fluttered by, alternately flapping then soaring, maybe looking for a little songbird to munch on.
While many hawks prefer a tail wind on their migration south, the sharp-shins don’t seem to care as much, and this one was flying through the teeth of a cold, easterly blow off Lake Superior.
“For a lot of the raptors that soar, westerly or even northerly winds are definitely the best days for sheer numbers of birds here,” said Long, the only full-time executive director Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory has ever had. “But for some species, you can actually get birds down closer on days with an east wind or even south wind. … Unless it’s pouring rain or super foggy, there's always something flying here this time of year.”
Even on this “slow” day for migration, some 109 sharp shins flew over here, as did 26 bald eagles (and 171 blue jays; every bird gets counted). Already thousands of birds have been counted this fall with tens of thousands more coming over the next few weeks. Some 76,000 raptors fly over this spot each autumn, on average, along with thousands of other birds — waterfowl, songbirds, crows, owls and more — many of them skirting above Duluth’s hills as they avoid flying over Lake Superior.
And that’s why Hawk Ridge has become one of the premier birding spots in North America. While still a best-kept secret from many Northlanders, Hawk Ridge is a destination for birders worldwide, with visitors from places such as Ghana, Norway and Japan as well as nearly every state in the U.S.
Annual visitors to Hawk Ridge — the biggest rush over a few weeks each autumn — are estimated at over 18,000 people now, up from about 7,000 when Long first took her post in 2007. There’s a seasonal staff now of more than 20 people, including bird counters and bird banders, public outreach and education staff. The budget has topped $200,000 annually. And for the first time, this year Hawk Ridge Nature Area received some of Duluth’s city tourism sales tax revenue, $20,000, a testament to how many people it draws into town.