DULUTH -- The annual fall migration of birds and the people who watch them to Duluth’s Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve started in August, but will hit full stride next weekend during the annual Hawk Weekend Festival.
For the birds, the weekend roughly marks the average peak of migration for some of the most common hawks that fly over the ridge, such as broad-winged hawks.
For the people, it marks the time to gather and scan the sky for their favorite raptors.
While Hawk Ridge is still asking people to social distance and mask up, Hawk Weekend is back in 2021 with full in-person events both indoors and out.
There are events planned roughly hourly each day on the ridge — you can just show up, buy a $5 wristband and take part — and more formal sessions and events planned off-site — field trips, hikes, programs and other activities.
And while the shadow of increasing COVID-19 cases hovers over all big events these days, Janelle Long, executive director of Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, said the all-outdoors venue makes for easy social distancing.
“There’s plenty of space to spread out,’’ Long said.
Last year, even with reduced formal events and no big groups allowed, Hawk Ridge still drew more season-long visitors during the pandemic than in 2019, Long noted.
“People want to get out and do something fun and safe, and we can do that here,’’ Long said.
If you can’t make it for the festival, don't despair. The hawks will keep coming all autumn and Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory staff will be on hand through Oct. 31 to help you watch and learn about them.
Hawk Weekend Festival schedule
Indoor events require preregistration and participation is limited. Go to hawkridge.org/event/hawk-weekend-festival-2021 to sign up or to see the daily schedule of events. If you are only planning on attending the on-site daily public programs at Hawk Ridge, daily wristbands are available for $5.
Friday, Sept. 17
9 a.m.-4p.m.: Bird migration and programs at Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve.
3 p.m.: Academic biology seminar at University of Minnesota Duluth, Life Science Building Room 185. UMD also has an indoor mask mandate.
6:30-8:30 p.m. (social/cash bar/tour aquarium 6:30 p.m., speaker 7:30 p.m.): New welcome social event with guest speakers at the Great Lakes Aquarium. Starting at 6:30 p.m., a cash bar will be available and the aquarium will be open to tour, including the featured Raptor Ridge Exhibit. Gerald Niemi, retired professor of biology at UMD, will present at 7:30 p.m. on his research, “The Future of Boreal Birds in Minnesota," which is included as part of the new book, “Art on the Edge of the Boreal Forest: Alternative Futures for the Birds, Trees, and Insects.” Books will be available for sale/signing. The Great Lakes Aquarium has an indoor mask mandate.
9:30 p.m.: Evening owl program (max. 10 participants).
Saturday, Sept. 18
Early morning: Birding field trips.
9 a.m.-5 p.m.: Bird migration and programs at Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve.
7 p.m.: Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory Annual Meeting at UMD, Life Science Building Room 185.
7:30 p.m.: Evening program at UMD, Life Science Building Room 185.
Sunday, Sept. 19
Early morning: Field trips.
- 9 a.m.-4 p.m.: Bird migration and programs at Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve.
- 1 p.m.: Post-festival workshop begins (max. 12 participants).
- 7 p.m.: Evening owl program (max. 10 participants).
Sept. 19 and 20
1 p.m. Sept. 19-3:30 p.m. Sept. 20: Post-festival workshop, “The Science and Wonder of Bird Migration."
An average of 76,000 raptors fly over this spot each autumn, along with thousands of other birds — waterfowl, songbirds, jays, crows and more — many of them skirting above Duluth's hills as they avoid flying over Lake Superior. That's why Hawk Ridge has become one of the premier birding locations in North America.
While still a best-kept secret from many Northlanders, Hawk Ridge is a destination for birders worldwide. 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 in 2007 as birding becomes increasingly popular. There's a seasonal Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory staff of more than 20 people, including bird counters and bird banders, public outreach and education staff. The budget has topped $200,000 annually.
50th year of banding
Hawk Ridge isn’t just about watching birds. The observatory staff conducts research as well, especially banding raptors, which helps track population and migration trends.
This is the 50th year that hawk banding has occurred at Hawk Ridge, which is waiting until 2022 to hold a full-fledged celebration of the important scientific work. Banding will continue all fall with an average of 3,000 raptors banded at Hawk Ridge each year.
Hawk Weekend is timed for the peak migration of the common raptors to fly over. But the action continues for several months. Hawks begin migrating past Hawk Ridge in mid-August and continue through November. The big days, when tens of thousands of broad-winged hawks may fly over, generally occur Sept. 10-25.
So you know
Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve is located on land owned by the city of Duluth. Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory is the nonprofit organization that operates programs there.
It’s free, but …
There is no fee to visit Hawk Ridge or park there to watch birds. But, especially during the Hawk Weekend Festival, it would be good to help out Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory by buying a wristband or joining as a member. Annual memberships start at $15 for students and $30 for individuals.
Best days to watch
There are no specific hours at the ridge, but staff is on hand every day now through Oct. 31 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mid-mornings are often peak for migration. Clear days with west, northwest or north winds are best, pushing more birds south. Rainy days with an east or south wind make it harder for birds to fly here, so sometimes they don’t. But there will be birds of some sort moving almost every day.
What to bring
Binoculars are the most important tool as many raptors wing high over the hill. (Due to COVID-19 concerns, Hawk Ridge will not have binoculars to share this fall.)
Dress for the weather, which can be extreme on Duluth’s hilltop, especially with an easterly wind.
A chair is a good idea as there is no seating.
If you plan to do any hiking on the 4 miles of Hawk Ridge trails, hiking boots are a good choice as the trails are rugged.
Bird counting and most bird watching is done above the second, larger overlook at 3980 East Skyline Parkway, about 1 mile east of Glenwood Street and just past where the blacktop turns to gravel. On crowded weekend days, be prepared to park some distance from the overlook and walk.
Watch migration count updated online
Each year, the raptor count at Hawk Ridge is one of the two or three highest anywhere north of Mexico. From 1991 to 2013, the average yearly number of raptors observed at Hawk Ridge was 76,000 and consisted of 16 regular hawk species and four rare hawk species, plus three rare migrating owl species. See nearly real-time raptor counts at hawkridge.org and click on "Live Fall Count Data."
There is no building at Hawk Ridge; everything is outdoors. There is a portable toilet available during the peak migration and Hawk Ridge offers some light snacks and merchandise for sale.
Some raptors declining
The remarkable comeback of the bald eagle has captured a lot of headlines over the past decade, but not all news is good for birds of prey. A new study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and BirdLife International found that 30% of the 557 raptor species worldwide are considered near threatened, vulnerable or endangered or critically endangered. Other species are in danger of becoming locally extinct in specific regions.
Of threatened birds of prey that are active mostly during the day — including most hawks, eagles and vultures — 54% were falling in population, the study found. Among nocturnal raptors, such as owls, the decline was 47%.