Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hawk Ridge Update

Check out the events for this year's Hawk Ridge Weekend. I'll be speaking about all the fun I had on my Conservation Big Year on Friday night, and leading a boat tour of the St. Louis River on Saturday morning.
Broad-winged Hawk
Roosting Broad-winged Hawk

On September 15 and 16, 2014, I was behind on several projects and was stuck at home. But northwest winds, clear skies, and something deep in my bones kept telling me things would be hopping at Hawk Ridge. I live in the neighborhood right below the ridge, but often miss seeing many raptors on the big flight days, though I can usually tell a day is good by the songbird activity in my yard.

White-throated Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow

Monday, birds were really moving about. I couldn’t spend too much time looking out the window, but did spot a Black-and-white Warbler, a couple of American Redstarts, and a Palm Warbler in addition to a dozen or so White-throated Sparrows. I didn’t need to look out to be aware of lots of Blue Jays—their squawking not only told me they were around but that one or two Sharp-shinned Hawks were cruising down Peabody Street.
I checked the count via the website at that night, and 6,622 hawks had gone by—the biggest day so far this season. As usual when the count is so large, the vast majority of the birds—over 5,500—were Broad-winged Hawks.

When we have a big day like that, the following morning is often quite good, too. That’s because the birds coursing through at the end of a big day have to land somewhere for the night, so are usually seen taking off the next morning. Back in the 90s, the morning after a September day when the count was over 20,000, I got phone calls from three different kids working at supermarkets, telling me about the huge numbers of hawks circling over the parking lots. Dark pavement is first to warm up as the sun climbs in the morning sky, so the first useful thermals of the day often develop over parking lots and highways. On the biggest days of all, hawk numbers are highest at midday, but so is their flight. You’ll see fewer birds but they’ll be closer during early and mid morning.

Tuesday held to that pattern. Mike Furtman posted beautiful photos he took Tuesday morning on facebook. But powerful winds kept the numbers lower—those winds break up the thermals. By day’s end, the total was 801, with the Broad-wing count at 329—an order of magnitude lower than Monday, but darned respectable.

Young Broad-winged Hawk flying over Hawk Ridge
Soaring immature Broad-winged Hawk

Wednesday started out with light winds from the southwest. When I woke about 6:15, I spotted a thrush outside my window in the semi-darkness, and a few minutes later, the first bird I spotted from my office window was a hummingbird. I couldn’t get away immediately, but headed up to Hawk Ridge at 10 am for a couple of hours. The counters were busy tallying small kettles of Broad-wings and flocks of Blue Jays and the occasional small flock of Pine Siskins, and I got busy photographing a Lapland Longspur who showed up at the main overlook and stuck around the same spot for a long time while people took pictures. Unfortunately, the last photos I’d taken were in a dark setting and I had my ISO set to 2500, but the bird was so cooperative in such perfect light that the pictures turned out not too bad.

Lapland Longspur
Lapland Longspur at Hawk Ridge!

The wind shifted to the east and the temperature dropped dramatically right about at noon when I had to leave anyway. I’d had a great day, and the final count ended up being 2,941, with the Broad-wing total at 2,451—less than half of Monday’s numbers, but thrilling nonetheless.

Anything can happen in mid-September—sometimes we have single-day counts well into 5 digits, but it’s always hard to predict. Our current Broad-wing total for the season is now over 16,000. This weekend is Hawk Ridge Weekend, and the weather may not be ideal, but when the winds shift to the northwest again, we could get a humongous day. Or not. Whatever happens, birding up at Hawk Ridge in September is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get, but it’s certain to be sweet.

Lapland Longspur
Lapland Longspur casting an eye to the sky. Looking for hawks?