Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Hawk Ridge: Fifty Years and Counting!

Laura with Common NIghthawks at Hawk RIdge
Me counting hawks at the main overlook around 1991

When Russ was finishing up his Ph.D. and considering job offers in 1980, one possibility was at the EPA’s water quality research lab in Duluth. He leaned toward that one because he wanted to focus his life’s work on the environment, and also because his parents had recently retired from Chicago to Port Wing, Wisconsin. Having them just an hour away was another selling point. 

Our plan was for me to be a stay-at-home mother at first, so career-wise, it didn’t matter to me where we settled. My personal stake in Russ taking the Duluth job was the birds. Several of my Madison friends had driven to Duluth a year earlier for a big invasion of Great Gray, Boreal, and Northern Hawk Owls. They went up on a weekend when I had a nasty stomach bug, and they saw not only those wonderful owls but also Boreal Chickadees, Black-backed Woodpeckers, and Evening Grosbeaks galore. I got over whatever I had within a few days, but 40-some years later, I still felt sick at heart for not being able to go along with them. 

Boreal birds were not the only avian draw. Duluth was already famous among birders for Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve, the best spot anywhere in the Midwest for observing raptor migration. 

I didn’t lobby Russ much about the job—it was his career, after all. But he took it and we moved here early in 1981, renting for a few months until we found a little house for sale on Peabody Street. Russ’s parents helped with the down payment, but we could barely afford the monthly mortgage payments—at the time, mortgage rates were 15 percent! 

Evening Grosbeaks in my yard, May 18, 1982
My mother-in-law took this photo of our feeders in May 1982, our first spring in Duluth.

It would be a few weeks before I realized we’d picked a house in the neighborhood right below Hawk Ridge—indeed, after I knew it was there I could see the main overlook from our backyard. But from the very start, when we were lugging the first boxes into the house on moving day, Evening Grosbeaks were calling from backyard boxelders as a Bald Eagle circled overhead. Within minutes of Russ setting up a bird feeder, chickadees and grosbeaks were pigging out. Duluth, including my own backyard, was a birder’s delight. 

I of course spent a lot of time up at Hawk Ridge that fall. Back then, everyone seemed to focus on the Broad-winged Hawk migration, which is concentrated in September. Most days in August, no official counter kept a tally, but I loved sitting by myself on a rock at the main overlook, watching Cedar Waxwings swirling along, an occasional Osprey or Bald Eagle, and a slow but steady stream of Sharp-shinned Hawks. That’s when I discovered how lovely migrating flocks of Blue Jays are. 

By September, Molly Evans was counting just about every day, along with increasing numbers of birders, all looking skyward. When winds were easterly, barely a trickle of raptors, mostly Sharp-shinneds, passed through, but on a day with northwest winds, I could see thousands of Broad-winged Hawks in just an hour or two.  

Katie, Laura, and Joey at Hawk Ridge

The composition of fall migration has changed quite a bit since the 80s and 90s—there are substantially more eagles, Osprey, Red-tailed Hawks, and Merlins than before even as the numbers of goshawks, harriers, kestrels, and other vulnerable species declines. Broad-wings are still the most numerous species most years, but our biggest days for them now are smaller than they once were.

Hawk Ridge was obviously there long before white people settled in Duluth, and for many decades in the 20th century it was a popular spot for Duluthians to go to shoot hawks despite that being illegal. But 50 years ago, the Duluth Bird Club became Duluth Audubon and, thanks to contributions from Minnesota birders and a gift from The Nature Conservancy, they bought the property and donated it to the city with the stipulation that it be protected permanently as Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve. A committee of Duluth Audubon was responsible for collecting scientific data and providing educational opportunities. 

People my age often complain that things aren’t as good as they were in the “good old days.” Some hawk numbers have gone down since I first was going to Hawk Ridge, but just about everything about Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory is better today than it was 50 years ago. Frank Nicoletti set a whole new standard for counters, so now our counts conform to the strict protocols developed by the Hawk Migration Association of North America, and the current counters count every single bird flying past, including songbirds and hummingbirds. You can see up-to-the-minute data from this year’s migration—and yes, I mean up to the minute—by clicking on the "LIVE Fall Count Data" button at

This weekend we’ll be celebrating Hawk Ridge’s 50th anniversary with lots of activities. My dear friend Erik Bruhnke, one of the former naturalists, will be up there every day teaming up with our current naturalists to point out birds and answer questions. Programs at UMD, a paper session at the Great Lakes Aquarium, and lots of field trips to other places are all on the agenda. I’ll be leading Saturday and Sunday morning field trips at Park Point. If you’re in the Duluth area, come join us!

Pip on Panda's Rock at Hawk Ridge