Thursday, September 3rd, was a momentous day. I turned 18. And it's about time! Now I can sign forms for myself, vote, get called in for jury duty, get married without my parents' consent, and do lots of other fun things!
In the past, my birthday has been a funny combination of happiness and worry, as it usually falls in the week before the first day of school. In sixth grade, the first day of school was September 3rd, and my birthday gift was meeting a whole bunch of new people, none of whom knew or cared much that it was my birthday. In any case, I usually celebrate my birthday at home, or on Cape Cod, with my family and friends. When I wake up in the morning and come downstairs, my mom has made brightly colored "Happy Birthday Kaija!" signs and hung them from the light fixture above the table. Sometimes there are presents. Every year, we eat angel food cake and strawberries after dinner.
This year was a little different. School isn't looming. I'm in a new place with new people, but they aren't twelve and awkward and covered with zits. I'm not with my family––we had our angel food cake in late August, before I left for Duluth. And I'm on the cusp of my first real "grown up" year to match my "grown up" age. We're not in Kansas anymore.
But despite all these differences (and because of them), I had a really great birthday. Here's how it went.
I woke up at what felt like a much too early hour. It had rained most of the previous morning, and we hadn't gone to Hawk Ridge until noon (the hawks won't fly in a hard rain, so there's no point in getting wet and miserable. This is a nice aspect of hawkwatching.) The air felt damp and heavy when I woke up, and I opened my blinds, thinking that maybe today would be another rainy morning. And maybe I would get to sleep a little longer. I looked out the window and saw... very little. It wasn't raining, but a dense fog had settled over Duluth. Visibility was poor, and the trees looked eerie.
Despite the fog, we headed up to the ridge, driving with headlights and windshield wipers and peering anxiously around corners before making frantic left turns, hoping that no cars would materialize and hit us. We made it up to the ridge in one piece, set up the merchandise trailer, put down our bags and... waited. The fog was dense enough to block all views of the sky or the city below. If any hawks were flying in this weather, the only way we would be able to count them is if they flew out of the fog and directly at our faces.
There seemed to be no point in setting up a spotting scope, and Alex and Karl hadn't arrived yet, so I poked around the top of the ridge for a while. I went a little ways on a few of the trails around the Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve. I found a lovely spiderweb covered in fog droplets. But the wet plants whacked my bare legs and the ground was slippery, so I turned back.
Just when I seemed to be looking at spending my birthday morning, and maybe the whole day, on top of a foggy hill with no birds, without a sweatshirt (the weather report had said it was going to be hot!), Alex arrived. Good, at least I would have someone to commiserate with about the lack of hawks. But Alex walked to the count platform, took one look around, and informed me that we were going to go look for warblers. As long as there were no raptors, Hawk Ridge could do without its counters.
We headed down to Park Point, a long, narrow spit of land into Lake Superior. On my first day, Karl told me it was "the longest strip of land in the world. Or something." It's actually the largest freshwater sand spit in the world, but hey, close enough, Karl. At the end of the point is a park, and the various stands of trees were fairly dripping with warblers (for you non-birders: warblers are small, colorful songbirds, known for their beautiful colors and songs, and also for being really hard to identify correctly because there are so many of them and they change plumages with age and throughout the year). The warblers, having started their own fall migration, weren't eager to fly in the heavy fog, so they had stopped at the park to forage for insects among the leaves. At Park Point we were below the fog, so visibility was slightly better, although we still couldn't see out onto the lake or up to the ridge. The birding was amazing. Often there were several species of warblers clustered in the same tree, or flitting from shrub to shrub as we eagerly tried to pick them out from the leaves. We saw beautiful Cape May and Magnolia Warblers, several tiny Least Flycatchers, striking black and white Caspian Terns, and many gray-brown Swainson's Thrushes hopping on the ground under the trees. We even got a glimpse of a Mourning Warbler, an elusive and uncommon bird that was a first for me.
Those of you who are interested can find my full eBird checklist here.
Around 1pm, we got a call that the fog was lifting over the ridge, so we made our way back to the car as quickly as we could. For birders, that means stopping only for some birds, like for a Least Sandpiper that flew circles over a flock of Ring-billed Gulls, or for a Savannah sparrow that flew so close by Alex's face that it almost hit him. Eventually we were in the car, headed to the ridge, and all was going well. Redstarts darted overhead and we tallied our first robin of the morning. And then we hit traffic. The Aerial Lift Bridge, which spans the channel between downtown Duluth and Park Point, was lifting up to let a ship go through. As someone put it to us gleefully later on, "you got bridged!" It was like one of those bad dreams where you desperately need to get somewhere or do something but your legs won't move. We could see the fog clearing and we knew the birds were flying, but we still had a ways to go.
Then I saw the warbler. It was in the low branches of an evergreen tree just to our left, in someone's yard at the edge of the road. We grabbed our binoculars and found more birds: an American Redstart in the tree's upper branches, a Red-eyed Vireo in a bush just yards from the car door. We forgot all about the bridge, and before we knew it, the traffic cleared and we were whizzing towards the ridge.
The fog was fast disappearing and soon the sky was clear. And the hawks were flying! We had 107 Sharp-shinned Hawks in the first hour after we arrived, and 134 the next hour. The clickers were going like mad. There was a steady stream of Bald Eagles, too, a mix of adults and immatures, and some came close over our heads.
At the count platform, we have another responsibility besides identifying and counting birds. The Hawk Ridge raptor banding station is located just down the ridge from the count platform, and it's our job to radio over to the station if there's a good bird coming their way, so they know to be on the lookout. I enjoy playing with the radio. It makes me feel like I should be saying "Roger" all the time and using funky codes.
Anyway, after we had been at the ridge for a couple hours, I spotted a bird out in front of us, flying fast, with pointed wings and a long, narrow silhouette. I could tell from its shape that it was a falcon, but I'm still working on my raptor ID skills. I needed to wait for the bird to get closer before I could tell whether it was an American Kestrel, a Merlin, or a Peregrine Falcon. But Karl and Alex didn't need to wait. They spotted the bird and jumped up, cameras at the ready. A few seconds later, an immature Peregrine Falcon zoomed over our heads, wings locked in a glide, headed directly for the banding station.
It was amazing how quickly they caught the bird. Frank, the banding director, told us later that the falcon dove in after the lure at 80 or 90 miles per hour (well shy of that species's record speeds of nearly 200 mph, but still.) Best of all, we were invited down to the station to see it.
I couldn't have asked for a better birthday present.
After a long day of exciting hawkwatching, we headed home, where I finished up a great birthday with some strawberry ice cream and mini M&M's.
And I received one more birthday present: chocolate owls from Karl's girlfriend, Jane. They were delicious!
More news of birds and life coming soon!
Thanks to Becca Webster and Janelle Long for inspiring the title of this post.
Jump to a Post
Welcome to Hawk Ridge
A Massive Migration
A Happy Birdthday
Photos from the Week
Visiting the Banding Station
A Watched Kettle Never Streams
Food, Part 1
The Big Picture
Last Weeks at the Ridge
Belize, Part 1
How to Look at Birds, A Guide (or: Belize, Part 2)
All Creatures Great and Small
Kids and Language, Again
More Photos from France
Food, Part 2
Building Nests in California
Please Do Not Pet the Woodpecker
Condors and Creatures in Big Sur
A Day at Hastings
I am a high school graduate taking a gap year before college. I’m interested in birds, biology, and the natural world, as well as history, foreign languages, writing, and reading.