Here's the thing: when the leaves change color and the temperature gets pleasantly cool and the big hawks start flying, and when your job is to stand in the beautiful outdoors and watch them fly, it gets hard to tear yourself away. I haven't posted in a while because I was spending all my waking hours with the birds, and with the fantastic Hawk Ridge people I realized I would soon be leaving behind.
After a couple late nights of packing and one last early morning at the ridge, I boarded a plane out of Duluth on November 1st. I've come home to Newton, where the maple trees still have most of their bright orange leaves and it was warm enough to wear a t-shirt today. I've come home to my family, my own bed and a kitchen with an oven and a full-sized refrigerator. But I'm already missing the hawks and the people, and I have lots of photos that I haven't posted here yet, so this is going to be a mishmash, anecdote-filled sort of post.
When I left off, October was just beginning. We were still having significant movements of birds like Sharp-shinned Hawks and American Kestrels, but the large birds were starting to come through in earnest. One day, a large group of Turkey Vultures flew past the ridge. They formed a kettle just like the Broad-winged Hawks did earlier in the season, but when they streamed out of the kettle, they looked like huge black airplanes. It was spooky.
Turkey vultures are awesome birds. They're so large and majestic that many people are amazed to hear that the huge black bird they're looking at has a naked pink head that it habitually sticks deep into the entrails of road-killed animals. Turkey Vultures have a few other pleasant habits, too: they poop on their feet to cool them off, and as a means of defense, they are capable of projectile-vomiting up to ten feet.
Yep, Turkey Vultures are pretty cool.
You know what else is cool? Goshawks. I already wrote about seeing one goshawk in the hand, here. But Hawk Ridge sees the highest numbers of migrating Goshawks of any hawk watch in North America, so I got to see a lot more of these cool birds. Here's one being held by banding trainee Alan Moss. This bird is a juvenile male, just like the one that I held.
116 Northern Goshawks have been counted at Hawk Ridge so far this year. It was very cool to see these birds in the hand, and a few of them flew pretty close over our heads at the count platform. But the photo below is much more typical of Goshawk behavior.
Goshawks like to rocket through the forest and appear suddenly when prey animals (or hawk counters) are least expecting them to. As a result, we most often got brief glimpses of Goshawks flying low through the trees down the ridge.
One dark, overcast day, Frank caught an interesting Red-tailed Hawk at the banding station: a Harlan's intergrade (Harlan's is one subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk, and based on details of its plumage, this bird was probably part Harlan's). Alex drove down to the station to bring the bird up to the overlook so we could all see it. It had been chilly and overcast all day, but just then a small gap in the clouds moved over us and a little bit of sun illuminated the clouds on the ridge. I captured these photos.
It's easy to forget that other things fly past the count platform at Hawk Ridge besides raptors. But the non-raptor migration at Hawk Ridge is an equally spectacular phenomenon. I talked about this already in this post. Towards the end of the season, the non-raptor flights began to slow down and change in composition. Warblers gave way to finches; some days we recorded Purple Finches, Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, American Goldfinches, both Red and White-winged Crossbills, and Common Redpolls. One day, a real rarity came by: a Mountain Bluebird, which has been seen at Hawk Ridge only a couple times before. To our amazement, this bird flew directly over our heads.
We also continued to enjoy visits from resident birds (birds that aren't migrating), like this Pileated Woodpecker.
Pileated Woodpeckers are big, almost crow-sized. Their beaks are incredible: the birds are like chisels with wings. Here's a video of one in action:
The Hawk Ridge Pileated Woodpecker was fond of launching itself out from the trees while giving its loud, resonant call. It's a spooky sound, and one that I don't get to hear all that often in suburban Massachusetts, so I loved it when this bird paid us visits.
Back to raptors: in October, Red-tailed Hawks took the place of Broad-winged Hawks, forming kettles over the lake and offering a new challenge: because of their prominent field marks that can be seen at a great distance (among them the eponymous red tail), we attempted to record the age of each Red-tailed Hawk we saw. Luckily, the Red-tail kettles weren't as huge as the Broad-wing kettles, so it was often possible to age most of the birds.
This bird can be identified as a Red-tailed Hawk by its stocky body and broad wings adapted for soaring, as well as its belly band, dark marks on the leading edge of its wings (on either side of the head) and dark wrist "commas" near the outer edges of the wings. We can tell it is an adult bird because of the bright red tail and the dark edges on the trailing edges of the wings.
Rough-legged Hawks, another member of the genus Buteo (like Red-tailed Hawks and Broad-winged Hawks) also began to migrate past the ridge in October. Rough-legged Hawks are a little lankier than Red-tails and flap differently. They also have prominent dark patches on the undersides of the wings, shown well on this bird.
Bald Eagles continued to migrate by in large numbers in October. This adult came up from the valley below the ridge and made a nice close pass by the hawk watch.
Even though I was spending more and more hours at the ridge, there were still times to bird elsewhere. One evening, reports came in that a Snowy Owl had been sighted down at Park Point in Duluth. Snowy Owls breed on the Arctic tundra and are usually found in the greatest numbers in the far northern U.S. and Canada, but if food is scarce, some owls will be driven south, and they turn up pretty regularly in the northern states and even farther south; they have even been reported in Florida in the past few years.
We drove down to Park Point, fingers crossed the whole way that the owl wouldn't fly off. It was getting dark, and we knew we only had about a half hour of daylight left to see this bird (luckily, Snowy Owls are white, so that made it a little easier).
We found it! The owl was sitting on someone's roof near where it had first been spotted a few hours before. This photo is taken with my camera through a spotting scope, a process known as "digi-scoping" that birders tend to use when a bird is really far away, or they don't have a big enough camera lens, or both.
Another highlight of my last few days at Hawk Ridge was a field trip to Minnesota's north woods and the north shore of Lake Superior. Hawk Ridge count interpreter Clinton Nienhaus led a bunch of us on a very long car trip to look for boreal species like Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Pine Grosbeak, and Black-backed Woodpecker. We didn't find the woodpecker (which would have been a life bird for me), but we found many other species, including another Snowy Owl and all three species of scoters (scoters are a type of diving sea duck). We also found this Snow Goose in Grand Marais.
On this trip, I decided to take some pictures of people instead of just birds, birds, birds all the time. Here's Amy walking along a breakwater in Grand Marais harbor.
Back to the Ridge: Frank caught some more cool raptors, including two adult male Northern Harriers in two days. Female and juvenile harriers are brown, but the males are a beautiful silvery-gray color with black wingtips; in flight, they're often referred to as "gray ghosts." Below are three photos of the same bird. You can see that the feathers on its face are arranged in a disc pattern, sort of like those on an owl's face. Those feathers act like a satellite dish, picking up sound and channeling it to the bird's ears, helping it to hunt.
On the second harrier, I got photos of the outstretched wing. You can see how long and lanky the wings are in comparison to the body. They're well adapted for the low coursing flight of a harrier over a marsh or grassland; they do most of their hunting low over the ground and don't often soar. The black patches on the wingtips are also clearly visible here; those patches make an adult male Northern Harrier very distinctive in flight.
While we're on the subject of cool bird adaptations, here's a throwback to September 21st, when the banding station caught an adult Peregrine Falcon. Falcons have two really cool features, both of which you can see in this picture.
1) The nose cone. I don't know if that's the technical term, or if there is one, but if you look inside this bird's nostril, you can see that there's a little bump inside, shaped a bit like the cone on the inside of a jet engine. When falcons are diving at very high speeds, the air rushes past their nostrils so fast that it's hard for them to breathe. The cone in their nostril helps disrupt that air flow and allow some air to enter the nostril. It's the same principle in an airplane; the cone allows air to flow into the engine instead of rushing past it.
2) The tomial tooth. See the notch on the lower edge of this falcon's upper mandible, sort of between the nostril and the end of the bill? That's the tomial tooth. When a falcon catches a prey animal, it positions the animal's spine across its bill and bites down. The tomial tooth holds the prey in place, allowing the falcon to neatly snap its spine. It's gruesome, yes, but a falcon has to eat, and some other raptors don't bother to kill so cleanly.
Well, on that pleasant note, I'm going to wrap up this post. Above is a view from the count platform, looking back at Duluth, taken on my last morning at the ridge. I spent a few hours there before my flight: Amy was kind enough to drive me so I could say good-bye to Kathleen, our friend and volunteer from the Twin Cities; Alex, counter extraordinaire whose car held the clickers, the data sheets, the table, dog food to lure in rare gulls, stale cookies, and generally all the magic ingredients for a successful hawk count; Karl, who joined us after a dismal morning flight on the lake shore and who outpaces all of us in his skill, patience and endurance (he's been counting since August 15th and will stay until November 30th, and I've rarely seen him take a day off); Dave, founding director of Hawk Ridge and longtime weekend count volunteer; Steve, Alex's equivalent from last year, now a grad student at UMD; and Rachel, a childhood friend of my mom's who I connected with in Duluth and who brought doughnuts up to the platform for my last morning.
It was cloudy and very few birds were flying until just before I left, but the view out over the bare trees was familiar and beautiful. To say I was sad to leave would be a cliché and an understatement. I sat at the airport, scanning for Snowy Owls out the window of the terminal, and realized I was already missing the ridge, the people, and the birds. I'm home now, and I'll be off to Belize in about a week. But really I'm still in Duluth, shivering and watching for eagles and eating microwaved rice.
To everyone at Hawk Ridge: thank you for an amazing season. It was awesome to get to know you and learn from you. I hope I'll be back soon!
I don't know how to end this, so here are some gulls on light posts at Canal Park, with the lift bridge in the background.
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.