The huge bird counts that lured us to Hawk Ridge are no more. An east wind blows all weekend, pushing the migrants’ highway further inland from Lake Superior. Still, birders galore flock to the main overlook at Hawk Ridge, and the raw weather does not stop the banding program. We all sit in the cold, peering up at the sky when the spotters call out. Sometimes we can see what they do, and sometimes not. It doesn’t matter when there is a bird in the hand.
Staff displays birds throughout the day. They are caught in mist nets after mistaking decoys for injured prey – an easier meal. Younger birds are most often fooled by this tactic, and this weekend is no exception. Although Hawk Ridge averages over 94,000 migrating raptors each fall, songbirds – also called passerines – are also monitored, caught and banded.
Our first contestant is an immature red-eyed vireo, along with his Philadelphia cousin. A spry insect- and berry-eater, the vireo is also a prolific singer. They make a bowl or cup-shaped nest out of twigs and mud.
Next up is the common blue jay, which we are seeing by the hundreds. This one lets us know in no uncertain terms what he thinks about being on display, and continues to scold us loudly after he is released, circling about to get in the last word.
Everyone is anxious to see raptors, and the first one of the day is an immature sharp-shinned hawk. This smallish raptor can be identified in the sky by his flight pattern: flap-flap soar….flap-flap soar….The young sharpies have vertical striping on their breasts, which will change to horizontal after their first moult. Visitors can adopt a bird for a fee, and they will be allowed to hold and release it, as well as informed when their bird is identified elsewhere by the number on its band. “Hold it like an ice cream cone!” These birds have more than twice the neck vertebrae we do, so they follow their temporary handler’s gestures by twisting their heads to keep an eye on things while verbalizing to us all.
“Cutest” award goes to the black capped chickadee. Staff can calm these little birds by tucking their heads down and cupping a hand over them for a few seconds. Several of these chicks appear to be very comfortable in a warm palm, and need some encouragement to fly away.
We wrap little Daisy up in a blanket, bundle ourselves against the cold wind off Lake Superior, and await more progress with raptors. A few more sharpies are presented, but there is an excited buzz that leads us to believe that a rare capture and banding has taken place.
Sure enough, out comes the showstopper of the day, an American kestrel, which is a most colorful, small falcon. One man has been waiting all weekend for his chance with his favorite of all birds, and now he gets it. The kestrel is about the size of a robin, which belies its ferocity and persistence as an aerial performer. This bird can hover in mid-air while it scans the ground for prey. Kestrels often glide and soar with flat wings. The patterning in the wings and tail is a combination of streaking, spotting and striping. Kestrels are routinely used in falconry, as they tame easily within several weeks and to a greater degree than other raptors.
Grateful for the young eyes of trained spotters, we add each new sighting to our impressive list: turkey vulture, golden eagle, peregrine falcon, immature and mature bald eagles, merlins. Hawk Ridge is the first designated Important Bird Area in Minnesota, and cooperates with the City of Duluth in a peregrine watch of a falcon family raising its young on the side of a building.
Although the weather has prevented birds from floating by our cliffside perch this weekend, we are thrilled to have seen so many birds up close, and are impressed with the knowledge of the gregarious staff members. With each release, those gathered are asked to raise their hands in the air and “be trees” to encourage higher immediate flight from a bird which might be disoriented. I prefer to think of this as a “hurrah” to the bird, wishing it good speed on its way. Free they must be to fly again and complete what they are destined to do. Just like us, I think.