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Duluth's Hawk Ridge birdwatching mecca: 50 years and counting

From hawk-shooting hotspot to hilltop birdwatching reserve, the 50th anniversary celebrates conservation victory.

People and Hawk Ridge wooden sign
Jan and John Green, of Duluth, at the Hawk Ridge sign Sept. 3 at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — The hawks, tens of thousands of them each autumn, have been flying over Hawk Ridge here for centuries, maybe millennia, but it wasn’t always safe passage.

In the 1930s and '40s, and probably before that, a few local residents would go to what was then called Hawk Hill with shotguns and boxes of shells and shoot raptors as they flew over on the migration south.

Members of the newly formed Duluth Bird Club in the 1930s reported picking up “bushel baskets of dead hawks” at some locations each autumn.

Despite state laws against shooting hawks, and city ordinances against shooting birds within the city limits, the hawk killing continued into the 1940s. Birdwatchers and city officials would put up “no shooting” signs only to see them shot down. But the bird club members persisted, and even patrolled the area during peak migration in fall to see that the laws were enforced.

Red-tailed hawk
A red-tailed hawk flies over Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve. The reserve was officially formed in 1972 and a 50th anniversary celebration is planned Sept. 22-25.
Steve Kuchera / 2017 file / Duluth News Tribune

It was an era when many people considered raptors, much like wolves or bears, nothing more than vermin to be shot whenever they were within range.

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“The killing was common at hawk migration (hotspots) all across the country, not just in Duluth,” said Jan Green, a Duluth-based bird expert and a founding member of the Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve who researched a history of Hawk Ridge.

By 1951, the hawk shooting had stopped, for the most part, and the hawk counting began. Ornithologists across the country were confirming more hawk migration locations that were annual funnel points during the southward push. The hill over eastern Duluth’s Lakeside neighborhood was one of the best as the birds avoid flying over Lake Superior.

Hawk Ridge 50th anniversary logo

That first count in 1951, over just a few days in September, tallied 8,977 raptors total at Hawk Ridge. By the time Jan Green and her husband, John, arrived in Duluth in 1958, the hawk count was an annual event, although still pretty casual.

“We’d count when we had time, on the weekends, or when we thought there would be a good migration,” Jan said.

“Or when the weather was good,” John said with a laugh.

Jan was the more serious bird counter of the two (John was busy as a geology professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth) and she took part in the fall count into the 1980s.

“Our daughters grew up up there. I’d have to drag them along every time I’d go,” Jan said.

As more people got more interested in hawks, the counting got more frequent. Bird experts and researchers showed up to count. On Sept. 15, 1961, Jan Green counted 15,000 hawks in one day, the record at that point.

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These days, hawk counting starts Aug. 15 and runs through November, with professional bird counters on the job every day. The number of hawks counted flying over Duluth can be staggering. On Sept. 15, 2003, counters tallied 102,329 hawks in one day, 101,698 of which were broad-winged hawks, a record that still holds today. The counts go up and down, but an average of 76,000 raptors fly over every autumn along with thousands of songbirds and waterfowl, all of which are counted now.

The data gleaned from the hawk count, along with the hawk trapping and banding program at Hawk Ridge, provides valuable insight into population trends, migration routes and shifts in migration patterns.

Hawk Ridge FILE
Bird watchers observe the skies over Hawk Ridge in Duluth. Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2022 with a four days of events planned.
Steve Kuchera / 2018 file / Duluth News Tribune

“We have a research component that a lot of people don’t see, maybe don’t know about, that really drives what we do,” said Janelle Long, executive director of Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, the nonprofit group that operates programs at Hawk Ridge. “Education and outreach is another of our key areas, and then we also manage the land which is the Hawk Ridge Nature reserve.”

More than 20,000 people — students, bird watchers and tourists — now come to Hawk Ridge each fall during the migration.

Land preserved for 50 years

While the shooting had stopped and formal hawk research was ongoing throughout the 1960s, there was still no formal protection for the Hawk Ridge property — state-owned, tax-forfeited land managed by St. Louis County. Considering the million-dollar views available from the site, there would likely have been keen interest in developing the property along the eastern end of Skyline Parkway.

“It could have ended up as some very expensive homes. And most of what happens at Hawk Ridge now would not be happening,” Jan Green noted.

In 1972, a series of events came together to make sure the land remained undeveloped, public and accessible both to birds and bird watchers.

“We were really fortunate that the city had some very forward-thinking people in parks and planning, the city attorney. … Not every city would give up that kind of development potential right along Skyline Parkway,” John Green said. “It was a long process, but there wasn’t really anyone who vocally opposed it.”

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In 1972, the Duluth Bird Club formed into the new Duluth chapter of the Audubon Society. The Minnesota Chapter of the Nature Conservancy offered a loan to Audubon which then donated $11,744 to the city of Duluth.

“Most of the money raised came from outside Duluth, from the Twin Cities people in the Nature Conservancy,” Jan Green noted. “One of our dilemmas was that most people in Duluth at that time didn’t know about the hawks in their own city.”

People and Hawk Ridge wooden sign
A copy of a photograph of some of the founders of Hawk Ridge nature Reserve back in 1972, the year the nature reserve was founded. Standing are Joel Bronoel, Wilbur Fox and John Green. Sitting in front of the sign are Ole Finseth, Molly Kohlbry (Evans), Martha Green, 8, and Jan Green.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The city used the money to acquire the 115 acres on the highest part of the ridge from the county, and Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve was born. A sign went up that year. It was Jan Green who came up with the name “reserve.” The designation doesn’t give the land any special legal protection, but founders thought it important to be called something more than a city park.

The city acquired another 250 adjacent acres in 1973 to serve as a buffer for the Nature Reserve and hawk activities.

Gail Marsman, now a retired Duluth teacher, remembers taking her kids up to Hawk Ridge to hike and picnic and running into the early bird counters. She hadn’t heard the Hawk Ridge story before but was fascinated by what she saw and learned.

“Had they not acted (in 1972) there could have been houses and lights and activity up there that might have changed the migration route,” Marsman noted. She started volunteering at Hawk Ridge in 1973 and is still going strong today.

“I think last year I volunteered 120 hours. I just love it,” said Marsman, who staffs the sales trailer as well as answering questions from visiting bird watchers on the hill. “I can’t believe it’s been 50 years now. … We get people from all over the world up there and I just love being able to tell them this story. It’s really a hidden gem for us in Duluth. Sometimes I think Hawk Ridge is better known outside of Duluth than inside.”

Hawk Ridge raptor counting moves west in spring to capture massive northward migration.

Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory has planned several special events to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the reserve, running Sept. 22-25 and centered around its annual Hawk Weekend festivities that are timed for the peak raptor migration over the hill.

“It’s hard to imagine Hawk Ridge not being here,” Long said. “We really owe a lot to those people who had the foresight to set this land aside 50 years ago. … And the best part is some of them are still around to celebrate with us.”

So you know

Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve is the place, founded in 1972 and located on land owned by the city of Duluth. Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory is the nonprofit organization, founded in 2004, that manages the 365-acre property and operates research and education programs there under an agreement with the city.

The mission of the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory is to protect birds of prey and other migratory birds in the Western Lake Superior Region through research, education and stewardship.

Why September?

Hawk Weekend is timed for the peak migration of the common raptors flying over Duluth. But the action continues for several months. Hawks begin migrating past Hawk Ridge in mid-August and continue through November. The big days, when tens of thousands of broad-winged hawks may fly over, generally occur between Sept. 10-25.

broad-winged hawk
A broad-winged hawk flies above Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve. Broadwings are the most common migrating raptor over Hawk Ridge each fall, sometimes numbering in the thousands in a single day.
Clint Austin / 2015 file / Duluth News Tribune

While still a best-kept secret from many Northlanders, Hawk Ridge is a destination for birders worldwide. More than 20,000 people visit during migration, and some 85% of the people who sign visitor cards are from outside Duluth. There's now a seasonal Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory staff of more than 20 people, including bird counters and bird banders, public outreach and education staff. The budget now tops $200,000 annually.

When they aren't on the hill, Hawk Ridge staff currently has an office in the old Limnology Lab off London Road along the Lester River. And they have access to the Lester-Amity Ski Chalet for use as a rainy day classroom.

red-tailed hawk release at hawk Ridge
An immature red-tailed hawk that was captured and banded at Hawk Ridge is released back into the wild. While the releases are enjoyed by the public, it's the bird capturing and banding by staff at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory that provides critical research data on the status of raptors.
Steve Kuchera / 2016 file / Duluth News Tribune

51st season of banding

Hawk Ridge isn't just about watching and counting birds. The observatory staff conducts research as well, especially banding raptors, which helps track population and migration trends. This is the 51st year that hawk banding has occurred at Hawk Ridge. An average of 3,000 raptors are trapped, banded and released at Hawk Ridge each year.

Best days to watch

There are no specific hours at the ridge, but staff is on hand every day now through Oct. 31 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mid-mornings are often peak for migration. Clear days with west, northwest or north winds are best, pushing more birds south. Rainy days with an east or south wind make it harder for birds to fly here, so sometimes they don't. But there will be birds of some sort moving almost every day.

Avid birder, photographer, videographer, author and public speaker promotes wild places — and urges more people of color to get outdoors.

What to bring

Binoculars are the most important tool as many raptors wing high over the hill. Dress for the weather, which can be extreme on Duluth's hilltop, especially with an easterly wind. A chair is a good idea as there is no seating. If you plan to do any hiking on the 4 miles of Hawk Ridge trails, hiking boots are a good choice as the trails are rugged. There is no building at Hawk Ridge; everything is outdoors.

There is a portable toilet available during the peak migration and Hawk Ridge offers some light snacks and merchandise for sale.

Directions

Bird counting and most bird watching is done above the second, larger overlook at 3980 E. Skyline Parkway, about 1 mile east of Glenwood Street and just past where the blacktop turns to gravel. On crowded weekend days, be prepared to park some distance from the overlook and walk.

Watch the migration count online

Each year, the raptor count at Hawk Ridge is one of the two or three highest anywhere north of Mexico, averaging 76,000 annually tracking 16 regular hawk visitors and four rare hawk species, plus three rare migrating owl species and all sorts of songbirds and waterfowl. See nearly real-time raptor counts at hawkridge.org and click on "Live Fall Count Data."

Proposed Hawk Ridge improvements.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Big improvements planned

In January, the Duluth News Tribune first reported that Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory was embarking on a major construction project, including permanent toilets, an amphitheater and a covered outdoor classroom/picnic shelter.

The proposed improvements — now estimated at $2 million or more — also include expanded accessible trails, children's learning areas, permanent seating for bird watchers along with improved parking and traffic safety at the site along Skyline Parkway in eastern Duluth. The plan stops short of building any permanent buildings on Hawk Ridge.

The proposal was approved by the city parks commission this past spring and the city council this summer. Observatory officials now need to go out and raise the money to start construction. The observatory is planning a long-term campaign that would seek out individual donations, corporate donations, state and federal grants and support from foundations. Officials say it could take years to raise all the money needed and then build out all of the elements in phases.

The onetime Hawk Ridge bird counter is now trying to make it as a full-time artist.

Hawk Ridge 50th Anniversary Hawk Weekend events

Birdwatching at Hawk Ridge is always free but hawk Ridge programs, research and projects are expensive and donations are appreciated. A Hawk Weekend wristband is $5 daily or $10 for the weekend and will get you into formal programs at the ridge over the weekend. Annual memberships start at $15 for students and $30 for individuals. (Note: Several Hawk Weekend programs and events are already full and not listed here.)

Thursday, Sept. 22

9 a.m.-4 p.m.: Bird migration viewing and programs at Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve.

Friday, Sept. 23

  • 9 a.m.-4 p.m: Bird migration viewing and programs at Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve (festival wristband required for programs, see hawkridge.org for program schedule).
  • 3 p.m.: Academic presentation by Robert Rosenfield on Cooper’s Hawk research at UMD (no registration required).
  • 6:30-9 p.m.: Social event and bird research poster session at the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth (preregistration discount, $10 more at door).

Saturday, Sept. 24

  • Early morning: Birding field trips (see hawkridge.org for field trip schedule and details).
  • 7 a.m.: Songbird banding workshop (pre-registration required).
  • 9 a.m.-4p.m.: Bird migration viewing and programs at Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve (festival wristband required for programs).
  • 6:30-9 p.m.: Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory Annual Meeting and evening speaker panel at UMD, Room LSci185. “Future of Raptor Conservation: What We’ve Learned from 50 years of Raptor Research at Hawk Ridge ”(preregistration required).

Sunday, Sept. 25

  • Early morning: Birding field trips (see hawkridge.org for field trip schedule and details).
  • 9 a.m.-4 p.m.: Bird migration viewing and programs at Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve (festival wristband required for programs; see hawkridge.org for program schedule).
  • 11 a.m.: Live falcons program (preregistration required).
  • 1 p.m.: Advanced hawk watching and raptor ID workshop (preregistration required).

For more information and to register for programs, go to hawkridge.org and click on "Hawk Ridge's 50th Anniversary Celebration."

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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