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BIRDWISE: Hawks will take center stage

Red-tailed hawks dominate fall migration during October and peak toward the end of the month.

Autumn struck quickly here. On the heels of last week's unusually cool temperatures, a number of songbird species typical of early fall migration began showing up: ruby- and golden-crowned kinglets, brown creepers and yellow-rumped warblers. The latter is always the last of the warbler species to depart, and you can expect them to become abundant in the first half of October.

Other species — like northern flickers, eastern bluebirds, blue jays and a variety of sparrows — are on the move as well. By the time you read this article, we will likely have seen the first of the white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos. This means it's time to start spreading millet (available at local seed houses) on the ground, which is where the sparrows and juncos prefer to feed.

But to many birders, the real stars of the season are migrating hawks. Unlike songbirds, hawks migrate only during daylight hours and can occur in spectacular concentrations when conditions are ideal. Those conditions are northwest winds combined with topographic features that influence the birds' movement patterns.

A classic example of the latter is the North Shore of Lake Superior. Fall-migrating hawks arriving at the North Shore are reluctant to cross the lake. As a result, most of the hawks moving through the entire arrowhead of the state turn southwest and follow the shore to Duluth before turning back southward again.

Birders come from all over the country to Hawk Ridge, an observation spot on Skyline Drive above Duluth, in hopes of witnessing one of the great migration spectacles in the country as the birds funnel through.

Broad-winged hawks lead the parade, peaking in late September. Broad-wings in the tens of thousands (!) have been counted on some days in Duluth. Sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks also move early and peak during the first half of October. Sharp-shins may also number in the thousands when winds are right. Red-tailed hawks dominate during October and peak toward the end of the month. Bald eagles migrate throughout the fall.

Hawk Ridge is an excellent place for spotting some of the rarer species, like goshawks and golden eagles. Falcons (though technically not hawks "anymore," as DNA studies have found them to be more closely related to parrots!) also migrate along the ridge. The peregrine falcon is the most sought after of these because of their impressively powerful flight. Your chance of seeing some at Hawk Ridge in October are good, even on days with unfavorable winds.

The best times of day for seeing the most hawks are 9-11 a.m. and 2-4 p.m. Unless winds are very strong, many hawks are simply flying too high to be seen easily between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

And you don't need to go to Duluth to see migrating hawks. In the Park Rapids area, although there are no topographic features to concentrate migrants, good numbers can be seen on favorable days if you are patient. I like to look after 3 p.m., when the birds are beginning to lose altitude and heading to roost for the night.

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