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Hawk watching, an appealing exercise

I guess you could call me a raptorphile. Be it a falcon, an eagle, or a hawk, there’s just something about seeing a bird of prey that sparks a heightened alertness in me.

Part of the allure is the look. That hooked meat-tearing beak; the stern visage with piercing eyes beneath menacing eyebrows; the curved talons ending in razor sharp tips, it all completes the impression of a made-for-battle animal, one that demands respect.

There is the soaring ability too. Raptors, especially Buteos (soaring hawks such as red-tailed hawk), can display a grace and dignity nearly unmatched in the sky. Effortlessly floating on columns of rising air some birds can travel astounding distances without ever spending energy flapping a wing. Yet when pursuit is the objective, some raptors (think falcons and Accipiters) are capable of tremendous bursts of speed.

Always in the back of my mind, too, is the possibility of witnessing some wildlife drama. Just seeing a raptor is one thing, watching it pursue prey is quite another. On countless occasions I’ve watched raptors engaged in the act of hunting for a meal and I never tire of it. Different species come equipped with different hunting styles, none more dramatic than falcons. I once stood stunned as a peregrine falcon sped by quite close to where I was standing only to strike and immediately kill a blue-winged teal unwittingly resting on a nearby wetland.

Perhaps another reason I pay undue attention to raptors is their tendency toward solitude. Many of us are familiar with the sight of a red-tailed hawk sitting on a fence post or an American kestrel perched on a power line. These are nearly always single birds. Think of the last time you saw one Canada goose or a lone European starling. Rare isn’t it? Yet it’s the norm for most raptors. It makes them somewhat harder to find, thus their appeal.

Like every rule there are exceptions, however. The demands of biology are such that most birds around here, including raptors, must necessarily migrate. This means individual birds must share the sky with others doing the same thing. That places raptors into geographical areas known to concentrate their numbers, all seemingly seeking that perfect wind or that perfect column of air to take them south.

There are many sites in the country and around the world known for passing hawks. Veracruz, Mexico is perhaps the grand champion of raptor counts on this continent. No doubt due to the narrowing of the land mass, no less than four to six million raptors pass by this area each fall on their way to wintering grounds. That’s a lot of hawks.

Regionally, Hawk Ridge in Duluth is the destination for anyone wishing to be a witness to potentially thousands of hawks in a single day (if you have a desire to do something exciting and a little different, Hawk Ridge’s annual Hawk Weekend is this Friday-Sunday). Locally there is little in the way of land masses, water features, or ridge lines to direct birds and so most raptors seem to move in a broad swath with little in the way of concentrated numbers. Still, the north-south oriented Red River does seem to provide at least a modicum of density when the migrants are moving.

I was out last Sunday for a couple of hours with a fellow raptor aficionado at a spot in south Fargo. We didn’t see Hawk Ridge-type numbers this day but we counted no less than 18 individuals representing eight different species of birds of prey, all moving south.

Lest you think it’s just me interested in migrating hawks, rest assured there are others. Books dedicated to the often tricky process of identifying flying raptors continue to proliferate. There are even groups—Hawk Watch International likely the most prominent—dedicated to education, monitoring, and researching raptors.

Still, we hawk-watchers are but a small subset of wildlife viewers among us. Very few folks are even aware of what is taking place a couple of thousand feet above their heads. I’ve seen kettles (clusters of hawks in one soaring whirling group) consisting of over 50 broad-winged hawks locally, truly an amazing spectacle. It’s not for everyone certainly, but every once in a while cast an eye upward in the coming weeks. There might be a welcome surprise waiting for you.