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Streams of raptors are possible in fall; Identifying hawks on the wing a challenge

Just one of many raptors to migrate along the Red River corridor, this turkey vulture was recently spotted. Keith Corliss

Sometimes they come in bunches, often they are singles. Some are neatly packaged in a tight, folded tuck piercing the air like a missile while others are in full sail displaying to the world beneath their every feature. Some fan the air with their wings rather lazily, others frantically. Pete Dunne calls these migrating birds "wind masters." Most folks refer to them simply as hawks.

Let's be clear on definitions. The term "hawk" can be loosely tossed about and mean different things to different people. For today's discussion, I am referring to the diurnal raptors - hawks, eagles, falcons, kites and vultures.

Hawk watching is a specific subset of the birding hobby and one which gathers considerable steam during this time of year. It's the fall migration after all. Most of the American raptor species nest to the north of us making passage through our area inevitable twice a year. The trick in seeing them is catching the right day.

About ten days ago, I had the opportunity to visit one of the premiere hawk watching sites in all of North America: Hawk Ridge in Duluth. It wasn't a wild day with many thousands of birds seen, although these do occur regularly. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon with blue skies and light winds. Just the kind of day most of us were wishing for all summer. The hour spent here produced nine different species - not bad for an early September day.

Hawk Ridge is known worldwide for its migratory hawk numbers and its strategic location in the middle of the continent. Raptors, intent on using the least amount of energy possible, will seek rising air like bees seek nectar. The North Shore is essentially one long ridge abutting a giant dead zone of ascending air - Lake Superior. This creates a funnel of sorts as hawk after hawk hugs the shoreline to avoid overflying the lake. At the base of this funnel sits Hawk Ridge.

Just how special is this site? The official counters average over 94,000 raptors per fall season. That's a lot of hawks. Keep in mind, however, certain days can be stunning. During one September day in 2003 over 100,000 hawks were tallied.

Identifying migrant hawks requires a skillset which must be learned. Sure you can read books and view DVDs. But like a developing hunter or fisherman, nothing replicates time spent in the field. Even experienced birders find themselves outside their comfort zone when faced with migrating raptors. Gone is the emphasis on plumage and classic field marks; you will not get close enough looks to crosscheck your Peterson Field Guide. Instead, a more nuanced approach is required, leaning on clues like size, shape, and the rhythm and cadence of wing beats. It takes time to master this art.

Hawk watching and North Dakota usually don't appear in the same sentence. We mostly lack the geography necessary to produce some of the extreme numbers found at Hawk Ridge or any of the notable other sites in the country. But it can be productive at times as there have been days with a couple hundred hawks counted, mostly in the northern valley.

Just last Saturday I spent an hour sitting near the Red River on the south edge of Fargo looking for migrating raptors. The first 30 minutes displayed a fair stream of birds before tapering off to nothing. I saw six red-tailed hawks, three northern harriers, two Sharp-shinned hawks, one bald eagle and one Cooper's hawk. Two birds got away. That is, I failed to identify them. I can assure you this occurs far less frequently among the experienced counters at Hawk Ridge.

I'm still refining my approach to hawk watching locally and am confident there is a multi-hundred bird day coming yet this fall. All it takes is the right moment with a northerly wind, a location with an unobstructed view of the sky and a couple other sets of eyes to help find the specks on the horizon. We'll never see the sheer numbers Duluth sees, but we can match them species for species I think.