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Hawk migration underway, delighting watchers

This recent photo taken in south Fargo depicts a migrating kettle of 41 broad-winged hawks. Included in the mix are three turkey vultures. By Dan Mason

There is something exceedingly mesmerizing about watching a soaring hawk.

As far as I can recall this is not a new idea for me. Even before I started calling myself a "birder,"—sometime around 1978—I can remember looking up at these rather large birds carving broad arcing circles in the sky. They made me take notice and stare even then. I often wonder if the seeds for my chosen profession (aviation) weren't initially planted by observing these and other birds in flight.

Fall hawk migration has been underway now for a few weeks and hardly a day passes when any observant individual has a better than even chance of seeing one. "Hawks," by the way, is a generic term used by birders and others to describe any diurnal raptor. The list includes eagles, hawks, falcons, kites, and vultures.

Each species adheres loosely to a migration schedule that has been hammered out over thousands of years. Still, with a variety of factors entering into the equation each year--namely weather--it is hard to predict the days or weeks when migratory pushes will take place.

There is a piece of public ground in south Fargo where I have spent several hours during this most recent month simply sitting and watching the sky with binoculars and a spotting scope. As mentioned, these are birds on their own schedule, not on mine. Therefore some days are curiously devoid of birds, others quite

busy.

Thus far I've observed 11 different raptor species during nearly 22 hours at the site. As expected in September, the most numerous hawk is one we don't normally see all summer: broad-winged hawk. This is a woodland buteo that makes its summer home in the middle of forests but is known to migrate in large groups (called "kettles"). In terms of numbers, the Red River Valley will never match premiere sites such as Duluth's Hawk Ridge Observatory; we just don't have the juxtaposition of geography on our side.

Still, nearly 300 broad-winged hawks have passed the Fargo site while I've been there.

Other species showing up rather well have been red-tailed hawks (61), sharp-shinned hawks (47), bald eagles (26), and Cooper's hawks (12). Rounding out the list are northern harriers, ospreys, turkey vultures, American kestrels, merlins, and peregrine falcons.

Of course other bird species are migrating too. It's apparent that this should be a pretty good winter for red-breasted nuthatches, for instance. Blue jays, northern flickers, and American robins have also been impressive along with great numbers of migrating monarch butterflies.

I've yet to see some of the more striking raptors such as northern goshawk and golden eagle. But as migration progresses into October and November, the chance of seeing one of these creeps up quite a bit as they typically appear rather late.

Recent weeks have served as a reminder to me why I do this. On Sept. 17, another hawk watcher and I counted 143 broad-winged hawks. This included one kettle consisting of over 50 birds.

At times like this I am at a loss for words. To focus one's gaze skyward and land upon 50 beefy hawks circling in a loose mass is breathtaking in my opinion. The ease and grace with which these large-winged birds address the issue of flight is amazing. Not an ounce of energy is wasted as they wheel and soar and climb, glider-like, on columns of rising air.

Da Vinci has been credited with the following quote: "For once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will long to return."

I think his words drill to the very core of what makes some people wish to fly.

I have a dear friend who looks up at every airplane passing overhead, wondering what kind it is and who might be inside. I guess I tend to ignore some of the air traffic these days.

But hawks? No way. These are masters of the sky, tamers of the air that have my full rapt attention. I will watch with an intense and covetous stare at every one. I can't take my eyes off them. I'm not sure I ever could.

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