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Laura Erickson and Hawk Ridge's 50th Anniversary!

Swallow-tailed kite
Swallow-tailed kite

Heidi Holtan:
Earlier this morning, John and I were talking about Hawk Ridge in Duluth. They are celebrating 50 years. It's their anniversary event this weekend, September 22nd through the 25th. You can find information at hawkridge.org. We thought that was a great excuse to check in with our friend Laura Erickson, a longtime KAXE contributor. She is the recipient of many awards, including our conservation award, the Harry Hutchins conservation award from KAXE, and the American Birding Association's highest honor. The Roger Tory Peterson award. Laura Erickson is joining us via zoom this morning. Good morning, Laura.

Laura Erickson:
Good morning. Can you hear me?

Heidi Holtan:
I can, yes!

John Latimer:
Perfectly. Yes. Good morning.

Laura Erickson:
Good. <Laugh>

Heidi Holtan:
So, let's talk about Hawk Ridge a little bit, for those who don't know it. How do you describe it?

Laura Erickson:
It's this wonderful spot where you stand on the road, sit on a rock, or bring a lawn chair and look up and look out and you will see hawks, especially in September.

John Latimer:
It is an astonishing place. Laura. I have been there many times. When I come to Duluth this time of year, I always try to set aside an hour or two where I can just stop and, you know, I don't have to go there and count: I can just go there, relax and enjoy.

Laura Erickson:
Yeah, counting is almost a compulsion for me, but counting is not the only way you can enjoy hawks, just watching the different species and how each one has its own technique for passing over Duluth is a really cool thing.

John Latimer:
Yeah.

Laura Erickson:
If you can't get to Duluth, look up in the sky in Grand Rapids, Deer River, or wherever you are. Many of them follow rivers, because there are so many warblers and sparrows and other critters that serve as hawk food that are drawn to those rivers. So, raptors, wherever they happen to be, are moving. We just get more than other places because as they're coming south, and prevailing westerlies are pushing 'em toward the great lakes, (anything from Northern and Western Canada and the Western US,) if they hit anywhere along that north shore of Lake Superior they hang a right and head down the shore because they don't want to cross the lake. And that's why they're so concentrated right here at the end of the lake in Duluth.

John Latimer:
Yeah. It is a rather unique geological or geographical confluence that forces the birds that way. And earlier I tried to enumerate a couple of other places in the country because while Hawk Ridge isn't singular, it is one of five or six of these focal points where birds get funneled. I was thinking of Cape May in New Jersey and isn't there one kind of at the end of Lake Erie in Pennsylvania, maybe?

Laura Erickson:
Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania is huge. That's in the mountains. They're following the updrafts that you get on the mountains. They have way, way more Red-shouldered Hawks than we do here in Duluth. We might only get two or three in the season, where they get thousands of them. But we have the most Northern Goshawks passing over Hawk Ridge...

John Latimer:
Wow.

Laura Erickson:
...Of any hawk site anywhere. And we have the best in the entire inland United States. Our total counts are higher than Hawk Mountain. We're just really good. You don't get bigger counts 'till you get down to the Texas area. Where's, there's a huge count, I think near Corpus Christi. And then when you get down to Mexico, to the Yucatan Peninsula, because there, you're not only getting all these northern hawks, but also some southern ones and kites and things.

Laura Erickson:
Speaking of kites, we had our first ever Swallow-tailed Kite fly over Hawk Ridge in August. It was amazing. I got a text message while it was still there. And I live in Lakeside right under Hawk Ridge. Except for a few trees now blocking the way, you can see the main overlook from my backyard. So, I ran out in the yard, searching and searching. I've seen a Swallow-tailed Kite once in Fairbault, Minnesota, but I've never seen one up here. I badly wanted to get it for my St. Louis county and my yard lists, but I missed. The only people who saw it once it cleared Hawk Ridge were down at the Lake Air Bottle Shoppe on London road, where it cruised over. You have a good vantage point there to see what's flying over the lake. Then, some people saw it in Superior. There was also a Mississippi Kite last month. We usually get one or maybe two most years in August. August is the big month for dragon flies and insects. So, that's the big month for Common Nighthawks too, which are no longer common. We had a couple of fairly good evenings here in Duluth, but nothing like we used to have.

John Latimer:
Yeah. I had the same experience. Once I spot some, it's like, okay, I've gotta start paying attention in the evenings. And it might run a week. This year I think I had three really strong sightings of Nighthawks. But, other than that, it was pretty, as you say, "no longer common."

Laura Erickson:
It's heartbreaking. And there was just this study released about the vast decline in different mayflies and those insects that depend very strongly on well-oxygenated, clean water in lakes and rivers and streams. Their populations have plummeted since my childhood, when you used to even be able to read in the Chicago Tribune about them having to bring out snow plows in May to clear the bridges of all the mayflies. They're nothing like that anymore. And the birds that depended on mayflies to fuel their spring migration and to feed their babies (that's Whip-Poor-Wills, Nighthawks, and Purple Martins), their populations have plummeted too.

John Latimer:
Yeah. Well, I don't want to get too far afield here because I want to ask you more about what's what's coming over Hawk Ridge right now, but I did see an article about neonicotinoid pesticides showing up in deer all over the state of Minnesota. And those pesticides are not helping bird populations either, but, as I said, let's talk more positively. <laugh>

Laura Erickson:
And we could talk very positively about nature's perfect bird, which happens to be the number one species passing Hawk Ridge right now, the Blue Jay.

Heidi Holtan:
Why is the Blue Jay nature's perfect bird?

Laura Erickson:
Well, what else can you combine? Perky little crest, so much extraordinarily beautiful plumage, and so much intelligence, in a third of an, you know, well about an ounce <laugh> of all that wonder! And they're so smart and fun: they have me totally wrapped around their little feathers. <laugh> It's kind of shocking. After having my heart attacks, I have to get some exercise, but I spend most of my time at my computer. So, I have a desk treadmill, and the window is right there. I can't see the feeder unless I pull back. One Blue Jay rises up from the feeder, hovering and staring at my eye level to get my attention if it wants more peanuts in that feeder! <Laugh>. I also have a window straight ahead that I can't see because my desk and computer block it, but that's the one air conditioner in our house. And a Blue Jay will sit on that, which makes it just at the right angle that if I look below my monitor, there it is, staring at me, saying, "Put some peanuts in the feeder lady!" <Laugh>. So Blue Jays very often discuss among themselves how trainable some people are <laugh>. And I happen to be one of the most trainable. But, so far this season, since they started counting on August 9th, the Blue Jay is the number one species at Hawk Ridge. They've counted 4,593!

John Latimer:
Oh my gosh. Wow.

Laura Erickson:
You can see the count from minute to minute at hawkridge.org. It'll say, "look at this year's migration" and you just go there and it's all there for you to see. The number two species right now is the Broad-Winged Hawk. We've had 11,337 so far this year.

John Latimer:
Now I just had a Broad-Winged Hawk across my driveway in front of me this last week. When I made the note in my phenology records, I put it in as "last sighting." And I may have to amend that, but I suspect that they're probably on their way south.

Laura Erickson:
Oh, they're definitely on their way south. The funny thing about Broad-winged Hawks is we get this huge migration: Many years, they are the number one species flying over Hawk Ridge. In August, we get very few of them. Our biggest number in August is Sharp-shinned Hawks, which migrate through August, September, October, and November. We've had recoveries of Sharp-shinned Hawks from every country in Central America, some South American countries, and, in mid-winter in Wisconsin! Some of them are only going as far as the Blue Jays. They figure out how to get these big clunky birds, and they don't have to go too far. But the ones that specialize on warblers and other tiny neotropical migrants have to go to the neotropics to hunt them, so their migration is spread out. Broad-winged Hawks are going all the way to South America, so they concentrate their migration. Sharp-shins have little wings and they can just flap-soar, flap-soar and be eating along the way. Broad-winged Hawks are designed to hunt from a perch. They're what you call Buteos with these big, long, broad wings (they live up to their name!) and a short tail, which is not very good for maneuverability. But it's wide, so that gives them all the surface area that thermals can hold up. The problem is that they can't hunt very well while they're migrating. They have to sit down and watch: they eat frogs and snakes and other cold water vertebrates as well as little mammals and things. So, they'll choose just the very best days for getting thermals or updrafts: when the wind hits Hawk Ridge, or buildings or things, you get updrafts and they concentrate their migration on a few days. So all the Broad-wings we get are all concentrated in September. We may only get one or two when it gets to October, but we'll still be getting plenty of [Sharp-shins].

John Latimer:
Laura. We are darn near out of time. Really quickly run through what's going on for your 50th anniversary of Hawk Ridge, and let's close it there!

Laura Erickson:
Okay. This weekend things start on Thursday night. We're having a banquet and then there'll be field trips and all kinds of things! And if you have it registered for those, some things still have openings and some things don't require a registration. You can always just go up to Hawk Ridge. There'll be plenty of people helping to identify the birds. One of the naturalists from past years, Eric Brunke is coming here from Cape May, New Jersey for Hawk Ridge weekend. And he'll be up there helping the current naturalists, pointing out birds, and telling how they know what they are. It's a great time to go up there, see birds, see sociable birders and find out more because they are very helpful in showing you the ropes of hawk identification.

John Latimer:
Thanks, Laura. Thanks for joining us. Sociable birders: Is there another kind? <Laugh>.

Laura Erickson:
Thanks for having me!

Heidi Holtan:
It's Laura Erickson. You can find information on the work she does at lauraerickson.com, and as she said, check out Hawkridge.org for the updates on the numbers of hawk sightings!

As a mail carrier in rural Grand Rapids, Minn., for 35 years, John Latimer put his own stamp on a career that delivered more than letters. Indeed, while driving the hundred-mile round-trip daily route, he passed the time by observing and recording seasonal changes in nature, learning everything he could about the area’s weather, plants and animals, and becoming the go-to guy who could answer customers’ questions about what they were seeing in the environment.
Heidi Holtan has worked at KAXE/KBXE for over 22 years. She currently helms the Morning Show as News and Public Affairs Director where she manages producers, hosts local interviews and programs, oversees and manages web stories and establishes focus areas of programming like phenology, clean energy, Indigenous voices, Strong Women, local foods, clean energy, economic development and more. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North. In 2018 Heidi received the “Building Bridges in Media” award from the Islamic Resource Group for her work on KAXE/KBXE hosting conversations about anti-Muslim movements in rural Minnesota. During the pandemic, Heidi hosted 14 months of a weekly statewide conversation on COVID-19 for the AMPERS network.
Sarah Mitchell (she/they) joined the KAXE team in February of 2022. Sarah creates the Season Watch Newsletter, writes segment summaries for the website, and coordinates our Engaging Minnesotans with Phenology project. With a background in wildlife biology, Sarah enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, aquatic invertebrates, or the short-tailed shrew (did you know they can echolocate?).