Fall & Spring Bird Migration Counts
Fall Migration Count
The main overlook at Hawk Ridge where the fall migration count takes place sits on a rocky ridge one mile from Lake Superior and about 550 feet above the lake. In the lower foreground is the Lakeside neighborhood, in the mid distance is the lakeshore itself, and on the far horizon, from left to right, is Wisconsin, the City of Duluth and the St. Louis River estuary.
The counting of raptors began in 1951 as a weekend count in September. It was done by volunteers for the next two decades with coverage that varied from 4 to 42 days a year. Consistent coverage of the peak migration – early September through early November – started in 1972 which was also the first year of operation of the banding station. Starting in 1991 the migration count expanded to coverage from mid-August through late November.
The results of the trial count beginning in 1971 to the standardized count from 1972 to present are published by HawkCount, the database maintained by the Hawk Migration Association of North America. Summary information about the migration timing and monthly statistics are available at the Hawkwatch Site Profile for Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory on Hawk Count.
The fall bird migration count at Hawk Ridge is one of the highest in North America by numbers and species diversity. An average of over 60,000 raptors and over 200,000 other birds are counted each fall. You can view details in reports below.
Best Time to View the Fall Migration
The fall bird migration count starts August 15 and continues daily (pending weather) through November 30. The “Big Days”, when we have a higher diversity of birds and can get tens of thousands of Broad-winged Hawks flying over, generally occur from September 10-25. October is great for viewing the migration, too, as we get good numbers of the “big” birds…Bald and Golden Eagles, Rough-legged Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Goshawks. Weather is also a major factor in the quality of the flight–in fact, it’s MORE important than the date. Winds from the west or northwest are best for bringing us big numbers of birds. If you come up on a day with south or east winds, expect the flight to be slower.
Hawk watching, unlike most other wildlife activities, is best during the middle of the day. Generally, the raptors don’t start flying until 9am, and they taper off after 4pm. Planning your trip during the middle of the day: between 10am and 2pm is best. Naturalists are on site from September 1 through October 31 9am-4pm (weather pending). Click HERE to see the raptor count numbers.
Fall Count Reports
Spring Migration Count
The birds fly south in the fall, so they must fly north in the spring, right? Yes! However, the best places to view the spring bird migration is further southwest off West Skyline Parkway in Duluth. The fall bird migration research and education takes place at Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve in the fall (click HERE for more info on fall visitation). Raptors flying north through our area in the spring are a little more spread out…we don’t have as great of a natural funnel for northward migration as we do at Hawk Ridge for the southward migration in the fall, but our spring migration is still AMAZING. In fact, we have the highest daily count totals for Bald Eagles in the world, as well as record totals for several other species!
Best Time to View the Spring Migration
The count starts March 1 and continues daily (weather pending) through May 31. Timing of species arrival is the reverse of what it is in the fall. The first arrivals in the spring are the larger raptors, such as EAGLES, both bald & golden, and ROUGH-LEGGED HAWKS. Not long after that the RED-TAILED HAWKS arrive. BROAD-WINGED HAWKS and SHARP-SHINNED HAWKS begin showing up in April. In the spring, smaller birds such as Sharp-shinned Hawks and American Kestrels tend to stay down along the shore, out of range of our counters. The Northern Goshawk route is a bit of a mystery for now–our highest number for goshawks in one day during the spring is four
Peak for each species (high counts listed)
- Eagles: around March 25 (Bald: 400-500/day; Golden: 10/day)
- Rough-legged Hawks: April 10-20 (up to 75/day)
- Red-tailed Hawks: April 10-20 (1,000-2,000/day)
- Broad-winged Hawks: May 1-10 (3,000-4,000/day)
- Sharp-shinned Hawks: April 10-20 (up to 450/day)
SOUTH or SOUTHWEST winds are best for big numbers of northward migrating raptors. I am happy to report the following: these are usually days with beautiful weather! WEST winds are also good, and the counters report that there are birds “on any wind”. Birds are on a mission in the spring to get to nesting territories! This means they’re not taking their time waiting for perfect migrating weather. Numbers are, however, greatly reduced in inclement weather such as fog, snow, rain, sleet, or hail.
Another spring advantage is GREAT looks! The cold ground doesn’t promote the development of huge thermals, so the birds are generally much lower, riding updrafts along the ridge instead. The ground doesn’t warm up until late May, so until then the birds will be quite low. Previous counters have reported Bald Eagles within 40 feet of them, riding the updrafts along the ridges!
You can view our live spring raptor count at either of these links:
Spring Count Reports
Western Great Lakes Owl Monitoring (click here for more info)
Image Credits: Andrew Longtin