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Hawk Migration

Every autumn, for over 30 years, I have been making a trek to northern Minnesota’s Hawk Ridge to see the annual raptor migration. For those who are not familiar with this tiny spot on a map along the north shore of Lake Superior, let me explain.

At the end of the breeding season, the number of hawks in the northwoods of Minnesota and Canada nearly triples. All the babies that hatched this past spring are migrating along with their adult parents for the winter. When they leave their northern homes, they move southward flying over the woodlands that they call home. In order to save energy during the intensive migration, the hawks utilize thermals, which are rising columns of warm air created by the sun. As the sun warms the earth, it does so unequally, and produces large bubbles of warm air that naturally rise in the surrounding cooler air. The hawks seek out the thermals and ride them high into the sky like a carnival ride.

Since the thermals are often small or narrow, the hawks fly in tight circles so they can stay on top of the thermal and continue to benefit from the lift. This is why you see hawks spinning tight circles in the sky. On dark and cloudy days when the sun doesn’t make an appearance, thermals are not created, effectively shutting down the migration.

As the hawks continue to move southward over the vast forests, eventually they run into the north shore of Lake Superior. The north shore of the largest of the Great Lakes, is over 200 miles long, and represents a significant obstacle for the migrating hawks. In addition, the water temperature of Lake Superior rarely gets above 48 degrees Fahrenheit. This means the warming effects of the sun does not exist on the surface of the lake, and no thermals are produced. Not wanting to waste any more energy than necessary, all of the migrating hawks make a right-hand turn when they reach the shoreline, effectively forcing a temporary change in the hawks migratory direction. It also concentrates the hawks along the shoreline.

At the southwestern tip of Lake Superior lies the town of Duluth, Minnesota. It’s a lovely city, built on the hillside sweeping down to the shores of Lake Superior. At the north end of town lies a ridge that rises up in a knife blade. On top of this ridge lies Hawk Ridge. On days when the winds are favorable, and the lake has created its magic by funneling thousands of hawks down the north shore, the hawks will ride up Duluth’s hawk ridge and fly directly over the heads of the raptor counters stationed at Hawks Ridge.

I recently took a group of wonderfully fun people to Hawk Ridge to see the migration for ourselves. We also visited a dear friend’s banding station, where we were successful at capturing four Sharp-shinned Hawks in just a matter of a couple hours. My friend has been doing research on hawk migration for over 40 years. I am so lucky that he allows me to bring my birding groups to see the immense amount of care that goes into catching and banding these birds of prey.

After learning all about hawk migration, we all take cover in the blind and wait for an unsuspecting hawk. When it comes in, the hawk banding staff races out to untangle the bird from the nets. After measuring, sexing and charting all the pertinent information of the bird, a metal band is affixed to the leg before releasing. Within minutes of capture, the hawk is back on their way migrating south, none the worse for the wear, but we are grateful for the information this bird will provide.

Even though I have seen this done a million times, I am still thrilled each and every time. Of course, it helps that raptors are some of my favorite birds. Until next time...

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and capture the beauty of nature. He can be followed on and can be contacted via his web page at



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