Half century of bird counts at Hawk Ridge indicate some species bouncing back

A half-century of DDT cleanup has let the populations of most species catch up.
Published: Sep. 26, 2023 at 9:33 PM CDT
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DULUTH, MN. (Northern News Now) - The first systematic count of migrating birds of prey at Hawk Ridge began in 1972. That’s 51 years of studying raptor trends, and Margie Menzies has been part of the process for 13. She finds this year’s count as exciting as the first.

“This is one of the most magical phenomena you can see in the natural world. Anytime you have a bulk number of live things coming through it just knocks your socks off,” said Menzies of Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory.

In the early 70s, many factors made raptors a rare site. Decades of DDT, for example, damaged bird reproduction. A half-century of cleanup from that pesticide has let the populations of most species catch up.

“Oh definitely, DDT didn’t just affect bald eagles but osprey, loons and northern harriers,” said Sara Depew of Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory.

Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory now has a large staff and many volunteers to keep track of our feathered friends.

“In fall, we average over 60,000 raptors that make their journey south over Duluth and it’s all because of the lake,” said Depew.

Migrating birds are hesitant to cross Lake Superior so they cut south at the Head of the Lakes. With 50-plus years of data in now from Hawk Ridge, the numbers indicate bald eagles, peregrine falcons and Cooper’s hawks have rebounded from DDT. Experienced birders still love to see them, but they really get excited when rarities cross the skyline.

“There are some true arctic species like every now and again we’ll get a gyrfalcon which is the biggest of the North American falcons that lives up in the arctic,” said Menzies.

The gyrfalcon was also affected by DDT prior to 1972 and has since bounced back, which might make them a slightly more common sight in the sky over Hawk Ridge someday.

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