Wednesday, February 19, 2014

See multitude of raptors on Northwoods trail

Thousands of migrating
broad-winged hawks fly
through Duluth, Minn.,
each autumn.

Duluth day hike heads through internationally
recognized Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory

Fantastic views of Lake Superior and raptors migrating along the shoreline await day hikers of the Ridge Loop Trail in Duluth, Minn.

The 0.7-mile trail reaches the highest elevations in Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, a 315-acre nature reserve on Duluth’s north side. Established during the early 1970s, Hawk Ridge is now an internationally-renowned site for watching raptors with visitors from more than 40 countries.

Any day without fog is a good day to take in the views of Lake Superior. To see raptors, though, depends on three factors: the season; the time of day; and wind direction. You’ll spot the most raptors in September and October with the “Big Days” usually Sept. 10-25 when thousands of broad-winged hawks pass through. There’s also no need to get up too early; most raptors fly from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. with 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. as their peak hours. If the winds are from the west or northwest, expect to see large number of raptors as they fly with the breeze; days with winds from the south or east see fewer birds, as they’d have to fly against the air flow.

Ridge Overlook
To reach the Ridge Loop Trail, take Minn. Hwy. 61 north of downtown Duluth. Turn left/north on N. 43rd Avenue E. and then go left/west on Glenwood Street. Finally, turn right/north onto E. Skyline Parkway. Look for the highest point ahead of you on the parkway’s north side. Just below this summit, park in the turnout on the road’s left/north side. The trailhead is a few feet southwest of the turnout.

The trailhead’s stem starts at an elevation of 1120 feet and heads north, quickly climbing the bluffside through a wooded area. In about 0.03 miles, the trail comes into an open, rocky area known as Ridge Overlook, which offers among the best views of Lake Superior in the city.

In another 0.06 miles, the trail reaches a junction with Middle Trail (a road) on the left/west. Just beyond this intersection is the Y that are the two ends of this trail’s loop.

Go left/clockwise on the loop. This way heads along the ridgetop’s backside, saving the lake views for the end. In about 0.12 miles, the trail reaches the ridge’s summit and the highest point in Hawk Ridge, which is about 1220 feet elevation. The entire back side of the ridge is nicely forested except for a few feet when passing beneath a powerline.

From the ridge’s summit, the trail descends over the next 0.12 miles as coming around the loop’s north side.

Forty raptors a minute
After passing a junction with the Pine Woods Trail, the loop curves to the ridge’s front side, where it runs for about a quarter mile. The trail here is fairly flat with a number of open spots for viewing the lake and raptors. Perhaps the best outlooks on the trail are the Summit Ledges, which are immediately past the Pine Woods Trail junction.

During fall 2014, observers at Hawk Ridge counted 8508 raptors in a little more than 11 hours. The broad-winged and the sharp-shinned hawks dominated, but among the many other species sighted were American kestrels, bald and golden eagles, black and turkey vultures, Cooper’s hawks, merlins, Mississippi kites, northern harriers, northern goshawks, osprey, peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks, short-eared owls, and Swainson’s hawks.

Upon coming full circle on the loop, go left/south on the stem. The trail descends back to the road and pullout where you parked.

Be sure to bring a pair of binoculars. Leashed dogs friendly to others are welcome on the trail.

There’s no charge to visit the reserve, but donations are encouraged. See trail map.

Read more about day hiking Northeast Minnesota in my Headin’ to the Cabin: Day Hiking Trails of Northeast Minnesota guidebook.