Raptors return to the North Shore
Look to the sky for signs of spring
On the heels of a record breaking and unforgiving winter people are looking for anything signifying the coming of spring. While the first patch of green grass or robin sighting may be delayed by winter’s firm grip, the first signs of spring are in the air, high up in the air.
On Sunday raptor counts indicated that the season change is upon us, snow and ice storms notwithstanding. Each year thousands of migratory raptors flock back to northern Minnesota to hatch eggs and raise their young. While a number of hawks and eagles do remain in the northland throughout the year, springtime draws large numbers of migratory birds and observers as well.
“On March 30 we had 437 bald eagles along with many other raptors sighted at the Hawk Ridge West Skyline observatory,” said Frank Nicoletti, banding director at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, adding that the migration seems to be pretty much on schedule. There were good numbers for Saturday also, with 305 bald eagle sightings along with six golden eagles, eight red- tail hawks, one northern goshawk and one sharp-shinned hawk, he said.
According to Nicoletti the number of bald eagles has increased tremendously since the pesticide DDT was banned. Widespread use of the chemical decimated the eagle population by contaminating its food supply, which then interfered with the eagle’s ability to produce strong egg shells.
“If you look at the data we have collected, in the mid 1970’s sightings were rare. Today an eagle siting is not unusual,” Nicoletti said. Records dating back to October of 1974 indicate that there were a total of 33 bald eagle sightings at Hawk Ridge. By the same month in 2013, that number had increased to 4,697. National Audubon Society figures from 1953 estimated that there were 1,000 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states. Ten years later the number had plummeted to just 417 pairs. Current estimates now place the population of the
iconic bird at over 10,000 pairs and Minnesota leads the lower 48 with over 2,200 nesting pairs.
Two annual eagle migrations take place along the North Shore of the Big Lake, bringing the raptors to the area early in the season; another wave arrives as temperatures rise in more southerly climes.
“We have our spring migration of northern birds which is occurring right now, and then a second migration in May and June of southern eagles from Florida. These birds are looking to escape the heat and molt,” said Nicoletti.
Scott Mehus, education director at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minn., said that spring has definitely sprung, at least for the eagles. The center is located along the Mississippi River and is a favorite wintering area for the birds, but increasing numbers are taking wing, Lake Superior-bound.
“We have been seeing good numbers of bald eagles moving north. During the day we see them utilizing the bluffs to gain orographic lift, which when the winds are right is a free ride for them and this helps save energy on their long migration north,” he said.