Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Hawk Ridge count summary fall 2015

The Hawk Ridge counting season finally ended on November 30th, and I am thrilled to report that we reached our goal of counting half a million birds. Even more impressive is that we reached this goal with just the non-raptors, without having to add the raptors. The season totals are now just over 500,000 non-raptors and over 76,000 raptors. The "2015 Songbird Super Flight" was awesome and unprecedented, especially considering that the previous best non-raptor count was 358,815 in 2014 and the eight-year average for these counts prior to this year was 235,000. The big question is: why is there this upward trend in numbers of songbirds counted at Hawk Ridge, and will it continue? I am already excited about what may happen next year. The best part about the amazing number of birds this year was that it occurred when we had the great "Team 2015" on hand all day every day to count every tiny speck that chose to fly by in daylight hours: Karl Bardon, Alex Lamoreaux, Kaija Gahm, and Steve Kolbe. There were also numerous volunteer observers available to help with the endless streams of birds.

The raptor total of 76,850 is the best season since 2004, owing to good flights of Broad-wings (40,767), Sharpies (17,812), Red-tails (7772), and eagles. Highlights include a record number of Merlins (373), the second highest seasons for Bald Eagles (5667) and Peregrines (149), the third highest season for Golden Eagles (209), and a single Mississippi Kite.

The non-raptor highlights are literally too numerous to mention, with new seasonal highs for many species, and many new record daily counts. Some of these numbers were beyond what I thought was even possible. The most numerous species/groups were: the second best season of 87,271 American Robins, an almost unbelievable 76,702 warblers of 25 species including 61,997 unidentified warblers, a record invasion of 67,452 Common Redpolls, a record season of over 50,000 Common Nighthawks, the second best season ever of 61,382 Blue Jays, a record season of over 48,000 Cedar Waxwings, and a total of 15,820 unidentified passerines (just in case anyone thought we could identify everything that flies by- we can’t!)

Some of the highlights from the fall 2015 season at Hawk Ridge are detailed with photos I took below:

Perhaps the most timely highlight of the 2015 season is the record invasion of over 67,000 Common Redpolls. Small numbers are already showing up in southern Minnesota, so no doubt it will be a good winter for them all over the state. The peak count was 11,587 on 13 November and the vast majority of redpolls flew by during the week of 8-14 November when over 51,000 were seen.
American Robin in flight showing off its red breast and showing how they tuck their wings in flight. The season total of 87,271 is the second highest season to date, and the peak flight of 28,277 on 28 September is the fourth highest one-day count. American Robins are the most numerous species counted at Hawk Ridge/Lester River with a seasonal average of over 55,000.
Flock of migrating Blue Jays. The season total of 61,382 is the second best season ever, while the peak one-day count of 10,812 on 11 September is the first five-digit day for the state.
This flock of migrating Cedar Waxwings did their part to bring the fall season total for 2015 over 48,000, the best year yet. The flight of 12,842 on 1 September was a new one-day record. 
Tree Swallow migrating low over the waves of Lake Superior on the evening of 23 August when 310 were counted, which is the best day we have had for this species during the Hawk Ridge/Lester River non-raptor counts. Usually the most numerous swallow migrating down the shore in fall is Cliff Swallow, exemplified in 2015 by a record seasonal tally of 9811, including a one-day record of 7109 on 16 August.
Yellow-rumped Warbler in flight, showing only a hint of yellow on the sides and an overall dirty brown appearance. Of the amazing 76,702 warblers seen this season, nearly 11,000 were Yellow-rumps, including 3808 on 6 October, showing how this species is the most numerous warbler counted in fall. The fall 2015 warbler total of 76,702 is nearly equal to the 86,472 warblers counted from the Lakewood Pumping station in Duluth in 1988 (the best warbler season ever), and is especially encouraging in light of the well publicized long term decline of neotropical migrants. We continue to improve our warbler totals from Hawk Ridge/Lester River. Many warbler species besides Yellow-rumps had their best season so far, including 12 Orange-crowned Warblers, 27 Northern Parulas, 3 Connecticut Warblers, 969 American Redstarts, 193 Cape May Warblers, 128 Magnolia Warblers, 20 Bay-breasted Warblers, 152 Blackpoll Warblers, 31 Ovenbirds, and 38 Northern Waterthrushes.
It was also a good season for sparrows, and we continue to improve our season totals for many species. For example, this Savannah Sparrow was identified after looking at photographs, but would have otherwise been difficult to pick out during the morning flight. Although this species had seldom been seen during the Hawk Ridge/Lester River non-raptor counts previously, a total of 12 were counted this season. 
Another recent discovery the last few years has been the large number of Catharus thrushes that engage in morning flight. Although Swainson's Thrushes are the quintessential nocturnal migrant, with hundreds to thousand heard in the Duluth night sky in September, we are now also seeing a good number flying by during the morning hours with other migrants. Although its easy to tell these fliers are Catharus thrushes with binoculars at any distance, most are identified to species only by using photographs. A total of 923 thrushes were counted in morning flight this season, including 284 Swainson's Thrushes.
Here's a species you don't think of seeing flying by-Brown Creeper! Although most creepers engaging in "morning flight"  stay low to the ground and stop to rest on the trunks of trees, occasionally one will get above the treetops as this one did, allowing me to take this unique photo- note the long narrow wing stripe, the fine bill and the sharp woodpecker like tail. This season we counted 52 Brown Creepers.
Fox Sparrow engaging in "morning flight", an apparent continuation of migration by songbirds that typically migrant at night. We counted 62 Fox Sparrows this fall, our best season to date. Although relatively few sparrows were seen or identified during the first few years of the Hawk Ridge non-raptor counts, the last few years we have discovered large numbers of sparrows migrating by during the morning.
Although not often seen in migration, this season we counted 148 Black-capped Chickadees in active migration, which is the most that have been counted in nine years of recent data. Although these little black and white birds are bold when in the security of the forest, they are weak fliers and very reluctant to cross wide open spaces in direct flight. Large irruptions of chickadees occasionally occur, but the last irruption was in 1985 when over 4800 were counted at the Lakewood Pumping station in Duluth. Ten Boreal Chickadees were also counted this fall at Hawk Ridge, which is also the best season to date.
Male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker migrating overhead at Hawk Ridge. For whatever reason, more than ten times more sapsuckers flew by this fall than usual; the season total for 2015 was 967, as compared to the previous average of 76. The peak days of 278 sapsuckers on 22 September and 437 on 28 September were new high counts for Minnesota.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet in morning flight, not a bird you usually think of spotting flying overhead! Although morning flight in kinglets usually occurs through the tops of the trees with frequent brief stops to rest, occasional kinglets are seen quite high overhead. Although last year I was impressed to discover a season total of 1098 kinglets migrating through, ten times more than previously, this season we saw that many kinglets in one day!, with 733 Golden-crowned Kinglets, 125 Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and 585 unidentified kinglets seen just on 28 September, clearly a record count by a wide margin.

Young male Rose-breasted Grosbeak showing off its red underwing coverts.  The total of 198 grosbeaks counted on 1 September was a record one-day count, and part of an amazing flight of 91667 birds that day!
Common Nighthawk catching a bug as it migrates over Hawk Ridge. The 2015 season count was over 50,000, with peak daily counts of 13,723 on 29 August and 28,054 on 1 September (the latter is the third highest count for Minnesota). 
Adult Bald Eagle approaching the crowd at Hawk Ridge. We counted 5671 Bald Eagles this fall, the second best season ever, including a peak count of 492 on November 20th. With the continued mild weather even into December, I am sure there are many eagles yet to come this fall, and no doubt season totals of over 6,000 will be reached in the near future.
"Little Frankie" the Merlin attacking the owl decoy at Hawk Ridge. The season total of 373 was the highest ever, in 44 years of standardized data!
Karl Bardon
Count Director
Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory


  1. No MN birder should miss the opportunity to bird Hawk Ridge in the fall. You folks do an amazing job - not only the counting, but sharing the wonders of Hawk Ridge with visitors.

  2. I moved to Burns, Oregon in 2015. I've witnessed the fall and spring migrations through the Malheur NWR just south of town. Now, newly introduced to Hawk Ridge... I see more photography destinations in my future. :)