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Woods, water & worse/Jim Junttila

Do birds that prey together stay together?

April 30, 2010
By Jim Junttila

It's one of the things they're trying to find out with the Keweenaw Raptor Survey, studying birds of prey along the "Hawk Highway" raptor migration route on the Keweenaw Peninsula and Brockway Mountain.

The Keweenaw has always been for the birds, and we're celebrating our fine feathered friends with the fifth annual Keweenaw Migratory Bird Festival in Copper Harbor throughout May. Locals call it Birdfest.

The month-long festival, May 7-23, features ornithology galore, programs, speakers, free bird walks and talks, a live raptor program and fun for birders, plus all the good food, entertainment and hospitality you've come to expect from Copper Harbor. The event concludes on May 23 with a memorial service atop Brockway Mountain for Dr. Lawrence Binford, prominent local ornithologist and author of "Birds of the Keweenaw Peninsula." For a full schedule of events and activities, go to copperharborbirding.org.

While the "Hawk Highway" and birds of prey are the feature attraction, Copper Harbor is also a flyway for waterfowl, sea ducks and songbirds, a favorite food source for raptors. They are avian predators after all.

"A big part of the festival is the Keweenaw Raptor Survey," said Birdfest spokesperson Hannah Rooks. "Be sure to bring your binoculars, spotting scopes and cameras." The survey documenting spring raptor migration on the Keweenaw is a two-year joint project of Copper Country Audubon Club, Laughing Whitefish Audubon Society and Michigan Audubon. Members will conduct guided bird walks and talks during the festival. KRS hawk counter Max Henschell spends eight hours a day, six days a week on Brockway Mountain. He expects to see 20,000 birds by the time the survey ends June 15. For more info, visit keweenawraptorsurvey. org.

What makes the Keweenaw such a hot spot for hawk watchers? You see birds going both ways at once. Hawks are funneled up the peninsula's parallel ridges, cliffs and canyons on southerly winds so they're concentrated at Brockway Mountain which rises to 1,328 feet above sea level, 726 feet above Lake Superior. The gradually tapering peninsula steers them up to the tip, but when they see all that open water, many turn around and come back. The two-way flow at this elevation gives you a close-up, eye-level view of hawks coming and going, plus the usual infidel crows and common ravens.

"I used to fly across the big lake in my younger days, but I rarely do it non-stop anymore," said a veteran frequent flyer northern harrier. "Now I get a good running start off Brockway, soar the thermals as far as I can, drop down on Isle Royale for a bite to eat, usually gull on the wing or rabbit on the run, then make the short hop north to the Sleeping Giant on the Canadian mainland and be back in the nest by dark. All in a day's work.

"Now I travel light; I've cut back to a no-frills, no-baggage flight, not even carry-on," he quipped.

The Raptor Rendezvous provides one of the largest concentrations of spring raptors and the best viewing conditions in the northern Great Lakes. They come from all over; many are big city birds: Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Cardinals, Toronto Raptors and Blue Jays, Baltimore Orioles and Ravens. It's a big deal.

Many raptors are regular visitors to bird houses and they're not there for the seed. Favorite foods are sparrows, warblers, flycatchers, grosbeaks, chickadees, towhees, Indigo buntings or what have you. They pretty much leave the geese, cormorants and sand hill cranes alone.

"Those Detroit Red Wing blackbirds are mighty tasty, but they're fast and tough," said a wild-eyed osprey. "Anaheim Ducks are easier."

The hawks hit the highway early this year, riding the updrafts and currents of a warm early spring. Turkey vultures, golden and bald eagles, sharp-shinned, red-tailed, red-shouldered and broad winged hawks. Throw some American kestral, osprey, merlins, peregrine falcons, Swainson's hawk, northern goshawk, and an occasional Chicago Black Hawk into the mix and you've got quite the raptor rendezvous going. Birds of a feather flock together.

For more information on the fifth annual Keweenaw Migratory Bird Festival, fly to copperharborbirding.org or call Hannah or Laurel Rooks, 289-4813.

Jim can be reached 24/7/365 at jjunttila@chartermi.net.

 
 

 

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