Michigan’s Falcon Mountain


BRD-HW0212-500Watching migrating hawks, eagles, hawks and other raptors in the fall is a pleasure and a tradition, and the places where fall birds can be easily spotted are as revered as they are famous.

Cape May. Hawk Ridge. Corpus Christi. Golden door. Veracruz. At each, geography and weather work together to make watching the annual parade from northern breeding grounds to southern wintering grounds not only fun but exciting.

Some, like Pennsylvania’s rocky North Lookout, located 1,521 feet up Hawk Mountain, allow you to watch birds fly at eye level. One fall day years ago, I not only got to watch Red-tail after Red-tail, but I also had the thrill of seeing more than one hawk turn its head to look at me.

Considering that, it’s no wonder that come winter, us raptor fanatics often feel like baseball fans after the World Series. Next fall, and the next migration, may seem like a long way off.

Falcons in spring

But falcon watchers don’t have to wait until next year. Birds that fly south in the fall are flying north again, after all, and watching them in the spring can be just as fun as watching them in the fall. I recently visited a place where spring flights can be spectacular: Brockway Mountain on Michigan’s forested Keweenaw Peninsula.

Geography and weather combine in a particularly beautiful way here. Jutting north and east from the northern coast of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the 60-mile-long Keweenaw Peninsula is the last patch of dry land that many Broadwings, Sharpies and other falcons head towards. from the north see before reaching Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes. Stretching 350 miles from west to east and covering 31,820 square miles in area, it presents a formidable barrier to birds that breed on its other side. Brockway Mountain, an east-west ridge, rises near Keweenaw Point less than a mile from shore.

“The spring raptor migration at Brockway Mountain can be one of the most exciting experiences a birdwatcher can have,” says veteran hawk watcher and photographer Vic Berardi, founder of Illinois Beach State Park Hawk Watch and director of the Hawk Migration Association of North. America. “I’ve been going to Brockway for 10 years and have many memories of great flights where raptors pass at incredibly close distances.”

Southerly winds between mid-April and late May represent the best hawk sightings as they push the birds east towards Keweenaw Point. Approaching Brockway, many follow a long incline from the valley floor to the highest point of the mountain, the West Bluff. Located 1,328 feet above sea level and 728 feet above the waves of Superior, it offers breathtaking views of Isle Royale, approximately 50 miles away, and is by far the best spot in the area to observe migrating falcons.

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“Imagine Brockway Point being the cockpit of an airplane,” Berardi says of West Bluff, “with raptors rapidly approaching directly at you, then swooping immediately above or beside you at a few meters. It will take your breath away!”

And it’s getting better: many of the hawks that pass Brockway can be seen not once, but twice – first as they move east towards the tip of the peninsula, then again, flying to the west.

Brockway Raptors

The list below captures species recorded at Brockway Mountain between March 15 and June 15, 2011, the second season of the Keweenaw Raptor Survey.

Broad-winged Hawk 9,346
Sharp-shinned hawk 2,425
Red-tailed Hawk 745
Bald Eagle 545
Turkey Vulture 477
American Kestrel 114
Rough-legged Buzzard 98
Hen Harrier 80
Peregrine Falcon 34
Merlin 28
Goshawk 23
golden eagle 23
Osprey 21
Cooper’s Falcon 7
Red-shouldered Hawk 5
Swainson’s Falcon 4
Black Vulture 1
Unidentified 24

Total 14,000

The behavior was thrilling to watch, and at first seemed to defy explanation. But then I lowered my binoculars and watched the lake fill the horizon north of the mountain, and I knew the reason: flying over water is dangerous. Widewings and other birds accustomed to soaring find few thermals to soar in and can become exhausted. Also, as experienced Great Lakes navigators know, the weather can change quickly. Raptors, like boats, can be blown away or get lost in fog. And then there is the risk of predation, as gulls and large hawks will attack smaller hawks.

Where are they going?

No doubt some migrants cross Lake Superior after reaching Keweenaw Point (the Ontario shore is about 90 miles northeast), but most decide the risk of venturing over open water is too big. Where are they going?

A count in April and May 1992 recorded over 15,000 falcons heading east, or over 36 birds per hour, nearly half of which eventually returned west after Brockway, but the migration was little studied since then. As a result, our picture of springtime raptor movements in the Lake Superior region is incomplete, and the list of questions about birds flying east but not returning west remains woefully long.

Helping to explain where they go is one of the goals of the Keweenaw Raptor Survey (KRS), a pilot study funded by the Copper Country Audubon Club of Houghton and the Laughing Whitefish Audubon Society of Marquette, with additional support from Michigan Audubon. Mirroring and expanding on the 1992 count, the project will see a trained raptor counter stationed on West Bluff, pencil and clipboard at the ready, six days a week from March 15 to June 15, for three spring seasons. consecutive.

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In 2010, the first year of the survey, the KRS observer counted 9,579 raptors of 16 species flying east. Last year’s count was higher, exactly 14,000 raptors of 17 species. (The new species was a Monk Vulture, only the fifth documented sighting in the Keweenaw.)

The Broad-winged Hawk, Shiny Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Bald Eagle and Turkey Vulture were recorded most frequently in both years, but the undisputed star of Brockway’s show was the Broad -wing, the most common breeding raptor on the peninsula. In both years, it accounted for more than half of all recorded eastbound raptors. The 2011 tally was 9,346 falcons, of which 1,613 passed in a single day on May 5 when favorable winds blew from the southwest or south-southwest. A total of 4,905 widewings were recorded in 2010.

17,000 Canada Geese

Large as these numbers are, they seem small compared to the number of waterfowl counted each spring. More than 17,000 Canada geese flew over the peninsula in 2010 – 12,000 of them on the same day, April 12 – and the Arthur Green counter recorded 20,625 honkers last year. Hundreds of common loons and sandhill cranes, as well as dozens of passerine species are also recorded each spring. If you consider them with the raptors – and with an entertaining pair of common ravens that have nested successfully on the mountain two years in a row – it becomes easy to see why the American Bird Conservancy has designated the site an Important Bird Area. .

A paved road bordered by a low stone wall makes it a breeze to drive from nearby Copper Harbor to West Bluff. Consider it with the annual Copper Harbor Migratory Bird Festival (www.copperharborbirding.org), and you might assume the hawk watch is on public land. In fact, access to the mountain is not a right, but a privilege granted to birdwatchers and lake lovers thanks to the generosity of the private family who have owned it for generations and who recently expressed the desire to sell.

Fortunately, Eagle Harbor Township stepped forward with Copper Country Audubon, Michigan Nature Conservancy, Houghton Keweenaw Conservation District, Keweenaw Land Trust and other organizations to purchase the mountain, protecting the peak from development and allowing access public in perpetuity. The information is on the Eagle Harbor Township website.

Chuck Hagner is the editor of BirdWatching.

Other articles by Chuck Hagner:

Seabirds sailing in the Gulf of Maine.

Subarctic treasure: the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.

Birdwatching Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira NWR in Kansas.

Birdwatching and Gorilla Tracking in Uganda in East Africa.

Birdwatching in Alaska’s Copper River Delta.