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Southbound flight of the turkey vultures

A Turkey vulture flying over on an autumn day. (Photo by Larry Weber)

Now that we have passed the autumnal equinox, there are many facets of the season to observe. The days are shorter with a sunrise at about 7:20 a.m. and setting near 6:30 p.m. We have more time of darkness than light. This continues until the vernal equinox in March.

Taking our mind off the lengthening darkness aspect of autumn are a couple of other dynamic happenings. The leaf color adds much to this scene as the trees drop their food-making organs after quite a show of colors. And the migration that began back in July and lingers into November is very active now. Though other critters — insects, snakes and bats, to name a few — will experience a migration of sorts, it is mostly the birds that we note.

Living in the Northland, it is hard to not notice this feathered flight. Right in our yard we get visits from robins, blue jays, warblers, vireos, thrushes and more that may or may not have spent the summer with us, but are now passing on. Looking out in the surrounding areas, we'll see changes each day. Besides the songbirds, the voices of geese, swans and sandhill cranes make us listen as they announce their seasonal movements. And thanks to Lake Superior, we can observe the southbound flight of raptors from the unobstructed view of Hawk Ridge.

Starting already in August, almost every day observers record the flights of these birds. The raptors range in size from kestrels (about robin size) to eagles with a wingspan of about 80 inches. Despite the diverse sizes, they have some features in common.

Birds classified as raptors have hooked beaks and long claws called talons on their feet. They are all predators or scavengers. Like any other group of animals, they are placed in different groups. Accipiters are often small-to-medium woods hunters, sharp-shinned hawks, maybe the most common flyover. There are the fast-flying falcons: kestrels and merlins. Buteos tend to be larger: red-tailed and broad-winged hawks.

Others seen regularly in the fall migration are the harriers, ospreys, vultures and eagles. We are likely to see these flights in the daytime and for many that is their (and our) routine. But another whole group of raptors will travel through the region at night, the owls. Most abundant of these nocturnal flyers are tiny saw-whet owls which do their low-flying trip in October.

I find that a daytime trip to Hawk Ridge is always a time well spent. Here, looking out over the huge lake, the colorful fall foliage and being in the cooling temperatures, one can feel like we are part of this changing season. The flight of the raptors (we usually call them hawks) is seldom a disappointment.

We often look at the numbers to gauge the conditions of the flight. Some days the movement of raptors may be in the thousands. These days, most likely in mid-September, are the times of the flight of the broad-winged hawks. These midsize buteos travel in huge rising flocks known as "kettles." It is not unusual to see them as they circle and ascend on columns of warm air called thermals. Reaching great heights, they look like dots to us.

By this time in October, these kettles of broad-winged hawks are a memory, but there is plenty more to see in the flights of eagles, harriers, red-tailed hawks, sharp-shinned hawks and maybe even some cold-weather rough-legged hawks and goshawks as well. But one that often demands attention now is the turkey vultures.

Turkey vultures are well known due to their feeding habits of dining on carrion. Thanks to road kills, many of us have probably had some close-up views from a passing car. Now in October, they travel over Hawk Ridge for their wintering grounds in states to the south. Often we'll see the flight of these large dark birds in kettles, riding the thermals. Not as numerous or high as the broad-winged hawks, they are easy to see and watch.

Turkey vultures get their name from the appearance of the head. Though the whole body is dark, the head looks red due to their lack of feathers here. No feathers on the head seem to be an adaptation of their feeding on carcasses; no feathers means that they are less likely to get parasites onto their body.

With a wingspan of nearly 6 feet, these birds can easily be seen as they drift over. The featherless head is held back and often hard to notice. Vultures appear to float over effortlessly as they ride the air currents. Wings are held in a slight V-shape, making distant identification quite easy.

Some will continue to linger through the next few weeks, but now is the time when most will pass over the region. And though we don't always appreciate vultures, their October flight is impressive and add more to the autumn scene.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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