When he was a carpenter at Mankato, fall could be a dark time for Jim Amundson. He became keenly aware of the hours he would soon have to spend outside working in freezing and snowy conditions.
Now he can’t wait for September and October to arrive, he said on Sunday. From August 15 to December 15, the retired Amundson spends at least three hours a day observing and counting migrating raptors – all birds of prey – as part of Bethany Lutheran College’s Hawkwatch program.
“It was, with Labor Day – I hated it. It was the end, ”Amundson told Land of Memories Park, one of the show’s two viewing points. “Now this is the start. “
His volunteer work started early this year, however, because he had a particular species of bird in mind.
At the end of August 2020, he spotted four Mississippi kites, a species that the program had not recorded since 2014. Kites are typically seen along the Gulf Coast, and their rarity in Minnesota has led to avid bird enthusiasts from across the state to Amundson Land, normally calm. Memories viewing area.
“This year I spent over 70 hours coming here over the summer, which I don’t normally do, hoping the Mississippi Kite will reappear,” he said with a laugh. “But nothing happened.”
Chad Heins, the biology professor at Bethany who started the Hawkwatch program, said the kites are believed to have lived in Minnesota, although birders have never found a nest. He assumes the dry conditions this summer kept the birds further south.
Although Sunday temperatures of 80 degrees with southerly winds appeared to limit migration, late September through October is the time of peak movement through the Minnesota River Valley for raptors.
The main drivers of the past week have been the broad-winged hawks, half of which typically fly south in a narrow window between September 17 and 24.
Data from the HawkCount website shows that the broad-winged falcon surge came early, with 1,588 recorded on September 12 and 777 the next day. More than 3,250 flew south over Mankato this fall, and Heins said the last of the birds would leave this week.
Over the past decade, more than 7,000 birds of a total of 19 species have been recorded on average each fall, according to the Bethany’s Hawkwatch web page. Over the past three years, that number has grown to 8,437 per fall season.
Massive raptor migrations, especially broad-winged hawks, are important to see, said Heins and Amundson.
“When you see those big pots of five or six hundred birds at the same time, it seals the deal,” said Amundson, 72, when asked if he had ever had any other hobbies in the area. retirement.
He is one of the program’s primary volunteer observers, spending hundreds of hours each fall and spring observing the skies. Only a few others spend comparable time counting, Heins said of Amundson.
The Red-tailed Hawk season is Amundson’s favorite, he said. On average, half of the birds migrate over Mankato from October 7 to November 3, and Amundson loves to lie down in a weightless chair with his binoculars and scan the sky a mile above him. Bethany Counters have seen around 50 so far this fall.
Many ask Amundson how safe he is to avoid double-counting hawks when they fly in large masses thousands of feet high.
Relying on thermal winds to push them, the birds find a stream and fly in tight circles upward until they run out of air, he said. From there, the individual birds begin to separate from the kettle and head south.
The observers stand by; in Amundson’s case, that means carrying binoculars on a sling around his shoulders, two portable metal tally counters, and two other counting devices, one in each pocket. He clicks with one hand while his other stabilizes the binoculars he uses to track the diverging raptors.
“A good thing about hawks: they get up late, they don’t need to get up at dawn. They are waiting for the thermal to heat up – they are really lazy, they like to take advantage of everything, ”he said. “They don’t waste any energy, they just slide from thermal to thermal down south.”
For 13 years, he spent almost every day from August 15 to December 15 and from March 1 to mid-May, mainly from 9 a.m. to noon, watching birds.
He learned how the wobbly glide of a Turkey Vulture differs from that of an eagle with straight wings and smooth in the wind. He came to understand the fiery nature of the small pointed-shin hawks, which he calls “the chihuahua of the sky” because they always choose fights.
Red-headed vultures are the main bird to watch for next week, and they are flying in the hundreds above Land of Memories, Amundson said. The number so far is just under half of the expectations of 2,100 birds.
Next, the attention of local bird watchers shifts to the Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks until October, before the bald eagles mark the last major outbreak of the season in November. Between 1,200 and 1,500 bald eagles have been recorded in each of the past three years.
As long as he finds himself losing track of time, lost in the movement of raptors, Amundson said he plans to watch until he can no longer.
“My dad was 90 years old before he walked into an assisted living facility… I could still do it for another 20 years,” he said with a laugh.