Located high above the north shore of Lake Superior, Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory is one of America’s most popular birding sites. During the fall migration, the observatory can accommodate up to 20,000 visitors from afar to witness the great passage of nearly twenty species of raptors to the south. Winged hunters come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from gargantuan golden and bald eagles to tiny blue jay-sized kestrels and pointed-shin hawks. But while all raptors are in awe, the species that visits “Hawk Heads” most hope to see the peregrine falcon – the legendary Duck Hawk – the ultimate Top Gun of the feathered parade.
Known to science as Falco peregrinus, the term peregrine falcon means wandering falcon – and wander they do. Abandoning their summer nesting grounds in the Canadian Arctic and the coast of Greenland, peregrines are currently flocking to the South American wintering grounds. One of the best places to spot high-speed migration is at Lake Superior, where roving raptors – including arctic hawks – tend to crowd before making a migratory detour along the lake’s north shore, 350 miles long. But although today’s peregrine falcons have been completely removed from federal lists of endangered and threatened species, spotting the bird remains a relatively rare treat. Whenever the legendary “Duck Falcon” is sighted by a crowd of spectators armed with binoculars and cameras, the event never fails to cause a loud eruption of cheers, punches and high fives.
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Living in the wild is a difficult proposition. Leaving the summer nesting grounds as inexperienced hunters, all raptors, including arctic peregrine falcons, struggle on their first migration. With the Pilgrims, every meal depends on the success of a death-defying high-speed chase. There is little room for error and at least 60 percent of first year birds will perish. The good news is that for those who successfully migrate, survival for subsequent years increases dramatically.
A hawk named Island Girl provides a remarkable example of long-term survival. Island Girl was first captured on its Chilean winter range by the Washington-based Southern Cross Peregrine Project on March 15, 2009. At least two years old at the time of capture, the peregrine falcon was equipped with ‘a long-lived satellite transmitter that would end up providing amazing data regarding the life cycle of this amazing species.
Before her transmitter expired three years ago, Island Girl made nine more 18,000-mile round-trip migrations from her nest site on the Arctic Cliff Rim on Baffin Island in Canada to at the wintering area in southern Chile. The combined flights were equal to seven times the circumference of the earth! Think about it. Surprisingly consistent in her migration dates, Island Girl typically left Baffin Island on September 20 or 21. Although fall migration routes varied, they often led from the Canadian Arctic to the Great Lakes, then south into the Mississippi Valley. In some years, the fall migration followed a route further east, crossing Florida and Cuba before moving southwest to Chile.
In October 2016, Audubon satellite trackers found Island Girl while tracking the shore of Lake Superior in mid-morning. By sunset, she had traveled an additional 398 miles and ended up roosting near Davenport, Iowa. Within 10 days of leaving her arctic homeland, Island Girl could often be found flying across the open expanse of the Gulf of Mexico. After making landfall, its journey would continue south along the west coast of South America until it arrived in southern Chile. With the urge to migrate suddenly stifled, Island Girl would spend the winter hunting shorebirds, gulls, and other game in a relatively small area.
As the season progressed, the falcon would once again respond to the irresistible call of its cliff ledge on Baffin Island. Bidding farewell to sunny South America, Island Girl would leave Chile around April 12 to begin the grueling 9,000 mile trek to Arctic Canada. In the spring, migrations followed a course further west, taking advantage of the wetland-rich landscapes of Nebraska and eastern Dakota, where northbound ducks and shorebirds were most abundant. As with all peregrine falcons, Island Girl lives up to her title as a wandering falcon.
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