- Associated Press - Saturday, September 6, 2014

MANKATO, Minn. (AP) - Wearing a Green Bay Packers hat and holding a pair of large binoculars, Bethany Lutheran College professor Chad Heins is a familiar sight for many of the campus’ fall visitors.

Often seen standing outside the Marvin G. Meyer Hall of Science and Mathematics scanning the sky for the birds, he is coordinator of Bethany’s Hawkwatch project, an ongoing effort to count the number of hawks, merlins, falcons and other birds that fly over the college.

Located in line with two of North America’s biggest hawk watching sites - Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth and the Hitchcock Nature Center in Iowa - it lays along a migratory corridor, Heins said. Thousands of birds fly over Mankato each fall, following the Minnesota River toward the south, The (Mankato) Free Press reported (https://bit.ly/1uxAjo9 ).

“We’re ultimately trying to figure out what the birds are doing when they get to this part of the state,” Heins said of collecting the data. “Do they go over land or follow the Blue Earth River?”

The question itself is one Heins may never be able to answer. The amount of data collected by the college is just one part of the puzzle. The biology professor sends the Bethany Lutheran counts to the Hawk Migration Association of North America, which then compiles a daily report of migrant hawks seen at different sites and tries to look for patterns.

The birds seen in Mankato are likely not the ones seen in Duluth or Iowa, Heins said. But they do fly through a fairly narrow corridor, which makes the data useful. Several years of data might also reveal insight into the birds’ migratory patterns, but at this point the college Hawkwatch program is still fairly new.

It was about 11 years ago, in 2003, while walking from his office to the college’s chapel that Heins looked up and just happened to see a kettle of broad-winged hawks. Looking up he wondered if Bethany Lutheran would be a good bird-watching spot. He tried to rally some students to his cause and attempted to put together a group that could start collecting data on the raptors.

“For a while there, it was me and two communication majors,” Heins said with a laugh. “I couldn’t get any biology majors, but I had two communication majors.”

With such a small force, the data did not paint a very complete picture of their migratory patterns, he said. After consulting with members of the Hawk Migration Association of North America, he set a goal for himself and his students. They would spend 90 hours counting raptors and eagles and start uploading the counts to the association’s online database.

That was in 2012. In the end, the group tallied 92 hours of hawking its first year. In 2013, Heins set a new goal, 120 hours, and put out a call for local birdwatchers.

Jim Amundson, who had bumped into Heins several times while out counting winged animals at various locations throughout Mankato, volunteered to help out when he could.

“Little did I know, he was going to be here almost every day,” Heins said with a laugh.

Amundson said he helps out because hawk watching is so exciting. On a “wing day,” as many as 500-700 raptors could fly through the area, he said.

“Last year we had a group come in and it was 600 hawks,” Amundson said. “It really gets your blood pumping.”

Sometimes the birds are just small dots in the air. Identifying them can be difficult until you practice. But Amundson said he and Heins are more than willing to train volunteers to recognize them and pick out different species.

“They give you clues,” Amundson said. “Certain types have a different wing beat and things like that, certain things, size, the way they hold their wings … they give you clues and you can see them from far away and figure what they are before they’re even close.”

With the retiree’s help, Heins collected nearly 400 hours worth of data last year. The two men, as well as students, faculty and other volunteers, observed 4,170 raptors representing 16 species. Amundson and another volunteer, Marty Rost, even did a spring count, tallying close to 250 hours and 2,000 hawks.

This year Heins is shooting for 500 hours. He held an informational meeting on Sept. 2 to tell people more about Hawkwatch, as well as raptor migration and identification. He is hoping for a few more volunteers to help with the count and said community members are always welcome to the team - a white bucket located outside Meyer Hall holds a form for watchers to fill out and record counts on. Binoculars are stored in Meyer Hall and can be checked out from the building’s manager, Glenda Bossow.

“It’s kind of like fishing, except there’s no water and you don’t have to wear a life vest,” Heins said describing hawk watching. “You worry about how many you get, not how big they are.”


Information from: The Free Press, https://www.mankatofreepress.com

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