DULUTH (AP) -- Most of us consider ourselves lucky on a spring day if we look up and see an eagle riding the wind, headed north.
On one recent day, Frank Nicoletti looked out from a ridge in Duluth and counted 405 of them.
''I've had eagles stacked up 10 deep out there,'' Nicoletti said from his perch below Enger Tower. ''Bald, bald, golden, bald -- and the rest bald.''
For Nicoletti, conducting the fall hawk count at Hawk Ridge in East Duluth is just not enough birding. Three years ago, he started a spring count from early March to late May. Every day, from about 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., you'll likely find Nicoletti alongside his rusty Toyota pickup at an overlook just off Skyline Parkway overlooking Duluth's Lincoln Park.
Already this spring the counting has been good. Nicoletti had counted 1,152 raptors through mid-March, 1,102 of them bald eagles.
The 405 bald eagles passed through the lenses of Nicoletti's 10-power Leica binoculars on March 7, the day temperatures in Duluth hit a record 70.
''That exceeded any day we had last fall (for bald eagles),'' said Nicoletti, 35.
He started the spring count on his own primarily to see how the spring migration compares to Duluth's famous fall count, when an average of 60,000 raptors pass over Hawk Ridge. Nicoletti wants to know how many hawks pass over Duluth in the spring, as opposed to fall, and if the proportion of various species differs from that of the fall flight.
He also wants to study the timing of the hawks' northward movements and already has learned that short-distance migrants such as bald eagles will move on good weather as early as February, whereas long-distance migrants, such as broad-winged hawks, stick to their customary schedules.
In its first three years, the spring count has turned up an average of 10,000 raptors per year, including the largest numbers of bald eagles anywhere in the country. The count was cited recently in Birder's World magazine, where Duluth was named an excellent spot to observe the spring hawk migration.
It's too early to know for sure what the numbers mean, but other birders know Nicoletti's information may someday be valuable.
''Until he started doing this, we had no scope of that spring raptor migration,'' said Dave Benson, naturalist for the Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve.
''I think it's fascinating, and I think it's valuable,'' said Duluth ornithologist Laura Erickson. ''It's really valuable to know that over 1,000 bald eagles have migrated over the tip of Lake Superior by early March. That tells us that in the warmest winter on record, eagles were ready to be migrating on that first spring breeze.''
Understanding the movements of birds is difficult at best, Erickson said.
''It's like this enormous puzzle, and everyone's got one little piece. This is one little piece of the puzzle. Plus, it's darn fun.''
It's darn fun on days when the wind isn't blowing off Lake Superior and Nicoletti has to stand alongside his truck wearing a parka with his hood up. But a single sun-struck afternoon, looking down on the crest of a golden eagle, makes up for a lot of colder days.
''That's pretty spectacular when you're looking down on golden eagles and their hackles are fiery. That's a fine sight,'' Nicoletti said.
Raptors concentrate in Duluth on their way north for the same reason they do going south -- they don't want to fly over Lake Superior. Nicoletti looked at a map and figured out where his best vantage point would likely be -- and nailed it.
''They come right over the High Bridge, or up Park Point,'' he said, looking out over the harbor and St. Louis River.
On strong northeast wind days, he moves to the Thompson Hill rest area. The birds seem to be blown south to that area by winds off the lake.
Nicoletti's fascination with birds goes back to when he was 11 or 12. He and a neighbor boy joined an Audubon Society field trip to Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, another hawk-watching mecca. Someone gave them some $25 binoculars, and they began identifying birds on their own.
''I remember my first goshawk,'' Nicoletti said, a wistful look coming over his ruddy and bearded face.
He got his first hawk-counting job at age 17 in upstate New York. Forgoing college, he's been counting ever since at such hawk havens as Cape May, N.J.; Israel; and now Hawk Ridge.
Nicoletti began counting at Hawk Ridge in 1991 and moved here in 1996. Although he is paid by Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve to count in the fall and now the spring, it's not a large sum. He works part-time at the London Road Car Wash, where his employers schedule his shifts around his counting.
His spring counts are underwritten in part by Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve, the Duluth Audubon Society and the Minnesota Ornithological Union.
Nicoletti was going to do the spring count for only three years. Now he's shooting for five. If you worked his financial support out by the hours he spends counting, it wouldn't look good.
''To be real honest, I'm doing this on my own,'' he said.
He's assisted many days by his wife, Kate Nicoletti, and by his friend Dave Carman.
But it's the love of watching hawks that keeps him going.
''I'm still a kid at heart,'' he said. ''I'm fascinated by it. The weather can be boring, but the birds are never boring. I'm always asking myself new questions every day.''
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