DULUTH, Minn. — Karl Bardon got a head start in birding. He grew up in the wooded Twin Cities suburb of North Oaks, and his dad, a birder, would take him on walks as a young child.
“I have a distinct memory of my first birding walk with my dad,” Bardon said. “It was a spring morning. We saw a catbird. I thought, ‘Cool — a bird named after a cat.’ I’ve watched birds every day since.”
This time of year, Bardon watches birds every day at Hawk Ridge in Duluth, where thousands of raptors and thousands more songbirds flow over the green hillside 500 feet above Lake Superior. For nine years, Bardon has been the official counter at Hawk Ridge.
He has loved watching birds for as long as he can remember, and apparently before, too.
“My parents tell me I was interested in the big pileated woodpecker in our yard as a toddler,” he said. “I’d run to the window to watch it. It’s still one of my favorite birds.”
Bardon, 49, was hired by Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in 2007 to count raptors, continuing an official count that began in the early 1970s. But Bardon appreciates all birds, and that same year he began counting songbirds, too. Like raptors, songbirds pass over Duluth by the thousands each fall, skirting Lake Superior. The songbird count has become an integral part of the Hawk Ridge program, and Bardon has documented it in “The Loon,” a journal of the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union.
Bardon came to Hawk Ridge with a solid resume after many years as a counter — waterbirds at Whitefish Point, Mich.; waterbirds at Avalon Sea Watch near Cape May, N.J.; raptors at Veracruz in Mexico.
Fellow birders who watch Bardon in action say his birding skills are something to behold.
“He’s the best in-flight bird identifier I’ve ever met, and I’ve met them all,” said Dave Carman, former executive director of Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory and a longtime volunteer counter at the ridge.
“Several of us counted migrating songbirds in the 1980s and early ’90s from Hawk Ridge and the Lakewood Pumping Station,” said Duluth ornithologist Laura Erickson. “We were pretty skilled at figuring out most birds by their flight pattern, silhouette and calls. … But Karl’s skills dwarf everything we did back then.”
Bardon is a tireless counter. He often starts his fall days at sunrise counting songbirds along Duluth’s lakeshore. By mid-morning, he’s up at Hawk Ridge, counting both raptors and songbirds until sunset, clicking away on his hand-held counters, jotting down hour-by-hour tallies. He rarely takes a day off except for part of a rainy day here and there.
“During the migration, I feel like I’m on high alert,” he said. “Anything could happen.”
Hawk Ridge executive director Janelle Long has witnessed Bardon’s dedication for several years now.
“Karl is the type of birder that is up before dawn listening to calls of bird migrants under the stars,” Long said. “If birds like nighthawks are still moving at dusk, Karl will be counting them. On his time off, he’s still birding, and I wouldn’t doubt if he’s dreaming about birds, too.”
Bardon is motivated to a great degree by the thought that any day he might witness some kind of avian passage he has never seen before — one that maybe nobody has seen before. Just this fall, he observed — and helped count — a flight of more than 91,000 non-raptors, including more than 33,000 warblers. Earlier this year, he had a record count of 7,100 cliff swallows in a single day.
“One year, there were thousands of crossbills,” he said during a rainy-day interview at a local coffee shop. “The next year, there will be hundreds of something else. Last year, we started seeing a lot of thrushes. They are thought to migrate at night, but the sun comes up and they want to fly some more. I thought, ‘Wow, this wasn’t supposed to happen.'”
Those observations are not just pleasant anomalies. Once documented, they contribute to the overall body of birding knowledge. Twice, in 2010 and in 2013, Bardon was honored by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union for special achievement in field ornithology.
“The data we collect at Hawk Ridge is fundamental for working out all kinds of mysteries of bird populations and migratory movements,” Erickson said, “and Karl’s work has increased the value of the data collected by orders of magnitude. I’m astonished by the level of his skill.”
Bardon takes his work seriously, but denies that he possesses extraordinary observational skills.
“I’m just dedicated,” he said. “It’s not that I have good eyes. The birds are out there for anyone to see. There’s nothing special I do other than get up for the sunrise.”
On the job
It’s a slow day in late August at Hawk Ridge. Bardon is alone in the counter’s loft, a corral of sorts that rises above the main overlook on East Skyline Parkway. His tools are at hand — 8½-power binoculars, 20- to 60-power spotting scope, 50-power sunscreen. By midday, he has counted a couple dozen sharp-shinned hawks, a dozen broadwings, 10 bald eagles, a northern harrier and a Cooper’s hawk.
The migration typically peaks in mid-September as the broadwing flight builds. Bardon will have help on those days – assistants and volunteers who will slice the sky into lanes and partition counting duties. A bank of mechanical counting clickers will be anchored on a railing, each one representing a particular species. Counters tap out every raptor that passes over.
A pair of sharpshins. Click. Click.
Red-tailed hawk. Click.
All the while, Bardon is counting songbirds, called passerines, that fly among the raptors.
“I don’t know how he does it,” Carman said. “You look over, and he’s got all the raptors I’ve got, and he’s got all the passerines, too.”
Birds with a brush
Bardon’s passion for birds reaches beyond the counting station at Hawk Ridge. He’s also been a painter of birds since childhood and in the past few years has been working to establish himself in that world. He’s had shows featuring his paintings at Lizzards Art Gallery and at the Great Lakes Aquarium.
He holds an undergraduate degree in studio arts from the University of Minnesota. Though he is soft-spoken and unassuming by nature, Bardon is pushing himself to promote his painting.
“I want to do more with my art,” he said. “It’s a big step to market yourself because that’s not my personality. But I like to paint, and I’d like people to see what I’ve done.”
He has also done shows that feature his remarkable photography of raptors, water birds and warblers.
Bardon chooses not speculate on how much longer he’ll be counting hawks and songbirds in Duluth. Every day holds the potential for some great revelation or small wonder. That’s why he’s on duty, daily from mid-August through the end of November, watching and counting. Some birdwatchers travel the nation or the world to watch birds. Bardon says he’d rather stand in one place and let the birds come to him.
“People say, ‘How can you do this so long? It gets so cold,'” he said. “But you want to see what comes over the ridge. … I could do it here for another 10 years and keep discovering things.”
To view Karl Bardon’s paintings and photography of birds, go to pbase.com/karlbardon/