Northland Nature: Rough-legged hawks now in the regionBy the time that we get to early December, the autumn migration is mostly one of memory.
By the time that we get to early December, the autumn migration is mostly one of memory.
Songbirds, many of which feed on insects, need to be in a warmer climate where they can survive on their food of choice. Water birds, finding ice covers over ponds, swamps, lakes and even rivers as we approach winter, escape these conditions further to the south.
During the last couple of months, raptors have been on a southbound trek of their own. These birds of prey may be able to cope with some cold snowy conditions, but most prefer better hunting locations.
Even though migration is what we see in much of the fall, there are exceptions to this rule of moving on as the cold enters the scene.
Many songbirds that have adapted to a diet of seeds and fruits are able to stay with us throughout the cold season. Regularly, we’ll look out to see feeders active with chickadees, nuthatches, finches and woodpeckers and an occasional blue jay as well. Some flocks of snow buntings will remain in the fields and roadsides for the next several weeks, maybe even all winter.
With water birds, a few hardy ones such as goldeneye ducks will remain in the Northland in the coming cold, if they find open water. Some mallards have also found in recent years that a few nearby sites are shelters to be at until next spring.
Raptors vary a great deal. Early migrants such as the broad-winged hawks and American kestrels go long distances to southern states and beyond, while others can still be seen here.
At this time as we exit November and enter the dark month of December, the time of the winter solstice, I like to look for several large raptors that are present in the Northland. This group includes bald eagles, the less common and lesser known golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, their cousins the rough-legged hawks, and the elusive goshawks of the forests.
I find that outings at this time, whether driving or walking along the roads, often reveal the presence of the eagles and large hawks.
Golden eagles, though present, are not as likely as the bald eagles. These huge birds, without white heads and tails, are expected to be seen now. They tend to congregate around rivers and are especially common on the Mississippi River far south of here, and we may be viewing them as they make the flight to this wintering site.
Red-tailed hawks are residents in the region and I expect to find their nests and observe their families every summer. With the chill of autumn, they take to the airways heading south.
But it is not unusual to now see a few along roads or open areas where they use their superb eyesight to hunt as long as they can. It is interesting to note that they may be seen along the interstate highways. Easy to see their prey out on the open pavement, they search for a meal, even at their own risk.
Rough-legged hawks are also large raptors and close cousins to the red-tailed hawks. Unlike the red-tails, rough-legs breed in the far north, the region called the tundra. The name of “rough-legged hawk” refers to the feathers covering the entire legs and feet all the way to the toes, apparently an adaptation to life in the Arctic.
The rough-legged hawk tends to be darker than the red-tail, white under the wings, with a dark band crossing the chest, unlike the red-tailed hawk; another dark band is on the lighter tail. A dark morph, mostly black, is quite commonly seen in late fall too.
Being used to the cold as they are, the rough-legged hawks do not appear in our area until mid- to late autumn, and never in flocks.
They typically sit in trees at the edges of roads or fields where they look out onto an open landscape where they are able to locate food. I have often seen them perform their hunts in a mid-air hovering manner as well. Like many other raptors that may still be with us, their prey is usually small mammals.
As we move into winter, the hunting gets more difficult with a snow cover, and though I find them on a regular basis in early winter, often part of the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, they are less likely to be seen later in the season. Apparently, most will go to the farm country to the south of us, while a few remain. By early spring, rough-legged hawks are heading to the north again.
Don’t be surprised if you see large raptors in the Northland in the next couple of weeks. These eagles and hawks are searching for meals and stay here as long as they can find food.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o email@example.com.