Hawks join snowy owls on winter holidays

By now most people have heard about the influx of snowy owls from the Arctic to Connecticut. Surprisingly, few realize that with those owls came a lesser known but equally spectacular bird of prey - the rough-legged hawk.

Sightings of this peculiar looking hawk and the enormous snowy owl are being reported throughout our immediate area. Birders are finding rough-legged hawks and snowy owls in open country that resemble the birds' home on the tundra. Reports of both birds have come from the Cedar Island Lookout at Hammonasset, Bluff Point in Groton, Harkness Park in Waterford and the agricultural fields in Lebanon. More recent reports point to Stratford's Long Beach and the Rocky Hill Meadows as consistent sites to find rough-legged hawks. The hawks have been seen at all of our local airports, too.

The snowy owls arrived from the Arctic as early as November and the sightings have continued. Crowds flocked to the Cedar Island Lookout where a snowy owl spent the better part of early December. At that time, snowy owls were seen more often to our west at sites like Byram Beach Park in Greenwich, Sandy Point in Stonington and Stratford Long Beach.

What's interesting is the owls seemed to "disappear" from those sites when the snow covered the ground before Christmas, but it wasn't just because of their camouflaged white plumage. They dispersed across southern Connecticut and have been increasing in numbers ever since. Lately, snowy owls are even reported in atypical places - two just showed up at the Orient Point ferry launch not long ago.

Like the rough-legged hawk, snowy owls prey predominantly on lemmings. Although it is commonly thought that a shortage of lemmings drives the owls south, it is actually an abundance of lemmings that initiates the move. When they are abundant, the owls breed more prolifically. This simply means there are more owls to venture south and an increase in competition for lemmings the following year. It has nothing to do with how cold the Arctic winter is.

While the owls have received much attention, the rough-legged hawks have gone rather unnoticed and less appreciated. Yet, they are a spectacular sight nevertheless. The sight of a giant white owl is unmistakable, but it takes a little experience to confirm a rough-legged sighting.

Rough-legged hawks have long broad wings and are best recognized by their black wrist markings, white base on the tail and dark brown trimming at the tail end. Their tendency to hunt by hovering is a sure giveaway when taken into consideration with the plumage markings.

I am always thrilled at the sight of both rough-legged hawks and snowy owls. I think of the northern wilderness where they come from; a land where the summer days are long and the dusk is endless. It is a land of vast stark beauty and the bright promise of abundance for fascinating birds of prey.

Robert Tougias is a Colchester-based birding author. He is available for visual presentations and can be reached at rtougias@snet.net.

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