Don't miss the rough-legged hawk

By now, many know about the great invasion of snowy owls taking place this season, but while birders flock to the coastline in search of these majestic owls, they may overlook other northern visitors. The little-known rough-legged hawk, though not as large and powerful as the snowy, is an impressive Arctic bird of prey that often visits us in the winter. I recently discovered one hovering against a gentle wind at Hammonasset.

Interestingly, there was a small group of birders there with spotting scopes and high expectations, some with their backs turned to the solitary hawk. They were looking for snowy owls and nearly ignored the rare hawk across the street right behind them. The hawk hovered nonetheless, unconcerned and unmolested, not like the snowy that, with its brilliant white plumage and generous wingspan, attracted the crowd of birders; the rough-legged was free, face first in the brisk wind and hunting successfully.

It came a long way, like the snowy owl, from the far north, where both species breed among the windswept tundra of the Arctic. There, it hunts in much the same way as here, hovering over the open country and then diving into the shrubs and grasses for its prey. On a barren rocky outcropping, it builds a nest that is often made with caribou bones.

And though both rough-legged hawks and snowy owls feed on lemmings, they travel to us for different reasons. It is commonly said a shortage of lemming drives the snowy south — but it is actually the abundance of lemmings that creates an influx of snowy owls southward. The lemming are the owl’s primary prey, and when they are abundant, the birds reproduce more prolifically. This simply means there are more owls to venture south and more competition for lemmings come winter.

This is precisely why we see hundreds of them one year and only a few the next. The rough-legged hawk, on the other hand, shows up in more or less equal numbers every winter. It simply migrates as a survival advantage, like the northern harrier hawk recently seen in our region. These hawks resemble owls, breed in Canada and the Arctic, and hunt in a similar way as the rough-legged.

Like the rough-legged hawk, the harrier does not receive the attention that the more conspicuous snowy owl does. Yet harriers are equally fascinating and actually employ similar methods to capture their prey. They are different in that they rely on sound to hunt and have disc-shaped owl-like heads that act to direct sound toward their ears. In fact, they are often mistaken for short-eared owls.

Probably the best place to see these three species is nearby Hammonasset in Madison. Bluff Point is worth a winter visit, too. Further from home, Light House Point and nearby Long Beach are very good sites. All of these sites have one thing in common: they are wide open and resemble the tundra where the birds live.

In a few months, when the abundance of spring emerges in the Arctic, these incredible birds of prey will return to breed there. So now is the time to take advantage and see them. The showy snowy owls are sure to captivate you, but don’t miss out on the hawks. They possess a hidden beauty and grace.

Robert Tougias is a Colchester birding author. You can ask him questions at rtougias@snet.net

 

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