Monday, December 21, 2009

When the Going Gets Rough (leg)

Monday, December 21, 2009

On our late November birding trip to The Wilds, the birding started out very slowly. Normally as we drive the roads around the property we spook up flocks of horned larks, Savannah sparrows, American tree sparrows, and dark-eyed juncos. Not on this reasonably mild winter day. It was Deadsville, dude.

So we did what any bunch of bored birders would do, we started scanning to see if we could spot anything interesting. I've already recounted our observations of the local white-tailed deer, plus the captive endangered species at The Wilds. A few red-tailed hawks, a flashy male American kestrel, and a distant male northern harrier were nice, but I was hoping for something a bit rougher. And there it was: a rough-legged hawk.

It was a distant bird, but even before I got the scope on it, I had a hunch it was a rough-legged because of where it was perched. It was in the top of a small tree along a fence line. It would be unusual to find a redtail perching in such a small tree. But for the comparatively tiny-footed rough-legged hawk, the thin branches of the small pine were perfect. Rough-leggeds have small feet for grabbing smaller prey such as rodents.

On the Arctic tundra where these birds breed, lemmings are a main prey item. Here at The Wilds, it's probably meadow voles. The red-taileds with their larger feet are seeking rabbits in the meadows and squirrels along the woodland edges. And when they perch, they are perching on larger, sturdier branches.

Around the back side of The Wilds we pulled up to an overlook and quickly spotted another roughleg hovering over a hillside. We jumped out of the van and took up positions in a grassy ditch to take some photographs. The hawk obliged us by flying over. I'm still not great at getting good shots of flying birds, but this bird was large enough that I couldn't strike out completely.
Here are a few of the images from that fly over.

The bold black-and-white wing pattern of a rough-legged hawk in flight.

Long, wide wings with black carpal patches. A black belly band.

The white tail with a broad black band shows well in this photo.

It was very cool to see this second rough-leg. And this sighting seemed to open up the birding action a bit. Soon we were scoping rafts of buffleheads and mallards, gadwall and scaup. We never did see a single lark, though, which seemed weird. Maybe the more recent snows have brought them down from up north.

Soon enough it was time to suit up and bug out. We let the sun say its fare-thee-well and then we did likewise.


On December 21, 2009 at 3:18 PM Mary said...

Oh, I think your shots of flying birds are good. Much better than mine that look like a gray smudge on sky blue.

On December 22, 2009 at 9:37 AM DaveABirding said...

Great tip on the different perch liklihood between Red-tails and Roughies, I'll keep that one in mind.

On December 22, 2009 at 6:25 PM Corey Husic said...

Wish the Rough-legs would show in PA this year... Great post.