Rough-legged Hawks, Merlins, Kestrels and Northern Harriers have been spotted in the Black Dirt Region of New York, not far from where I live. They have also been spotted, along with two Snowy Owls, in the New Jersey Meadowlands. So when my friend invited me to join her to spend Sunday afternoon standing outside in the snow and ice and freezing cold, I happily collected up the books, binoculars, scope, water, gloves, boots, hat and super-duper-wazzooey warm coat.
My friend is an excellent driver. I would go anywhere with her. But you’ve got to have some nerve about you when driving with a birder (especially when you’re the lone birder/driver) and even more so if the car is equipped with a moon roof, that lovely pane of glass in the top that allows you to see soaring raptors in a blue sky. Since a good driver is alert for peripheral motion, it is not uncommon for them to spot a bird before a passenger, as my friend did…
“What was that?” she exclaimed as her hands gripped the wheel of the jeep. She leaned her head back to look at the sky, and then twisted to the left to peer out the side. “I haven’t seen a Rough-legged in years; don’t they fly with a shallow dihedral? Or was that a Turkey Vulture? There it is again!”
I fought the iron grip of the seat belt. Damn! I tried to follow her gaze but the strap kept me from turning around to look out the back window.
“There! It’s right there! I think it IS a Rough-legged! Oh…it’s beautiful!” she sighed as she steered the jeep to the right side of the road.
I unsnapped the seat belt and spun around. There it was, a magnificent Rough-legged Hawk, about 20 inches long, with a wingspan of about 53 inches, named for the feathers covering its legs (the only other two American hawks with feathered legs are the Ferruginous Hawk and the Golden Eagle). We could see its pale flight feathers with the dark trailing edge of its wings, and even the black marks on its “wrists.” Its tail was white at the base but we couldn’t quite make out the banding from this distance.
Rough-legged hawks breed in the Arctic tundra and taiga regions of the northern hemisphere (where they sometimes use caribou bones for nesting material) but have traveled south in search of food. Judging by the number of raptors we saw in a few hours last Sunday afternoon, they were finding enough to stick around.
Both light and dark morph Rough-legged Hawks hovered over the frozen fields of the Wallkill. They hunted the same fields where the Northern Harriers floated and dipped for prey. American Tree and Song Sparrows hunkered under frozen stalks of goldenrod and ragweed and phragmite to avoid being the next meal.
My little camera cannot do justice to these birds. For more information, go to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It is a spectacular raptor! Keep an eye out for one, but be careful if you’re driving….