Last week brought an influx of rough-legged hawks to our area that was both larger and earlier than expected.
Matt Spoor alerted Grand Cities Bird Club members to the phenomenon. He reported seeing 35 rough-legged hawks in the grasslands areas northwest of Grand Forks last Sunday.
I got in on the party, though I didn’t see nearly as many hawks as Spoor, probably because I started late and didn’t put in as much time or cover as many miles.
During the week, I saw rough-legged hawks along my route to the state capitol in Bismarck.
Rough-legged hawks migrate over a wide front. In fact, they are circumpolar birds, nesting along the shores of the Arctic Ocean in both North America and Eurasia. In winter, they move south, sometimes reaching the Rio Grande Valley of Texas or the Black Sea Coast of Russia.
This is the only hawk that occurs throughout the Arctic, and it is often called “the Arctic hawk.”
I like to refer to it as the “Great Northern Hawk.”
‘Hawk of November’
For us, the rough-legged hawk is the “Hawk of November.” As winter pushes across the continent, the hawks move south. They are opportunistic hunters, often hanging out here through November and into December — as long as there is open ground that permits easy hunting.
This year, the land remained snow free until early December, and rough-legged hawks hung around.
The hawks move as far south as necessary to have open ground for the hunt.
Evidently — considering the event of last week — the birds move north as soon as prey is accessible.
The grasslands northwest of Grand Forks are regionally famous for their appeal to northern birds. This is among the continent’s best spots to find numbers of snowy owls, for example, and big flocks of snow buntings — the northernmost land-nesting bird known.
This has not been an especially good year for snowy owls. Snow buntings have been here in abundance.
The rough-legged hawk is a relatively easy bird to recognize. It is large, to begin with, with wings that appear long in relation to its apparent body size. In flight, the hawks are boldly patterned, with light heads and dark patches on the belly and at the bend of the lower wing.
Warning, though: The hawks show quite a bit of variation. Very light and very dark birds occur, sometimes together.
Still, it is usually safe to conclude that any large hawk seen in open country during a season of transition is a rough-legged hawk.
The birds’ behavior will seal the identification.
Rough-legged hawks are able to hover, a skill unique to them among the large hawks. A large hawk hovering is a rough-legged hawk.
In flight, the birds show a conspicuous white patch above the tail.
The birds appear out-sized when perched, creating the impression of a big hulking figure on an isolated tree, utility pole, rock pile or hay bale.
It is possible to confuse a rough-legged hawk with a bald eagle, because the rough-legged hawk’s head is often quite light and the body quite dark.
Bald eagle numbers have begun to build in the area, too. I saw five eagles during my drive to Bismarck — individual birds, I’m sure, because I’d put quite a few miles on the vehicle between sightings.
Eagles have become noticeably more numerous in our area, both as migrants and as nesting birds. I’ve seen them in every month of the year, but eagles are more numerous in early spring, when they move north, and in late fall, on their southbound journey. In November, quite large concentrations of eagles develop, especially around Devils Lake. Farther west, eagles are regular throughout the year along the Missouri River south Garrison Dam.
The other news from the bird world is the northward movement of geese. The geese didn’t waste any time taking advantage of warm weather and open water. A significant movement of geese occurred over last week and continued throughout the week.
Spoor said he began his birding outing in search of horned larks, usually among the first of winter migrants to return to the Red River Valley.
He found them.
He also found a northern harrier, another early returnee among migrants.
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