Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 8, 2011

In Search of the Rabbit-footed Hawk

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:48 pm

Up to this winter, I could count on one hand the number of Rough-legged Hawks I have seen. This is more from lack of trying than anything. They are uncommon, but regular, winter residents in our neck of the woods and if I were the on-line birder/posting type I could follow the internet highway and direct myself to dozens of local sightings every year. Since I am not an e-birder or a lister, I prefer to find them on my own – which means I don’t see them very often. I do listen to other folks, however, and will keep an ear open for verbal reports. Of course, I realize that many of these “word of mouth” sighting reports originate from net postings, so I guess I am a blatant, although honest, hypocrite.

This self imposed rareness factor creates a joy of discovery when I do spot one before anyone tells me about it! Call it the simple pleasure of a Capuchin monkey finding a peanut next to a jar full of them. This is one of those years when my self-hypocritical Luddite restrictiveness paid off. I have required the use of both hands and even a few toes in order to track my independent Rough-legged sightings. It has been a banner winter for the birds and I (and many others) have spotted them across southern Michigan.

In fact, a pair of these birds hanging about the Pointe Mouillee Game area have nearly become an obsession for me. I have seen them often enough, but the obsession arose from the obstructed desire to get a few decent pictures of them. It seemed that every time one or two were in sight, it was either in the middle of a snowstorm, when I was driving and a Mac truck was pushing up my rear,  or the creature was a mile off. This morning the glaring sun was behind one of the birds which happened to be a mile off as multiple trucks crowded me. My photos certainly reflect all these situations but my quest is still on-going.

Why the excitement, you ask? Well for starters, Rough-legged Hawks are Arctic visitors. Just like Snowy Owls, they winter down in the lower latitudes and return north to nest. Their summer breeding range is in the high tundra zone which stretches around the entire top of the world from Alaska and Canada to Europe and Siberia. Our Michigan birds do not come from Russia, mind you -they are from the Canadian Northeast – but the species is distributed worldwide. They are called Rough-legged Hawks on this side of the pond but are equally well known as Rough-legged Buzzards or Zimnyaks depending where “here” is (I suppose you can tell which one is the Russian word).

Scientifically they are called Buteo lagopus which means “rabbit-footed hawk.” They do not take rabbits, but they have fully feathered legs extending right up to the toes which give their legs a distinctive rabbit-foot appearance. Only Golden Eagles and Ferruginous Hawks share this trait. Although their long pointed wings span a wider space than those of the locally common Red-tailed Hawk, their feet are actually smaller and are equipped only to handle small rodents.

As a group, Rough-legged Hawks vary tremendously in pattern. All have a dark belly band, white tail with darker terminal band(s), light flight feathers, and dark wrist (carpel) patches on the wings, but these traits are often obscured by other factors. The two Pointe Mouillee birds represent two different color morphs, for instance. Unfortunately, there are probably a dozen different recognized color variations so I’ll just call them a light morph and a dark morph and won’t insult you by explaining that the dark morph is the…well…the…darker one (really). The lighter phase bird (see above in this glide-over shot) exhibits classic coloration in all regards.

Often, the bird guides will explain how approachable these birds are. Being from un-inhabited regions they are “quite trusting and docile around humans” they say. My Mouillee hawks are proof that birds do not read, for they have proven skittish in the first degree. While cruising past their hangout last week, I noted that both birds were perched atop two consecutive telephone poles close to the road. It was in the middle of a mini-blizzard, but I turned around and approached them at a respectful crawl. I was only able to snap off a few shots of the lighter bird (see below) before it took off into the flurry. The darker one lifted immediately as soon as I stopped (see ghostly portrait at beginning).

I am especially enamored of the mysterious dark bird because it is so unusual. It is chocolate brown from head to toe, front and back, with only the white inner tail and primaries to show variety (see here in this long range portrait). I will not give up my attempt to get a slightly better shot of this individual. My time is running out as Spring slowly approaches and it vacates the banana belt for its return trip to the howling north.

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