Saturday, January 29, 2011

Rough Legged Hawks!

Well, you know what the weather has been like this winter. First it snows, then it melts for one day of mud, then it snows again. Very few sunny days have blessed us. But today the sun shone. The sky was blue. It's Saturday, and time to go BIRDING! My friend Ryan who works at the landfill (see his blog and great photos) has seen both dark morph and light morph Rough Legged Hawks out there for months now. My first attempt to find them a few weeks ago was unsuccessful, but I'm determined to find this life bird today.
Ryan says to watch for the white rump that spreads to the top of the tail. As I pulled into a muddy road along the front of the landfill, but away from the actual dumping, I saw just such a bird right in front of my car. What luck! But, you guessed it, by the time I stopped the car and got out with the camera, it had landed to eat its prey on a hillside, then took off and disappeared again. Not to be dismayed, I got out my spotting scope and started scanning the horizon. The landfill builds a barrier hill so the dumping cannot be seen from the road, and this hill forms a horizon about half to three-quarters of a mile from my position. OK with the scope, but not close enough for good photos, even with my 24x zoom lens. Here's what I could see with full zoom, but no Photoshop magnification at all. Unlike the Brownsville, TX, landfill (which is on the Texas Birding Trail), the local company doesn't allow people to come inside where the birds are. Sometimes both Red Tailed and Rough Legged Hawks would perch on the ventilator pipes (or whatever they are) sticking up out of the ground. Lacking trees, you use what you can find when you need a rest. Large long-winged birds would glide just above the horizon, then dip down over the other side, out of sight. Some were vultures, of course. Others had shorter wings, and close examination showed Red Tailed Hawks in abundance. At one time I had four in sight, as they dove down at each other. Is it almost time for Red Tail mating season? Then one bird turned sideways showing that distinctive white rump again. Of course, clouds of Starlings rose and fell on a regular basis. A helicopter buzzed us, but the birds seemed unimpressed. One little Kestrel looked over the hunting grounds too.
Ryan said that Rough Legged Hawks breed in the Artic, and the barren landfill provides plenty of rodent prey in an open area similar to the northern tundra. I don't think we see them on a regular basis here in Kentucky. This winter birders have reported Rough Legged Hawks, Short Eared Owls, and Scoters in this area - none of which are common around here. Flying in a mixture of birds, I had some trouble telling this hawk from the Vulture, until the light hit the tail right. This is the light morph, but other pictures I've seen of the dark morph can resemble a Turkey Vulture, the body is so dark, and Rough Legged Hawks will hold their wings in a slight dihedral like Vultures. I think I may have seen the dark morph, but don't have any photos to verify it even to myself. I especially enjoyed watching these large hawks flapping to hover over a given spot, watching for a rat, no doubt. Sometimes they seemed to kite, just staying in place without flapping at all. Sounds like a lot of work for a bird with a 56" wingspan. Too cool! Vultures are so co-operative! They glide slowly and circle back to the same spot so you can try again if you missed the first time. No hurry - the dead animals aren't going anywhere. Vultures are much easier to focus on than speedier hawks. While enjoying the break in the weather, I saw birds other than these hawks, but I wanted to post about them first. I'll be back later with the water fowl I found today, plus a wonderful hike in the country with a dear friend.

1 comment:

Ryan Ankeny said...

Hey congrats on your life bird! I'm glad you finally got to see it. You very well could have seen the dark phase as well because I saw him out there on Friday. Good pictures too, though it always seems like the only pictures they let you take of them is when they are flying away from you.