ALWAYS IN SEASON: Late spring means a rush of migrants
It may be that the rough-legged hawk should have been last week’s bird, but it’s hard to push aside the meadowlark, so eagerly awaited by winter weary northern Plains residents.
And it may be that the dark-eyed junco should be this week’s bird, but it’s hard to displace the great Hawk of the North.
Meadowlarks were reassuringly numerous last week as spring migration gained momentum — despite a full-scale blizzard and a second, lesser “snow event.”
Juncos showed up early in the week, and their numbers built up as the week went on. There were numerous reports of these small, slate-gray birds showing up at feeders during Monday’s storm. By the weekend, they seemed to be ubiquitous.
This is typical of juncos, which may be among the most common birds on the continent. Most years, their passage takes a month or more, usually beginning about the first of March.
Obviously, they are late this year, and they are in a hurry,
The storm elicited behavior atypical of juncos. Usually, these birds are ground feeders. With a foot or more of snow on the ground, the juncos mobbed feeders for sunflower seeds.
The presence of rough-legged hawks seems more remarkable even than the sudden explosion of juncos. The rough-legged hawks should have been gone long ago. They nest in the far North, where the season is short.
Yet on Thursday, I found more than two dozen rough-legged hawks along Grand Forks County Road 33 and Interstate 29. Three were perched in a single cottonwood tree. Others were on fence posts, utility poles and on the ground. Still more were hunting in flight.
Earlier in the season, daily counts of more than 100 rough-legged hawks were reported in the open grasslands area west of Grand Forks..
The rough-legged hawk is one of the buteos, closely related to red-tailed and Swainson’s hawks, which are nesting species here.
Buteos are large, rather heavy-bodied hawks with long, wide wings.
Rough-legged hawks are distinctive in several ways, and thus fairly easily recognized. In flight, they show a white patch just ahead of the tail. Harriers have this field mark, too, but harriers are smaller birds with narrow wings.
Seen from below, a rough-legged hawk seems to be a study in black and white, with a dark band near the end of the tail, which otherwise is white, a dark belly, dark patches in the elbows of the wing and black wing tips.
The head is light, almost white.
A rough-legged hawk at rest seems brown, overall, and can appear quite dark. The light head stands out, though, and sometimes leads to confusion with the bald eagle. Eagles are much larger, though, and the head a more brilliant white in color.
Some rough-legged hawks, perhaps 20 percent, are very dark, and there are gradations between the typical light birds and the dark ones.
Any of these can be distinguished from other large hawks by their unusual flight pattern. Alone among the large hawks, rough-leggeds have the ability to hover, and they do this in search of prey.
American kestrels hover, too, but kestrels are much smaller than rough-legged hawks and can’t be confused with them.
Rough-legged hawks are not alone among stragglers this season. On Thursday, I saw five snowy owls along County Road 33, my highest single day total this winter.
That these northern species are here at the beginning of April points to a very compressed migration. As temperatures warm up this week, expect a sudden rush of migrants.
Days with rising temperatures and south winds are especially good for migrating hawks, which use the wind to push them northward. Last week brought my first red-tailed hawk of the season, unusually late.
There also was a report of a Swainson’s hawk.
The red-tailed hawk is the common nesting hawk in our area. They are common in field shelter belts. Swainson’s hawks become more numerous farther west.
Despite the weather, nesting is under way. In the shelterbelt at my place west of Gilby, N.D., the crows have been carrying sticks around for nearly a fortnight, although I still haven’t found where they put them, so secretive are they and so protective of their nests.
Jacobs is former publisher of the Herald. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.