Rough-legged Hawks

April 8, 1996

     My wife and I took advantage of one of those rare spring days at the end of March to drive down along the Lake Ontario shore.

     Doris is a great partner on these drives as she plays the role of bird spotter.  Even though she drives, she is always the first to see them.  Each time a predictable dialogue follows.

     ³There¹s a hawk.²


     ³There, just over those trees and below those small clouds.²

     ³Which trees?  Which clouds?  There are hundreds of each.²

     As a further aid Doris now points, her index finger blunted against the car window indicating approximately half the sky.

     Sometimes I never do locate the bird and I am told that it went over the horizon or down into the field or behind the trees, but usually I finally see a tiny dot.  In my binoculars the speck resolves into a hawk or vulture — or too many times just a crow.

     On that drive we did not see many hawks.  Although the afternoon was clear, the sun bright, and the temperature mild, the light breeze was out of the northeast, not conducive to migrating raptors.  Mostly we saw only resident red-tailed hawks and kestrels.

     That is not a complaint.  I always enjoy watching these extremes of our local birds of prey.  The red-tail a big powerful buteo, a slow flier with broad wings and a fanned tail.  The kestrel a tiny falcon smaller than a blue jay, its sharp wings giving it great agility and speed.

     On this day we would observe only one other hawk species.

     As we approached the lake, we noticed what appeared to be white smoke rolling along the Ontario shoreline.  Could all that come from Somerset?  Indeed it could not.  The tall stack was emitting only a tiny wisp of smoke.  What we were seeing was fog rising from the lake.  And at Shadigee we suddenly passed from bright sunlight into that eerie cloud with visibility less than 50 yards.

     Retreating back to Route 18, we found Canada Geese feeding noisily in cornfields.  From another field rose a big raptor, even larger than a red-tail.  It was a rough-legged hawk.

     This species is seen here regularly but not commonly in winter and during migration.  In late May this bird will nest on a shale cliff at the northernmost reaches of Canada.

     I ticked off field marks as it hovered just yards away.  White rump.  Broad black tail band.  Dark wing knuckles.  White windows in primaries.  When it dropped down into the field I could even see the feather Œlong pants¹ that give it its name.  Other hawks¹ legs are bare.

     Returning home through the Clarence turf farms, we came upon two more rough-legs and these birds put on a spectacular show for us.

     We first saw them sitting in the lone poplar out in the broad grasslands.  Both were dark phase birds.  Melanism is rather common in hawks and these appeared almost as black as crows.

     A joker in a pick-up truck drove past honking, mischievously trying to scare them off.  He succeeded only in part, the hawks rising majestically to sail in narrow circles over the field.

     They were obviously courting, their soaring loops almost intersecting.  When they approached each other they would heel over on their sides and flash their talons toward their partner.  I hoped that we would see them grasp Œhands¹ like we saw the Iroquois eagles do two years ago, but they never got quite close enough.

     Their acrobatics provided a perfect final act for another pleasant outing on the Niagara Frontier.