Rough-legged hawk a wild beauty visiting from the Arctic

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The new year is upon us and will drag many of us kicking and screaming along that road of life to hopeful change, learning, new ideas and greater understanding.

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A rough-legged hawk.

We all hope for peace, warmth, wisdom and wealth in 2013 as we do in any new year, but out in the natural world survival is learned, if not hard wired, in thousands of animal species.

One of those master survivors is the subject of this month’s column.

Up on State Route 124 around Clyde along Lyon’s Ferry Road and many other secondary roads in central and northern Walla Walla County is currently a spectacular raptor that has moved into this region from the high Arctic. It’s known as the rough-legged hawk (Buteo lagopus).

The sub-adults are often mistaken for bald eagles with their white head, black belly and white tail or retraces, though this beautiful hawk is half the size of its larger cousin.

It has a 56 inch wing span and its body is 22 inches long. This spectacular bird of prey was given this name due to the thick feathers that cover the tarsus, or legs, down to its bright yellow feet and black talons. It has a very small hooked bill with a large bright yellow nare, or nasal opening.

This eye-catching hawk is unique in that it frequently hovers while hunting and perches on phone and power lines while wintering here, south of its breeding range. Rough-legged hawks are master rodent hunters and can see small mice-like voles and lemmings at hundreds of feet away.

The bird seems large but weighs much less than it would appear, due to a very thick layer of body feathers and big wing feathers that all provide outstanding insulation that protects this bird from intense winter cold. The species is a circumpolar nester, found across the Arctic where it nests on the ground on a pile of grass, lichens and twigs built up over the years by generations of raptors.

Starting in early September the hawk moves south into the interior west, the northern Great Plains and along the coasts. Here in Walla Walla County it arrives in early October to spend the winter days hunting voles, mice and gophers.

They fill a local niche vacated by Swanson’s hawks that depart in late September for Argentina and the Pampas. The rough-legged hawk will remain in Walla Walla County through mid-April and, rarely, into early May when they return north to establish territories and nest.

They know it is time to leave when the period of daylight increases and air temperatures climb. The Swanson’s hawks are arriving from Argentina as the rough-legged hawk departs for the tundra.

Rough-legged hawks are an internationally protected species that are extremely beneficial to agriculture and anyone who enjoys eating.

If you want to see one of these beautiful northern hawks, drive north up along Lyon’s Ferry Road and watch the ground, fence posts and power lines. Protect these big spectacular hawks for all the services they provide to mankind alone, not to mention their place in the ecological web of life. Conservation of these raptors is our future.

Oh, and do something wild for wildlife’s sake: Have a great New Year!

Life is good!

Mike Denny is president of the Blue Mountain chapter of the National Audubon Society. He can be reached at m.denny@charter.net., or by calling 6-8 p.m. weekdays at 529-0080.

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