Species focus - Rough-Legged Hawk

AN UNHAWK-LIKE HAWK

After ten years of bird photography I've learned that hawks are wary creatures. They like to keep their distance from humans, especially photographers. The exception is when food is involved. A few years ago at Jericho Park in Vancouver I watched a Northern Goshawk snatch an American Wigeon from a partly frozen pond. It landed ten meters from me and proceeded to leisurely dine for the next two hours while I took about a thousand pictures. I've also had close-up experiences with a Red-tailed Hawk eating a snake and another with a road kill rabbit. On another occasion my wife and I were checking on a fledgling Robin on our lawn. My wife was just about to pick it up when a lurking Cooperís Hawk swooped in and snatched the Robin just inches from my wifeís hand.

When food is not involved I've never gotten close to a hawk. Whenever I've tried to approach one on a tree or fence post it was gone as soon as I started walking towards it. Even in a car I've never been able to get that coveted full-frame shot. But, myths are meant to be shattered, and I was incredulous recently when I stood face-to-face with a Rough-legged Hawk at the Nanaimo River estuary.

Rough-legged Hawks get their name from the feathers that cover their legs. They are similar in size to the Red-tailed Hawks and belong to the buteo group which are chunky hawks with long wings and short tails. They often hunt from a perch, and like Ospreys, they can hover before diving on their prey. Their diet is mainly small mammals like lemmings, mice, ground squirrels, and voles, but they are not too proud to dine on road-kill and carrion especially during the winter when food is scarcer.

Rough-legged Hawks spend the summer at their Arctic tundra or taiga nesting grounds and migrate south in the fall to their winter range from the southern edge of Canada to most of the US. Many pass over Vancouver Island from late September to late November, but they rarely stop. If they do, itís only for a day or two. I've never heard of any stopping any longer until I met the Rough-legged at the Nanaimo River Estuary. As of December 9th, it had been at the estuary for over four weeks.

As for the myth about not getting close to hawks, it's still true for most hawks, but the Rough-legged is an exception. On December 3rd I arrived at the estuary at 9:30 am, and there were already a half dozen photographers grouped together in the field. Ten meters away the Rough-legged was perched at eye-level on a swallow nest-box enjoying the morning sun. It was still frosty and the hawk was waiting for it to warm up so the voles and other small creatures would start moving. I took a few quick shots then waited. The hawk was motionless except for the occasional glance to the left and then to the right. A half hour later it finally spotted a prey and dove into the tall grass right in front of me. I couldn't see if it caught anything. If it did, it was small and a quick snack. Shortly after it flew back to the nest box, and the procedure was repeated twice more before it flew to another perch.

After an hour and a half and about 300 photos it was time to go. When I got home I googled Rough-legged Hawk and discovered that it is one of the few hawks that is tolerant of humans.

There had been some concern that too many people would be unduly stressful for the hawk, but you couldn't tell from its behaviour and demeanor. It has been photographed many times at close range catching voles which was probably its main source of food. Conditions were ideal with the highest tides of the year forcing the voles to higher ground.

A grass-eyed view of the Roughie as he was flying through the frosty weeds from his attempt at a vole or some other prey.

Do you like the shrike?

A common predator at the Nanaimo estuary is the Northern Shrike. It has the reputation of catching small birds and skewering them on thorns or barbed wire. However, its staple is probably small rodents, amphibians, and large insects.

Species focus - Tundra Swan

ONE IN 200 - A few years ago a photographer friend asked me where he could find a Tundra Swan. I told him it was simple. For every group of 200 Trumpeters, there would be one Tundra. The next day I received a phone call from my excited friend, "You're right, Mike. I was just at Comox Bay Farm. I counted 200 Trumpeters and one of them was a Tundra!"

Of course, 1 in 200 is not the golden ration for the two species. I just happened to luck out on that occasion. In actual fact, the first time I saw a Tundra there was only one Trumpeter around. The second time there were about seventy Trumpeters. However, the idea of 1 in 200 is not unreasonable. Tundra Swans are uncommon visitors to Vancouver Island and are generally found among the trumpeters.

When looking for a Tundra Swan check out any birds that look smaller than the Trumpeter. The Tundra is noticeably shorter and slimmer, but the distinguishing feature is a yellow spot or patch on the bill close to the eye.

Like swans in general, the long neck is suited for underwater grazing in shallow ponds and waterways, and that is how the Tundra feeds for most of the summer.

The wintering grounds of the Tundra Swan used to be the shallow ponds, marshes, and fields on the coastal lowlands of Washington, Oregon, and California. Unfortunately, most of the lowlands have been converted to farmland. The good news was that the Tundra swan was able to adapt and now survives on grains and cultivated tubers.

The thick, sturdy bills of the swan makes an ideal shovel for mining roots and tubers from the soil.

Most Tundra Swans have a yellow bill patch close to the eye. SometiMes the patch is very small and sometimes it is absent.

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BEST WISHES FOR THE MERRIEST CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY, HEALTHY, AND PRODUCTIVE NEW YEAR!

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BUTTERFLY BOOK

Available at most Vancouver Island Book Stores. Also available by mail order. Contact: admin AT vancouverislandbirds DOT com

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Bird Poster

My poster is on display at: Victoria - Swan Lake Nature House. (Note: This poster has been produced in a more manageable size and is now available for $20 unlaminated and $32 laminated.)


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