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Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawks Returning

It’s time to keep an eye out for Rough-legged Hawks (Buteo lagopus) which are currently migrating south from their breeding grounds on the arctic tundra to spend the winter in northern states. They look for habitat similar to the open habitat they left – agricultural fields, meadows, and airports fit the bill well.  In Vermont, the Champlain Valley is a known winter destination. You see them on the ground, perched on fence posts, telephone poles and tree tops, as well as hovering in the air as they forage for small rodents below.

As to their common name, the “rough-legged” refers to the feathers that grow down their legs to the base of their toes, a clever adaptation for the cold climates they inhabit. Rough-legged Hawks come in two color morphs, light and dark.  North America is the only place where the dark morph is found, and it is more common in the East than the light morph.  The dark belly of the light morph Rough-legged Hawk pictured indicates that it is a female.

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Northern Shrikes Arriving

The Northeast loses a lot of songbirds to migration in the fall, but it gains a few as well, one of which is the Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor).   As days shorten and temperatures drop, this tundra-nesting bird migrates southward into southern parts of Canada and northern U.S., arriving in October and November on its wintering grounds. In some areas Northern Shrike movements and winter numbers have been associated with the movements of Snowy Owls and Rough-legged Hawks.

The Northern Shrike is highly unusual in that it is a predatory songbird. Birds, mammals and insects are preferred over nectar, nuts and seeds. During the winter it preys mainly on small mammals (voles, mice, shrews) and birds. The Northern Shrike often kills more prey than it can immediately eat or feed its young, storing the excess food to eat later when available living prey may be scarce. The manner in which it stores this extra food is what gave it the name “butcher bird;” it often impales prey on a thorn, broken branch or even barbed wire, or it wedges prey into narrow V-shaped forks of branches, where they hang until reclaimed by the shrike. (Photo by Mary Sue Henszey)

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