For the bird-seeking wildlife enthusiast, New Year’s Day refreshes the annual list of species recorded through the lens of a spotting scope, binoculars, camera, or eye. For some, the list may only be a fleeting memory of a regal raptor seen soaring above Lake Erie’s shoreline. For others, the list may be kept with scrutiny, noting such details as time, location, weather, all species present, and a total count of individuals from each species. More still, the most inclusive of birders treat their observations as scientific data by recording behavior, sex, and approximate age of the bird.
There exists an informal competition among birders referred to as a “big year.” The parameters are chosen by the individual birder, but always include the following two factors. First, the recorder must note the number of species seen or heard within a calendar year. Second, the recorder must create the list within a specific geographic region, e.g., Cuyahoga County, or Ohio, or even the whole American Birding Association
area. A common approach is to complete a big year using the limitation of your hometown state for a geographic region. On day one of my big year, I first spotted a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus
), followed by a series of less impressive, but nonetheless important gulls. Next, I was really in for a treat! My eyes caught the patrolling antics of a rough-legged hawk (Buteo lagopus
), just feet above a runway at Burke Lakefront Airport.
| A rough-legged hawk (Buteo lagopus) is teed up at the northeast corner of Rocky River Drive and Brookpark Road. Note the dark belly band and long wings on this light-morph juvenile.
A rough-legged hawk is your classic bird of prey, but with a twist. This species is similar in size to the familiar red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis
), but lacking the reddish-brown tail and black chest specks. The rough-legged hawk shows a dark belly band and if perched, its wingtips reach just beyond the tip of the tail. This large predator possesses flight skills and other bodily adaptations well-tailored to capturing the smallest of mammals in the coldest of conditions. The rough-legged hawk employs some of the coolest flight tricks you’d ever see. Specifically, the act of hovering! Yes, similar to a hummingbird, but clumsy and with the aid of wind. Imagine a bird larger than a duck, unevenly flapping into the wind, but without forward progress. It’s almost comical. I felt lucky to catch sight of this migratory hawk, as its annual presence is scant at best.
Look for this bird from November through April. When the rough-legged hawk is not wintering in the northern half of the lower 48 continental United States, the hawk is at the breeding grounds as far north as the coniferous forests, tundra, and even the arctic coasts! Preferring open country like grasslands and coastal prairies, I can see why the runways of Burke Lakefront Airport appealed to that persistent individual on January 1. An adaption to help cope with the extreme tundra temperatures is the presence of feathers on the tarsi (legs) down to the talons (toes.) This is quite unusual among birds of prey, hence the name “rough legged.” These feathers break cold winds and insulate the otherwise exposed scales to dangerously low temperatures. This was a supreme first-of-year bird, with respect to my freshly started big year list.
Perhaps a big year is in your future? Jump-start your 2015 bird list by joining an Emerald Necklace bird-themed program
. Or drop in anytime between 9:30 a.m. and noon on Sunday, February 1 at Rocky River Nature Center
to view bird banding
. Call 440-734-6660 for further details.
Happy Big Year!
-Marty Calabrese, Naturalist