Archive for December, 2011

Visitors from the North

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

Rough-legged Hawk

Northern Shrike

If you’re eager for winter, it’s always refreshing to see the season’s first Rough-legged Hawk. Seldom very common in Iowa, occasional rough-legs may drift into the state in October, and remain as late as March.

These striking, black-and-white raptors, which nest on the Arctic tundra, seem to adjust readily to winter hunting in Iowa grasslands. Rough-legs often hover over CRP fields or roadsides, ready to pounce on any unwary mouse or vole.

Given their summer homes on the tundra, where tree perches are virtually nonexistent, rough-legs in Iowa may welcome the vistas they get from a farm-country fence post or utility pole.

It’s even more of a treat for Iowa birders to see a Northern Shrike, which also may be an uncommon visitor from northern Canada. Only about the size of a robin, the small but fierce shrike has a hooked, raptor-like bill well-suited to feasting on mice; hence the nickname, “butcher bird.” And if a shrike has especially good hunting, it may impale excess prey on thorns or even barbed wire.

Shrikes also are opportunists, as the Black-capped Chickadees around our feeder discovered recently. A shrike perched in the top of the small tree above our feeder, then swooped at chickadees that came to lunch. The startled little black-caps easily out-maneuvered the shrike and escaped unscathed, however. But the chickadees aren’t always so lucky. More than once, a marauding Sharp-shinned Hawk has snatched a chickadee meal from around our feeders.

Nature’s daily dramas can be entertaining to us humans – but they’re also graphic illustrations of the cycles of life and death.