Winter Raptor Research Updates From the Field – Week 3

by Jenna SchlenerResearch Intern

The last few weeks have been excellent for winter bird watching. Since our transmitters are arriving later than expected, we’ve decided to change strategies and set up standardized survey routes. While we’re mostly focusing on raptors, we love all birds and can’t help but stop and watch some of the large flocks of winter birds we’ve been seeing too. 

We’ve talked a lot about red-tails so far, so we wanted to share some information about the other birds. The second most common raptor we see on our survey route is the rough-legged hawk. Rough-legged hawks are in the same genus as red-tails (the Buteos) and get their common name from feathers going all the way down to their toes! This is one of their adaptations for breeding in the chilly arctic. In the winter these raptors migrate down to southern Canada and into the US. Like the red-tails, they also have different “morphs” or color patterns. Some are lighter in color with a broad dark belly band and patches where the wing bends. Others sport a dark brown plumage with light-colored flight feathers and a white band on the tail. We have seen a wide range of these morphs throughout Addison County.

Figure 1. Immature light morph rough-legged hawk. Image from Rodney Crice / Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab (ML46292241)

Another winter bird we love to see is the snow bunting; we’ve seen these birds in flocks of hundreds. Snow buntings breed in the high arctic, and during the breeding season have an all-white plumage to blend in with the snow. In the winter, snow buntings change into a black-and-white plumage with rusty patches to blend in better as they scurry across the gravel roads and snow-covered fields.

Figure 2. Snow buntings in a field. Image from Sally Chisholm / Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab (ML45097261).

Mixed in with the snow buntings we have also been seeing many horned larks. From far away they may seem plain and are sometimes difficult to see. Their brown plumage blends in well with soil and vegetation on the edges of roads. However, a closer look will show they have a sunny yellow face, thick black mustache, and tiny feathers that stick up like horns, making these birds look like quite the character. While still quite common, horned lark populations have had a dramatic decline over the last few decades which is certainly a cause for further study and conservation.

Figure 3. Horned lark. Image from Tim Lenz / Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab (ML23897831).

We have also seen common redpolls this season bouncing in big flocks across the fields. Redpolls are a type of finch that breed in the far north. They primarily eat small seeds like birch and alder and will happily drain a feeder full of nyjer or thistle. In winter, common redpolls have been known to drop from trees into the snow below to make a tunnel. Though it may seem counterintuitive, the snowpack actually provides some extra insulation during cold nights.

Figure 4. Common redpolls on a wire. Image from Charles Gates / Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab (ML36475861).

We have certainly been enjoying the excuse to get outside, breathe in the fresh air, and appreciate some of nature’s beauty brought from other parts of the world. As you can see, many of these birds will be leaving us soon to make the long trek up to their breeding grounds. Have you gotten a chance to go out winter birding yet this season?

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