For a brief moment, I looked at the sky as I left my house one morning, and there was a hawk flying about. Right away something registered in my brain that it was a special bird. A birding friend with me at the time identified it right away as a rough-legged hawk! Rough-legged hawks are circumpolar birds and nomadic. They nest wherever enough food in the form of mice and lemmings is available for them. The last time I had seen this hawk was in Labrador last June, where they are abundant. The rough-legged hawk is a hovering bird with long, arching wings. They fly with their wings slightly above the horizontal. Often you see them from the underside, and from that vantage point, you can notice a black ‘wrist’.
When you are always watching for wildlife and scanning your surroundings as a regular pattern of your behavior, any little deviation in the scene attracts your attention. I knew instantly that the bird I saw only briefly as I looked up had to be a different bird from the norm. I was glad to have had an expert with me to confirm my sighting.
The rough-legged hawks’ home base is on open terrain and marshy barrens from the taiga and across Canada. They breed mainly in Western Newfoundland. In the winter, they expand southward and can even be seen as far south as the border of Mexico.
In spite of our frigid temperatures and abundant snow, this is courtship time for many birds and mammals. Cold temperatures do not dampen the ardor of skunks, some owls, raccoons, flying squirrels, mink, red fox, coyotes, river otters and red squirrels. Love is in the air regardless of the frigid temperatures. Actually great-horned owls could be sitting on eggs or newly hatched young even now!
February is called the Raccoon Moon by the Dakota Sioux. Minks are very aggressive during the mating season and will sometimes fatally bite their rivals’ necks. Bobcats will hiss and scream during the mating season. Coyotes even have a courtship dance they engage in. The male and female coyotes that have formed a pair will rise up on their hind legs and touch fore paws together.
Deer and moose are struggling now to find food with deep snow everywhere.
I regularly find deer on my driveway since they can move with ease on the plowed surface. Getting about is harder for deer, and if chased by predators, they have a lot of trouble moving through the snow if the predator (probably dog or coyote) can run on the surface. Try not to take sides with wildlife and their natural predators – domestic dogs are not natural predators; coyotes, wolves, bobcats, lynx, foxes and mountain lions are. The wild predators are supposed to be killing the slow and sick members in their food chain, and if all goes according to plan, the balance with living things is a healthy one. Remember that with wild creatures, it is a daily problem to find enough food to eat to sustain life for itself and to avoid being eaten by some other form of wildlife. How all the small animals survive and hold their own in such harsh conditions is almost beyond my understanding.
If you are a fisherman, you may find a red-spotted newt in your minnow traps now. This little creature is about 3-4 inches long. I think on record there is one measuring in at 5 inches. This interesting salamander is almost like having two salamanders in one, for part of its life is lived on land and part only in the water. It is the water stage that you might see now, and it is not unusual to see one swimming below the ice on a pond or finding one in a minnow trap. Other newts burrow in the mud at the bottom of a pond to hibernate.
In spite of the snow covering our island in various depths, we sometimes forget that underneath it all there are green plants to be found even now. Bearberry, partridge berry, arbutus and sheep laurel are just a few covered by the winter snows. Of course many insects are hidden away in all sorts of small crevices and winter birds avidly seek them out each day in order to survive. Diving beetles spend the winter on the bottom of our ponds or under banks. Snow fleas may even be seen out on the snow on a warmer winter’s day. Skiers frequently see them looking like black pepper sprinkled in their sunny tracks.
If ravens are in your neighborhood, this is the time to see them in some of their exciting courtship displays and acrobatics. They often fly at high speed through the air zooming past each other, maybe even passing sticks back and forth as they go. They seem to love turning somersaults and sometimes even flying upside down all for the fun of it! They appear to really enjoy their gift of flight! Ravens and crows are quite intelligent.
You should take time these days to enjoy a bit of duck watching from the comfort of your car at any of our harbors or other accessible shore locations. Eiders often rest with heads tucked into their wings close to shore at Seawall. It’s hard to imagine sleeping on the surface of such a cold wintry sea but they are ready for it. Blood circulates through their feet and keeps them warm and their feathers are arranged for warmth with downy undercoats. Buffleheads are fun to watch on the wintry sea. This small black and white duck with a puffy head dives suddenly and then reappears a short ways off popping to the surface with a shake of its head to get rid of some drops of water. They are only here with us in the wintertime, for they breed much farther north, and they are fun to watch.
Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.