Wind Dancing

25 02 2014

The wind whipped and the snow swirled around the car. One second I could see clearly and the next we were enveloped in a whiteout with no sense of what lay ahead. I pulled over to wait it out. When the wind died down and the snow returned to the ground I got my first glimpse of the wind dancer.

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Rough-legged hawk dark morph riding an air current near the ground

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Rough-legged hawk dark morph riding the wind aloft

Suspended in air and close to the earth he road the air current like a professional in a vertical wind tunnel. Flapping occasionally to adjust his position, his dance was effortless and beautiful. With a tilt of his wings the wind carried him high into the sky like a kite. He often returned to the swift current that held him stationary a couple feet above last year’s corn stumps. As I rolled down the window to snap a few pictures the cold wind rushed into the car. In that brief moment, my body tingled with excitement and I knew why the rough-legged hawk, that I was observing, was dancing in the wind. He lives for the rush of the wind, for the excitement of being suspended by an air current one moment and then soaring or plunging the next. The dance is exhilarating! The excitement was palpable.

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Rough-legged hawk light morph riding the wind aloft

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Rough-legged hawk light morph and dark wind dancing

Just when I thought this experience could not get more perfect I saw her, a gorgeous female soaring high above. Each dancing a solitary dance that flowed together to generate nature’s perfectly choreographed wind dance. The pair flew closer together, becoming more in sync, soaring and dipping as one. Then he twisted his body and touched her abdomen with his feet. This was not aggression, it was play. They danced and played in the wind then disappeared into the blowing snow.

Rough-legged hawk light morph

Rough-legged hawk light morph

Rough-legged hawk light morph

Rough-legged hawk light morph

Above are two pictures of another rough-legged hawk that I observed today. I believe this one is a male light morph. You can see the color variations between these three birds. It is interesting to note that the rough-legged hawk, like the snowy owl, breeds and lives most of the year in the Arctic tundra. It migrates south during the winter and finds its home in open fields. Every place I have observed snowy owls I have also seen rough-legged hawks. They are quite beautiful and have feathers all the way to their toes. Much like norther harrier hawks that breed in our area, rough-legged hawks spend time hovering to hunt and play/practice in the wind. In my story I refer to the dark morph rough-legged as a male. This is based on my impression of what I witnessed as both males and females can exhibit the dark color pattern and it is difficult to tell them apart unless they are side-by-side. The light morph hawk that I observed I refer to as a female both because of my impression and because the underside of her wings is quite light and she has a dark band on her belly.  To find out more about this fascinating migrant form the north visit http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Rough-legged_Hawk/id

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Late February Snow Storm

23 02 2014

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I stood on a road that intersects a wide expanse of cornfields and grazing lands. It was a mild morning, 34 F, mostly cloudy, with a slight breeze. My camera in hand, I waited and watched for snow buntings to reappear. I had been watching them as they disappeared over a knoll and I knew they would be back as quickly as they went.

The winter wind echoes their movements. Suddenly the breeze intensifies, shifts, and I hear what sounds like a winter storm whipping across the land. Before I could see the cloud of white moving toward me I knew it was on its way. As they took to sky I heard the Arctic wind in their voices and in the beating of their wings. Immediately I was transported over a thousand miles away to the frozen tundra where winter storms can manifest in seconds and winds create a vortex of white ice crystals. How amazing that in Central New York, I’m able to experience the sensation of the icy north in the midst of a swarm of snow buntings. They brought the spirit of their home with them.

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I was not the only one caught up in the Arctic storm created by hundreds of snow buntings. A small flock of pigeons attempted multiple times to cross the cornfield. Each time they took off they encountered the mass of living snowflakes. Turned around and incorporated into the swarm the pigeons were escorted back to the ground as the buntings landed. What had happened? How did they end up grounded in the middle of a field? They took off again continuing on their way only to get caught up in the current and returned. Finally, after a few attempts, the mass of buntings were temporarily satisfied with their corn feast and both the pigeons and I were allowed to return to our senses. Looking around we realized that we were not caught up in winter weather but carried away by a storm of buntings. We had come together to experience a mid-February snow storm unlike any other. 

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To find out more about snow buntings visit http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/snow_bunting/id





Experience Snowy Owl

12 02 2014

On a snowy afternoon in January, I ease the car off the road, grab binoculars, and look at the apparition on the utility pole. My eyes do not deceive me; it is a majestic male snowy owl. He is looking at me as intently as I am looking at him. With a cock of his head, his piercing gaze keenly focuses on something behind the car. In a flash he is airborne, gliding past my window, landing, gracefully on the ground ten feet from my back bumper. I wonder aloud what he could be doing standing there in the snow. It becomes apparent as his powerful wings pull him off the ground, his talons clutching the mole he just caught. I am in awe as he flies across the road and lands on a fence post, transferring the rodent from talons to beak. After a couple quick shakes, his prey is in position and he swallows it whole in three gulps! In the brutal landscape of the snowy owl breeding ground efficiency and effectiveness are key to survival.

Snowy owls breed in the Arctic tundra where the average winter temperature is -30 F. They are well adapted to survive in this harsh climate. Their entire bodies are covered in dense feathers, even their feet. As a result of enduring 24 hours of daylight, snowy owls, unlike other owls are skilled hunters any time of day. They nest and hunt from knolls because the tundra offers them no trees to perch in. Depending on the abundance of food, female snowy owls adjust the number of eggs laid to maximize survival.

Experts agree, 2014 is the largest “irruption,” or mass migration, of snowy owls in decades. It is likely the result of a spike in the snowy owl population due to abundant food during last year’s breeding season. Young owls often migrate south to escape harsh arctic winter and hone their hunting skills.  Many locally observed owls display juvenile color patterns. Young females have more dark bars while there is less barring on males and it is faint. Both sexes gradually become whiter as they age and mature males are almost pure white. Image

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Central New York is home to many snowy owls this winter. The majority of snowy owl sightings have been in the Town of Fairfield.  Owls have also been observed in the Town of Russia, the Town of Deerfield, and the City of Rome. Check out www.ebird.org, a Cornell Ornithology Lab website, for a current map of owl sightings. (Click on the image below to visit the eBird website.)

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Whether the 2014 snowy owl irruption will be a recurring phenomenon is not yet clear. While the owls are local you may want to explore and experience their majesty. Here is a list of tips to make your owl observing experience the best it can be.

  • Plan your route: Visit the eBird website to see where snowy owls have been spotted (Under ‘Explore Data’ at the top, click ‘Range and Point Maps’, type in ‘snowy owl’ in the species field, zoom in until you see the points.)
  • Keep tools handy: Binoculars, cameras, and field guides are helpful.
  • Go when owls are active: Dawn until 10:30 am and 2:30 pm until dusk are the best times.
  • Look up: Owls perch on utility poles, fence posts, barn roofs, silos, trees, and stand on knolls in cleared fields.
  • Have respect: Observe owls from a distance and approach slowly. If the owl is shifting its position, defecating, and/or looking like it might take flight that is your cue to back up. Some owls are agitated by passing traffic while others are unphased when a car is parked nearby. Be a keen observer, the owl will show you where the boundaries are.
  • Expect the unexpected: You may see owls in places they have not been recorded. If you do, consider sharing your findings by creating a free eBird account and filling out the online form. Data collection is important to understanding habits and habitat preferences of snowy owls.

This is the year of the snowy owl! The New York Times published an article in January about the snowy owl irruption.  It stated that the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Snowy Owl Project relocates approximately six snowy owls, found on Logan International Airport, annually. This year they have relocated over 75 owls and the season is not over!

As spring approaches, the time grows near when the snowy owls will return to their breeding ground in the Arctic. Now is the time to get out and experience the snowy owl. You may not have this opportunity again. We are all connected to our natural world and that connection becomes quite clear when you look into the big, bright, intelligent, yellow eyes of the snowy owl.








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