Outing Report: Winter Raptors

On March 4, 2017, Saugeen Nature members and friends embarked on their annual “winter raptors” outing across Bruce County. The day was sunny and cold, perfect conditions for the enthusiastic group. Success came early, with 16 snowy owls spotted in one block of open land north of Chesley where these spectacular predators have been reliably present for the past six weeks. The caravan continued west and north toward Port Elgin, along the way spotting two immature bald eagles not too far from Dobbinton, numerous horned larks along the road sides, a few scattered individual specimens of red -tailed hawks, ravens and kestrels, and the first of the rough-legged hawks which would end as the most numerous raptor of the day at 36.

These large buteos are beautiful to see, flashing dramatic black-and-white patterns as they fly with a grace and buoyancy that fills one with admiration. They are also one of the few birds that can hover very well, a hunting method observed several times on the day. Rough-legged hawks occur in two colour phases, a “light phase” and a “dark phase.” Of these, the light phase is more common; only one dark phase rough-legged hawk was seen by the group.

After lunch in Port Elgin the outing turned south to Baie du Dore where seven more bald eagles soared above the open water and the nuclear power plant. The water itself held large numbers of waterfowl, many of which were too distant for visual field marks. We did make positive identification of some scaup, many Canada geese, a few common mergansers, and a lone horned grebe.

The homeward leg through Paisley to Chesley brought eastern meadow larks, ( an early sign of spring), a few snow buntings among the many horned larks, and many more rough-legged hawks. There would often be three hawks visible at a single stop and once there were ten. One of the hawks appeared to be different until further research showed it was an extra-pale light phase male rough-leg.

We were back to our starting point about four hours after our start. The snowy owls, rough-legged hawks, horned grebe and snow buntings will be soon flying north for the breeding season as other birds are pushing north from much farther south to spend their summer here in southern Ontario. The migration and breeding cycles bring constant change to the world of birds.

Submitted by Angus Inksetter

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