(Sunday, January 16, 2011)
Today’s rain after the snow gave the refuge a foggy, dreamy look, and because of the wet snow muffling the sound of tires on the auto tour loop, the place seemed utterly insulated from the sounds of man. Most of the Rough-legged Hawks I saw today exhibited the species’ characteristic wariness by flushing long before I was close. But one adult male standing on the ground along the west side of the auto tour loop held his position as I approached. Perhaps my quiet approach helped explain why he stayed; the other reason lay in the dark pile of fluff atop the snow next to which he was standing. He was pulling flesh from an object pinned beneath his feet. I had found the bird at his dinner. He tugged a few more bits from his prize and then stomped away from the dark pile like a person learning to walk on snowshoes for the first time. The heavy feathers on his legs looked like pantaloons streaming behind him and under his tail. The bird stood quietly, not concerned about my presence, and took in the gray scene around him. Several times, he leaned down and swiped his beak in the snow; once, he drove his face into the snow and swiped his whole face from side-to-side. I was watching the equivalent of a human dabbing his napkin at the corners of his mouth.
Once his post-meal primping was complete, I began to ease forward in my vehicle to get a better look at him and the remains of his prey. The bird was relaxed enough to stand on the road until I was about 25 yards away, then, he flew into the murk. That gave me the chance to study the scene of his meal.
The hawk had taken a vole. The dark pile of fluff was the plucked fur of the creature, punctuated with odd curlicues and S-shaped segments of entrails that were staining the snow yellow. A deeper depression where the hawk had been standing when I first saw him tugging bits of flesh was bloodstained. The vole’s head remained in the pile, bright orange incisors obvious within the gray fur of the face. The hawk’s tracks, smaller than the many pheasant tracks that formed a crazy latticework all over the refuge this morning, led from the depression and to the main tire track of the dike road where he had swiped his beak. It was also easy to see where the hawk had struck the vole and to imagine the bird dropping out of the sky onto his prey.
I did not see another human visitor on the auto tour loop this morning. While poor weather discourages visitors, the birds must continue with their struggle for winter survival and great wildlife watching opportunities exist even in rain and fog and snow.
- Kristin Purdy