Subscribe for 33¢ / day

It started out like a normal Sunday morning. I got up, fed the livestock, got the stove fed for the day, cleaned up and took Dr. Wifey to the Auction Barn Restaurant for breakfast with our friends, P/C2. During the course of the meal, we were joined by another fellow, Brian, and the talk for some reason turned to hydraulic systems.

Paul mentioned that one of their big articulated tractors blew a line and how when he went to fix it, he took a barrel of hydraulic fluid to get things working again. Brian, a highway worker, recounted stories of his own about catastrophic hydraulic failures on plow trucks and other heavy equipment.

I should have simply shut up, but no ... I had to go and say that in seven decades I had never had to fix a hydraulic line on any piece of equipment I operated. I realized this was stupid when I said it but it blurted out before I had time to think.

We drove home, I changed clothes again, and went out to work on the woodpile. I got all the way to the fourth bucket load before a hydraulic line let loose, gave me a hot oil bath and dumped the load on the ground. I finished the job with a wheelbarrow, requiring 21 trips from pile to shed, and keeping me at it until after midnight.

The next day, with some good advice from numerous friends, I got a new hose made, installed it and was back in action again. Of course, all I had really done is start the cycle because over the next two days I blew another hose, fixed it, blew the left front tire, fixed it, and then blew the right front tire and fixed it. If bad things come in threes, I think that is number four so I am either good for another while — or we are getting ready to have a marathon.

I contemplated this as we watched the sunset tonight. We were accompanied by a large hawk that sat on a power pole beside us. From the time we arrived until it apparently became time for the hawk to go to roost, it swooped down into the field seven times, returning to the pole successful four times. In the summer, one could look at a large buteo (fan-tailed hawk), pronounce it to be a redtail and be right 99 percent of the time. Other times, one must look more closely for we have some migrants that routinely spend their winter vacations in our balmy area. This particular one was a light-phase rough legged hawk.

While those of us working to try and keep the frost out of the house find this an odd choice, one has to remember that these big hawks spend their summers above the Arctic Circle. They nest on cliff faces and feed their broods on the teeming millions of lemmings and voles found on the tundra in the short summer months. Their migrations are definitely marathons, often crossing as much as 100 miles of open water without a break.

Rough-legged hawks are as nearly as large as our resident redtails, with a wingspan of 4 1/2 feet. A large female may weigh as much as 3 pounds. If you are close enough, the best way to distinguish them is by their namesake — their legs are completely feathered from thigh to ankle. Only the much larger golden eagle and the western ferruginous hawk share this characteristic.

There are two color phases of this brown mottled hawk. The light phase is easiest to identify in flight because of the dark black belly band. Dark phases are generally mottled but often show an even darker band in the same location. Although rough-legged hawks are found all around the Arctic Circle, the light phase is only common in eastern North America. When they soar, their wings are held in a slight dihedral (v shape) which also helps distinguish them from our resident hawks.

The rough-legged hawk is also known as the rough-legged buzzard and chicken hawk. Their habit of hunting from rather low perches gained them the latter term. They can often be found perching on fence posts, including chicken yard fence posts, but an adult chicken is far too large a prey item and they are typically looking for rats and mice.

Early in the spring, our winter visitors head north to their nesting cliffs where they erect huge, unkempt nests made of everything from sticks (often carried from long distances) to caribou bones to broken pieces from snowmobile wrecks. A nesting pair will not tolerate other rough legs nesting within a quarter to half mile of them but do not mind having ravens, peregrine falcons, and other cliff nesters as close as 50 feet. If the nesting cliffs are full, young pairs may nest on the ground on the edge of eroded riverbanks, although these often come to grief from arctic fox depredation.

Part of the reason rough-legged hawks are such successful hunters and can easily survive in inhospitable areas has to do with its eyesight. They see a wider range of colors than other animals, perceiving well into the ultraviolet range. The reason this helps is because the urine of small rodents strongly reflects ultraviolet light and, as they scent mark their territories with urine drops as they walk along, it telegraphs the mouse’s location like a pacman game.

I am thinking I may just sit here and watch birds. If I do not move, perhaps nothing else will break.

Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.


Load comments