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UP is ‘Florida’ for some species

Northwoods Notebook

Though it looks fairly benign, the northern shrike is a carnivore, preying on other songbirds and even small mammals along with insects. The scallop markings on this one’s chest probably indicate this is an immature bird. (Betsy Bloom/Daily News photos)

For some birds, the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin are their version of “going south” for the winter.

While we might grumble about the snow and cold, these species find those conditions suit them just fine, thank you.

They usually move down from Canada’s boreal forests and arctic tundra but don’t want to go too far from their breeding grounds, so linger in the north. For several of these northern “snowbirds,” winter may offer the best chance to see them in the region.

This past week, a rough-legged hawk showed up hunting the open hillsides along Six Mile Lake Road. It would hover over a spot, looking for prey, before gliding on to the next likely hiding place for small rodents.

The rough-legged hawk looks vaguely in shape like our more common resident red-tailed hawk, but it’s longer of wing and the underside of those wings have a dark “elbow” patch easily seen while soaring. The rough-legged also typically appears more white, though the red-tailed can have plumage varieties that range from almost all chocolate brown to very pale light morphs. But those are uncommon. The rough-legged also tends to have a smaller beak and feet than the red-tailed.

The rough-legged hawk is a raptor similar in size of the red-tailed hawk that nests in the arctic and winters in lower Canada and the upper U.S. states. It’s named for the shaggy feather leg-warmers it has down to its toes.

The rough-legged is named for having shaggy feathers nearly to its talons, a trait shared with other birds that favor frigid climates such as ptarmigan. Its scientific name, Buteo lagopus, reflects this, as lagopus translates to “hare-footed,” according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

These hawks nest on cliffs on the tundra, taking advantage of the long days and often bountiful supply of lemmings to raise their young. So it’s no surprise that when they come into this region, they tend to turn up along open areas, looking primarily for voles and other small mammals. While once considered a threat to chickens, they usually favor mice, voles and shrews, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website, www.allaboutbirds.org.

Their hovering hunting style while scanning for prey, similar to the American kestrel, can be one of the easiest ways to tell from a distance it’s a rough-legged hawk, the Cornell Lab advised.

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Another species that regularly ventures down from the far north in winter is the northern shrike, a jay-sized bird with a mask and feeding habits that fit right in at Halloween.

Though a songbird, the shrike is a predator, taking down other birds, insects, lizards, even small mammals. It has a wickedly hooked beak with a notch — a “tomial tooth,” according to All About Birds — designed to sever the spinal cord with a bite to the neck.

If it kills more than it can eat, the shrike sometimes will save food for later by hanging its prey on thorns or barbed wire, leading to the nickname “butcher bird.” Since it lacks the strong taloned feet of the raptors, it may impale its victims to more easily tear them up for eating. Yup, Hannibal Lecter has nothing on these dapper little assassins.

It’s why a northern shrike definitely drew some mixed feelings when it turned up in the backyard earlier in the week, preening and scoping out the bird feeders. While it hasn’t been seen since, shrikes are known for their skulking habits, watching for the right time to pounce.

Like the rough-legged hawks, northern shrikes can be found in Europe and Asia as well, where they are known as great grey shrikes.

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To end on an upbeat note, a more welcome seasonal bird dropped into the yard by week’s end — the evening grosbeak, perhaps the flashiest of the winter finches.

While only three in number Thursday, it could be a harbinger of better things to come. On Monday, the Finch Research Network sent out an alert that evening grosbeaks “are moving in their largest numbers” in more than two decades.

This movement is termed an “irruption,” and tends to happen in cycles with winter finches.

Initially, the main influx has been in the eastern U.S., with reports as far south as West Virginia and Florida, according to Tyler Hoar and Matthew Young of the Finch Research Network.

But in the past week, the numbers appear to be picking up in the Great Lakes region as well, to as far south as Indiana.

A few evening grosbeaks in the region this week may signal the Upper Peninsula will get at least a taste of the major influx of these winter finches now being seen in the eastern U.S.

Already, the Birding Michigan and Upper Peninsula Birding sites on Facebook have shown flocks of evening grosbeaks at feeders, which they are not shy about visiting.

It could be shaping up as a good winter to see a variety of visiting birds.

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 240, or bbloom@ironmountaindailynews.com.

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