The battlefield was silent. The split-rail fence rose peacefully atop the grassy hillside. The sky, once filled with smoke and the smell of gunpowder, was the brilliant blue only seen in winter.
I had last visited the Gettysburg National Military Park decades earlier. The hallowed ground was even more moving than I remembered.
Reports that a rough-legged hawk had been seen here offered the rationale for the visit. I had never seen one. I was glad we came.
We sighted the rough-legged hawk (Buteo lagopus), an uncommon winter visitor, as it stood peacefully atop a fence post. I pulled up the binoculars for a better look. Rough-legged hawks are large, almost as big as red-tails. They stand 20 inches tall and their broad wings can reach a span of 4.5 feet when fully extended.
Like many hawks, they come in both light and dark morphs. There is great variability in plumage color, from nearly all-black to a sparsely speckled and streaked version. This rough-leg was in the intermediate range, which is most common.
Sexes are similar in color, although females are considerably heavier. They carry the same color feathering year-round.
A dark line extended back from the eye on the bird’s light brown head. The cap was a bit darker and the horn-hued bill was surprisingly small. The neck and breast were mostly white, but the belly was nearly solid black. The back and wings were heavily streaked, with solid dark brown wing tips. Its body feathers reached down to its toes, giving the bird its eponymous name.
Rough-legs are visitors from the far North. They breed in Arctic regions across the globe.
They build large stick nests, along cliffs and rocky outcroppings, that take up to three weeks for both parents to assemble. The female will lay eggs as soon as construction is complete. She alone has a brood patch, so she must sit on the eggs almost continuously for a month until the eggs hatch.
Rodents are the chief food for rough-legs. They consume vast numbers of lemmings and voles in the Arctic. Adults need to consume four to six small rodents daily just to maintain their body weight. It is estimated that two nestlings will require 26 pounds of food during the 40-day period from hatching to fledging.
The male hunts constantly to gather enough food for himself, his mate and the hungry chicks. He also preys on hares, ground squirrels and birds. These hawks prefer game birds, especially ptarmigans. (The species name of rough-legged hawks is lagopus, which is the genus name of the three ptarmigan species.)
North American individuals are completely migratory. They depart their breeding grounds in August and September. Skipping over the boreal forest to their south, they winter in the lower 48 states (except for the South) and along the southernmost parts of Canada.
These are birds of open landscapes. Their favored winter habitats mimic their nearly treeless breeding locations. They can most often be found in the great prairies stretching from Saskatchewan and Alberta in Canada to Oklahoma and Texas, but are especially partial to the Upper Midwest. Grasslands, farms, marshes and, yes, historic battlefields, host smaller numbers.
Rough-legs hunt by diving on their prey or pouncing from atop poles, posts and small trees. Hunting over fields and marshes, they resemble the common northern harrier.
Flying low and into the wind, they often hover briefly before their lethal dives. And like another common raptor, the kestrel, they seem to be able to see the ultraviolet spectrum. Doing so enables them to see urine trails of rodents, a major aid in locating prey.
Like many raptors, rough-legs are opportunistic predators. They will eat reptiles, amphibians and insects in addition to their favored prey. They also steal food from other birds such as gulls and will eat carrion, too.
As we continued watching the Gettysburg bird, it took off, flying low over a ridge in search of food. The flight gave us a chance to see two more of the bird’s most distinctive field markings: its tail and “wrist.” The broad tail opened wide, revealing white feathers with a subterminal band of black. The underwing showed white primaries tipped in black, heavily streaked inner wing feathers, and a bold, black carpal patch, where the wing bends slightly. The dark belly was also more evident in flight.
With the hawk gone, my mind immediately came back to the present. That’s rare when I’m birding, especially after just seeing a new life bird. The high drama of our nation’s huge political chasm was intruding on my thoughts yet again.
When Lincoln spoke here, the nation was torn apart in an even more stark and deadly way, I reflected. A century and a half ago he called upon the nation to rededicate itself to the noble work democracy demands. Those words seem as relevant to today’s politics as they were so long ago.
Birds are never divorced from where we see them. That was uniquely true with the rough-legged hawk at Gettysburg. The bird brought me to that place, and the location’s powerful history inspired me to recommit myself to the never-ending hard work of democracy.