116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa has a rich diversity of wintering diurnal raptors.
About 14 species are found during the coldest months, which include the broader categories of eagles, hawks and falcons.
While most raptor species typically employ a variety of hunting techniques, two common winter Buteo hawk species can sometimes be seen using the “hover hunting” strategy. American kestrel, Iowa’s smallest diurnal raptor, often uses the technique. Northern harrier also may more rarely use it.
Two closely related hawks that winter along highways and back roads are the red-tailed (Buteo jamaicensis) and rough-legged (Buteo lagopus). Many red-tailed Hawks live year-round in Iowa and are the default Buteo hawk species on the landscape in any given month. During October and November, Iowa sees an influx of migratory hawks, which come from their more northern breeding grounds.
Many of these migrants settle into winter territories.
Aside Iowa’s default red-tailed subspecies, eastern (B. j. borealis), the state is lucky to host Harlan’s (B. j. harlani), Krider’s (B. j. kriderii), Western (B. j. calurus) and Northern (B. j. abieticola). Only Eastern and Krider’s consist of one morph, which is light. Of the polymorphic subspecies, Western and Harlan’s have dark, intermediate and light morphs, whereas Northern has a light and dark morph.
Identification to subspecies can be difficult and intergrades of subspecies can occur, making things even more confusing.
Rough-legged Hawk has light and dark morphs and some also recognize an intermediate. Positively identifying a dark morph rough-legged can be challenging because of the other dark morph red-tailed subspecies.
What does hover hunting look like? As the words suggest, it is a form of hunting where a raptor is stationary in flight. The hawk will vigorously flap its wings in place with its head sagging down while looking for prey. Although this may be my own observation bias, I often see either red-tailed or rough-legged hawks using the technique on windy days and on the slopes of grassy hillsides.
Two key field marks of a light morph rough-legged hawk are on the underwing and on the tail. On the underwing, distinctive dark patches adorn the wrists. These two markings can be seen on birds in flight fairly well. The belly is extensively dark. The uppertail is strongly white at the base, which extends out about halfway to the end. The distal half of the uppertail is dark. The undertail is similar, but the dark band is more distal and thin. The dark wrist patches coupled with the dark belly are not seen on red-tailed hawks. On dark morph adult rough-legged, the undertail will be similar to the light morph, although thinner dark tail bands may be noticed.
If you find a hover hunting hawk and these key rough-legged field marks are not seen, then chances are the hawk is a red-tailed. On the more common eastern red-tailed adult, look for dark comma shapes at the wrists, a belly band consisting of dark streaking, dark patagials (dark on the leading edge of the wings between the body and the wrists), and a largely reddish upper and undertail.
Morgan Creek Arboretum in southwest Cedar Rapids offers a nice diversity of trees, especially a multitude of crabapples, that can feed winter birds. Look for finches, American robins, eastern bluebirds and cedar waxwings.
Some of the best places to sit are at bird blinds, but they have to be regularly stocked with feed. George Wyth State Park, Hartman Reserve Nature Center, Wickiup Hill Learning Center, Indian Creek Nature Center, MacBride Nature Recreation Area and F.W. Kent Park all have some of the best public bird feeders setups in the Eastern Iowa corridor.
Hawkeye WMA is a great place to see raptors. Northern Harrier, red-tailed hawk and rough-legged hawk can all be found in the winter. The intersection of Cemetery Rd NW (W38) with Swan Lake Rd NW is on the western end of the WMA. This is a great area to see Northern Harriers and short-eared owl battling right around dusk as the harriers are getting ready to roost and the owls are getting ready to hunt throughout the night.
The Coralville Lake tailwaters and Iowa River Trail bridge (east of the 1st Ave/5th street intersection in Coralville) can be excellent places to do eagle photography. Lighting probably is best in the afternoon at the tailwaters, whereas at the Iowa River Trail it can be good all day. These locations also can host wintering waterfowl.
Any public cemetery with a nice variety of conifers, especially hemlocks, can be great for winter finches and red-breasted nuthatch. One of the better cemeteries in Iowa City is Oakland Cemetery. Cedar Memorial in Cedar Rapids has hosted some rare finches, but derecho damage cleared out many of the best conifers.
Visit https://iowabirds.org/Connections/CBC.aspx for 2021-2022 Christmas Bird Count (CBC) information. To the left of each listed count is a “select” button. Click on that for more information about each CBC. Officially coined as “Audubon Christmas Bird Counts,” they are the longest-running community science bird projects in the country. All bird-watching skill levels are welcome.
Jan. 15, 2022 at 9 a.m. — Hike the Tailwater Riverwalk Trail for Bald Eagles, gulls and winter residents with leader Elizabeth Aubrey. This ¼-mile paved, accessible trail below the Coralville Dam offers a multiple habitats including river, woodland edge and wet forest bottomland. It is a great spot for viewing large congregations of wintering Bald Eagles. Be prepared to hike in cold temps and on a trail that is not cleared of snow. Length of hike will be determined by weather, but no longer than two hours. Meet at the south end of the parking row at the Devonian Fossil Gorge, 2850 Prairie Drive, Iowa City.
Brandon Caswell has a keen interest in natural and social sciences. He enjoys bird-watching and nature photography in his spare time. He and his wife live in Marion with their two young children.