It is already the middle of December and the spectacular Blue Mountains are covered in crisp white snow. Down here in the wonderful Walla Walla River basin folks are preparing to meet the Christmas season and spend time with family and friends. The wildlife of this historic river basin are either in hibernation or out foraging for food in this, the shortest season of the year.

It is during this cold weather that many animals of the Arctic migrate into the Lower Columbia Basin and the Walla Walla river valley. These are birds that consider the local winter weather to be a balmy start to the New Year. Birds like Lapland Longspurs, Snowy Owls, Snow Buntings and Short-eared Owls, Tundra Swans and a few Trumpeter Swans all come south out of the Arctic Tundra to winter here with us and the subject of this blog.

Down towards the end of September into early October a few large Buteo raptors drift out of sub-Arctic Canada across the Tiega into southern British Columbia and northern Washington State. These striking raptors are known as Rough-legged Hawks. These big birds of prey arrive here in the Walla Walla Valley about the 5th of October.

Photo credit: Mike Denny
Photo credit: Mike Denny

They are about 21 inches tall and have a wing span of 53 inches. Their Latin name is Buteo lagopus. They get their common name “rough-legged” from the feathering that covers their legs all the way down to their bright yellow feet. These big raptors are rodent hunters and frequently hover up over fields watching for voles and mice moving through the vegetation on the ground. They have powerful eye sight and can zero in on a mouse many hundreds of feet away.

Rough-legged hawks construct large ground nests they build out on the tundra above the Arctic Circle. These are a circumpolar species found right across all northern temperate zones. When they reach the northern tier states and on south, rarely into Texas, they replace another Buteo hawk species that has migrated out just as the Rough-leggeds have arrived here.

The hawk species that has left to winter in the Austral summer is the Swainson’s Hawk. This raptor flies all the way south into Argentina where it will remain until late January feeding on mice and grasshoppers out on the Pampas. The rough-legged hawk will winter here and across the interior west and across the northern great plains and will depart the United States by early April with a few hanging on until May. These hawks like the Palouse Hills of central and northern Walla Walla County. The first winter birds are often confused with the American Bald Eagle due to their white heads, black belly and white tail feathers. Many folks make this mistake, but it can be forgiven as the hawks do look like our Nations symbol the Bald Eagle, only they are a third smaller. These are a winter hawk and are Federally protected. They are specialists at catching gophers at their earthen mounds. Watch for these spectacular American hawks as they wheel and circle, hover and drop on prey out north of Walla Walla and south of Touchet. This is a beautiful, valuable bird of prey to agriculture and another reason to visit Walla Walla in the winter.

Remember that Walla Walla has to be seen to be believed!