Rough-legged Hawks Wintering at Klamath Basin NWR Complex

by Larry Jordan on March 5, 2013

Rough-legged HawkRough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) photos by Larry Jordan (click to see full sized images)

The Rough-legged Hawk is a true arctic species having an extensive panboreal breeding range, with populations in taiga and tundra regions of both the Old World and the New World1. Green is their summer range, blue is winter.

Rough-legged Hawk Range Map

In North America this raptor breeds in arctic and sub-arctic Canada and Alaska. They nest on cliffs and feed primarily on lemmings and voles. Fortunately for us, the entire Rough-legged Hawk population migrates to open country in southern Canada and the United States for the winter.

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawks exhibit a high degree of plumage variation in both light and dark morphs. This bird looks to be a dark morph juvenile to me. It has a light head and an all dark belly with lighter brown streaks on the breast. If you stop the following video at 21 seconds, you will see that it also has rufous underwing coverts with the universal dark carpal patches that show in both morphs.

I was having a very nice time watching and filming this bird at close range before a pick up drove by at high speed flushing it from its perch. At the end of the video, around a minute and 17 seconds, you can also see that it’s tail shows dark above with pale gray banding, not the broad white base that is so obvious on the light morph.

The dark morph bird above was seen at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge last week. A light morph was also spotted a short distance away as it flew into the shallow flooded field across the road.

Rough-legged Hawk You can see from this spread wing shot that this is a light morph Rough-legged Hawk. Probably a male due to the multiple dark terminal tail bands. He appeared to be hunting in the shallows but after a few minutes, took flight.

Rough-legged Hawks often hunt from perches but they also hover or “kite,” descending vertically to pounce on prey. This is a light morph bird who is joined by another toward the end of the video.

Back in December we saw quite a few light morph birds on a Christmas Bird Count in Fall River Mills, California. This is my best photo from that trip.

Rough-legged Hawk

It looks quite a bit different than the dark morph Rough-legged Hawk doesn’t it?

A few things that they do all have in common though are a small bill, feathered legs and the hover behavior!

If you want to see more photos of cool birds, check out Wild Bird Wednesday and The Bird D’pot.

If you want to be part of a conservation movement to create more money for our National Wildlife Refuges, come on over to our Wildlife Conservation Stamp website! We want to hear about National Wildlife Refuges you visit!

References: 1Birds of North America Online

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Hanne Bente March 5, 2013 at 10:41 pm

Gorgeous photos:) Hanne Bente
Hanne Bente´s last post ..Fototur / Grathe Hede

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Stewart M March 6, 2013 at 1:40 am

Great pictures – I had not realised that this was the same species as the “Rough Legged Buzzard” in the UK – not that I ever saw one!

Nice post.

Cheers and thanks for linking to WBW.

Stewart M – Melbourne
Stewart M´s last post ..WIld Bird Wednesday 34: Out for a (Wood) Duck

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Anni @ I'd Rather B Birdin' March 6, 2013 at 2:16 am

VERY impressive!!! I’m in complete awe of the birds of prey and their talon size….they always make the hawks/eagles/ospreys, etc. look more vicious. But, oh so beautiful and cunning. I think I like the light morph colors better. But in any case, very beautiful. Thanks for such a wonderful wrap of the difference in morph stages and the wonderful images!!!
Anni @ I’d Rather B Birdin’´s last post ..Beauties and the ‘beasties’

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Carole M. March 6, 2013 at 2:30 am

beautiful series; and I also did enjoy the videos; thanks Larry

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Mia McPherson March 6, 2013 at 4:44 am

Larry, I think the color variation of Rough-legged Hawks is fascinating. They are such beautiful raptors and your images show that well. I always miss this arctic species when they leave.
Mia McPherson´s last post ..The iridescent colors of a Black-billed Magpie

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Gail March 6, 2013 at 8:10 am

Your posts are always so informative, with wonderful photos. Thank you!
Gail´s last post ..Song Sparrow and Random Spotting

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Mary Howell Cromer March 6, 2013 at 9:39 am

Wow Larry, you always have the most wonderful images, really gorgeous and the one of the hawk on snowy branch, that could easily be printed and sold as well as made into greeting cards…brilliant capture!

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Wally March 8, 2013 at 12:57 pm

Great documentation on this beautiful raptor! Really nice quality images, Larry!
Wally´s last post ..Early Urban Birding

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