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.
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 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.
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.
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 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