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A Whole Lot of Rough-legs Going On

Rough-legged Hawk
A Rough-legged Hawk sits on a steel post in Gosper County near Johnson Lake.  Rough-legged Hawks are the most common and most visible raptor species in many parts of Nebraska this winter.

Snowy Owls receive a lot of attention when they venture south to the conterminous U.S., as well they should.  However, there is another stunning Arctic-breeding raptor species that regularly travels south to places like Nebraska.  It generally receives little fanfare.  If you’ve traveled around the state recently (and were conscious), you’ve likely seen one or two, maybe 22.   The species I am referring to is the Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus).  Like Snowy Owls, numbers fluctuate from year to year.  There are always a few Rough-legs around, but this winter has been very good for encountering this species.  Many birders reporting to NEbirds have registered nice tallies.  I have even had a couple non-birders comment on their abundance this year.  Rough-legged Hawks are birds of open country and they are always a bit more common in central and western Nebraska.

Rough-legged Hawk
A closer look at the same bird.  Most Rough-legged Hawks observed in Nebraska are light-phase immature birds such as this one.  Their creamy upper breast and head color contrasts sharply with the dark brown belly band.

Rough-legged Hawk’s plumage, like most buteos (a genus of hawks which also includes the Red-tailed Hawk), is variable.  Thus, some Rough-legged Hawks will appear completely different than others, but all Rough-legged Hawks are Rough-legged Hawks.   There are light-phase and dark-phase Rough-legged Hawks.  Plumage for each phase also differs by age and sex.  Most Rough-legged Hawks encountered here will be light-phase immatures, such as the one pictured above.  Other Rough-legs are all dark, such as the one pictured below.  For those interested in learning more about Rough-legged Hawk plumage variation, a nice photo essay with aging and sexing tips can be found here.

Rough-legged Hawk
Dark-phase Rough-legged Hawks, such as this one in Lincoln County 27 December 2013, are much less common than light-phase birds.  Identification of dark-phase Rough-legs is also confounded by similar dark-phases of other buteos such as Red-tailed and Ferruginous Hawk.

Rough-legged Hawks prey principally on small mammals.  When hunting, they will often hover and this behavior can be a useful identification tip when viewing a bird from a distance, before you are able to see other field marks to confirm the identification.  Rough-legged Hawks are only around Nebraska during the cold months of the year, usually arriving in November and departing by early April.  If you’re out and about (and again, conscious) over the next few weeks, you will likely encounter this species.  Today, I traveled Interstate 80 from Lincoln to Grand Island and then back to Lincoln.  During each leg of my trip, I saw a Rough-legged Hawk perched right along the road.

That is a brief introduction to the Rough-legged Hawk.  Happy hawk watching.

Nongame Bird Blog

About Joel Jorgensen

Joel Jorgensen is a Nebraska native and he has been interested in birds just about as long as he has been breathing. He has been NGPC’s Nongame Bird Program Manager for eight years and he works on a array of monitoring, research, regulatory and conservation issues. Nongame birds are the 400 or so species that are not hunted and include the Whooping Crane, Least Tern, Piping Plover, Bald Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon. When not working, he enjoys birding.

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