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’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 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.