Identification of Rough-legged Hawk
The Rough-legged Hawk is a buteo like the Red-tailed Hawk, but is a little larger. It has both a light and a dark morph, with much variability. The hawks pictured here are all light morph. They have dark “wrist” patches on the wings, and a dark belly. A U-shaped lighter area separates the dark belly from the breast, which you can see below. A dark morph has a completely dark body underneath, including the upper tail. When seen roosting, they appear completely dark. These big buteos nest in the Arctic and come South for the winter. They prefer wide-open spaces similar to their breeding grounds and often winter in agricultural lands like ours in Central Pa.
On a tip from a friend, I had planned to scope out a new manure spread behind the barn of a local farmer, in the hopes of finding Horned Larks, Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs. As I came around the back of the barn a Northern Harrier lifted off the ground with something in its talons. It left with its prize, and I concentrated on the birds on the ground. After finding a Longspur among the larks and snow buntings, I saw one Harrier after another coming close, between me and the barn. Fun for a photographer! Then, surprisingly, along came two Rough-legged Hawks which normally won’t let anyone come closer than a half-mile away, even in a car! I started clicking away at the close hawks, when a third one joined in. The Hawk Mountain website’s page on Rough-legged Hawks mentions that they will pirate food from Harriers. At the time, I had no idea why there were three Rough-leggeds in front of me, but later recognized the food of the hawk in the photos as the same previously taken by the Harrier. If Rough-legged Hawks will steal from Harriers, I suppose they will also steal from each other! One of the hawks quickly gave up, and the remaining two took their food fight out of sight. That was an amazing experience!
Great photos, and an incredible comparison of adult female, adult male, and immature light type Rough-legged Hawks! This has to have been a very rare experience…I wonder how many other PA birders have seen all three ages/sexes of light type together, let alone interacting with each other! It’s interesting though that the adult male hardly looks any smaller than the adult female.
Thanks, Alex! It WAS an incredible experience! I bird this area often, and never suspected that there were 3 Rough-leggeds around. If you mean the hawk with the food is the male because of the sharp multiple bands on the tail, then you’re right; it doesn’t seem any smaller. (I’m trying to identify which hawk is which.) The lower one that gave up the fight so quickly is the juvenile because it has the pale wing patches, and the other one chasing the hawk with the food is the female? I love doing this blog because I learn so much in researching my subjects and hearing comments like yours. Let me know if I got it wrong. These hawks are SO variable, and of course, we don’t get many around here to learn on!