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Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Rough-Legged Hawk

Rough-Legged Hawk, hunting rodents near Louisville, CO

When the winter storms begin to sweep across the high arctic of Canada and Alaska, thousands of Rough-Legged Hawks (Buteo lagopus) move south ahead of the cold. They migrate to central North America, some to as far south as northern Mexico, where the hunting is easier and the storms and cold not quite as intense.

The arrival of these smallish hawks signal to me that the cold winds of winter are sweeping in. They fly down to Colorado as early as September and stay until the Spring thaws creep northward into Canada. Feasting mostly on small mammals such as voles and mice, wintering Roughies here in Colorado often hunt from power poles or fenceposts along open fields or farmlands. Some, such as the one pictured below, hunt the greenways adjacent to major highways looking for a meal, which puts them in danger of being hit by passing cars and trucks.

Roughie hunting along the toll road near Louisville, CO

As with many types of hawks, Roughies appear to mate for life. During their breeding season in the high arctic (summer), hawk pairs build their nests on available cliffs or rock outcrops. They hatch up to 7 young in a season.  Young, flightless hawks are at the mercy of the arctic's other dangers: storms, Arctic Foxes, bears, wolverines, other hawks, falcons, and eagles, so relatively few survive to adulthood. 

Those young that do survive often head south into the sunbelt alone for their first winter. When the warmer weather of their first spring comes around, they'll head north looking for a mate, unfortunately without the benefit of online dating to help them out.

How can you tell these hawks apart from our more common Red-Tailed Hawks? Well, I always remember that Roughies look kind of, um, cute. 

Rough-Legged Hawk
They have more rounded heads and a smaller beak than a Red-Tail, plus their look is much less fierce:

Red-Tailed Hawk, note head shape

I love watching these birds hunt! These are agile hawks who can hunt as well from a perch or on the wing. In fact, I have seen a few of them actually hover-hunting, much as a Kestrel can do. Hovering in one place to hunt is a tough feat for such a large bird - it requires a lot of energy - but it can be the only option if prey animals are scurrying around a long way from an available perch.

Roughie perched on a power line near Louisville, CO

Rough-Legged Hawks seem to be a bit more shy and "spooky" than our resident Red-Tailed Hawks. Maybe being hatched and raised in the high arctic makes them unsure of what people are all about. Or maybe they've learned from their parents that some humans aren't very trustworthy, and therefore give us all a wide berth. 

No matter the reason for their shyness,  it's unethical and unhealthy for the bird if you harass them by trying to approach too close. If you come upon a bird and it flies off, let it go. A simple rule of thumb to remember when photographing or observing any wild animal is: if your presence causes a behavior change in the animal (such as moving off or sounding an alarm), you are too close. Back off. It is in your best interest, as well as in the best interests of the animal, to do everything you can to prevent it from feeling stressed by your presence.

As a photographer, I find it difficult to approach these birds without spooking them so I tend to photograph only those birds more used to people, and use a blind (usually my Honda). The bird on the power line, above, was hunting near a busy intersection near my home. I simply pulled my car off the side of the road in a large pullout, opened my window, and took several photos from inside my vehicle. The hawk glanced my way a few times but was much more concerned with hunting mice in the nearby field than it was with the photographer in the car.

All text and photos copyright Nancy Rynes, 2013. You may link to this page, but do not copy any content or images, for any reason, without my written permission.

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