Winter Birds of the Refuge: Rough-legged Hawk

If you have been bird watching in Vermont in the last month you may have been lucky enough to spot one of the area’s winter visitors: the rough-legged hawk (Buteo lagopus).  This large bird of prey gets its common name from the fact that feathers cover its legs all the way to its toes.  Although its feathered legs are good diagnostic characteristics, it is also identified by its large size (wing span of up to 4.5 feet), dark patches under each wing, a white patch at the base of the tail and a dark band at the tip of the tail.  There are two color phases or morphs of the rough-legged hawk: a light phase which is most common and a dark phase.

 Rough-legged hawks typically breed in the far north, in the tundra and boreal forests of northern Canada and Alaska.  This bird migrates south for the winter in search for food and is more common in the northern United States.  However, rough-legs are often seen in Vermont during the fall and winter months.  During Christmas Bird Counts over the past 10 years an average of 75 rough-legged hawks have been counted throughout Vermont. 

 The Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge provides ideal hunting grounds for rough-legged hawks during the winter months. These birds require open areas such as old fields, wet meadows, bogs and marshes for hunting. They feed primarily on small mammals such as voles and mice during the winter months but will take other prey when available. If you are lucky enough to see a rough-legged hunt you may see it make passes back and forth over fields and meadows or hover in place while searching for prey.

 Ideal areas to look for rough-legged hawks on the refuge are the fields along Tabor Road and the walking the Old Railroad Passage Trail. Rough-legged hawks typically begin migrating back to their northern breeding ranges by March so be sure to get out this winter, visit the refuge and watch one of the Vermont’s wintering birds of prey.

 – Ken Sturm


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