Rough-legged Hawks

Wallkill National Wildlife Refuge
Wallkill National Wildlife Refuge

Rough-legged Hawks, Merlins, Kestrels and Northern Harriers have been spotted in the Black Dirt Region of New York, not far from where I live. They have also been spotted, along with two Snowy Owls, in the New Jersey Meadowlands. So when my friend invited me to join her to spend Sunday afternoon standing outside in the snow and ice and freezing cold, I happily collected up the books, binoculars, scope, water, gloves, boots, hat and super-duper-wazzooey warm coat.

My friend is an excellent driver. I would go anywhere with her. But you’ve got to have some nerve about you when driving with a birder (especially when you’re the lone birder/driver) and even more so if the car is equipped with a moon roof, that lovely pane of glass in the top that allows you to see soaring raptors in a blue sky. Since a good driver is alert for peripheral motion, it is not uncommon for them to spot a bird before a passenger, as my friend did…

“What was that?” she exclaimed as her hands gripped the wheel of the jeep. She leaned her head back to look at the sky, and then twisted to the left to peer out the side. “I haven’t seen a Rough-legged in years; don’t they fly with a shallow dihedral? Or was that a Turkey Vulture? There it is again!”

I fought the iron grip of the seat belt. Damn! I tried to follow her gaze but the strap kept me from turning around to look out the back window.

“There! It’s right there! I think it IS a Rough-legged! Oh…it’s beautiful!” she sighed as she steered the jeep to the right side of the road.

I unsnapped the seat belt and spun around. There it was, a magnificent Rough-legged Hawk, about 20 inches long, with a wingspan of about 53 inches, named for the feathers covering its legs (the only other two American hawks with feathered legs are the Ferruginous Hawk and the Golden Eagle). We could see its pale flight feathers with the dark trailing edge of its wings, and even the black marks on its “wrists.” Its tail was white at the base but we couldn’t quite make out the banding from this distance.

Rough-legged hawks breed in the Arctic tundra and taiga regions of the northern hemisphere (where they sometimes use caribou bones for nesting material) but have traveled south in search of food. Judging by the number of raptors we saw in a few hours last Sunday afternoon, they were finding enough to stick around.

Both light and dark morph Rough-legged Hawks hovered over the frozen fields of the Wallkill. They hunted the same fields where the Northern Harriers floated and dipped for prey. American Tree and Song Sparrows hunkered under frozen stalks of goldenrod and ragweed and phragmite to avoid being the next meal.

My little camera cannot do justice to these birds. For more information, go to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It is a spectacular raptor! Keep an eye out for one, but be careful if you’re driving….

This entry was posted in Liberty Loop NY, Merlin, Northern Harrier, Rough-legged Hawk, Wallkill NY. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Rough-legged Hawks

  1. They are beautiful birds. I love the wing span, they look so majestic when they are gliding and dipping in the sky. I’m not so sure I’d like to drive with your friend though. Glad you got to capture your bird on film.

  2. The Crow says:

    Anyone who likes birds, critters and nature as a whole is fine with me. I love the exact same things, along with the Great Spirit that powers them all. My five acres of heaven keeps me from despair, the sky above shows me how small I am, and the little nuthatch assures me I am not to be feared. But then again: I am a crow. Nice Blog 🙂

  3. I love hawks. Although, I had the unfortunate experience recently of watching a red tailed hawk pluck one of our sweet little squirrels off the branch of our hickory tree. I know it’s just the food chain, but I am glad you saw that the little guys were smart enough to hide.

  4. I think your photos are great, and I love the story! I’m laughing as I see so much of myself wanting to pull off the road to take pictures. I have a moonroof, too. 🙂

  5. Bevson says:

    I have not seen any Rough-legged Hawks since the weather warmed. I suppose they have retreated to the icy north, away from the sweltering 50 degree heat.

  6. Anonymous says:

    As the driver of the “moonroof ” Jeep , I apologize for the momentary terror that I may have caused……….but it was worth it , wasn’t it ? Thanks for sharing a wonderful afternoon of raptors and chilly weather!

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