, Newburyport, MA

January 26, 2013

Rough-legged Hawks put on a show

Words on Birds
Steve Grinley

---- — A snowy owl was finally reported from Plum Island, apparently preferring the northern end of the island instead of the refuge the past couple of weeks. There have been several snowys at Logan Airport in Boston this season, and even further south, but they seemed to have bypassed our area this year. Maybe a few more will arrive before the winter is through.

There have been other raptors keeping things interesting in our area. In addition to the Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks that have been raiding feeder birds in local backyards, there has been a Cooper’s hawk and merlin patrolling the Salisbury Beach State Reservation. A lone kestrel has been hunting along the Plum Island Turnpike, most often sitting on a pole or wire near the Wilkinson Bridge to the island. The raptor show on Plum Island has been very good. Northern harriers are hunting the marshes and fields with up to eight or nine seen in a day. But the winter highlight is always the Rough-legged Hawk. It is a good day when you see this large buteo, which is larger than the common red-tailed hawk. Roughlegs come in light and dark morphs, and they are often seen hovering over a field, much like a kestrel, as it hunts for prey.

Seeing one or two in a day is special, but Paul Roberts, of Medford, counted five last Saturday which made for a spectacular day:

“Today was simply one of the best Rough-legged Hawk days I’ve ever had on Plum Island or anywhere else — five Rough-legged Hawks: one dark morph female, one dark morph male, one brown or intermediate morph, and two light morph (including one female). We had a smallish light morph down by Bill Forward Pool and then had four roughlegs hunting essentially over the town marker field and the dunes east of there. Winds were 20 to 35-plus mph out of the southwest and the birds were loving it, hanging and hovering into the winds. We had the male dark morph perched; He looked so small I first mistook him for a crow, but he took off and joined the much larger female.

“Over the next three hours, the two dark morph birds frequently hunted together over the same area, and were clearly freely associating with each together. They looked a bit like Mutt and Jeff, and when the tiny male hovered, his wings beats were noticeably faster than his larger companion.

“They were joined by a huge immature female light morph bird and showed no competitiveness. At times, one or two Northern Harriers were up with, or hovering just below, the roughlegs, who almost always flew higher than the harriers.

“An unusual brown morph bird then joined the party. The juvenile brown (Wheeler) or intermediate (Clark) roughleg is particularly striking. I cannot recall seeing this plumage in Massachusetts more than once or twice before at most. The overall coloring is lighter brown, not black, with a mottled head and distinctive dark carpal patches set off in lighter brown-mottled wing linings. (True dark morph birds show a consistent color on the wing linings and carpal patches.)

“This bird has been around for at least three weeks. Depending on the angle of view and the light, it can appear almost light, or virtually dark. This individual is also intermediate in size between the local female and male dark morphs. These birds moved up the town marker field, down the dunes, and up over the fields, again and again for almost three hours (at which point I left). They likely continued to hunt there, with, at times, four birds hovering within less than 50 yards of each other. At no time did I see any of the raptors successfully find and take prey. They were hunting, but really seemed more to be having fun, hanging and hovering into stiff SW winds with 40-plus degree temperatures in good sunshine.

“I heard two reports of a juvenile Bald Eagle moving up the island just before I saw the the roughlegs. Both observers said the eagle, flying north, had raised every goose and black duck around the salt pannes. I was hiking south from Hellcat at the time (road closed to cars) so I did not see the eagle. However when I did discover the roughlegs within half an hour, I was shocked to see one of the dark morph roughlegs pass along the northern Hellcat dike and flush a bunch of ducks, suggesting they were already on edge, no doubt from the recently passed eagle. The Roughleg day I have been hoping for for years.”


Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher’s Supply and Gift at the Route 1 traffic circle in Newburyport and the Nature Shop at Joppa Flats.